In loving memory of David Parker (1943-2015)
A Good Teacher is Hard to Find, Episode 2
As there’s no good place to start, let me walk
backwards till, I bump into you.
On numerous occasions, Prof. Parker asked me to call him David, but for some unknown reason, I had never been able to call him David. Was it the seniority? Was it the silver hair? I still don’t know. I ceased being his student a long time ago, but I have only known him from the perspective of a student. And being his student is the best thing one can imagine.
The first time I met him, it was September 2004. I was an exchange student. I wrote him an email to inquire about a course. He wrote back instantly, and the very next day I was in his office. Desperate to impress, I forced him to read a newspaper article I wrote for the Shanghai Daily. Years later, he confessed that when we first met, he worried that I was yet another showoff who did not know anything about writing. However, he took a leap of faith and let me take the course.
It was “Writing a Life between Languages”, where I studied autobiography, language, and identity. By writing my own tales, I learned about myself in ways I never had; I even theorized my passion for language; and I felt renewed and empowered by the end of the course. It was such a magical semester. A short four months that tied the knot between me and Hong Kong, but I know it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Prof. Parker.
Cancer Transforms a Person
Meghan O’Rourke describes in her memoir, The Long Goodbye, how cancer could transform people dramatically. She writes: “My mother cried in frustration … and apologized for not being a ‘mother’ anymore.” But Prof. Parker never stopped being Prof. Parker. Even when he was very sick, there was nothing bitter in his mood or manner. The time I visited him at the Prince of Wales Hospital, the warmth he gave me was immense. He lay in the bed looking exhausted, thin, and frail. Multiple injections had bruised his arms and hands, but he still managed to tease me and brush my concerns away with a hearty laughter. The same laughter that used to echo all the way down the CUHK English Department corridor.
He adjusted his position on the reclining bed and explained to me his condition, in such a detailed but detached manner as if he were talking about somebody else. The chemotherapy, the sweet snacks his wife brought, the kindness the nurses showed, the messages and flowers students sent. Then he talked most enthusiastically about his current writing. His fantastic dreams induced by the multiple painkillers. To my biggest surprise, he told me he was thankful to cancer, which shed new light on his perception of life. And of course me being me, I soon started to whine about my struggles and difficulties doing a PhD. For a while it became rather unclear who was comforting whom, and who was the real patient.
Chamomile and a Croissant with Prof. Parker
I also remember our last meeting, which began with a chamomile tea and ended with an almond croissant at Pacific Coffee. I sent him an essay beforehand and unabashedly asked for his critique. And Prof. Parker, with that horrid plastic spine brace under his white linen shirt and the stainless-steel cane in his hand, looking as breakable as a wine glass, still smiled and laughed as usual. He insisted on his wellness and carefully phrased his critique on my writing, “You do know the difference between beautification and beatification, right?” “Oh yes,” I replied in haste. It turned out I didn’t. In that particular poetry analysis, “beatification” was misread, misinterpreted, misunderstood. Big mistake! Huge! He saw through my lie, but he smiled it off and embarrassed me not.
It is very hard NOT to make knowledge oppressive, especially the knowledge of literature. Prof. Parker did it. His dedication and love for literature, like his laughter, are contagious. He made me believe that there was always something valuable in my work. He made me believe it was eventually going somewhere no matter how small a step it seemed.
I think Prof. Parker had a unique talent of misunderstanding people in the right way.
“Do you think I can further my studies with my abilities?”
“I don’t see why not. I am very enthusiastic about you.”
“We broke up.”
“He must be mad.”
“I don’t think I can finish this essay on time. Ideas just don’t come together.”
“They will, eventually. And I can wait.”
“I don’t know what I can do as a career.”
“You can do anything.”
Till this day, I am still amazed by how fast Prof. Parker responded to my emails. He made me feel really important.
He used to fill his speech with hyperbole too:
“Oh, you must meet this new literature professor. I think he is superb!”
“This book is the most exquisite work I have come across in years!”
“Chloe is the sweetest person I have ever known.”
“There is no one as thorough and caring as Tracy.”
“Never stop writing. You have such a special voice.”
As a Chinese student whose self-esteem had been habitually battered by parents and schools and teachers, these hyperbolic remarks really lifted me up, and they warmed many other students, co-workers, and aspiring writers.
And Prof. Parker didn’t just talk; he made things happen.
Prof. Parker’s Personal Touch
I used to walk into his office just to go through individual poems with him. We read poems together, doing the close reading exercise on a weekly basis. When I couldn’t book a classroom for a tutorial, he phoned the university registrar immediately. I was highly amused by his not-so-discreet demand. “Hi this is David Parker, Head of the English Department. I need a classroom for my tutorial.” At the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, he even secured Seamus Heaney’s autograph for a PhD student who was researching on the poet’s work. I must admit that I was a little jealous.
As a student, I always trusted that it was ok to expose my vulnerability in front of Prof. Parker, because he’d listen, he’d understand, he’d dig deep, and he’d be bold enough to provide a vision. Not every teacher is willing to do that. He was so capable of finding the good, articulating the good, and bringing out the good.
Many times, I did question whether or not it was just a “Parker Persona”. I doubted if his faith in me was misplaced, and if I really had that writer’s voice. But a teacher’s faith is a powerful thing. When he died, I thought to myself: “I may never finish this PhD dissertation, but if I ever make my way back to education, I will try to extend his cause and life, hopefully in similarly loving ways.”
I think because he believed we were wonderful, we strove to be truly wonderful.
Before I bring this to an end, I’d like to share with you a secret “meeting” I had with him. It made such an impression that it stays on my mind.
2007. I was on my first job, living illegally in a public housing estate at Tai Po so that I could save money. Every morning at 7:00, I took the train all the way to Tsim Sha Tsui to teach. One day, as the train passed the Chinese University, I saw Prof. Parker jogging in a white T-shirt on Boundary Road. We were in complete parallel. Me on the train, he on the trail. I found myself waving at him involuntarily, although I knew he couldn’t possibly see me wave.
That unmet meeting, somehow, energized my mundane, miserable working day.
That meeting also makes me think that he’s probably jogging somewhere, joyfully learning something new, smiling about something nice, writing another magical book, and feeling our love for him.