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  • Writer's pictureJosette Abruzzini

My 3-Squared Career

If my life were a quilt, three of its squares would represent the phases of my career. One of those squares would signify music, my first career, and would be pale blue and deep purple, the colors of my schools. Perhaps the fabric would be a paisley design, with a piano applique carefully sewn onto it.

Following a few intimidating experiences in elementary school, it might surprise some that I pursued music. One particular day in second grade comes to mind.

As I walked into the music room, I whispered to Sister that I had learned to sing like an opera singer. It had been exciting to discover that my 7-year-old voice could tremble in a vibrato. As I stood in the top row of the chorister stand at the end of music class, she made the announcement that I would sing like an opera singer for the entire class.

I recall the shock of her disclosure as I nervously made my way down the three steps to stand alongside her endless black robe. I was barely tall enough to reach to the lower edge of the big, white "bib" of her habit. Not a strand of her hair could be seen, but the expression on her smooth and ageless face told me I had no choice. I persevered through a painful rendition. Whether it was for her own entertainment, or her way of humiliating a young child, I will never know. The world did not end that day, but any of my operatic aspirations certainly did.

The same nun also taught me piano during my elementary years. My failure to practice every day was no excuse for the raps on my knuckles from her extending silver pen. Sister told my father that I had little musical talent. He stood up for me and insisted that I practice more often. Later that year, when a professor from the Trinity College of London came to adjudicate the annual piano examinations, I received the highest score of any of the students in my school. I also learned that encouragement is powerful, and that the nuns did not know everything. In time I laughed at these stories, and owned them for whatever lessons they held. They did not deter me.

Sister Sheila McCarthy nurtured my love of music during my years at St. Catherine’s High School. Beyond the theory classes of gracious hemi-demi-semi-quavers, piano lessons, triple trios and choirs provided fond memories that I still cherish.

At the age of sixteen, following matriculation from 11th grade, many of my classmates and I headed for college. My most obvious choice was music education, and I set off for Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, where my aunt and uncle lived.

I could not have been better suited to a college. Sister Jeanne’s music department kept a caring eye on me. I practiced a lot, maintained a busy social life, and even met my future husband. In all honesty, the only piano performance I truly enjoyed was my senior recital, April 2, 1977. It was the highlight of my performing days, and I fondly remember the Scarlatti, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel and Muczynski that I played from memory.

My student teaching stints convinced me of my love for working with younger children, and upon graduation I returned home to Newfoundland to teach in my old elementary school. By then, there were no nuns teaching at the school. After a year, I moved to Binghamton, New York where Vince and I married.

Teaching at the Yamaha Music School was the beginning of my career in early childhood music education. It was a progressive curriculum, teaching rhythm, keyboarding, ear-training and composition to 4-7 year-olds. Seeds were planted that, even today, color my perspective.

While raising my children and teaching at my early childhood music school in Maplewood, New Jersey, I happened upon Howard Gardner’s book, Frames of Mind. His theory of multiple intelligences opened up other avenues of education that excited me. I was thrilled to attend an Arts Genesis symposium that was inspired by Gardner’s theories, where my perspective tilted. I learned the value of incorporating the arts into all subject areas. “It’s not about teaching music,” I remember thinking. “It’s about teaching children.”

That led me to a fourteen-year career as a fifth grade teacher. That second square on my quilt would probably be the most colorful of all, representing hundreds of students that I lovingly guided through their last year of elementary school. During our academic classes we often acted out math or science or social studies concepts – glacial striations, square numbers, or westward expansion. Before the frenzy of Common Core and State testing took a stronghold on our schedule, Friday afternoons were often spent on virtual field trips where students took turns sharing their trip to a bakery, a television studio, or an art museum, or practicing an improvised play that told MLK Jr.’s life story, or brought a relevant fable to life. Infusing the arts into our everyday classroom experience brought fireworks into all of our lives!

One day I happened to read my daughter’s seventh grade assigned reading text. Its first chapter, about an obscure cloth merchant who had discovered microbes, fascinated me to no end. I dabbled and researched, and years later, upon my retirement, I dove into writing my own book about Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

Like Antoni, who was changed in 1668 after seeing Hooke’s Micrographia, my own career had redirected after reading a book or two!

I learned how to write fiction so that I could share the wonder of his story. It has been a passionate journey, and I can only hope that someday the story will find its audience. That third square of the quilt is still being woven.

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