Grace notes

A 13-year-old, a flute, and the pursuit of perfection

It could be soooo easy to hate Emma," my normally non-savage 13-year-old announced to me recently. "She's just too perfect."

Emma's not her real name, but I think you know her - at least, you knew her when you were in school. Blonde, slender, and poised, her grades are a glittering arc of A's spanning into the future. An eighth-grader, she plays music superbly, her technical grasp crystalline, her sound full, wise, and emotionally rich. As it happened, she chose the flute, and so did my daughter.

My daughter's good, too; but not Emma-perfect. They both play in the junior high school symphony orchestra, freshly returned from a triumph at a symphonic competition in Chicago, the result of a national selection. Emma played a brilliant solo to a hushed full-house audience. They came home in time for district competition, an audition where nearly a hundred 13-year-old flute players competed.

Already the best of the best, each one was nearly perfect. But only 10 would make the cut. I advised my daughter to just get used to it. After all, northern Virginia - the suburbs of Washington, D.C. - is a powerhouse of talent, with ambitious families from all over the world competing and achieving. The schools reflect it.

"Listen," I've told her. "You could've grown up in Schnitzel, Wyo. You might've been the best gray-eyed, 13-year-old flute player that calf-ropin' town had seen in ages. You could have dominated the legendary Schnitzel's Own Marching Wieners."

That usually makes her laugh, and she goes back to the constant practice.

"You know, Dad, the real reason you can't hate Emma is that she's so gracious. She's really kind and generous - it's just awful." And then I see her laugh and shut the practice-room door.

"Gracious," I say to myself - an interesting word. To be touched by, and able to give to others, the quality of grace. And what is grace? Something divine, something beyond our smallness?

Coming more from the disgraced side of the tracks myself, I have thought often about competitions and rankings. I believe in merit, but am no innocent. I know there is injustice. How often it was the coach's son who started at quarterback. And didn't the prominent family who donated $10,000 to the arts council receive the honor of ballet lead for their daughter? And you want the Ivy League? Fuggedaboudit!

Well, when the district results came out, there was a phone call, and then my daughter's scribbled list on the kitchen table.

It was stark and almost cruel - just a girl's name, each one a friend of hers, and then a number. Some were above, some below hers. Two girls had joy making the top 10. And I had one girl with two pretty gray eyes staring out the window at the rain, fingering disappointment on the tabletop.

My daughter didn't make the Top 10.

But was it fair?

Could there really be a thing called excellence, fairly discovered? How, I asked, had the judging of music - something so subjective, such a matter of taste - been done?

"They were really strict, Dad," my daughter told me.

Each performer, nameless to the judges, stepped onto a stage with the curtain closed. Tasks were assigned, and difficult compositions. The performers were forbidden to speak upon pain of dismissal. There would be no gendered voices, no accents, no social class or winning personalities. Just shaped sound, reaching for beauty within the formal figures of the trials. And then a number.

My daughter's number was good, but not perfect. And somewhere there is perfection.

Somber, my daughter walked upstairs into her bedroom, leaving the list. I scanned it again for recognizable friends. At the top of her scribbled list I saw "Number 1 in Northern Virginia."

There was a consensus; someone had stood out. From behind the curtain of anonymity, pouring into the judges' ears, had come the undeniable claim of silver notes cascading.

My finger traced across the paper to the "Number 1" name of Emma.

I felt glad for her, but realized that I felt something else, as well; a validation that there really was something higher than ourselves, something we named excellence. The judges had heard it just as I had - a quality as real as the best time in a 100-yard dash, or any aspiration of human performance.

To be reminded that the shifting relativism of our daily lives was not the full story allowed me something more: I could be glad not only for Emma, but for my daughter, and for myself as well. It meant there was something to shoot for and sometimes, through work and yearning, to touch.

My daughter has her role to play, makes her offering, and is getting better and better. She finds real joy in playing, in some measure precisely because the pull of the target - perfection - beckons just beyond her. Moreover, I can see the pursuit itself begin to shape her, giving her toughness and self-mastery.

In a seemingly unjust world - perhaps most in such a world - we need to remember that, still, there is something beyond injustice: There is true excellence.

Not all of us may be No. 1, but gifts wait for us as well.

And however much we rise, we will find others lower and higher than ourselves, as will Emma.

Even in the face of what seems like unfairness, it is right to honor Emma and her gifts, and to honor them most with effort.

That day began its close. Upstairs, from behind the bathroom door where she sometimes plays for echo, I heard my resilient daughter begin again her practice scales, another step upon the ladder, fumbling upward, step by step for grace.

Watch out, Schnitzel Wieners.

*David Murray is director of research at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonpartisan science and public-policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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