Lessons in Life and Paper Delivery

I sat on the couch in the family room, recovering from the daily delivery of misadventure that accompanied the arrival of the newspaper. For some time now, Richard the Wild Man, as I had dubbed him, had been our paperboy. I seriously thought about canceling our subscription.

Generously described, Richard was a "spirited" child. Neighborhood mothers, unprepared for his unlimited zeal for mischief (however innocent), carefully eased their children in other directions when he appeared on the playground. I had my share of encounters with Richard there, discouraging his various plans for my then two-year-old son, one of which was to rocket him down the slide to see what would happen.

As I stared at the wall in the family room, I thought of Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson came into my life when I was a teenager and he was, almost surely, an octogenarian. He had first been a successful interior decorator, but decided in midlife to close his business and pursue his other love - music. He had been equally successful in his musical career, finally retiring to my small town and keeping himself busy with the local musical scene.

He played the organ for my church, which is where our paths converged. My church needed a soloist at the time. Mr. Johnson decided I could do the job with some coaching, and offered to be my instructor. That spring our weekly meetings began, divided between his vigorous admonitions that I "sing out" and lengthy discussions about life.

Standing straight, shoulders back, breathing correctly in his perfectly appointed living room, I carefully listened to everything he said, whether it concerned musical form or meeting people. Recognizing my acute shyness, he explained in countless ways how to conduct a conversation: Never ask a yes-or-no question. Do ask how, when, and why questions. Then listen to the answer. So many people don't listen to one another. This point was punctuated by a finger shaken in my direction, a finger made strong by working with fabrics and pounding out scales on pianos. Encourage a person to talk about himself. People love to talk about themselves, and they will go away thinking you are the best conversationalist they've ever met, and perhaps you haven't even said a word.

BY summer's end I had actually sung a couple of times at church with reasonable aplomb. With the coming of fall, Mr. Johnson sent me to the high school choral director with instructions that I was no longer to be a soprano, but an alto. Mr. Jones took this message with open surprise. Clearly he felt I was a suitable soprano, but one does not question the elder statesmen of one's profession, and he pointed to the alto section and told me to sit down.

He was probably terribly curious as to how I had acquired Mr. Johnson as a teacher: I who, to all appearances, was as lacking in connections as I was in confidence. Mr. Jones did, however, treat me differently from that point on, and I qualified for the more demanding pieces the chorus performed, participating in state-level competition as well.

During the spring of my senior year of high school, Mr. Johnson decided I should attend the summer session at the college where he had taught. I was a bit doubtful about this, recognizing that while my voice was pleasant, it wasn't exceptional. But Mr. Johnson was insistent, got an application, wrote my recommendation, and off I went.

There I met truly gifted students who would make their mark in the musical world. To my amazement, I also met kids like me, who had a great time singing but would probably grow up to be businessmen or gym teachers. I discovered that Mr. Johnson's rules of meeting people worked. My peers thought I was the nicest person they had ever met, although they had barely gleaned my name, while I had reaped their life stories.

Since then, I have fondly remembered Mr. Johnson's gift to me. He must have known that I wasn't destined to be a musician, but that I could make a contribution where my talent would be appreciated. More than that, he must have sensed that I had an intense interest in helping others who yearned for the freedom to become acquainted. Perhaps that, more than my modest musical potential, caused him to take me under his tutelage - to share with me his lifetime of understanding human nature.

He gave me the tools to find my poise among strangers, who ultimately could not remain strangers after prolonged exposure to my open-ended questions and the fact that I listened to their answers. Often I had wondered how I would ever repay that debt.

Which brought me back to Richard the Wild Man. As much as I wanted to cancel our subscription, I decided not to. What Richard stood to learn from being paperboy was in part what I, as the customer, taught him. How would he ever learn patience, discretion, or respect, if the adults he encountered didn't show him that was the way to do business? Mr. Johnson had recognized in me something he could foster, and I could try to do the same for this rambunctious boy.

WE continued with our daily skirmishes. I winced when I heard snowballs crashing against the house as he chose my yard for combat. I flushed his friends out of our bushes as they waited to ambush him on our front walk. I carefully explained that he couldn't give me an incomplete paper even though he'd told me it was incomplete. I discussed the fact that if he happened to find the front door unlocked, this was not a signal for him to deliver the paper to me personally in the kitchen. As long as his brief career lasted, we maintained a dialogue of the best way to be a paperboy. After a few months, he disappeared from the route, replaced by a self-contained, reliable lad in a baseball cap.

A few weeks later, though, Richard turned up at the door with one of his buddies, selling chocolates for the benefit of the neighborhood elementary school. While I filled out the form for a box of chocolate mints my waistline didn't need, he exuberantly told me: "I'm not a paperboy anymore. I told my friend that the nice lady at No. 95 would buy some candy."

He was surely buttering me up. The irrepressible glint in his eyes was as ready for mischief as ever. But perhaps he did mean it in a small, sincere way. Despite my repeated lectures to him, here he was, back at my door, smiling, sure that I would listen. While I watched him go down the front walk, leave the gate open, and return at my reminder to close it, I thought again of Mr. Johnson. He had shown me how to be a confident, caring individual. And now his example was showing me how to do as he had done.

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