Stephen is a very special little boy. He’s cute as a button and has so much energy that it’s hard for any ordinary human being to keep up with him. He’s fascinated with elevators and, if left to his own devices, would ride from floor to floor for hours at a time.
There are other things that make Stephen special that aren’t quite so charming. At five, his language is almost indiscernible. Stephen has been diagnosed with an aural processing disorder. That means that there are errors in the neural connections that carry signals from his ears to his brain to his vocal chords. There are other things. Learning environments for Stephen must be totally devoid of distractions—white walls, blinds closed, nothing on the walls—because Stephen has difficulty focusing on a teaching point. It’s not that he’s distractible or is unable to focus; Stephen focuses on everything. Objects intrigue him while concepts elude him.
Stephen’s mother felt certain that music lessons would help her son overcome his differences. Rafael is Stephen’s current teacher. Others had tried to teach Stephen and given up in despair. He was a throw-away child. But Rafael looked at this child and saw not the obvious roadblocks to Stephen’s development, but the potential that lay deeply buried beyond the darting eyes and the limbs in constant motion. Rafael wasn’t interested in seeking students who made him look like a brilliant teacher. He wanted to expend his energies and efforts on children that needed music the most.
At first, progress was painfully slow. Rafael had to gently encourage Stephen’s mother to not interfere in the lessons so that he could develop a trusting relationship with Stephen. It was hard; she was accustomed to serving as Stephen’s advocate and protector. But Rafael recognized that, in order to learn, Stephen needed to make his own mistakes and correct them himself in order to own the skill, even if it seemed to take an eternity to reach success.
But succeed he did. Milestones were tiny and long-awaited, but they came. Stephen bowed without dropping his instrument. He played a rhythmic unit five times without losing his excellent posture. Then he participated in an entire group class. And finally one day, he played an entire Twinkle Variation on a recital. His enthusiasm for playing his instrument has never wavered, and it has never been anything but large. His love for his lessons with Rafael is evident, even though Rafael secretly wonders if it isn’t the promise of a ride on the elevator after the lesson that truly moves Stephen to put forth such extraordinary effort!
Stephen isn’t the only student Rafael has who challenges him to become a better teacher. There are others with physical and emotional handicaps. But Rafael embraces them all. He thinks he gains much more from teaching them than anything they could learn from him. I think it’s probably a toss-up. I see everybody winning. It’s no wonder that Rafael’s colleagues refer to him as “St. Rafael.”
“Thank you for having an artist’s eye—for the ability to recognize the diamond potential that lies within a craggy rock. You inspire me to retune my eye to recognize and invest in the child who needs music the most.”