Learning to Play on a Broken Instrument

This memoir by Mrs. Michelle Obama has touched my heart in ways I wasn’t prepared for

This memoir by Mrs. Michelle Obama has touched my heart in ways I wasn’t prepared for

Like so many others, I have been waiting not-so patiently for the release of Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s highly-anticipated memoir, Becoming. I couldn’t wait to devour it cover to cover when it was released last week.

So many themes resonated with me throughout this book… I’m digesting them slowly. I’ll share one of the first themes that captured my heart.


Learning to play with a broken instrument…

Mrs. Obama tells the story of taking piano lessons as a small child, from her great aunt, who was the neighborhood music teacher. With humor, she recounts how she battled with her Aunt Robbie, challenging her methods, but ultimately mastering the tune she was slated to play at an upcoming recital. After months of dedicated practice, she knew the music by heart, doing all that was required of her and beyond. When she arrived at the recital hall, she found herself seated at a perfectly tuned, top of the line instrument… without any of the cracked keys that she had become familiar with while learning with her Aunt Robbie. She froze, realizing she was used to setting her hands on the piano, by her memorization of the cracks on the keys.

She realized she had learned to play, but with a broken instrument.

This concept resonated very deeply with me because like Mrs. Obama, I, too, have recognized times in life when I did my absolute best, but was still ill-prepared because the ground I prepared on wasn’t a level playing field. For example, my primary and secondary education was in a school system that lacked the resources and advantages of larger, more resourced areas. Therefore, I could meet every challenge thrown my way, only to realize later that I hadn’t even begun to experience the fullness of what was available to me because of my lack of exposure. 

Along my journey, I’ve met so many others with a similar story. Earning a seat at a fancy table, only to get there and realize you don’t know what fork to use. Or earning a coveted spot in a professional program only to be ridiculed because of your heavy use of urban diction.

Thankfully, I had mentors along the way that helped fill in the gaps and propel me towards a hopeful future. I remain grateful for them… the teachers, professors, mentors, preceptors… They reset my hands so that I could play the beautiful tune that is my life right now. With that, I now believe we have a responsibility to be that support for others, to be the shoulders upon which others can stand on. That’s the gift of it all, of being disadvantaged and then making it out. We now understand. In a way that others cannot, if they’ve never shared such experiences. It’s our unique history that makes us uniquely qualified to pour into the life of someone else who is learning at this very moment, how to give full effort, but on a broken instrument. It’s up to us to reset their hands, to help them play a beautiful tune.