My Piano Lesson
By Jo-Ann Pilardi
On the Monday after a Saturday dance at my small, all girls’ high school, Pittsburgh circa 1959, Sister Mary Magnus, our principal, called a full school assembly in the gym. A non-Friday assembly meant something serious was up. Exchanging fearful looks, we girls proceeded to the gym. Upon taking a seat in one of the cramped rows of metal folding chairs, I straightened the Student Council badge on my shiny navy blue gabardine uniform.
Sister Magnus was a woman of significant bulk and height, and one who never retreated, flinched, or allowed excuses. That day, she began the assembly by reporting that “vandalism” had taken place during the Saturday dance. Someone had carved a girl’s name into the top of the dusty old upright piano in the gym. Through clenched teeth, she commanded that we tell all, and she threatened that the assembly wouldn’t end until there was a full accounting by the guilty party.
Moving menacingly up and down the rows of girls, Sister Magnus reported that a single clue had been left behind by the culprit: “It’s the name ‘Jo-Ann’—that’s J-O-Hyphen-Capital-A-N-N,” she said. Others in our school of 300 had the same phonetic name, i.e., there were a few “Joannes,” at least one “Jo Ann,” and a couple of “Joanns” and “Joannas.” But there was only one hyphen afoot—me: “Jo-Ann.” I knew my spelling was unique. Magnus knew it too—and so did the other nuns and all my classmates.
Magnus stopped to stare at me, silently inviting—virtually forcing—me to confess. Student Councilor Me. President of the National Honor Society Me. Member of the Latin, History, and French Honor Societies. Winner of the city’s “Seven Wonders of Pittsburgh” essay contest. All those Me’s. Was I also Guilty Me? And would I be a Confessing Me?
Of course I knew who the “vandal” was. He was a friend of mine—Ronnie R., cousin of my best friend, and a chronic tease. Ronnie attended the nearby boys’ Catholic high school, so if I informed on him, within minutes the word would reach the Christian Brothers who ran the school, and Ronnie would be yanked out of class and . . . who knows what? The thought of being an informant disgusted me. On top of that, I couldn’t make a public Confession to the assembly just because it was my name engraved on the piano and I knew the vandal. Confessing meant accepting one’s guilt, and I was guilty of nothing. Besides, Sister Magnus would never believe that I wasn’t a party to the act. Remaining silent to save Ronnie was also a way to save myself.
The tense interrogation continued as Magnus repeated the histrionics, threats, and calls for a Confession. But I continued to stonewall her. I already knew that the spoken word can intimidate, but now I understood the power of silence. So I faced down my Inquisitor—Jo-Ann of Arc Me against the judges of the court. Not guilty of the sin of vandalism, I wouldn’t confess. Guilty of the non-sin of knowing the vandal, I wouldn’t confess. Surprised by my own willful silence, I learned something about my own values. Maybe Sister Magnus learned a little something too.
Copyright © 2012 Jo-Ann Pilardi.
Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years. A working class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano. In the schoolyard photo above, Jo-Ann is in the center, and her friend Noriene is on the right. (Click images for larger views.) She thanks Jim Sizemore for help in shortening and editing this original essay for Doodlemeister.
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