Short Story: “The Piano”

The Piano

Senior year English with Mr. Wallace was always an intriguing combination of extreme soulfulness and extreme boredom.

For a few weeks we would be doing nothing but reading over and over the most intolerably boring short stories of Katherine Mansfield’s, full of unending waffle about symbolism. For the life of me I could never understand why a tiny little lamp in a dolls’ house meant anything at all about the child playing with it. Reading these short stories was undoubtedly my least favourite part of my whole five years at high school, and that’s including the two years I spent in the prison-style, concealable-weapons factory that was the Metalwork class.

On the other hand, when we moved on from Katherine Mansfield, I found the study of Othello to be one of the most rewarding times of my school life. The story of the tormented man who loves not wisely and murders his wife remains one of the most compelling I have ever read. It was Mr. Wallace who showed me the depth of the characters beyond the simple melodrama-type story, and encouraged us to scrutinise the thoughts, feelings, and motives of each of the complex characters, to better understand them. This was all very unfamiliar to me.

Actually though, Mr. Wallace analysed the thoughts, feelings, and motives of every student he had in the class, and made as many jokes and personal insights as he possibly could, to try and make the environment a personal and comfortable one for all.

With me, he failed.

My whole high school senior year was, like English class, also a mixture of soul and misery; mostly the latter. I had gotten myself into the most desirable position of being able to write and play original music with my friends for up to three hours a day during school hours, and was a member of the most accomplished rock and roll band our school had produced for a number of years. Such was our talent that the Principal overlooked the normal objections to rock and roll music and would instead show us off at high-level meetings and fundraisers and so on, holding us up to the toffee-nosed as a shining example of motivated model students from her school with good heads on their shoulders. Nothing, of course, could be more further from the truth.

Instead, our music was a means for me to escape the misery of the rest of the day, and kid myself that I had a good thing going. I tend to flatter myself that I had developed an emotional awareness much earlier than my peers; however for all my advancement in ideas and outlook, I had crippling shyness that canceled it out. I was always the one in my group of friends that stood there and laughed at everybody’s jokes when I was supposed to, because at some point in the past they had been funny, and I am nothing if not dutiful. But I was never liked for my own jokes or opinions, mostly as a result of the quiet way I presented myself to the world. I won’t labour this point too much, but I believed myself to be a total moron in those days, and I desperately needed my friends to convince me otherwise. However, that simply wasn’t the type of friendships we had, and I knew for certain that they would never, ever respond if I tried to ask them about something serious like that, and thus never took the chance. Because I didn’t believe they would respond, I then became convinced that they weren’t my friends at all; they became barely even real people to me. I reasoned that real people gave even a token amount of thought and expression as to why they liked others or not, and mentally reviewed this from time to time, rather than carry on cracking the same tired, prejudicial jokes in the same little obstinate circle of huddled myopics year after year; going nowhere, going nowhere.

I think the problem was that our circle of lunchtime friends could be only as smart or emotional as our lowest common denominator. Thus, with skateboarders, and at one point, I believe even drug dealers in our extended circle, the outlook for raising the general tone was never great.

I was becoming very worn out with that circle of non-people, but the crux of my problem was that I was too shy to leave them and find other people, of which I realised after I graduated, there was an abundance in my class. I felt I had to try and fit in with them as best I could. But throughout I craved more than anything the company of an intellectual equal, or superior. Someone of a slightly higher and refined type who would appreciate that I knew a lot about a lot of stuff, and that I could appreciate in return. Someone to challenge me, value me, and nurture me.

I tried to accept my social circumstances at school philosophically: at least I wasn’t an outcast. While yes, I was always the serious one that looked down his nose at low-brow behaviour and was rolling his eyes at the bloody-mindedness and heartlessness of some of the other guys and their happy-aggressive bullying, at least it hadn’t left me isolated. Being isolated would be superlatively awful.

No, if nothing else, I was definitely included in the circle in a minimal way because of being in my band. Out of the four of us, not only was I the piano and keyboard player, but more importantly I was one half of the music-writing team, and was recognised in a particular, small way as such that was adequate for my fragile ego. The other main music-writer was the guitarist named Alex, who always had a problem with me for some reason or another that I have never actually fathomed. We never had a lot of patience for each other, both of us being strong-willed but polar opposites in most things. It came to a head one day late in the year, when we were backstage before one of our Principal’s high-class show-off gigs. I think I tried to get my way about the set list we were about to play, and as usual he had contrary views, so we argued for a bit. Though I was too shy and reticent to really have a go at him, he had a good shout at me and called me a whiny emo bitch. I’m glad that now I laugh as I remember it, because the whole situation was absurd and about a million times more serious than it ever really was or needed to be. Needless to say though, the stage performance we gave directly after that argument was lacking a certain degree of conviction and unity.

Shyness . . . always my problem. I wouldn’t like to say that I suffer from it, but then, it has certainly kept me from a lot of the things I would otherwise be inclined to do or say . . . namely, resolve my social issues openly. It has made me, and continues to make me, “the Quiet one”. Never has this been more painfully, excruciatingly clear to me than in Mr. Wallace’s English class.

His quiet and deliberate attempts to get inside everyone’s personal mind space, to get them to think and grow both intellectually and spiritually, clashed resoundingly with my shyness and unwillingness to break the mentality of apathy that I had picked up from my circle of lunchtime friends. When he decided it was my turn, he would try to smile and make eye contact like an adult and ask me what I thought about a topic, and ask me to expand and think harder, and I just wouldn’t give him anything. If he asked me to explain alliteration I would obstinately offload the obligation as quickly as I could with a minimal mumble or deferential gesture.

Then, just for a moment, after I would fumble, he would stop talking and think, while he gave me this particular look that still scares me to this day. It felt like all of a sudden he was looking through my wall, at the real me. He could see, as I saw, that I was an intelligent person who wanted very much to be involved in his discussions and have a personal and comfortable learning environment, but for some reason was too scared, and determined instead to waste my time there, and his, as a means of fitting in with emotional infants I didn’t even respect. I felt like he could see how pissed off I was for being so slovenly during that last year of school, being too overwhelmed by my social issues to have a better attitude towards learning. Under his x-ray gaze I would go bright red and shuffle uncomfortably in my chair below his motivational posters in the back corner of the room, where they were needed most. He knew that I was ashamed; that I had it in me to be a better person, and that I was choosing every day to reject the abundant opportunities he provided to grow. He had me figured out, and he knew. He knew everything. He knew because I was a complex character from one of his books, and he devoted his whole life to studying the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of complex characters to better understand them. You can hide nothing from a man who studies characters.

It’s crazy, of course, but after we finished reading Othello, I can’t be sure that he didn’t pick the film study topic for me, and me only. It was Jane Campion’s The Piano.

If you have seen the film you know that it is long, boring, and big on symbolism. Make that very, very long; very, very boring; and very, very big on symbolism. If you haven’t seen the film, here is my quick plot summary:

Ada our heroine is a mute pianist living in the mid-1800s. Her father marries her off to a man she has never met: the sexually- and socially-inept New Zealand settler, Stewart, with whom she goes to live, bringing with her her daughter Flora and her piano. Stewart turns out to be an idiot, and refuses to have the piano of his newly purchased wife carried from the beach where their boat landed. However his settler friend Baines, who lives on the other side of the forest, takes possession of it, and secretly offers to sell it back to Ada in exchange for sexual pleasures, one key at a time. To the idea of such prostitution she is as outraged as a mute person possibly could express, but because she has such a passion for her piano she accepts the deal, and they end up falling in love after spending time together and a few piano keys are, shall we say, ‘transacted’.

The central point of the film is when Ada sends one single piano key to Baines. It was here Mr. Wallace paused the film and explained the significance of the action, and changed my life.

One piano key was the price Baines had initially named for her dignity. There is a saying, that when all is laid bare, the only things a man really has to call his own are his morals, which I think is very true. Ada loved her piano so much that she sacrificed her morals for one piano key – it made no difference whether she slept with Baines five times or fifty times; her soul was despoiled after just the first time. One piano key symbolises her incredible love that overcomes her beliefs, morals, upbringing, religion, instincts, and her way of life. One piano key symbolises her willingness to sacrifice anything for love, be it first for her piano or later for her man. It is even more symbolic once Stewart discovers her unfaithfulness and cuts off one of her fingers with an axe – just one. Instead of killing her, he has removed only the smallest part of her body, but it stops her from playing the piano, and by extension, loving Baines. Woah, it dawned upon me, this symbolism waffle is all highly significant!

Without turning, Mr. Wallace, sitting near my desk, said in his serious, quiet voice, more to himself and to me than to the class: “Look at how the smallest thing symbolises so much. You have to pay attention to the little things in life. They are the things that really matter.”

Not a few days pass without me thinking about him saying that. I daresay it has been the most important lesson I have ever learned. It was the first time I was encouraged to make informed judgements about the world and perhaps consider my place in it, using my brain and intuition instead of my ego. I am sure he was saying it to me only, and though I felt as though I had received a revelation from above, because I was shy I wasn’t even able to acknowledge him properly.

Next Thursday I had Physics and Woodwork in the morning, and then a luxurious band practice during lunch hour. I strolled to the music department and along the sunny veranda that I knew so well, into the small cloak room hallway at the end. Here there was a wall-length shelf that everybody dumped their instruments into during the day to save carrying them around. On our band practice days, I had taken to leaving my electronic keyboard in there for convenience. Today the hall was particularly full of those black hard-shell musical instrument cases, with soft guitar bags sprinkled in between, and I was picking my way through them slowly to the back while my bandmates hurried me up from outside the door.

Some thoughtful bastard had moved my keyboard to the top shelf to make room for their precious guitars. I dragged it off too carelessly, and in an instant I had dropped it. I was holding it end-upwards, and my lowest C key had caught on a shelf and snapped clean off at the root before my whole instrument had hit the ground. I cried out with a few profanities, and brutally kicked some other cases out of my way and got out of there, extremely pissed off. We had a closer look at it in the light, and there was no way it was going to click back in. That key was broken off for sure.

Through most of our lunchtime rehearsal I was livid with myself and whoever it was that decided to move my heavy instrument to a high shelf. Near the end of lunch though we had a great idea. Alex said jokingly: “You should give that key to Mr. Wallace!”, meant as a gentle mockery of his obsession (the correct term, I believe, is passion) for symbolism. We all had an uproarious laugh, but I immediately realised that once again I was not laughing on the inside. I realised that giving Mr. Wallace my piano key would fix everything – he would know what I meant by it because he knew what I was really thinking inside, and because he knew that the smallest things symbolise so much. He would know that I meant it as the only way I could manage to say: “I understand everything. Thank you.” The piano key would be humourous, ironic, symbolic, and perfect.

Feeling better, we packed up our gear and headed to his English class. As per usual for rehearsal days, we were quite late in the door. Mr. Wallace was on his feet at the front of the class, and bent over his desk drawer with some papers, still dwarfing me.

I hesitated for a moment, then decided to learn from him and from Ada, and sacrifice my shy way of life by sending him my precious piano key to let him know that he had actually succeeded in teaching me.

“Mr. Wallace?” He turned.

“Andrew..?”

I mumbled: “Here, look at this.” and took the key from my pocket, pushing it forward to him like a child handing a frog to his mother.

“Oh! Is this from your keyboard?” As I mentioned, we were very minor celebrities by that time, and he knew about our band, and with a grin he grasped immediately the connection and irony of the present of one piano key. I think.

“It just broke off now, and I thought you would like to see it.” I said bizzarely, proud to be looking an intellectual superior in the eye at last, despite not even really explaining the situation or the key properly. He took this in for a second and then looked down at the key, blocking the last few people trying to come in the door. He stood there still, resting my piano key in his hand, looking at it with that serious, all-knowing, x-ray look of his, for a full fifteen seconds before he stirred.

“Interesting.” he said, so very quietly; and again.

“Interesting.”

I like to remember it as a golden moment where I went right up to him and unsettled his ideas about me. But truthfully, I don’t know if he actually ‘got’ my deep and meaningful message, because he looked back up at me in the face then, and I suddenly couldn’t stand his x-ray vision. I mumbled something and he handed the key back to me and began to turn away. Because I was too shy to tell him I meant it as a present for him, as a small but symbolic gesture of appreciation, I took it and put it back in my pocket without another word. He had already turned away to more important matters than my silliness, and I went to my seat below the posters, face bright red.

I meant to go and talk to him about it after class, to just tell him that he truly was the best teacher I had ever had, and I really respected him and was grateful to him, but I was of course too shy. By the next day, I had talked myself out of that completely. In the coming months I put off thinking about it, and by the time I had become sick enough of my quote-unquote friends to start to put aside my bullshit and reach out to people more, I was finished school and it was too late. The next year I asked someone younger if Mr. Wallace was still teaching, thinking that the key could be delivered, and he would remember me and what it meant – only to be told that Mr. Wallace had retired. I can but hope that it wasn’t because he felt as though he wasn’t getting through to kids like me.

I have seen Mr. Wallace only once after that. He was walking down the street in town, fully recognisable in his hilarious purple woolly hat, and a part of me wanted to run over and tell him all that had been on my mind, everything that I had wanted to say. But I was too shy, and I quickly came to my senses, swallowed, and accepted that the moment had long passed. I will have to live with the consequences of my actions for the rest of my life. I will never know if he understood my gesture; not now, not ever.

If he understood on the day what I meant by presenting him with my precious piano key, part of my song-writing happiness, then that means he will know that I meant to give it to him to keep; that I truly did appreciate his teaching, no matter how little enthusiasm I showed him; that I might not have been learning his Words Of The Day or doing my homework, but that I was learning from him the most important things anyone can teach. He will understand and forgive me for behaving horribly towards him in return, and not doing even that one little thing for him properly. He will understand that I did in fact learn quite a lot about symbolism in short stories . . .

But if he didn’t understand what I tried to give him then I will have nothing to take but regrets and this imperative: don’t be timid. You miss out on too much. You miss out on a personal and comfortable learning environment that challenges you to grow intellectually and spiritually, offered right at the time you happen to really need it. You miss out on a real friend; an intellectual equal or superior that you can value, that values you. You miss out on the opportunities to reward them with the simple recognition they deserve.

I’m in a new band now, and I play my keyboard every week. Every single time I play, I think of the missing key that is reposing with other items in the shrine to my band; a dusty shoebox under my bed at my parents’ house, instead of being with the person to whom it really belongs. Every single time I play, I think of how I chose to hold onto even the smallest of my things, and that it symbolises my utter unwillingness to sacrifice my way of life for even the best person I have known.

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My impression of the 1999 film American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, and written by Alan Ball, was that we are being presented with a story that is all about suffering from depression, with a healthy portion of denial on top. Read more of this post