In Closing

BARBARA MALLONEE

June 24, 1993|By BARBARA MALLONEE

To close a door is to have opened a door, but it is the sound of the door closing that one remembers.

Though rain pounded the pavement and wind whipped through the trees, the snap of the latch was louder still -- and lingered as my child, not I, drove home from her last violin lesson in Baltimore.

She has left behind the stone buildings of Friends School where, for 14 years, she was taught by a dedicated faculty. She has ended, at the Peabody Preparatory, flute, piano, orchestra and chamber-music study -- and 10 years of violin lessons with Klara Berkovich. A decade of study with a single teacher is rare in music, rarer still in academe where the one-room schoolhouse is long-vanished. Though 10 years seems forever, my child left without having tapped all that her teacher could teach.

The end of education is to master. At Friends and in the stone-clad building at the foot of Mt. Vernon Square that opened in 1894, the means to mastery stay simple: room, pupil, teacher, instruments, literature on desk or stand. In both institutions, teaching is regarded as a profession, the professor its very center, excellence in education arising as good teachers excel day by day by day.

To cross a good teacher's doorstep has always been to find, waiting, a prepared and perennial scholar. Through years of formal study in Russia and a lifetime of learning since, Klara Berkovich knows her field -- its history, structure, literature, theory, the lives of those who have composed and performed its major and minor works. Beyond, she has a broad and classic education. She delights in learning still.

In her field, she has found the especial joy of creating the text that is a violin performance. Her passion, though contagious, is tempered: The creativity a good teacher inspires must rest on a firm and flawless foundation. From her own rich past, this teacher has taught my child that one can truly love only what one has learned to do well. Like all good teachers, she holds high standards, and she is rigorous, placing some stock in ability and none in blind luck.

Study, she says, must be long and productive. ''Why do you not practice more slowly?'' she asked my daughter as she struggled through Bach. ''Do you think that next time with luck you will do it right?''

For 20 minutes, they would work on six notes. ''The luck does not come by itself,'' her teacher gently reminded her again and again. ''The luck comes with work. Practice this 1,000 times.''

There was no twinkle in her eye. When she said to practice six notes 1,000 times, it was because she would. Only then would fingers be flexible; only then would they know precisely -- and forever -- where to land on the long silver strings.

Though in time timing is all, good teachers take and give time as though it were dipped from vast pools, brimming over. No matter a school's general calendar of expectations, no pupil performs or takes exams before ready. Lessons run late into evening hours. When the door has finally closed, a good teacher, standing alone in studio or classroom, rain beating on the roof, thinks still of each student, of what to teach next, how better to teach so that each child understands and remembers.

To teach is to build remembrance. Those who would master a field commit to memory its living language, its bed of thought. As the mind remembers, the body learns to remember too, to know how fingers hold or press, to fee how words or images or symbols are altered and adjusted, how maps are read, events catalogued, chemicals mixed, how a sure scalpel parts human flesh.

Memory ordinarily is motionless. To feel a moment become a memory is to feel pangs well up. My child graduated from high school one month after her brother graduated from a college in the Midwest. Following his commencement, we wove through a throng of graduates and their families in pursuit of a history professor who disappeared down a brick path into a grove of oaks before we could catch him. We turned into the building in which he had taught. My tall son sat one last time in his desk, watching shadows dance against a sunlit board, four years of his life now over.

As we walked in silence down the hallway, a custodian locked behind us still another door in a season of closing doors -- pine doors, metal doors, plate-glass doors, dark doors with windows, brass handles, latches that catch. In the spring, commencement speakers promise that portals will open. Young and old applaud, for we find our measure in moving on.

But in the warmth of summer, we know that the measure of those who have moved us most is that we will never move beyond them. In that is was time, we walked away.

Barbara Mallonee chairs the Department of Writing and Media at Loyola College.

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