The man who stood at the entrance to my new world passed away recently, and though I hadn’t seen him in more than three decades, the news of his demise1) left me unexpectedly bereft2). I remember a warm voice, expressive eyes, and bushy eyebrows that wiggled3) comically at a pun or a joke. I remember someone who treated me with care, made me feel special when I—a stranger on a new shore—was terribly lost and bewildered.
My Class with Mr. K 凯先生的课程
Ernie Kaeselau was my first teacher in America. Having fled Saigon in spring of 1975 during finals in sixth grade, I landed in San Francisco a couple months later and attended summer school in Colma Junior High in Daly City, preparing myself for seventh grade. At that time I didn’t speak English, only Vietnamese and passable French.
I never knew what Mr. K’s politics were—liberal is my guess. But when it came to me—the first Vietnamese refugee in his classroom—his policy was plenary4) kindness.
Mr. K’s first question was my name and his second was how to properly pronounce it in Vietnamese. He would ask me to repeat this several times until, to my surprise, he got the complicated intonation almost right. And soon thereafter, the Vietnamese refugee boy became the American teacher’s pet. It was my task to go get his lunch, erase the blackboard, and collect and distribute homework assignments. When I missed the bus, he’d drive me home, a privilege that was the envy of the other kids.
For a while, I was his echo. “Sailboat,” he would say while holding a card up in front of me with an image of a sailboat on it, and “sailboat” I would repeat after him, copying his inflection and facial gestures. I listened to his diction. I listened to the way he annunciated5) certain words when he read passages from a book. If he could say my Vietnamese name, surely I could bend my tongue to make myself sound more American.
That first summer, he gave me A’s that didn’t count. He took our little group bowling, formed a little team, and taught us how to keep score. Then, he took us on a baseball field trip, my first. He took his time to explain to me the intricacy of the game. It was followed by a trip to Sonoma to see wineries and cheese factories. I remember crossing the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, with Mr. K’s voice narrating its history, how it was built, and I remember asking him afterward if it was made of real gold, and the entire bus erupted in laughter.
Along with a bowling team, Mr. K formed a little book club. And for a few dollars, we—children of the working class and immigrants—became owners of a handful of books. The box came one morning in the middle of class, and it felt a bit like Christmas in July. We jostled each other to be up front at his desk as Mr. K read the title of each book out loud, then matched the book with the name of its owner. My first book in America was The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame6), and I remember poring over7) its pristine8) pages in wonder. Perhaps it was then that the smell of fresh ink, paper and glue indelibly9) became for me the smell of yearning and imagination. I did not yet know how to read in English, oh, but how impatient I was to learn!
I pushed myself very hard to move forward. Within a few months, I began to speak English freely, though haltingly, and outgrew Mr. K’s cards. I made friends. I joined the school newspaper, became something of a cartoonist. By my second year in, I was getting straight A’s, no fake A’s needed anymore. Mr. K marveled at the change. I remember his astonished face when I argued against the class clown and won. I found my bearings10); I embraced my new world.
My Beautiful City 催人奋进的城市
In my eighth-grade yearbook, in the lower left hand corner, Mr. K in his succinct11) and modest way left this note:
“To my good Friend. It’s been a pleasure to be your teacher & friend for 2 years. Don’t forget to keep me informed of your progress. Ernie Kaeselau.”
When I graduated from junior high, I came to say goodbye to Mr. Kaesleau and he gave me the cards to take home as mementos, knowing full well that I didn’t need them anymore. That day, I remember taking a shortcut over a hill and on the way down, I tripped and fell. The cards flew out of my hand to scatter like a flock of playful butterflies on the verdant12) slope. Though I skinned my knee, I laughed. Then, as I scampered13) to retrieve the cards, I found myself yelling out ecstatically14) the name of each image on each one of them—“school”, “cloud”, “bridge”, “house”, “dog”, “car”—as if for the first time.
It was then that I looked up and saw, far in the distance, San Francisco’s downtown, its glittering high-rises resembling a fairy-tale castle made of diamonds, with the shimmering sea dotted with sailboats as backdrop15). “City,” I said, “my beautiful city.” And the words rang true; they slipped into my bloodstream and suddenly I was overwhelmed by an intense hunger. I wanted to swallow the beatific landscape before me.
And that was that16), as they say. And I sailed on.
My Article 作者无意,读者有心
I went to Lowell High School—a prestigious public school in San Francisco. I made new friends and ended up at Berkeley. That is to say, I left the working-class world and worked myself toward all the shimmering high-rises and the city’s golden promises.
I didn’t bother to look back, didn’t bother to keep my mentor and friend abreast of my progress. Several decades later, I, on one whimsical17) weekend, decided to write an article about learning English, and Mr. K was featured promptly.
Did I know that Mr. K read and treasured that article? Did I know that he, in retirement, kept coming back to it, to my writing—to me?
No. Not until this note from his best friend, another teacher, informed me of his passing.
“Most of us know what pleasure Ernie got from your article.… He sent copies to many relatives back East. I’m sure he couched18) it in pride for what you have accomplished, but he was deeply honored. What no one knows is he was a bit unhappy that there was no retirement recognition. He told me many times he didn’t want any big deal, but as the years passed, he would speak somewhat wistfully19) of the lack of acknowledgement. You gave him acknowledgement.”
To be honest, it never occurred to me to see the story from Mr. K’s angle. I had grieved for Vietnam, for my lost homeland, for many other things. I had traveled around the world many times, but I didn’t go back to where that little junior high stood at the foot of the mountains. Living so nearby, I had felt, unreasonably, that were I to drive to the junior high and peek through the window of my mentor’s classroom, he would still be there—that Mr. K would always be there, making other needy kids feel special, and that there would always be little bowling teams and little book clubs in the summer. And in dreams and reveries20), haven’t I revisited him countless times?
But that’s the trouble with childhood, isn’t it, especially happy ones? Happy children don’t question their contentment any more than fish wonder about the river’s current; they swim on. My childhood, interrupted by war, was rekindled by kindness. I felt blessed and happy, I went on blessedly with my business of growing up. Mr. K opened the gate and ushered me in, and I, so hungry for all its possibilities, rushed through it.
Remembering Mr. K 凯先生的葬礼
The retired teachers sat on their pews to somber organ music. Wizened21), gray-haired, they rose, one by one, moving slowly, to speak with affection and humor of a man who was known as much for his aesthetic sensibilities and practical jokes and friendship as he was for his devotion to the art of teaching and to his students. Shared memories echoed inside the gilded columbarium22) like some ode to beauty itself …
He was a talented organist … loved driving cross-country … Spanish architecture and colonial history of California …created beautiful stained glass objects...
To all this I would say yet that his greatest talent is empathy: He intuited how one felt and, like a bodhisattva23), performed his magic to assuage24) grief.
Sailing Toward the Unknown 念师恩,走人生
Suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river … The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound25) by exciting stories.(编者注:这里选自童话《柳林风声》,详见注释6)
I did not fully appreciate the beauty of Grahame’s words. Yet even then, I knew that it had something to do with me—who, like Mole, albeit against my will, also left my insulated world and sailed toward the unknown.
A charmed life is one that goes down a river not knowing what’s behind the bend, but confident nevertheless that gracious strangers will be there in one form or another to aid and abet and be a guide through turbulent waters. Charmed was how I felt when I first came here and more than three decades later, charmed is how I feel today—and much of that, I will acknowledge, has to do with Mr. K.
1. demise [dI5maIz] n. 死亡
2. bereft [bI5reft] adj. 丧失亲人的,忍受失去所爱之人而痛苦的
3. wiggle [5wIgl] vi. 摆动
4. plenary [5pli:nErI] adj. 无限的,充分的
5. annunciate [E5nQnFIeIt] vt. 宣告
6. Kenneth Grahame:肯尼斯·格雷厄姆(1859～1932),童话作家,生于英国苏格兰的爱丁堡,代表作有《柳林风声》(The Wind in the Willow)、《黄金时代》(The Golden Age)、《做梦的日子》(Dream Days)等。其中,《柳林风声》是一部经典的童话,讲述的是发生在蟾蜍、鼹鼠、河鼠和老獾等大森林动物们身上的故事,是一部关于友谊和家园的温情之作。
7. pore over:用心阅读,细心研究
8. pristine [5prIstaIn] adj. 干净的,崭新的
9. indelibly [In5delIblI] adv. 不可磨灭地,难忘地
10. bearing [5bZErIN] n. 相对位置,方位
11. succinct [sEk5sINkt] adj. 简洁的,简明扼要的
12. verdant [5vE:dEnt] adj. 青翠的
13. scamper [5skAmpE] vi. 奔跑
14. ecstatically [eks5tAtIklI] adv. 入迷地,欣喜若狂地
15. backdrop [5bAkdrRp] n. 背景,背景幕
16. that’s that:用于表示谈论、调查、进展等的结束
17. whimsical [5(h)wImzIkEl] adj. 因心血来潮或异想天开而作决定的
18. couch [kautF] vt. (用语言)表达
19. wistfully [5wIstfulI] adv. 愁闷地,忧郁地
20. revery [5revErI] n. 空想,幻想
21. wizened [5wIznd] adj. 消瘦的,枯槁的
22. columbarium [7kClEm5bZErIEm] n. 骨灰盒壁龛
23. bodhisattva [7bRdI5sB:tvE] n. 菩萨
24. assuage [E5sweIdV] vt. 使缓和,使缓解
25. spellbound [5spelbaJnd] adj. 着迷的,出神的