I approached the back door knowing two things: I had at least a 30-minute wait ahead of me, so I had brought a book, and my wife had once met the owner of this music studio and did not like him. After he opened the door, I could see why. But I’d see a whole lot clearer if I could get that log out of my eye.
I was bringing my 14-year-old daughter to her first piano lesson at the Little Red School of Art and Music on Main Street in Stratford on a Wednesday evening in early January. On other weekday evenings, I bring her and my 10-year-old son to a different studio in town (one where the arts practiced are more martial than musical) and, for the past year or so, wanting to Be the Change I Want to See in the World, I’ve been bringing a book.
At Hwang’s the waiting adults do what most adults do nowadays when waiting anywhere, in the grocery line or for a checkup or even at a red light: they look at their phone. So, at the taekwondo studio, while our children punch and kick each other in the dojo, I have of late been an island in a sea of screen-staring zombies.
“Ah . . . the Scholar,” Master Harold will usually say to me, bowing, as I sit in one of his metal folding chairs. And I’ll smile and feel compelled to explain that “it’s for something for school,” as if reading a book in public is as obnoxious as a toddler playing a video game at full blast, inches from their face, in a doctor’s office waiting room. So, instead of asking the kid to turn down the volume or use headphones (“How dare you talk to my child!”) or asking the parent to ask their kid to do the same (“How dare you tell me how to parent my child!”) or taking the video game and smashing it against the wall (“Someone call the cops on this psychopath!”), I am trying to remind my peers that we don’t need to stare at screens nonstop and if they followed suit then perhaps our children would, too, and then people in general would be less distracted and negative and impatient. One could hope.
And so I brought a book to Paige’s lesson.
No one came to the door after I knocked so I gently opened it and entered a narrow, cluttered foyer and approached another door. I knocked again, waited, and then saw a tall, older man with a graying ponytail approach and open the door.
“Hi,” I began, “my name is –”
The man was laughing contemptuously, as if I had just done or said something beneath him. I straightened, realizing I was in the presence of a man on his high horse.
“My daughter’s here for a lesson.”
“Ohhhh,” he said, still laughing. “To see Joe. . . . I see.” Then, pointing to the book under my arm, he said: “I thought you were one of them.”
One of them, I thought, puzzled. Then I remembered: a building for Jehovah’s Witnesses was across the street.
I get it: not everyone likes unexpected visitors at their front door, but worse things can be on your doorstep than well-dressed people who seem genuinely concerned for the fate of your soul. I know few want to engage in that sort of dialogue (especially when donning pajamas on a Saturday morning) or feel like someone is Trying to Convert You, but there are polite ways to deal with such visitors and laughing at them is not one of them.
“Well,” I began, “even if I was . . .”
Gray-haired Ponytail cut me off again.
“For Joe,” he said. “Okay. He’s with someone but should be done soon. . . . You can wait in here.”
Joe, an old high school friend, teaches music and rents space in the old red house, which is cute on the outside but cluttered and claustrophobic on the inside. And with ancient wallpaper and odd angles everywhere, it’s a bit creepy. Like any really old house would be if no one lived in or cared for it. Thus, there are things everywhere: Books. Plants. Framed quotations and paintings. Wall clocks stuck in the past. Magazines. Instruments. Papers. Mail. Antique chairs. More books.
Gray-haired Ponytail led us through a dark and messy kitchen into a disheveled sitting room, with putrid green-and-yellow wallpaper. Before sitting on an upholstered chair, a huge painting of an angel half-heartedly hugging a sheep met my gaze. I put my head down and started to read. My son did, too. Gray-haired Ponytail sat across from me, doing what waiting adults do.
“You’re a teacher?”
I looked up. “Yes.” I put my head back down. More silence. . . .
Joe had walked into the room.
“Hey Paige. Hey Christian.”
“Hey Joe,” I said, getting up. “Good to see you. Happy New Year.”
“You, too,” he said, shaking my hand. “I see you met Tony.”
“Yeah. Sort of. He didn’t give me his name.”
“Oh, I didn’t,” he said, getting up. “I’m sorry.”
I turned to face him. I extended my hand. “I’m Ryan.”
“I’m Tony,” he said, smiling. “Sorry. . . . I was flummoxed. See, this is what happens in your old age.”
“No worries,” I said.
Joe then took Paige for the lesson and Tony took a call on his cell and I continued reading. His call ended, and he got up to leave.
“I’m sorry again about before.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“And thank you for reading,” he said, shaking my hand.
“You’re welcome,” I said, struggling to keep in my head the words and ideas climbing over each other to get out.
He turned and left. I sat down. There were books everywhere in this room. Thank you for reading, I thought. Right. Just not the book you thought I had under my arm. But then thinking about That Book I reminded myself not to judge but simultaneously was turning to smirk at my son and as I did so I again caught that angel’s gaze, scolding me: Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you can’t see the log in your own eye?
Okay, I thought.
And I put my head down, and returned to reading. Not for school. Not to be a Change Agent. But for myself.