The Double Life

By: Nia Wilson

Chapter 1

I sat in front of my upright piano, page open to my current favorite sonata. I’d been working on this monster for weeks, and I finally had it. I glanced at the clock and then back to the music. Saturdays were my busiest days, with a constant revolving door of piano students from 10 a.m. until about 6 p.m. or later.

I had about thirty minutes before my first student showed up, a petite blonde girl named Grace who was diagnosed with autism at a very young age. She was quiet, speaking only when necessary. She rarely made eye contact and recoiled when touched. But once those little fingers touched the keys, she was a force to be reckoned with. At ten, she struggled to make friends and to find her place in this world. But music touched her very soul. After trying many therapies and coming up empty, her doctor had suggested music therapy.

As I set my fingers on the keys and began to play, I thought about the first day Grace had walked into my home and into my heart. She was honest to a fault, which I found quite refreshing. Her mother had knocked on the door, with the weight of the world heavy on her shoulders as I opened it.

I’d given her my brightest smile, trying to assure her mother and father that everything would be okay. Grace, who stood plastered to her father’s leg, toe pushing a knot in the wooden porch floor, looked up at me briefly then back down again.

I thrust my hand out to the mother, taking her delicate hand in mine and holding it rather than pumping up and down.

“I’m Joy Gregory. You must be the Smyth family.”

Grace mumbled under her breath, though I couldn’t hear her. Linda, her mother, turned instantly red.

“Gracie, don’t say that, honey.”

“It’s okay. I understand.” I smiled reassuringly. I wasn’t easily offended anyway, but I knew that a girl like Grace was prone to honesty, even at times when society deemed it rude. I wasn’t about to hold that against her.

“Your hair is poofy.” This time I heard her. Grace shot me a quick glance and then looked down again.

“It is. I like to wear it natural. Do you like it wrapped instead?”

Linda let out a sigh of relief when she realized I really wasn’t going to be upset.

“No. I like it poofy-natural.”

“Then I think we’ll be pretty good friends.”

I invited them in and Grace sat down at the piano without being invited. Her eyes grew wide and a soft smile tugged at her lips. She reached out, tentatively touching one key. She pushed it down slowly until it made a soft sound. Her slender finger moved slowly up each key along the scale while she noted each sound they made.

I looked at Linda, whose eyes were already brimming with tears. I reached out and squeezed her hand.

“Everything is going to be alright. I don’t offend easily and this isn’t my first autistic student. She’s going to amaze you, just you wait.”

Her mother nodded, but remained speechless. Her husband, Eli, stood beside her, one arm wrapped around her.

“We’ve tried so many different things and she didn’t like anything.” Eli said, his voice a little strained while he stood entranced as Grace started plucking out a child’s song on the piano by ear.

“I didn’t like anything, but I like this.” Grace’s voice was low, barely audible above the simple music she was creating. “There’s a porch swing. Momma loves porch swings.”

Linda shot a frightened glance at me, but I just smiled.

“You can sit in here or you can enjoy the break and the swing.”

Linda nodded and Eli led her outside.

I picked up a kitchen chair and brought it into the room.

“Should I sit beside you?”

“Yes, beside me. Can I touch your hair?”

I leaned down and the tiny hand shot out, feeling my hair for a moment before moving back to the keys and continuing her evolving song.

“I like you.”

And just like that, Grace became one of my best students. She was quick to learn and practiced almost obsessively for an hour each day. Where once children shied away from her, her talent on the piano had drawn people to her. When she couldn’t find the words, Grace could always find a song that expressed her feelings.

I swiped a single tear away as I reached to flip the page. There is nothing in the world I find quite as rewarding as helping a child find their voice. So many of my students were neuro-typical, moving easily through life without realizing how others struggled just to make friends. But the few students like Grace made life so rewarding.

I passed through the first movement into the second movement, quickening my pace to match the new tempo. The second movement was my nemesis, taking me twice the time to master that the other two combined.

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