Feb 6, 2015
It is a little-known fact that Beethoven came from a dysfunctional family. Even music historians skim over this fact to focus their attention on the many aspects of the composer’s musical genius. Nonetheless, family life placed undue burdens on the young man with a large, illustrious, and consequential future ahead of him.
Beethoven’s father Johann was a musician and a member of the electoral chapel choir until 1789 when he was dismissed from his position, presumably because of his affinity for alcohol. His drunkenness brought degradation on the family. His nineteen-year old son was forced to take charge of the family with a sickly mother and two younger brothers to support and guide. His father had begun to teach him music but was a harsh task master who wanted to see in his son another Mozart. It was not to be.
At the age of fifteen, Beethoven approached the thirty-year old Mozart hoping to study with him. But before he could return to Vienna in 1791, Mozart was already in the grave. It was Haydn’s turn to receive Beethoven, but the elder composer was ruffled by the young man’s volcanic temperament. There were other teachers as well. In the final analysis, Beethoven grew up trusting no one and felt excluded from the world. He was self-taught and remained uneducable all his life. He never learned the mechanics of spelling, and his handwriting was illegible all his life.
Teaching Troubled Children
Children who come from troubled families, enter school largely unaware that they are crying out for help all the day long. Many cannot concentrate; they are restless and uncooperative. Others are listless and withdrawn as if in another world.
A number of years ago, I taught in a town where a large mental institution preoccupied its people and gripped their collective psyche. Most families had at least one member working in the dreaded place. Children of these families were enrolled in our school; I had about sixty of them in my fifth-grade class.
One afternoon early in the term, I wrote on the board a variety of words: happy, family, mystery, danger, ugly, fear, play, beautiful. For our art lesson, I asked the class to select from their crayon box two or three colors. I asked them to choose one word and depict it with the colors and a ruler. The results were as remarkable as they were enlightening.
Children whose family lives seemed happy drew houses with flower boxes, hearts, with mother, father, and children standing together, holding hands, smiling. They had chosen bright colors.
Children whose family lives I knew to be troubled chose dark colors—purple, black, brown. They used the ruler to draw angular crisscrossing lines that had no focus, no center. I could see that these children had not simply drawn with the crayons but had dug the crayons into the paper as though in anger and frustration. Not just ugly but frightening, all the more so because the activity was spontaneous!
In that same class, some children found it difficult to listen to classical music. At the beginning of the semester, when it came time for music period, one boy, whose parents worked at the mental institution, would disrupt the peaceful atmosphere. He pounded on the desk, placed his fingers in his ears, and shuffled his feet. He wouldn’t listen to such “junk.” I took on the challenge of ‘converting’ him. By the end of the semester, he was checking up on me to make certain that we didn’t skip a music lesson, especially if it was Beethoven.
The Long View Needed
In volatile situations, it may be nearly impossible to take the high road and think of the ultimate destiny of a troubled child. But sooner or later, the Catholic educator is brought face with the fact that this child living with this set of difficulties is a child who remains in God’s loving embrace. The child is in great pain but doesn’t know why. And yet, some of these children may be quite talented, even gifted, awaiting someone to befriend them.
We will never know how Beethoven would have fared without such a forceful, determined personality and his remarkable talent. If Catholic educators firmly believe that every child is a unique person with unique abilities and talents, then our approach in dealing with each child must also take on a unique and creative character.
This was the conviction of St. John Bosco (d 1888) who lived in the early nineteenth century. His father died when he was an infant, and his family lived in poverty for years. As a priest, he gathered about him orphans to teach them the catechism. He is known as a champion of uniting the spiritual development of boys with their study, work, and play. He insisted that boys be taught trades, and for this, he became the pioneer and patron of modern vocational training. John Bosco (d 1888) founded the Salesian Order of priests and sisters to befriend homeless boys and girls.
The Power of One
Some years ago, before my cousin Peter chose an architect’s profession, he taught boys in three of New York City’s trade and technical high schools, two of them located in the ghetto. The boys, who came from lower income families, were mostly African American. One thread linked them together: There was no sign of fathers anywhere in their lives. The worst Friday in the year for the boys was anticipating the upcoming Fathers’ Day. Without their fathers, they were like orphans.
In the eighteenth century, Victor Hugo observed that “he who opens a school door closes a prison.” Today, 83% of youth in prison have been born to unwed mothers.
The boys’ mothers were the bread winners; grandmothers raised the children. When a boy was absent from class, in most cases, he was caring for a sick grandmother. Mothers couldn’t afford to get sick.
My cousin taught his students the basics of trade, architecture and building construction, drawing, drafting, and reading blueprints, but more importantly, they learned from him self-discipline and self-respect. My cousin loved his boys with a firm yet understanding heart, gave them direction for the future, and often served as in loco parentis. Here was a model of a dedicated public school teacher.
Our educators in Catholic schools and in public schools need more apostles of youth like my cousin to persuade them to live virtuous, productive, and meaningful lives.