Sunday, November 16, 2014

Amy Jo Burns’ memoir “Cinderland” is set in a declining steel town in the 1980s. In this excerpt, the female students of a beloved piano teacher take different tacks on whether or not to cover up being sexually assaulted.

young woman at the piano
Credit: Simona on Flickr under Creative Commons

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(WOMENSENEWS)–It should come as no surprise that the plotline with Howard Lotte is rather musical in its execution. Every small town loves a good musical, after all. 

Everyone knows the middle-aged sixth-grade teacher who gives piano lessons in the brown basement of his white house. We’ve seen him sporting his brown beard on walks through town with his white-sneakered wife. We’ve seen him every May on the day of his annual recital when he turns the pages for his students as we play the songs we’ve practiced all year. We’ve seen him each August on the first day of school, standing outside his sixth-grade classroom door as children rush inside.

Who doesn’t love Mr. Lotte? All of us do, surely, even though his dull-penciled handwriting is impossible to read and he has tea-breath halitosis. But he lets us attempt songs far beyond our skill level just for the fun of it, like “Jingle Bell Rock” and the theme to Fame. He doesn’t shame us when he assigns the same song for the third week in a row because we just can’t get the hang of it. He doesn’t charge too much for lessons, God love him, because he understands every father wants to give his daughter a chance to learn from the best.

Mr. Lotte likes to use the blinking metronome to keep the time, his female students have said. Or slap his knee. That’s where it begins, at least. His hand roams to the steady progression of a well-played sonata. His knee, your knee, his thigh, your thigh, your back, your shorts, your top. A song in 4/4 time. ONE, two, three four, ONE, two three four. For him, the students wait in line.

To her parents, a young girl comes forward. “He put his hands on me,” she says. “To the beat of the metronome.” Then another comes forward, then another, then another. ONE, two, three, four. ONE, two, three, four. TOCK tock tock tock.

Over the years, he’s taught close to a hundred students. Seven speak up; the rest of us remain silent. On the elementary school playground by the overturned basketball hoop, the spot where infatuation used to go to seed, boys and girls are now trying to snuff the snitches out.

Amy Jo Burns is a Cornell University graduate who currently writes about the cross-sections between literature and television for Ploughshares, and teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton. Her memoir “Cinderland” is her debut book. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyjoburns.

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