Jasper sat on the hard floor, his back very straight and his chin up. He hoped that if he looked confident and proud, like all the other boys, that no one would notice his tattered uniform, the patches that his grandmother had stitched in so that he could still use it. No one would guess his grandfather had sold their land to pay for his first year at this school.
One year. All he had was one year to prove he was one of the best. Then the school would let him continue to study without having to pay. He could become a soldier of the imperial army. If he didn’t make it, he’d be sent home.
The teacher’s footsteps sounded at the back of the room. Jasper didn’t turn his head, but kept staring straight toward the front. The man came in sight, his robes gently brushing the smooth wooden floor, the small white top-knot on his head bobbing solemnly.
When the man reached the front of the room he turned and looked out over the students. Jasper tried to blend in, to be like the others, for now. Soon he would want to be standing out, but not today, not when the only noticeable distinction was his poverty.
“I want you to close your eyes,” the teacher said.
Good, Jasper thought. Less chance for others to see that I’m wearing a second-hand uniform.
“Your mind is like a great, empty plain. Dry, packed earth baked under the sun. When the rains come, the water has nowhere to go. It spreads itself in an insignificant, shallow pool and then soaks in and vanishes.”
Jasper wrinkled his nose, trying hard to make a picture of a desert plain drinking up rainwater.
“Now, you stand alone in the midst of this plain, with nothing but a single, small twig. I want you to dig a mighty river, so that the water may flow swift and strong. How will you do it?”
No one answered.
“How will you do it?” the teacher raised his voice. “Tell me?”
Jasper imagined himself standing on the plain, with nothing but a tiny stick in his hand. What to do, to create a whole river with just the scratching of a stick? It seemed impossible.
But he began. He drew a line in the dirt, one single line. The water rushed in where his stick had made its mark, digging it deeper. He made the line longer, and longer, and the water followed, flowing, growing stronger. Like an irrigation canal at grandfather’s farm.
“HOW WILL YOU DO IT?” the teacher shouted.
Jasper stood up. “Sir, one stroke of the stick will channel the water, and then little by little the channel will grow.”
“YES!” the teacher said. “Your mind is like this. You will make small strokes, and your thoughts will follow. The rivers of your mind will grow and deepen, until they become a mighty current of action and power. You will learn the ways of the sword, stroke by stroke,” the teacher cast aside his robe, drew his sword, and performed a basic motion. “Until you can do this,” the motion became a whirlwind, a twirl, a flourish, a flip in the air.
The class gasped, awed.
“Any of you has the power to become a master,” the teacher said. “It will all depend on where you draw those first, simple lines in the desert of your mind. Now, get up! I will show you how we stand.”