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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz


Updated: May 20

The idea of a conscious protest came to me before I had words for it. I was seven, and there weren’t a lot of options for making a stand against an injustice.

Perhaps I should first say that I did not take to the piano like my older sisters did, and Miss A, our piano teacher who subscribed to shaming her students, pointed that out to me more than once.

She had a metronomic cadence in her method, clapping her hands or tapping a baton on the edge of the piano at a speed I could never match. It seemed my collapsed wrists were always getting scolded.

My stomach hurt every Tuesday, the day when I had to hurry after school to the bend in the road, where there was a small sunporch, a piano and Miss A. From my buckled bag with the frayed leather strap I produced my theory book for her to grade. She'd tell me how I needed to straighten my treble clef signs, which meant drawing another row of those for next week.

There was always an exercise book, such as Czerny. Exercise 23. . .Exercise 47. . .Exercise 94. They were endless. And then one graduated to next shade of drab yellow from the stack of hand-me-down books in our piano bench.

There were no beatitudes in her teaching, only cursitudes. Cursed are the least in talent, for they shall be humiliated the most on recital night. Miss A was quite high-strung when rows of parents were packed into the spacious living room of her family’s Congress Lake home. One after another, those of us who missed notes or who completely forgot how to play what we’d memorized and practiced for months were chastised in the side room, where all the nervous students awaited their turn to perform. (One year I did forget how to play my piece on recital night. I think I stumbled through it on the second try. There was polite applause and my exit of shame to face Miss A.)

None of the things I’ve mentioned about Miss A amounted to the grave injustice that inspired my protest. (Afterall, how could she be blamed for my lack of talent?) The thing that sparked my righteous indignation was what she did to the Red Book, which she simply referred to as "Schaum’s." I had plodded my way through “The Woodchuck,”“Hannah from Montana,” and “Crunchy Flakes” (which was really “Jingle Bells” posing as another song so it could be played any time of the year.) Only one thing inspired me to practice hard. I couldn't wait to get to song # 17! It was called, "The Snake Dance," and the treble staff was wavy, just like a snake!

On the day I “passed” #16 and turned the page, Miss A snatched the book from the piano and drew a big X over the wavy lines. She wrote “No!” in the corner and moved on to lesson # 18. There was some mutterance from her about how “jolting” it was to look at a piece like that when playing the piano.

Jolting! Every bone in my seven-year-old body knew that was just wrong. The injustice of it went beyond being angry at my teacher. I wasn’t allowed to be disrespectful to grown-ups. But I felt I had to do something to fight back. I learned to play The Snake Dance on my own, but even that was not enough.

At this point I need to say that my mom was a good seamstress who made most of our clothes. However, she tended to make them one size larger than our age, so that we had room to grow. I was a small child, but she added an extra size anyway. The shapeless, red calico “sack dress” I received on my birthday that year was. . . well. . . plain ugly. Ugly enough that I decided it would become my piano lesson dress. After the Snake Dance incident, I wore it every single Tuesday that year and the next. I would have worn it to my recital if Mom had let me. She thought it was my favorite dress. I never told her otherwise.

I discovered there was power in a conscious protest, even such a passive one. I learned how it is mostly on the inside where the victory is felt. I found out something else: an act of resistance is stronger if there is a cost to the protester. The embarrassment of wearing an ugly dress to school was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Knowing that Miss A would have to look at this “jolting” dress seemed to be the right recompense in my child’s mind. When one chooses an indignity for the right reason, it takes on meaning and that can make all the difference. I realized later that passive protesters are usually in it for the long haul. It requires time, patience, and perseverance in spite of the likelihood that outward changes may never happen.

For me there would be other conscious protests in the years to come. Some were conscious simply because I understood and accepted the consequences of my actions. Others were conscientious in nature because they grew from an ethical conflict and in good conscience I could not obey. I came of age in the late sixties and was no stranger to the social movements of that era.

We've all seen the kind of protests that have a thin veneer of righteous indignation, which serves as an excuse to act out bigotry and hatred. Those protests tend to run hot in the moment and are often stirred up by rhetoric or reactionary fervour of the hour. There is an unconscious mob energy, and often the “protesters” do not want to take responsibility for or acknowledge the unlawfulness of their actions.

Conscious and conscientious protests tend to have a different character. They usually run cooler, and much soul-searching goes into them before they happen. The consequences of the action are usually understood beforehand. And although the effort may not bring about immediate change, there is always hope for mediation, reconciliation, and insight.

My first protest had some of those elements. But I suppose it’s possible I wanted to give Miss A that “jolt”out of spite. It was a good protest, though, because in the end I discovered I could make a stand in my own way. And sometimes wearing an ugly dress is worth it when there is a principle at stake.

~K L Kurtz


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