I didn’t like the way he looked at me. Not at all.
It happened yesterday. I mentioned in a previous post that due to graduation ceremony scheduling, I had to choose between schools. It was a difficult decision but I chose school B. It was only a one-day re-scheduling however so yesterday I returned to school A. I was half-hoping to get another chance to say goodbye to the departing seniors, but they were long gone. Only 2nd and 1st year students were in school.
When I sat down at my desk, Kawaguchi-sensei handed me a number of cards made by some of the 3rd year students I was closest with. Two in particular stood out for the effort put into them. They were from Yuki-chan and Midori-chan, two of my faves. They’d written how much they’d enjoyed my lessons and adored me, etc… As a teacher and as a human being, it was very heartwarming stuff.
“Yasashii deshou? (sweet aren’t they?) she said.
“Sou da ne…” (Yes, they certainly are.) I replied. “Samishikunaru.” (I’m gonna miss them.)
With no third graders to teach, I only had a couple of lessons. And, since the 2nd and 1st graders have already finished their textbooks, I decided to prepare a few games. The 3rd year teachers were sitting around trying to look busy so I thought to enlist one of them to help me, just for the hell of it. I was making a version of the game show “Jeopardy” where the kids have to answer questions from various categories, the points they receive depended on the difficulty level of the question.
Yamamoto-sensei is one of the 3rd year teachers. He is one of the reasons I stopped underestimating Japanese people. We have worked together for three years now and only this year did he reveal he spoke English. And I mean we’ve had painful conversations in Japanese during the past three years. Conversations where his English ability would have resolved issues in a fraction of the time. But, he kept this ability to himself. I’m not even sure if the other teachers are aware of his English ability. He uses it so rarely it seems. Nor am I certain of the reason why, or even why he’d decided to let me in on it. When I’d asked him, he did what I’ve found a lot of Japanese people tend to do when they don’t want to answer a question: He laughed and pretended I hadn’t asked it. To follow-up, to push for an answer, would have been rude on my part.
However, there are a couple of patterns to its usage I’ve noticed. For instance, he never uses it when any of the other teachers are involved; only for one-on-one conversations.
Otherwise, he’s a pretty cool and straightforward guy, though. Bald, sports a goatee, dresses really fashionably for his age and, being the Kendo teacher, he’s in damn good shape. Not to be fucked with is written all over his posture. He sits erect with muscles flexed sometimes like he’s posing for a cover shot for Fifty-five and still Fit and Fabulous Magazine. One other thing really outstanding about him is he has no problem making his opinion known, strongly; even during meetings . One time, to my and everyone else’s utter surprise, he got into a heated exchange-during the morning meeting-with the principal. Yamamoto was unhappy with something I couldn’t catch at the time and all but through a chair at the Principal. Sometimes he’ll suck his teeth or make other disruptive noises like knuckle cracking or heavy sighing when something he doesn’t agree with is said. You can’t imagine how rare this kind of thing is. It’s beyond taboo. It’s outcast-worthy shit.
Yeah, it’s safe to say I took a liking to him.
Though, otherwise, he is a typically kind, helpful and jovial guy, the other teachers are pretty damn cautious around him and always speak very deferentially; including the vice-principal.
Anyway, I recruited him to help me put together this game…and he was very helpful. With very little on his plate, he spent an entire period helping me, in English, make questions. I didn’t really need his help. I just like to socialize with the teachers sometimes. As a foreigner, aside from the English teachers, the other teachers have a tendency to shy away from interacting with you, and sometimes it can get to feel a bit isolating. Like working in a silo. In an empty room, that’s no problem, but in a room buzzing with 35 people interacting freely with one another and excluding you for whatever reason, it can get to be a little oppressive. After a while, you realize that this exclusivity is not necessarily derived from malice but simply from habit or convenience on their part, and that the onus is on you to take the initiative. And if you do you will seldom be refused. So, occasionally, to ward off loneliness, I do.
Around that time I heard familiar voices at the teacher’s office door and wheeled around to see Yuki and Midori standing there waving so excitedly to see me. After going through the protocol, they beckoned me to the door.
They were dressed in street clothes and I realized that in three years I’d never seen them dressed so. Yuki looked the way I imagine Hello Kitty would look if she had a blue fairy like Pinocchio who turned her into a little girl. And, Midori, well…she had future Hostess written all over her outfit: Mini-skirt high on her thighs and a cleavage accentuationg blouse. Like she couldn’t wait to get out of that uniform, and had probably burned it right after graduation.
I wanted to hug them but for some reason I felt reserved. I had hugged them both last week, along with a bunch of other students, but somehow this time felt different. Japanese people don’t instinctively hug as much so the two of them they just stood there quivering with joy at getting this chance to see me. Apparently Kawaguchi sensei had explained my absence from the graduation and that I would return on Monday, so they’d come to the school especially to see me.
So, there we were in front of the teacher’s office, smiling awkwardly at each other. At least I felt awkward. I didn’t know what to say.
That’s when Yamamoto appeared at the door.
They were both previously in his home room and upon seeing him locked heels and transformed into obedient, dutiful students. It was kind of creepy to watch.
“What are you two doing out of uniform?” he snapped at them, like they were still students of his, which I imagine they will be for life if his tone was any indication. They half-smiled assuming he must have been joking and the punchline would soon follow.
Then, he looked at me.
And he had a look.
A look that suggested some kind of impropriety on my part. At least that’s what I took it to mean. But I’ve been wrong so many times. The looks and body language of Japanese people, while there are some similarities to my own, there are also many that look similar but have entirely different meanings.
“You shouldn’t be on school grounds out of uniform,” he said turning back to them.
They, then, realized that he was not playing with them and that they had done something inappropriate, in his eyes at least. And they were filled with so much shame. At least that was the body language they let on: heads downcast, pitiful demeanor.
I wanted to slap him upside his head a little less than I wanted to get them out of the building to go on with their lives outside of his jurisdiction, so I led them towards the door. He spun on his heels and went back into the office.
The elation of the moment was gone, but good. They bowed deeply and repeatedly and apologized for causing a problem for me. I told them they had caused nothing and not to worry even a little. I thanked them for coming to visit me, and to show them that there were no hard feelings on my part whatsoever, I gave them both big affectionate hugs.
They left nearly in tears.
When I went back into the office, all the teachers were looking at me kind of oddly. I figured Yamamoto must have mentioned to them what had been going on in the hallway outside the office. He was sitting there at his desk, eyes glaring, muscles flexed, blue veins tight in his neck…
…and that look.
I wanted to say, “Motherfucker, I can’t help it if your students liked me more than they liked you…!”
But, all I said to him, in English, so that all the teachers could hear, was “Your students are so kind! You did a really good job with them.” And smiled.
He just sat there, trying to pretend he didn’t understand me.
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