For my violin teacher who lived through Hiroshima (2009)

There are many things I will always admire about Mr. “K.” Like having the energy to teach “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for over twenty years to anyone from giggling preschool girls to rambunctious adolescent boys to middle aged men. Or the patience to keep teaching them every week even when students like me began stealing glances at the clock every five minutes begging for the lesson to end.

But the first time I sat in his living room, a few things impressed me. The first was that Mr. K threatened to disown me as a student if I ever did not practice enough. His stern expression should have sobered my enthusiasm but I was distracted by how music ruled his living room. Violins and posters of violins eyed me from their posts on the wall while biographies of famous violinists sprawled across the room. Sheet music overflowed from bookcases and more violins, a cello, and a grand piano nested on the floor. I almost expected my violin to come to life like in a Disney movie and play itself for me. So I dismissed his threat and became his student.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I never did practice. And it showed; in one youth orchestra, the conductor demoted me to the viola section. Yet, Mr. K never did expel me. Then one day during a lull in our lesson, he turned to the patio window and asked me, “What is passion?” I had no answer. Figuring he finally had surmised I had none for the violin, I started to stutter I had no idea what passion was but then Mr. K began to tell me about his passion.

Mr. K’s life ended and began with the atomic bomb. His father, brother, and best friend dead, his fortune gone, and his body destroyed by the blast, he awoke a teenage boy lying in a hospital bed with every excuse to die swirling about him. And that is what he wanted to do. But one day wandering outside the hospital confines, he heard the hum of the violin and knew he must live. The violin cut through the wreckage cluttering his life and reminded him he “did not know the real beauty in life yet.” He committed himself to learning the violin persevering through economic uncertainty, health problems, and even when he could no longer afford a teacher. The violin became for him a communication with purpose, passion, and God. I thought of everything he triumphed over to play the violin, and I felt a bit silly letting a fear of sore shoulders and an addiction to TV be barriers to my violin playing.

But I also remember feeling jealous. Suddenly, the scars on his neck that I always thought were a result of playing the violin too much became testament to a passion I knew nothing of. As much as I did not think the violin was not my passion, Mr. K’s story also told me that I would never know unless I tried and kept trying even through the mistakes. Sitting in his living room, counting the trophies of violins Mr. K had worn out hanging on his wall, I could not help but feel like I had squandered a great opportunity.

The following year, I escaped across the country to college and stopped visiting his living room. However, by my senior year of college, I found myself back sitting in Mr. K’s living room to profile him for a course project. During the course, I had written mini-biographies of revolutionary leaders, champion athletes, and other public figures, but for my final project, I wanted to write about Mr. K in the same way. I wanted to write about his glory, his societal impact, and his legacy. The thing was that I could not even explain his impact on me. I wanted to explain his greatness through my own, but I guess all I could do was explain my mistakes. In my confusion, I began my paper likening my violin lessons with him to some sort of draconian torture. Needless to say, my professor confirmed my suspicion that it was not my best work.

The next time I was home, I visited Mr. K again. Staring at all the well-practiced violins and my essay on him, I could not help but feel like his living room was becoming a dumping ground for all my failures. After eight years of torturing his ears with my playing, you would think the least I could do was write something to validate all the grief he endured. Instead, I made him be the violin dungeon master in a homework assignment; I might as well have made him the dog that ate my homework. I wanted to explain, but Mr. K would have none of it. He just poured me a cup of tea and encouraged me to keep writing. We spent the rest of the time talking like old friends. I was shook by his faith in me.

When I heard Mr. K passed away, I spent a great deal of time trying to think of what to say about him. I struggled because I wanted to make Mr. K proud by talking about the successes I had achieved because of him. I felt ashamed because my relationship with him is clouded by some of my greatest regrets and mistakes. But then I realized Mr. K never was as ashamed as I was of my mistakes. Whether it was picking up his violin when I faltered in a lesson, embracing me after my disastrous senior recital solo, or insisting I continue writing even after my sensationalist memoir of him, Mr. K never was afraid to be there when I failed. He made me less afraid to stumble. And in my life so far, I think that might be what I consider my greatest source of pride.

Mr. K was a remarkable man. He survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb. He learned the violin from scratch as a teenager recovering from radiation poisoning. He moved to America and built a comfortable life for his wife and sons. He lived in Los Altos Hills. He taught scores of students how to play the violin with passion and effort. He lived life with an uncommon grace and wisdom. His legacy is filled with success.

But for me, he will always be a man who was not afraid to associate with failure or encourage a mistake if only because he wanted me to keep going, keep trying, keep practicing even if I was never ever to do any of those for the lessons in his living room. I never learned his lessons as well as I should have but I always appreciated them. I can only hope that one day I can be so important as to pass his lesson on to someone else.

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