Three years ago today, my student Samantha Li died in a terrible car accident. She was a brilliant, original thinker and a warm, gracious, witty person. I was touched and honored to be asked by her family to be one of the speakers at her funeral and also at a concert held in her memory later that summer. I still think about her often. I wrote this post soon after the funeral service.
It seemed fitting to write about her on my blog because she was one of its earliest readers and the first (and still almost the only) one of my students to comment on it. That engagement, also reflected in the blog she wrote herself, was typical of Samantha: she cared about the books she read and the questions they raised for their own sake, not just as academic assignments. For her, the conversation neither began nor ended during class time; the page limits of an essay did not set the parameters of her inquiry. This could be challenging for her instructors: well after you thought you and she were done with something–after it was submitted or even graded–she might show up to discuss a new idea or example that she thought would make it better. She didn’t expect to get a chance to rewrite it: she was just still thinking about it. This is exactly what you hope for, of course, but it was often humbling to discover myself, amidst the rush of term, unable to sustain my own attention to her project well enough to respond as thoughtfully as she deserved. The best students inevitably show you your own limits. But with Samantha it was never about showing off, only about an utterly sincere desire to figure things out.
The English Department has established the Samantha Li Memorial Award, given annually to the student who in our estimation best reflects the same special qualities of literary passion, intellectual curiosity, and generosity.
July 17, 2009
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
One of my favourite quiet corners around here is a site called Escallonia Hedge. The name, as explained on the site, refers to the hedges surrounding the garden at Talland House, Virginia Woolf’s childhood summer home. Its author describes it as “a space through which things are meant to be discerned,” an opportunity for “trying to get comfortable with talking about texts in a comfortable but nonetheless what is called a ‘productive’ way. Maybe some dawdling along the way.”
I’ve read Escallonia Hedge since its inception. There aren’t many posts there, just over a dozen altogether, but every one showcases the author’s playful intellect and her delight in words and ideas. Here’s an excerpt, for instance, from a post on “Woolf and the Body”:
I have been thinking lately about Woolf and the body. Woolf is always thought of as being incredibly cerebral—which, no doubt, she was—but always to the point that I think there must be a popular misconception that she somehow rejects the body, does not think it important or take it seriously, just as there is the popular conception that she is somehow of a parcel with figures like T. S. Eliot, or how she must always and only be egotistical, when, really, she has one of the most sympathetic eyes ever.
Thinking about this I am of course reminded of a frequently cited passage in On Being Ill, on the body as a pane of glass:
“[L]iterature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes.”
It just occurred to me as I lay in bed this morning, procrastinating on my papers (actually, not wanting to face the world), that Woolf’s frequent use of metaphors of glass is connected to this. Why is it sometimes that these very obvious things take so long to process or register?
Here’s another excerpt, this one from some commentary on a collection of Woolf’s writings called The Platform of Time:
The satire “JB” I found especially striking: it’s full of very interesting nonsense. It reminds me of how I tried to write at one point because I couldn’t find a sentence or a sense-making group of words that expressed what I thought, only I was writing that way sincerely whereas VW parodies the practice as confusion and excess. The character VW tells the character JB to find a single “image” to express what he means instead of clumping together various descriptors, and then JB tries to figure out what an “image” (simile, metaphor) means! (What is its use; where he can find an example of one; how it’s no good because it’s not GE Moore-ish enough (“how can a thing be like anything else except the thing it is?”).) This in contrast to JB looking at a “male siskin under a microscope” in an effort to compose a poem “in the manner of Gerard Hopkins” (“The siskin’s been dead a week”):
“Seepy, creaking, sweeping, with a creaking kind of beating of the penultimate dorsal jutting out femoral crepitational tail. The siskin whisking round the peeled off mouldy bottle green pear tree rivers. Well, I flatter myself that’s a pretty good poem—all true to an inch.”
Then there’s a big fuss about finding an image for the siskin, which in the end is arrived at by what JB has for lunch: “The siskin lies like—like cold salt roast beef the siskin lies. My word—that does it.” It’s moments like this I feel like saying “Oh Virginia Woolf, you’re the best!” I think the interesting thing about that line “like cold salt roast beef the siskin lies” is that it sounds beautiful but is being a framed in a way that makes it silly, reaching, and untrue. This is always the interesting thing about Woolf’s satirical moments, I think, and why I would say “Oh VW you’re the best”—many of them are a mixture of a form of sympathy and ridicule. Like Samuel Johnson’s satire manqué.
The author, Samantha Li, graduated from Dalhousie in May with first-class Honours in English. She would have begun her M.A. in English at U.B.C. in September. Tragically, she died on July 11, in a terrible car accident. She was 24. Her funeral service was today; I had the honour of being one of those invited by the family to speak at this heartbreaking event. All of us who had the pleasure and the privilege of working with Samantha will always remember her questing intelligence, her self-deprecating grace, her vivacious warmth, and her kindness. She was much loved, and will be greatly missed.
The lines I’ve quoted at the head of this post are from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music.” As Samantha was also an exceptionally talented musician, however, it seems fitting to remember her with music as well, though unfortunately the available samples are not great quality. In this video, she is playing the violin; she is second from the left as we watch.
This is a fine tribute, thank you for sharing it with your newer readers. It is always tragic when one of your students dies. I have been in a similar situation to yours and also the almost even worse, when a student commits suicide. It is always terrible whether they had tremendous promise or not but perhaps as teachers we feel it the more when we have a real understanding of what might have been.
Just over a year ago one of our ex-students died of complications due to diabetes. Most of our graduate students had known her and they have set up a trust in her name to fund a student to come to Royal Shakespeare Company’s Summer School each year. They perform plays, do sponsor walks and provide cakes for our weekly seminar sessions. The first recipient will be coming to Stratford this summer. I cannot tell you how proud of them we are.
Thank you, too, Alex, for sharing your experiences. I think that as teachers we are bound to be particularly affected by students whose special promise we have seen and nurtured. It was striking to me that at Samantha’s funeral three of the speakers were her professors: that’s a reminder of how strong the personal connections can be in teaching–so much rhetoric about higher ed assumes that students are just numbers to us, or consumers, but in my experience that is very far from being the case. That’s a lovely idea, to fund a student to come to Stratford.