There goes another day, I think as the last student slams the door behind him. My lessons are done; my practicing completed; the noise of my perpetual busyness quieted for the moment. Right on cue, the cats begin fussing for dinner. When they are hungry, they sit on the desk beside me while I teach, paperweights of feline fur holding down music books and practice notebooks. Sometimes they crawl into students’ music bags, prompting the kids into fits of giggles. The cats have a particular affinity for lying on rectangular-shaped objects; as we finish a book and toss it aside, they go and sit earnestly on the music, gazing up at us as if to say, “I’m still here and I’m still hungry.”

For years, my aunt and uncle lived and worked on a nature center in southern Kansas. During their tenure there, they raised all kinds of animals that had been abandoned at birth: baby deer, raccoons, opossums, owls, even a bald eagle or two. One Christmas, my aunt and uncle acquired a baby bobcat. Spud was like an oversized kitten with huge paws, eager to play, happy to sit on anyone’s lap and purr, quick to nip our ankles or toes. “That’s what you get,” Aunt Jan would tell us when we complained about getting bitten. “This is a wild animal you’re dealing with.”

Aunt Jan’s rescues were never meant to be tamed and after some time, the animals would always be released into the wild. Sometimes they came back, looking for food or company. For years, one particularly friendly raccoon returned every evening at dusk, sometimes bringing entire litters of babies. “Oh, there’s Ricky,” Aunt Jan would say, hearing the banging on the screen door. “Time for dinner.”

Tonight I find myself thinking about Elsa, my four o’clock lesson. Elsa is a first grader with big dark eyes and nine months of piano lessons behind her. She is smart and usually quite cooperative, but not today. This afternoon we spent ten frustrating minutes with her stumbling with her technique exercises, which consisted of major five-finger positions played on all the white keys. Normally she whips through her positions with little trouble, but today she whined and fussed, missing notes and repeatedly scrambling the patterns.

This surprised me. I had given her the exercise last week, written it out in her practice notebook and even included some fun lyrics to use while she worked her way through her positions. She had always arrived with her assignments learned quite thoroughly, and I had no reason to think this afternoon should be the exception, but there we were: Elsa was fumbling through the patterns and resisting me whenever I corrected her. Pushing through was producing both an unhappy kid and a frustrated teacher.

Then suddenly it hit me: This assignment was too hard for her. It might have been more helpful if she could have articulated the problem: Can’t you see I can’t do this? I’m mad and embarrassed and don’t know how to tell you. I know I could always do my work before, but for whatever reason I can’t do this today. This, however, isn’t what a young child does. It isn’t even always what a self-aware adult does. And because Elsa was six, she was simply acting out.

Last week when I had assigned her this particular pattern, it had seemed fine. She had played it several times without much problem. But since then, something had shifted. Maybe she hadn’t practiced as well this week, or maybe she was just tired and less focused. In the end, it didn’t really matter. We were stuck and digging in deeper with every passing moment.

There is a popular analogy tossed around education and pedagogy circles these days about video games and the ideal educational environment. According to this theory, the reason video games are so popular is that they provide the perfect combination between challenge and success at every level. In other words, video games are the ideal manifestation of psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. If something is too easy, we are quickly bored; video games have to be just challenging enough to make it stimulating to play them. But if the challenge is so great that we aren’t ever successful, we will just as quickly lose interest. It is the Goldilocks scenario: it can’t be too cold, or too hot, it has to be just right.

In the face of something too challenging, Elsa wasn’t being difficult, she was just being a kid. Of course, if this had been a typical scene, it might mean something very different. But that wasn’t the case. This was an isolated incident in a learning curve that had up until this point been a smooth one. We had hit a bump. The only way over it was to back up and gain some momentum, and perhaps a bit of confidence as well.

Ultimately, it was a simple thing to change Elsa’s pattern to something easier, to find that perfect balance between safety and challenge. Like magic, Elsa straightened up and played well for the rest of her lesson, the whining and drama behind us. As she left, Elsa chattered happily about her play date later that day, all smiles now, our earlier messy scene forgotten and forgiven. That’s what you get, I thought to myself, gratefully. This is a child you’re dealing with. 

The theory is simple, the practice hard. After a few awkward bumps, I got it right with Elsa today, but I still managed to get it wrong at least 108 other times this week. Yesterday I prodded Simone into repeating a passage—badly—ten times in a row instead of backing down and simplifying the tangled mess of notes. Nothing good happened, but my voice did become shriller in the process, which was both attractive and helpful. This morning on the piano bench, I got myself into a snarl with a nasty section of difficult music I need to learn. Anxious and feeling the pressure of the looming recital date, I kept pushing up the metronome faster and faster even while I was falling on my face with every repetition. For every halfway graceful moment of teaching or practicing, there are many, many clumsy, failed attempts behind me. Down deep inside, we are all primal creatures, struggling simply to survive, acting too often from our baser instincts—our brain stems—and not our more developed cognitive pre-frontal lobes.

Another day, another practice, I think and turn my attention to the cats, who are crying at my feet, their baser instincts fully intact and functioning. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” I tell them and taking in one last glance at the night sky, I pull the curtains, and shut us in for the night. “Time for dinner.”