– Four characters

Months ago, I asked a favor of Y., a student I have known for two years. She is a regular in the writing center, and she was in my composition class last spring. All teachers secretly root for and are attracted to certain kinds of students, and this is something you start to know about yourself, as a teacher, as semesters roll by. A colleague of mine, a steadily productive one, admitted to relishing her work with the “out there,” unpredictable students. And me? This student, Y., is of the kind I have my eye on: hard-working, quiet, smart without fanfare.

I asked Y. to translate for me the scroll that the Chinese father of X., another (former) student, made for me a few years ago, when X. was graduating from her Master’s program. The parents were visiting the United States for the first time, and the daughter asked her father, apparently a skilled calligrapher, to make a scroll each for a few teachers and bring them along as gifts; I was a lucky one. Although fluent in Mandarin, her native language, X. was as unable as I to read the scroll. She explained: “It’s traditional.”

Y., current student (and, yes, her name begins with the letter Y and the former student’s name begins with the letter X), took this on as a project. Once in a while, since I have asked her, she has popped in to the writing center to update me on her progress, to give me a clue or two about the meaning she was finding.

Yesterday she stopped by and asked to meet formally. Y. had heard it was my last day in the writing center, not just for the semester, but for always. We sat down together, and she translated, at length and with plenty of her own commentary on Chinese poetry, the scroll. In four lines, the poem is about what we might, in English, call melancholy. Set at the end of spring, a time of year that intensifies such feelings, it uses the imagery of the garden, grass, and water to evoke an older person’s recollections of “people who are missing” — people who have gone before, grown children who have moved away. “It’s metaphor,” said Y.

There was more for Y. to teach me. She gave me an envelope and said it was okay for me to open it. In her longish farewell note to me, written in careful English and careful Chinese, there were these four characters:

Excerpt from Y\'s note

The four characters represent these words: SPRING ** WIND ** TRANSFORM ** RAIN

Y.’s note offered an English translation — “educating the young” is what a teacher does — but her longer commentary on the characters, which she spoke aloud and illustrated on scrap paper, was richer. Let’s see if I can do Y. justice. Here goes:

SPRING seems to be a time of year that suggests both beginnings and the end of beginnings. This is the moment in which a teacher meets her student. The teacher is WIND, which, by its gentle force, TRANSFORMS and disperses the RAIN, which is knowledge. By transforming the rain into droplets that are not too small and not too large, and by dispersing them to the grass (grass, which stands for students, is implied), a teacher teaches.

I am so taken by this, these qualities of teaching and knowledge being powerful and yet ephemeral. I like, too, how the teacher is unbundled from knowledge; there is wind and there is rain; and neither contains the other, although they mingle. Y. shared a new metaphor with me that seemed instantly right.

It’s mid spring in New England. I’m moving on and might never see Y. again, although I don’t know. To each other, we may become, over time, people who are missing. Not gone, not dead: missed.

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