It seemed appropriate that this right of passage, this milestone of sorts, this small ritual take place in a cedar church with a vaulted roof that pointed upwards trying in its own small way to touch the blue sky.
The kids walked in sitting in the pews to the left of the church. Some were dressed in patent leather shoes with tiny adult heels, flouncing dresses, a large flamboyant flower in one girl’s hair, there was a suit and tie, and others dressed just like kids – jeans and running shoes. They ranged in age from 6 to 14 and I spent some time identifying which little person and teen would be who in the prototype adult world. That one looks like a Mable I thought to myself as I sat in the pew facing the front of the church while family members, grandparents and parents settled in for their child’s end of year piano recital.
Mable was a chubby little girl with a big flower in her blond hair. She had straight bangs and big eye glasses. She looked about 10 and already her outfit had an air of eccentricity. She was her own person.
The piano teacher, beautiful, with long blond hair the colour of the sun and the demeanour of an angel stood on stage beside the aging creaking piano and explained how difficult this was for each child. How terrifying it is to perform particularly on a piano as nasty as this one. And I remembered my one and only piano recital and walking on to the stage in my new black shiny shoes and sitting at the piano,staring at the keys for what felt like a lifetime – dead silence as the audience waited for the blond little girl to begin her piece. And the longer I waited the worse it became – seconds stretched into an eternity as I stared at the keys wondering if I could begin. God knows what divine force intervened and pushed my fingers to the keys to play and then suddenly applause. I lived when I thought I would die.
The first little girl was no more than six with chocolate long hair and hazel round eyes. She walked to the stage, up the stairs, announced her piece and sat and played. She finished her short to-the-point piece, stood and faced the audience and curtsied. I loved the performance ritual and watched as each student stood up, and repeated it. Some stumbled while others looked like it was just one more chore, one more thing their parents wanted them to do or to achieve – a tick mark in their budding life resumes.
Mentally I had already developed a fondness for little Mable and was happy when I saw it was her turn. She walked half absentmindedly up the stairs, her flower hanging jauntily at the side of her head. She, like others, announced her piece and sat at the piano. She waited just a moment or two too long before she started playing and I worried that she was suffering the same fate as I had – the epic mental battle to begin something you don’t want to do.
But when she played I realized that she might have that internal battle but her fingers and her heart showed she could tackle those keys with an almost nonchalant ease – a kind of miniature expertise. She didn’t use the sheet music in front of her but instead kept her head facing the stained glass, staring at it as if looking for inspiration or maybe escape. And even though I didn’t know “Mable” I was secretly thrilled at her absentminded brilliance and I clapped like I was her blood relative when she finished and curtsied and then promptly fell off the stage.
I stopped mid-clap horrified for this little girl, hoping this would not be the beginning of something that would shape the rest of her life. Bullying, self loathing, pressure. The course of our entire lives are often set in motion by these small moments that haunt our adult selves sometimes until the grave. The unresolved nuggets of shame and hell. Mable got up, blinked, adjusted her flower and took her seat amongst the rest of the performers.
Then came Alex. I had watched Alex a little. Like Mable he seemed flamboyant but in an entirely different way. He had a shock of wild, dirty blond hair. He wore a private school suit and was the only boy to do so. He was maybe 14 at the most. He chose to play a medley by The Red Hot Chili Peppers which I was eager to hear.
He stood up, walked to the stage and gave a flamboyant bow and looked at the piano students and said, “I might be playing a little longer than the rest of you.” Another young eccentric. His fingers cascaded along the keys as a brief warm up, as a way to warn us that what we heard before was nothing, that he was different, he was going to give us the performance of his life. And he did. He played flawlessly with his heart and his soul. I thought I felt the church shake. My heart skipped a beat. Sometimes you are faced with something extraordinary in the unlikeliest of places, in the shape of a young boy, a soon-to-be man with crazy hair and an impeccable suit – his awkwardness belied his astonishing gifts that we were lucky enough to have experienced in this small church with a steeple that almost touched the sky.
I wanted to seek him out after the performance. I wanted to tell him that what I saw was special, that what I heard was extraordinary, that what I had witnessed made my night. So I did. I found him and I told him exactly that. “Next time I see you” I said, “it will be on a big stage and I’ll be paying for the privilege.” He smiled ear to ear. The boy with the wild hair and the suit replied – there was no teen coolness, no boy teen bravado. “Music is my passion.” he said. “It’s my passion. I was nervous.” he said. “I would never have guessed it. “I said “You were amazing.” and I walked away.
I think about those nuggets, those things that hold us back or propel us forward that are buried far away in childhoods lost and teen years gone. And then when we analyze our lives from a distance years later we go panning for gold or deceit in the hope of uncovering the mysteries of our lives. How did we get started on this or that? I don’t know if strangers can make a difference. But we all hit rough times and there was a strange frailty to this kid and I hoped that by sharing my heart with him for one brief second that maybe this would be a small nugget to inoculate him against life. That’s all.