Good, Bad, Ugly

“She’ll never play the stupid thing! I don’t know why I’m even bothering to spend the money.” The disgruntled man stood before me, the picture of a successful businessman. Expensive clothes, immaculate haircut…even the alligator wallet he held in his hand shouted, “Money to burn!” I knew the man and believed the story his physical appearance was telling. The words coming from his mouth, on the other hand, put the lie to his outer aspect. This was indeed a poor human being, poverty-stricken of spirit and impoverished to his very heart.
This time of year, I think of Charles Dickens’ famous opening lines to “A Tale Of Two Cities” and almost want to make it my motto. “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” While the meaning of the famous quote is still argued with respect to the story, when I say it here, it symbolizes the dichotomy between enjoyable commerce leading to financial success, and merely fulfilling a distasteful task. The months of August and September in many music stores, mine included, are filled with nearly maniacal activity, selling band instruments and accessories almost as fast as they can be put on the shelves. But, with the good also comes the bad.
“The best of times…” I love this time of year, first of all because I get to fulfill the dreams of a lot of children (and to a large extent, their parents also). The kids come in wide-eyed, knowing that they will be leaving with a gleaming, complicated piece of equipment, which will be their ticket to making music with their friends. Most of them have never been entrusted with such an expensive “toy” in their lives. Many of the parents are just as excited, because they never got this chance as a child and they are delighted that their own progeny will have opportunities which they didn’t. To a much less important extent, it is the best of times in the music business simply because the financial uncertainties that normally face me as a self-employed businessman are only a shadowy memory for these few months. Because of the large number of transactions, the bank account is healthy and there are no worries about being able to pay the invoices coming due. I can concentrate on the customers and their needs.
“The worst of times…” Some other part of me dreads this time of year, mostly because of parents like the one you met in the first paragraph above. As the “band season” peters out, parents will be straggling into the store at the last minute, many even after the deadline set for their child to have an instrument. Some of these will be parents who don’t have the finances to purchase a nice instrument and who will settle for a less-than-beautiful horn in order to assure their children a chance to pursue their dreams of playing in the band. I feel their disappointment and strive to give them the best value for their hard-earned money. Even as they leave, satisfied with their purchases, I’m still cringing, knowing that the other parents are still going to be putting in an appearance any time now. These folks have money. They just don’t want to spend it on something as stupid as a clarinet, or flute, or trumpet. Most of the time, like our friend above, they don’t have any faith in the ability of their child to learn the skills necessary to succeed in music. I’m not good with parents like this. I have to admit that I’d like to shake them. I’d like to remind them of the people in their own lives who believed in them when they undertook impossible tasks; who cheered them on in spite of misgivings. But, I don’t.
That fellow we met a few paragraphs ago had come in to see me on the last possible day. “That idiot band director says he’s going to put my kid in choir tomorrow if she doesn’t have a horn. Sell me the cheapest one you’ve got.” I suggested, not too subtly, that she would do better if she had a better quality clarinet, but he was not to be deterred. “She’ll never play the stupid thing anyway. Just let me have the cheapest one!” He whipped out his Gold Card to pay for the hundred and fifty dollar purchase, glancing at his fifteen hundred dollar watch impatiently. As he walked out the door, he repeated one more time, “She’ll never play it!”
The door closed behind him and I turned to the Lovely Lady. “I guarantee it! She will never play the horn.” Oh, I had faith in the performance capability of the instrument. It was a perfectly playable clarinet. I just understand that our children will live up to our expectations of them nearly every time. He believed she couldn’t play it and it was almost a sure bet that she wouldn’t. My heart ached for the little girl, whom I never saw. How sad to have a father who was so wrapped up in himself and his own toys that he couldn’t see the permanent damage he was doing to his child.
This is a truth which is not limited to the treatment of our children. Respect and high expectations directed at those with whom we interact result in pride of accomplishment and success more often than not. Will some of the kids who are encouraged and praised eventually be counted in the attrition rate that is inevitable in an organization such as band? Sure. There will be some who don’t have what it takes to make it in music, just as there are in any endeavor. But, the success rate is always higher when there is a positive, loving attitude in evidence from those on whom we depend. I’m not talking about cheerleader-style sloganeering, either. If we really believe in those we love, we’ll be in their corner, pulling for them all the way. And, the human spirit responds in a powerful way to such evidence of confidence and love.
Next week, for the most part, will probably still be “the best of times” for me at work. This week has certainly already begun the process. I look forward, albeit somewhat wearily, to the days that are coming next week. Starting after Labor Day though, I anticipate a different experience, as “the worst of times” makes its annual appearance. I’ll do my best to keep on an even keel and to treat every customer with respect, but I hope you won’t think poorly of me if I vent a bit as time goes by. Better a gripe or two here, where it does little harm, than a finger poked in a customer’s chest as I give in to my indignation. 
If you’ve got a spare “atta boy” or “hang in there” lying around, you could even send it my way this week. Maybe the same principle that works with the kids will get me through my worst of times still to come.
“Children are an heritage from the Lord.”
(Psalm 127:3)
“Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe~German playwright and novelist~1749-1832)

Edited from an article originally posted  8/31/11

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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