A Fetal Position and Claude Debussy

This week a lecture on music helped me understand Charlie.

“Don’t talk to me,” he said, as he came in my classroom door. “I just want to be here.”

And he curled in a fetal position on an oversized ottoman in the far corner of the classroom. The next day in the quiet, after-school hour, I heard the door creak again. This time, Charlie didn’t say a word, just stopped my words with a gesture. He stayed on the ottoman twenty minutes before he walked out . . . without a word, like he was evaporating into thin air. Again and again Charlie did this, until the end of the year.

He was cared for, I knew, by his parents and a counselor. And he participated in gifted class, right along with the other students. But I knew from his writing that he was angsty, that what he knew about the world was too heavy for him to bear.

So keeping silent while his nearly man-sized body curled in a fetal position on the ottoman felt impossible to me. But with sheer grit, I managed to hold my words. I somehow sensed I should follow Charlie’s cues.

The music lecture I heard this week showed me what Charlie asked of me back then—to quit being like German composers, Brahms, for example, who march people right along with harmonic progression and resolve every dissonant chord.

Be less like Brahms and more like the French Debussy, Charlie was telling me. Debussy’s music doesn’t have a steady forward beat. Dubussy’s music stays put in an almost stationary environment, soaking up the color and hanging with the dissonance. With Debussy, the lecturer said, music simply evaporates. It doesn’t end. There’s no need to resolve.

When Debussy wrote his music, he was breaking with the move-right-along harmonics that had been working since the Renaissance. And when I kept silent with Charlie, I was breaking with all my teacherly instincts to propel Charlie into next steps.

“With Debussy,” the lecturer said, “you have to listen differently. If you try to listen to Debussy the same way you listen to Brahms, you won’t appreciate the music.”

I have a regret about those afternoons with Charlie. Though I was silent with my mouth, I wish I had managed an inner stillness. I hope my anxiety didn’t float across the room toward that ottoman.

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