Lil’ Losers

My son Jake, age 10, is playing the saxophone. This is his second year playing saxophone, and I'll go on record saying this much: It's better than the first. He's got a little hint of Bill Clinton's swagger as he plies the gleaming keys, belting out “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”

“Sounds great, hon,” I tell him as he finishes.

“Are my 10 minutes up?”

“Not yet. Play another song.”

He sighs, fiddles with his reed, scratches his knee, knocks his book off the music stand, picks it up, leafs through to find his page, adjusts the sax strap, then glances over hopefully to where I sit at the kitchen table, peeling potatoes. “Are they up now?”

“No. Play another song.”

After some more reed-fiddling and strap-adjusting, he toots out a halfhearted rendition of “Hot Cross Buns.”

“That's not this week's lesson,” I say suspiciously. “It's not even this year's lesson.”

“This week's lesson is hard.”

“That's why you're supposed to practice it.”

“Aren't 10 minutes up yet?”

“Play — another — song.”

Jake veers into a version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” whose soullessness is matched only by its volume. I grit my teeth and keep on peeling, even as deep within me, a dream withers and dies.

Perhaps because my husband, Doug, is a professional trombonist, I harbored certain expectations regarding my kids and music. Specifically, I was thinking Carnegie Hall, right from the moment when my daughter Marcy announced, way back in third grade, that she intended to follow in her dad's footsteps. Doug, proud as a peacock, bought her a trombone of her own.

She began lessons. We began nagging: “You have to practice.” “Just 10 minutes.” “Five more minutes.” “Do you know what that goddamned trombone cost?”

Jake winds up “Swing Low” with a nails-on-chalkboard screech. “One more song,” I tell him.

“Sorry,” he says, in gleeful triumph. “I can't. I just split my last reed.”

When Marcy was born, I knew instantly that she was a prodigy. The only question was, at what? The search started right away, as I checked her daily progress against the milestones in the bringing-up-baby books. Would she smile early? Roll over ahead of the norm? Say her first word before any of the other babies in her play group — or, more importantly, before my siblings' kids? Uh … no. In fact, she seemed a little on the slow side. I comforted myself with that old chestnut about how Einstein didn't even speak until he was three.

With each new endeavor Marcy assayed, I watched for signs of the genius I knew was lurking within her. One of the proudest days of my life was when she came home from preschool at the tender age of four with a baby tooth in an envelope. It said right in my copy of Dr. Spock that there's no correlation between early tooth loss and intelligence. But I knew better. My daughter was a dental prodigy.

By the time she made it to grade school, it looked as though that would be her only claim to premature fame. There wasn't a shred of evidence she was a genius in anything that mattered — not in music, not in art, not in sports or science or math. And time was running out. The whole point of prodigiousness is that you do what you do not just extraordinarily well, but way before anybody could reasonably expect it of you. Mozart, Picasso, Bobby Fischer — they were all off and running by kindergarten.

Marcy was plenty smart. But I wasn't interested in smart. I wanted wunderkind — compose-first-symphony-at-five, discover-new-theorem-at-seven, enter-Harvard-at-10 stuff. I longed for a child whose brilliance was so outsized, so outlandish, that it couldn't be due to anything but sheer genetics — in other words, to me. And Marcy didn't seem to be fulfilling my dream.

“Did your parents have to nag you to practice trombone?” I asked Doug after I'd spent an entire evening begging, threatening and cajoling Marcy to get her to run through “Carnival in Venice” one more time.

He shook his head. “They never had to nag me. I loved practicing. I'd practice for two hours a day.”

I consoled myself by remembering that I had two kids. There was still Marcy's younger brother. And historically, most prodigies have been male.

  Jake seemed a highly likely candidate for prodigy-dom, especially after I learned that turn-of-the-century piano virtuoso Erwin Nyiregyhazi couldn't tie his own shoes until he was 21. Dreamy, meandering, infinitely distractible — my son had all the makings of true genius. What else would he be thinking, when I sent him upstairs to make his bed and found him 45 minutes later sitting atop the still-mussed covers, staring into space, but deeply profound thoughts?

So I asked him: “What the hell are you thinking?”

“I don't know.”

“Are you contemplating the origins of the universe? Pondering mathematical theorems? Composing a sonnet?”

“I'm trying to remember what the school lunch was yesterday. Ravioli, I think.”

I wonder whether Mozart's mom ever screamed at him.

Jake starts middle school this fall. Like his sister, he's been exposed in the course of his elementary years to a pretty full panoply of academics and extracurriculars. And I'm facing the hard, cold truth: Neither of my kids is going to be Einstein. They're not going to be Tiger Woods or Sarah Chang or John Stuart Mill. They're not even going to be Avril Lavigne. There isn't going to be any Cinderella moment when they try on the slipper and magically discover their destiny.

The consolation prize is that I'm off the hook when it comes to extraordinary parental measures, like carting them to international chess matches or typing up their Harvard entrance essays. The other day, Doug was talking to a mom whose teenage son is a swimmer. The kid has always been a great swimmer, but in the past year or two, he's really kicked it up a notch — in a couple of events, he's just a few seconds off Olympic qualifying times. The mom reported that she had just moved her family to another school district — because our high school doesn't have a pool of its own and has to borrow the one at the Y across the street. To her credit, Doug said, she recognized that this sounded over-the-top. “We were sort of thinking of putting the house up for sale anyway,” she told him abashedly.

  There's a wonderful symmetry to the relationship between parent and child. Just about the time when I was realizing that my kids weren't geniuses, they were wising up to the fact that I was something less than the Great and Powerful Mom they'd always taken me for. The first chink in the wall of maternal omnipotence came when Marcy started algebra and discovered that I never had the foggiest clue as to what x might be. More chinks followed, querulously aired at the dinner table: Why do I drive a Subaru station wagon instead of a hot SUV, like Jessica's dad? Why don't we live in a big new house, like Brittany? Sarah's mom dresses better than I do — and gets manicures done at the mall. David's mom, Jake told me recently, breaking my heart, makes better meatballs than me.

The thing is, even if we're disappointed in one another, the kids and I, we've gotten kind of used to each other. Ten or 13 years of goodnight hugs and kisses have a way of building up brand loyalty. Marcy and Jake may have come to the conclusion that I'm a mess, but hey, I'm their mess. That, I think, is why human children are born so helpless and take so long to do much more than eat and sleep. It gives parents time to indulge Carnegie Hall and Academy of Music and First Union Center and University of Pennsylvania daydreams for a number of years before we actually hear our offspring play saxophone, or see them dance or strap on skates or take a spelling test. And they, in turn, spend years idolizing our meatballs, before David's mom disillusions them.

The way I figure it, the kids and I are entering a new phase in our relationship, as Marcy shimmies into the teen years with her midriff bared. For the next decade or so, our opinions of each other will plummet to new lows. They'll rant about how horrible I am not to let them go to the party a friend is having while his parents are away at Disney World (“Is that what you want — for us to be social pariahs?”), and I'll rant about how horrible they are to want to go, since the last time the friend had one of his little get-togethers, the cops stepped in. (“Is that what you want — prison records?”) About when they clear college, if we're lucky, we'll reverse the trend.