When Mother was young, she picked up the nickname
“Little Pendant.” She was 152 centimeters tall and weighed 42
kilos. I’m afraid those statistics are actually a bit inflated. Well,
she might have been a delicate and tiny gem of a mother, but she
not only was “Mom” for three children, but had her work cut out
for her as a middle school teacher and housewife as well. She
had so much to do that she seemed to be living two lives at the
same time. One wonders where she got her physical stamina. If
we measure her according to the usual standards of virtuous wife
and Super Mom, Mother was certainly one of a kind.
As I remember the scene, our home was rather much in a
state of perpetual disarray. There were piles of clothing all over
the place, and newspapers and magazines lying everywhere.
Shelves, cupboards and all sorts of nooks and crannies were not so very clean. Dust more or less just accumulated. Washing
machines in Taiwan life in the 1960s were uncommon. People
would have a laundry lady come right to the home. Mother
would get off work, come home, and gather up the clothing after
it dried. She would toss the whole pile into a rattan chair. We
three kids would dig through it all and retrieve our pants, our
socks and whatnot, never knowing there was any need to fold
Mother lacked the patience required for fancy cooking. The
most common sight on our kitchen table was a big pot. She just
threw everything into that massive bowl of steel and set it to
boiling. Take her “flour dumplings luxury pot” for example. She
would pour in broth from boiled spareribs, add shredded turnip
and carrot, followed by beaten eggs and fish balls. After boiling
this concoction, she would use chopsticks to cut the dough into
small pieces and throw them into the pot and the dough would
expand in the scalding water. She would then turn off the stove
and everyone would get a big bowl, complete with rice and vegetables
in a discombobulated mix.
And when it came to someone’s birthday, there was sure to
be a “big assorted noodle luxury pot.” Again there was plenty of
soup, but this time whipped up in a bowl into which Mother
added slices of meat, dried daylily, black tree fungus, beaten
egg, and all sorts of bean curd. When it was all done, she added
a few spoonfuls of cooking starch. All of this we ate with noodles,
and it was an all you could eat affair. “Does it taste okay?
Get it while it’s still hot.” Mother would talk like that to us kids
and to Dad too. We all held our big bowls of noodles and sipped
the hot broth, never once doubting her words.
Mother may have been a bit less than perfect in her house
keeping, but it was completely the opposite when it came to her teaching. Put simply, she was enthusiastic with a capital “E.”
Unlike almost all other Chinese literature teachers, she had
no fear of correcting student compositions. She particularly lost
herself in their weekly diaries. Sunday mornings she was a sight
to behold, her back upright in a chair at her desk, her concentration
totally fixed as she meticulously corrected her students’
words with the flourishes of an old fashioned “mao bi,” a
Chinese writing brush pen. She put the proper characters in
place of the wrong ones, helped to revise words and expressions
and then, at the end dashed down a volley of comments. Her
responses in the weekly diaries of her students were especially
prolix. You could see whole patches of her words, and row after
row of bright red ink. She often said the thing she most enjoyed
was reading those weekly student diaries. She said it enabled her
to understand what they were really thinking inside their heads.
It was an especially good opportunity, she said, to dialogue with
the silent students in her classes, the ones who kept their
thoughts to themselves.
“If the right word comes to someone at just the right
moment, sometimes it’s the best thing that could happen,”
Mother would say.
In those days, everyone had to take an entry examination to
get into a middle school or high school, and the teacher’s performance
would be judged by the success rate. Mother had a rule
that students had to come to school a half hour early every
morning just so she could keep an eye on their personal study
situations. Then after class, as soon as the students finished
cleaning up the classrooms, one by one she checked their work
before letting them go home. Although she taught Chinese
Literature, she kept close ties with other teachers. She spoke
with them often to know how her students were doing in their classes too. She knew which students were having trouble in certain
courses and would assign those who were sailing through to
tutor them. When the latter showed progress, both were rewarded
and encouraged. She was also intimately involved with her
students’ daily lives, offering counsel to those who were unpopular
as well as those with emotional difficulties. To every one of
her charges she gave something special. If a student’s misbehavior
was simply too unimaginable, she personally went to visit the
family. She would talk with the parents in search of a way to
save the student. They couldn’t have been more grateful, and did
all they could to go along with her suggestions.
Mother sincerely liked to teach. She might have been small
in stature, but she had an unusually loud and ringing voice. It
came hurling through the air and even students in the back row
heard it clearly. In my professional life, I have met several students
taught by Mother, and one of them described her in these
words: “When Teacher Tsao was teaching, she was the happiest
person you could imagine, just bubbling over.”
Another said, “What I remember the most was that when
she read classical poetry for us, she was so into it that it was like
she was in a drunken daze and had fallen right into the words.” I
almost blushed when I heard that.
There was never any question that being a teacher was
work or just a job for Mother. Teaching filled her with happiness
and profound personal satisfaction.
In whatever Mother did,...