By Mel Johnston
“What’s that?” she asks, pointing her small finger to the red, crusty mark extending from my thumb to my index finger. It’s a burn; sustained from a silly mishap a few days prior, caused by a knucklehead who’s often in a rush and seldom wears oven mitts. Since she’s a four-year-old, I don’t tell her that it’s a burn, and I don’t tell her about my unsafe cooking methods either. I just tell her it’s a booboo, and that I’ll be just fine. And very soon, too. Promise.
“Look, I can still play. I’m really alright, Ada. Can you do what I’m doing, sweetheart?”
We’re learning the G chord on the guitar, which might be simple for big hands, but can be really tricky for tiny ones. The burn is on the hand that strums, the hand that holds our guitar picks. I do have to remind her which hand holds the pick and which one crawls up the neck because, as I mentioned, she’s four. When you’re still a little person, your lefts and rights can get switched around, and understandably so. After all, she’s had a lot less time than I’ve had to memorize that kind of thing.
Ada can see the red, yellowish mark on my hand because I didn’t remember to put a bandage on it before heading to work. Like other messy things in my life, I only handle them when absolutely necessary, when there are a thousand sirens going off in my head or it feels like a crowd of people is knocking down my door. (I invite you for a moment to imagine an angry mob with pitchforks, battering rams, and torches knocking down the door to my Bushwick apartment. They break down the door while I, at the kitchen table in unmatched pajamas, eat the fucking frozen waffle that I destroyed my hand to make.)
As a person who teaches music, instilling an assured sense of confidence in my students is extremely important. To learn anything, you must have a certain level of confidence to move forward and to put what you’ve learned into practice, of course. With my students, however, I’m asking them to sing into microphones, write songs, and stand on stages. It takes a lot of guts to do any of these things, even for big people. Even for me. Well, especially for me — I can say with almost perfect certainty that singing and making music brings me the most joy out of anything I do with my days, but it’s also a very, very vulnerable thing. Sharing music I’ve written and getting up on a stage to sing can sometimes make a tiny, nasty voice go off in my head: Who are you to do this? Do you even know what you’re doing? Everyone’s going to think you’re just alright, and maybe even a little bit foolish.
In my role as a teacher, my own fear of not living up to someone’s expectations of the sort of singer or musician I should be doesn’t matter even one little bit. I show up for my students, and I must be generous every single time that I’m with them, generous with my time, with my attention, and with my courage. The voice that asks ‘who are you to think you could show them anything?’ is drowned out by the simple fact that my students deserve a teacher who acts with huge amounts of love. If I let my own fear and insecurity filter into our time together, I simply won’t be serving them in the way that they so deserve.
Ada looks back at the marred backside of my hand, but then turns her attention to her own hand, the left that creeps up the fretboard. I can see that the tips of her squishy, tiny fingers are bright red with the faint impressions of her guitar strings.
“Ouch,” she whines.
Anyone who’s ever started to learn guitar can remember that feeling. Playing music is a blast so you want to keep going and going and going, but you just can’t. Rearranging your fingers on the fretboard burns and aches. The tips of her fingers are soft and small. Not like mine, which are all callused up with an extra layer of dried skin that I chew on and rip off when I’m anxious.
“I know,” I reassure her, as she offers up four of her fingers in a haphazard, hesitant high five.
“You just have to keep trying it, though. It won’t always hurt as bad as it does right now.”
The more I show up for my students, the more I can show up for my own work, without judgment. I pretend that I am brave for them, and I do become braver. I encourage them to not judge their ideas and to just let them flow. There are no bad ideas, and there’s no wrong way to sing your song. I repeat these tenets so often that I feel that I’m becoming kinder to myself, and more patient with the rate at which I’m developing as a person and as a musician.
So, the thing about all of those messy moments that are challenging to handle? To find a solution, you must be confident that you can find the answer. If you feel you’re not ready or that you’re not the person meant to move things forward, things stay as they are, even if they’re painful, inconvenient, or unsatisfying. If I may, I feel like it’s the reason people don’t help out when someone in public is in trouble. What if I do the wrong thing? Who am I to step in? What if they become upset with me? What if I mess it all up?
We don’t always know the best way to help, or the most natural way to contribute. It also goes without saying that we certainly won’t always feel the best about our capabilities, either. I’m learning, though, that the more we show up for each other, for our art, and the tricky things that give us sour feelings in our bellies, the more we can learn to trust ourselves. I’m learning that the fear of being wrong or silly can stop up our propensity to love, to act in a way that allows someone else to grow in a way that is authentic for them.
Ada crawls closer to me and swats at my guitar, wordlessly asking me to hang it up for now. She chews on her fingers for a minute, looks up at me, and it’s clear that she’s done for the day. I’m pretty tired too. Grabbing my hand, without any hesitation, she kisses it.
“Go away soon, booboo. Okay?”
I don’t really know what to say when faced with this little girl’s totally unfiltered compassion—it’s beautiful but also difficult for someone bigger to recall. Her kindness makes something bloom in me, and I wonder if an adult could be so courageous with her love. I’m humbled by how extraordinarily fortunate I am to learn and grow as my students learn and grow. The most important thing I’ve learned so far, though, is to meet uncertain moments with love and compassion every single time. Like a four-year old-would, like many of us have become too hardened to do.
Mel Johnston is a singer, writer, and educator living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She has a penchant for singing the blues, wacky costumes, and talking to strangers. Hang with her on Instagram and Twitter @mel_johnstonx