When I was about four years old, my parents gave me a toy piano. Up until that moment, I had been able to figure out just about anything, but it soon became quite clear to me that I had no aptitude for music. The piano was put aside – way aside – for crayons, building blocks, and comic books. I hated that piano.
Years later in Junior High School, it was announced that children of my academic level were to have music as their mandatory elective. I asked my mother, "How can it be an elective if it's mandatory?" She insisted that it would be good for me.
In the first day scramble to select an instrument, I grabbed a trombone. I figured it would be the easiest, and though I was probably right, it was still not easy enough for me.
Over the years I built a system of 'faking it.' Sitting next to the tuba player, playing quietly if at all, and marking all my music books with the correct positions of the trombone slider, to avoid reading music.
Further into my teenage years, my parents had the bright idea of enrolling me in guitar lessons. They imagined that I would play for my friends at parties, or even form a band someday. But my guitar instructor could see what I already knew within a few minutes: I was no Eddie Van Halen.
Finally High School arrived, and I got to choose my own elective. I chose Art. No more trombone, no more marking up music books, no more draining spit valves, no more faking it. Finally I'd get to do something I liked.
The school registrar informed me that all the Art classes were full - but Music was still accepting. With the enthusiasm of a deflated balloon, I reported to music class, picked up a trombone, and took my place in the back row. The teacher arrived, a rather stern little man with a German accent, and told us to turn to page 33 of our music books.
Page 33, like every other page in the book, was unmarked with my shorthand to tell me how to slide the trombone. The little dots and lines were only a pattern to me, not sound. With no time to interpret, I would be forced to fake it like never before.
The class began to play - but not me. I didn't follow the notes on the page, or even blow into my instrument. My attention was to either side, trying to match the movements of the other trombone players. Song after song, I tuned my reflexes to match what my classmates were doing - usually a half note behind, until it was over.
It was one of the most stressful hours of my life. And I lamented that it was going to be a very long year unless I could get ahold of one of the music books to mark up. As the class filed out of the room, the teacher pulled me aside, "Can I speak to you for a moment?"
Apparently, I had not fooled him.
I was expecting to get a pep talk on how I'd have to apply myself, practice more, and maybe stay after class for one-on-one coaching. But once everyone had left the room, he closed the door, looked at me, and then he said:
"What are you doing here?
I explained that all the other electives were full, and that since I took music in Junior High School, I thought this was the place to be.
He asked, "Is there anything else you like to do?"
"I like to draw."
He took out a little slip of paper, scribbled something on it, and told me to take it to the Art teacher. I was being kicked out of Music class, and I couldn't be happier. If only the Art teacher would accept the note and make room for me.
I excused myself into the Art class, and gave the teacher the note as instructed. She looked at it for a few moments, then told me to get an extra chair from the back room. I was in.
I wondered what the note said, and from my new seat, I could see it on the Art teacher's desk - there was no writing on either side of it. The Music teacher had given me more than a dose of tough love – he had given me a blank check.
He didn't coddle me, or tolerate me, or even encourage me, instead he taught me what I needed to know - that I should be true to myself, that following orders is not an excuse to do the wrong thing, and that the future is unwritten, until we write it (or draw it as the case may be).
I wouldn't know it until years later, but that blank note has made all the difference in my life. I never had the opportunity to thank its author. I don't even know his name, but I can't help but think of him every time I see a blank Post-It.