First Chapter from Prodigies (rewritten)



After classes for the day, I stepped out of the music building at Lakeview Academy, a private residential school for the arts. I walked quickly down the paths, through manicured lawns, past buildings dedicated to teaching written, visual, and performing arts. I walked under trees that would show their fall colors in a few weeks, past the banks of mums that gave the campus an air of nostalgia. I could walk this path with my eyes shut, as I had walked it for seven years, ever since I was a junior high student nervously clutching my viola. Instead of the scrawny, frizzy-haired biracial child I had arrived as, I had grown tall and slender, and my hair tamed and pulled behind me in glossy tight curls. I still saw both my mother and father in my looks — brown skin, deep brown eyes, a thin and fine-boned nose. 

My mother and father, however, had died when I was fifteen, in a plane crash attributed to unknown causes. I found out when Dr. Estelle DeWinter, my mentor, found me in art history class and walked me back to the office to break the bad news to me. Although I felt like I would crumble into nothing, I cried very little through it all; I sat through bewildering appointments with my parents’ lawyers and suffered two years of a guardian who threatened to pull me out of Lakeview. Only the surprising effort of Dr. DeWinter kept me in Lakeview until I became an emancipated minor at 17. 

I think I missed what could have been with my parents more than what we actually had; I spent my life in residential schools from age seven, to develop a musical talent my parents recognized as extraordinary. If I inherited anything from my parents, it was my ambition, and from my grandmama I received humility to temper it. What I claim as my own is discipline and my own inexplicable talent, a freak accident of birth.

I walked quickly toward my weekly meeting with Dr. DeWinter. I was lucky to have a mentor at Lakeview that I could identify with as one of the few black students at the arts academy. I entered the Administration Building, an austere Neoclassical Revival building from the beginning days of the academy. Inside, dark wood paneling and white walls lent a gracious, if institutional air. I went to the front office where Mary Kravitz, the secretary, stood guard behind a low partition. “I’m here for Dr. DeWinter, if she’s ready for me.”

“I’ll ring her.” I was punctual, as Dr. DeWinter had taught me. This, she said, was the most basic courtesy of a professional, no matter what accounts of divas in the news would have one believe. 
I didn’t look forward to the meeting, because I knew that I would disappoint Dr. DeWinter again. I had not applied for any colleges yet, and it was my senior year of high school.  I couldn’t explain to her or to myself why I dragged my feet except that I didn’t want to leave the familiarity of Lakeview. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself — anything but music was out of the question, but I didn’t know if I wanted to go into music performance, which was what was expected of me, or fall back on music education. Therefore, I hung back, feeling guilty in my school uniform.

“You can go back, Grace,” Mrs. Kravitz said behind her counter. She hung up the phone and stared back at her computer screen.

I turned the corner and walked down a corridor of shut office doors with their shaded glass windows showing light inside. I reached Dr. DeWinter’s office, with its hand-lettered name on the door, and knocked.

“Come in, Grace,” she announced in her voice, warm and dry like a plucked viola string. I tried to read her mood from her voice and failed. I opened the door and slipped through it, into the familiar office with its jungle of plants in the window. I sat on the wooden chair that looked like it had seen generations of students before me — even Dr. DeWinter herself — and had survived them all.

“Grace,” she said, turning to me from her wooden swivel chair. “How have you been?”

I looked at her, her straightened grey hair swept back into a bun, her oval steel-framed glasses accentuating her nearly black eyes. She was my mentor, she was the mother I had never really had in a lifetime of residential music schools, and we walked through our ritual of the past seven years. “I’m fine, Dr. DeWinter. I haven’t gotten that cold that’s going around yet.”

“Good. How are your lessons going?”

That I could smile about. “I’m currently butting heads against Paganini’s 24 Caprices. What kind of demented genius could write those?”

“Paganini did. And played them, too. What does the music say to you?”

“Impish. I mean, technically very challenging. But the feel of it is that of a little imp, darling and devilish, taunting other violinists.”

“Do you still prefer your viola to violin?” Dr. DeWinter smiled.

“I know I have to give equal time to both instruments, because there’s so little written expressly for viola, and you keep telling me I have a career ahead of me. But my viola — “ Here, I sighed. “My viola is almost like a part of me. It’s like my voice.”

“And of course you’re still getting voice lessons on the side.”

“Yes, but I think my voice will always be for me, not for the public. I have a good voice, I know, with good musicality — but I’m not Norah Jones, and that’s who I’d want to be.”

“I would agree with you there,” Dr. DeWinter said — and paused. Here came the question I didn’t want to answer. “Speaking of careers — “
I would never get away with anything with Dr. DeWinter. “I know, I know. College applications. They’re due November 1st.” I felt my stomach sink as I realized I had disappointed my mentor. “I’ve been looking on the internet, but —”

“But?” asked Dr. DeWinter, eyes boring into mine.

“I don’t know what I want. I know you’re expecting me to go into music performance, because you believe I have great potential — and I know I do. I could probably get myself into some program like Berklee or USC, but I don’t know …” Here I dithered, revealing my indecision and my discomfort at anticipating the future. I had no idea how to be an adult — not even how to budget my money, as I spent money for nothing but tuition, room and board, and the occasional concert dress. I had few clothes that were not uniforms; little contact with the outside world other than field trips to operas and plays and concerts and art exhibits, not to mention performances. I suspected real life was more complicated than that.

“I think we’ve sheltered you too much here,” Dr. DeWinter said after a long pause. “You’re almost eighteen, and you’ve been in residential schools since you were seven.” It was true; my parents had placed me in an enriched boarding school called Renaissance School for the Arts when it was clear that I was a music prodigy, and from there straight to Lakeview. 

I felt a flutter of uncertainty in my stomach as I tried to explain to Dr. DeWinter: “I want to stay here another year. Explore my options. Learn — “ I hated to admit the next part — “learn how to live on my own.”

“Most people learn how to live on their own by living on their own,” she said wryly. “I want you to try to fill out a few of those applications, at least one, within the next week. You can ask Ms. Hollis in the school counselor’s office to help you with those, you know.” 

“I know,” I sighed. “I just —”

“You really can ask for help if you need it. Being on your own doesn’t mean going it alone. Take it one step at a time.”

If only I knew what that first step was.

Later, after dinner and a string quartet rehearsal, I was back in my room. I had a room to myself, which had been part of the original arrangements for me at Lakeview. I had few belongings, as I needed few. The posters on my walls, something which would surprise most people, were superhero movie posters — Captain America, Wonder Woman, Black Panther. On a shelf were the glass menorah my father’s mother had given me, a tiara I had purchased as a joke, a stuffed-toy Siamese cat, as close to a real cat as I’d ever been able to keep, and trophies I had earned in competitions. The items that declared me a princess, a reputation I had built myself in self-defense from the microaggressions, as Dr. DeWinter called the sidelong stares and condescending conversations I often faced in the classical music world. 

I lay on my bed, surfing Facebook on my phone. Various chatters from my classmates, people I knew but didn’t really know. It was as if we lived in parallel universes. In their universes they went home for Christmas, they paired up in the halls and broke up just as quickly, and some of them risked expulsion by sneaking out to the ropes course or behind the gymnasium to have sex. I had not gone there; first, for a protective instinct I’ve always had, and second, because I was saving myself. Not for marriage, but for that career I knew I should have. 

Suddenly tears started to flow, blurring my screen. There was nobody I could talk to about this — Dr. DeWinter didn’t relate to me on this level and I didn’t want to talk to the school psychologist about it out of that same sense of self-preservation in my core. So I thought about the Paganini piece and felt ready to tackle it again.

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