Friday, March 23, 2007

The Departing

Yesterday at lunch I said to New Sensei, "Today the students will find out which teachers are leaving?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Why is it a secret?"
He thought a few moments before a lightbulb went on. "Ah. It's because if the students find out before then, maybe they will be confused, and ask the teachers many questions."
"That's a bad thing?"
"Mmm.... I don't know," he smiled uncertainly.
"I'm leaving in July. Should I keep it a secret from the students?"
He wasn't sure, and said he'd have to ask the principal. Okay.

This morning I attended the closing ceremony for the school year, and the farewell ceremony for the teachers at Nita Junior High School who will be leaving. Tonight I'll go to the farewell enkai for the Yokota Junior High School teachers. A list of all the teachers in the prefecture who are transfering has been published in the newspaper. The teachers here at Nita JHS keep returning to the coffee table to peruse the list.

I have a much shorter list.

Kawasumi-sensei: She's been the special ed. teacher at Nita JHS for six years, from the time her son was born. He just graduated from the kindergarten that I visit—he's tall just like his mom. She's being transfered to Akagi JHS, where she'll be a gym teacher (which she is also qualified to do). Signe told me about it first. Akagi is Kawasumi-sensei's hometown, which is convenient, cos she can crash at her parents' house if she goes to an enkai in town. She will continue to live in Nita, though, and make the two-hour round-trip commute each day to Akagi. I like her because she talks to me. (Seriously, that's all it takes.)

Tatebayashi-sensei: The home ec. teacher at Nita JHS, she got married a few months ago and changed her name from Ishihara-sensei. She's a few months older than Ms. Chipmunk, and popular with the students. (She was voted "Cutest female teacher" by the third-year students at last fall's culture festival. Ms. Chipmunk was second-cutest, and I came in third. The competition was stiff, and I feel no shame in placing after them.) She's being transfered to Yasugi First JHS, which is much closer to where she lives now with her husband in Yonago. I like her because she talks to me, too.

Yoshida-sensei: He's one of the gym teachers at Yokota JHS, and is being transfered to Kamo JHS. When I first started doing "Emily Corner" (my twice-monthly lunchtime music broadcast... thing), I had no feedback for a while, except from Toothpaste Maniac, saying that I oughtn't begin doing student interviews by interviewing the most popular girl in the school. ("I only asked her cos I knew she'd say yes!") But about three months into the routine, Yoshida-sensei caught me after Emily Corner. "Nice DJ," he said, and smiled. I was so relieved.
He also suggested that several teachers, myself included, get together at some beer garden in his hometown of Daito—he also said we should invite the junior high school ALT in Daito. Nothing ever became of that, to my knowledge, but it's the thought that counts, right?

Hamaoka-sensei: A kind, quiet fellow, the art teacher at Yokota JHS, he's being transfered to Daito JHS. When I returned to school after summer vacation in September 2005, I thought I saw a heavy cloud about him. I found out a few days later that his kindergarten-aged son had died that summer after a lengthy illness.
That winter I attended the year-end party with the Yokota JHS teachers. We played some games—mostly variations on Bingo—but the categories got too difficult for me to keep up. (Japanese War Generals?!) I was frustrated and feeling ignored. But Hamaoka-sensei spoke up and said, "These games are too difficult for Emily; she can't enjoy them with us." He talked them into changing the next category from "Japanese Prefectural Capitals" to "US States." In that moment, I loved him.
At the following year-end party (just a few months ago) he was in charge of preparing the games, and they were all games I could participate in. Well, not the beer-tasting one—I had to drive home—but I got to watch my teammates as they got every single beer wrong. I should write more about that enkai later; it was the best one I ever attended.

Moriyama-sensei: The other gym teacher at Yokota JHS, he's being transfered to Nichahara JHS in Tsuwano, which is about as far as you can get from Yokota and still be in Shimane. Also known as Kool-Aid Man, he has a gift for self-deprecating humor. He's one of those powerful personalities who can change the very air of the room just by being there. His desk was next to mine for my first two years, and he was a good neighbor. In the spring of my first year, he was absent from school one day. I recognized the kanji for his name on the chalkboard in the staff room (mori means forest, yama means mountain; they're both simple kanji). I asked one of the other teachers why he wasn't in school. "His wife is having a baby," she said.
"What? I didn't know his wife was pregnant."
That afternoon he stopped by the school. His wife had delivered a healthy baby boy, and Moriyama-sensei was the most peaced-out man on Earth. Sunshine and calm radiated from his face as he showed us the photos he'd taken with his cell phone. He returned to his old Kool-Aid Man self a couple weeks later, but I'll never forget seeing him that day.

Satoh-sensei: One of the science teachers at Yokota JHS, she's moving to Matsue Fourth JHS. She became my new staff room neighbor after the desks got shuffled around last April. I hadn't really talked with her much before then, but she struck me as being fun and down-to-earth. We used to live in the same apartment building, when I lived in Nita during my first year. By the time I left that apartment, her son (in sixth grade at the time) had learned to recognize the sound of my car, which I parked near their door. He'd often poke his head out the door when I arrived or left, and say "Konnichiwa." When I told Satoh-sensei, she laughed and laughed.
I'd learned enough Japanese by the time Satoh-sensei's desk got moved next to mine, that I could make simple conversation with her. I found out that her family had moved to Matsue, and her son (whom I'd expected to see at Nita JHS that spring) was going to school there instead. Sometimes I'd ask her questions about a kanji, or to remind me of the name of that teacher over there. The language barrier was still very present, but we talked about normal stuff, not "What Japanese food do you like?" or, "Do you own a gun?" She treated me not like a foreigner, but like a woman, like a human being. I'll never forget her kindness.

Ikeda-sensei: Toothpaste Maniac is being transfered to Izumo Second JHS. One of my JTEs at Yokota JHS, I thought she was kind of stiff and formal when I first met her. It wasn't three weeks later when she confessed to me that, when she was living in England, she accidentally bought a can of dog food in an effort to find some variety in her diet. (She hated her host mother's cooking.)
I really like her sense of humor. When I found out when her birthday was, I e-mailed her the day before to invite her to dinner the following evening. I knew she was always busy, so I said, "If you say, 'I don't have time,' I will say, 'Well, everyone needs to eat. We can have a short dinner.' If you say, 'I have a date with Johnny Depp,' I will say, 'Okay, that's a good excuse. When is a better time?'"
She replied, "My darling, Johnny Depp is waiting! I want to say it like that, but the reality is so severe." There was to be a PTA meeting the following evening, which made dinner out impossible. But she was very happy that I'd invited her to dinner, and we made a rain check for a couple of weeks later.
We had dinner at each other's homes a few times during those first two years. She encouraged me to stop thinking that everyone only thought the worst of me, and I really felt that I'd found in her someone who understood what I was going through, as a foreign woman in a foreign country. This last year she's been so busy with all the responsibilities of a homeroom teacher of a third-year class—supervising their internships around town, helping them apply to the senior high schools they want to go to, making sure they're prepared for the entrance exams (and I don't know what else, but it's universally accepted that third-year homeroom teachers have the hardest job)—we've not had a proper conversation in ages. I tried to be patient, to allow this year to finish so that she'd have more time again... but now she's leaving. And it's breaking my heart.


Saturday, March 17, 2007


Friday was a really bittersweet day.
It started on Wednesday, when I found out that five of my favorite teachers from Yokota JHS are being transfered to other schools at the end of the month. Worst of all, Toothpaste Maniac is one of them. I was at the post-graduation enkai Wednesday night, sitting next to the school nurse, when Kool-Aid Man came by, and the nurse got him to tell her which teachers were leaving. It was still very hush-hush at the time, but some of the teachers talk, apparently. I half-listened to him list the names, and when TM's name came up, my heart froze and cracked. She's been at Yokota JHS for three years, so she's fair game for a transfer, but three years is the minimum; I'd been hoping she'd still be here when I left in July.

When Kool-Aid Man left, I asked the nurse to tell me what she'd been told, in case I'd misheard. But I hadn't. After she subtly pointed out to me the departing teachers around the room, she made me pinky-swear to keep my newfound knowledge a secret. What exactly she meant by secret, I don't know. (I shouldn't tell anyone who didn't already know? Or I shouldn't tell anyone that I knew anything at all?) Right after that, we watched a powerpoint quiz/presentation in honor of the teachers who'd taught the third-years this year, which lasted at least a half an hour. I didn't really understand it, and my heart just wasn't in it. As soon as it was over, I went over to TM's table, sat down across from her, and poured her some tea.

"Where are you going?" I asked.
The room was noisy, and she didn't hear me completely. "Going? What do you mean? When? What?"
"WHERE are you going?" I repeated.
She paused. "Who told you?"
"Kool-Aid Man thinks my Japanese is worse than it really is. He didn't know I understood him." I didn't tell her about the nurse.
"You overheard."
"Yes. Where are you going?"
"To Izumo."
"Izumo!" I cried. Izumo is over an hour's drive from Yokota. The only good answer would have been, "To Nita Junior High School," but I knew that was unlikely.
"It's not so far away. And I think you're leaving in July, right?"
"Yeah... but I wanted you to be at my farewell party."
"Mmm. What about you?" she asked in what was probably an attempt to distract me. "What will you do when you return to America?"
"Sou desu ne? I'm not really sure, but I'm thinking about going back to school to study Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages."
"Where will you teach?"
"Well, presumably America, but if I want to teach in Japan I have to learn to speak Japanese very well. My Japanese must be better than your English! I'll have to talk with parents and attend meetings in Japanese."

We chatted a little longer. She said she'd hoped to stay at Yokota JHS for six years. "Two cycles," she explained. During the three years she's been here, she's been a homeroom teacher for the first-years, second-years, and third-years, in that order. I said she'd probably be happier in Izumo, since she doesn't really like the rural life. "But you live in Shimane-ken. Zannen!" My half-hearted attempt at cheer.

I sat forlornly opposite her for several more minutes, as the principal came by and talked with TM and the teacher next to her, Kalamazoo (I'll explain the nickname later). When the principal left, TM waved her hand in front of my face to stir me from my reverie. "Don't be so serious," she laughed. I smiled miserably. I didn't know what else to say, and there were other teachers who wanted to talk to her, so I returned to my seat.

These five teachers have been at Yokota JHS since I first went to the school in August 2004. I've gotten to know them, they've gotten to know me, and there's no longer any of that cross-cultural proselyzation between us. We're cool. When I think about them leaving, which is all the time now, I feel sick to my stomach, and so cold and lonely inside, like I'll never have friends again. Friends, "friends," and they all ... leave.

Friday morning TM was off at some area high schools, picking up the entrance exam results for the third-year students who had taken the exams there. I asked W-sensei if I had any classes with her. "No, I don't think so. I didn't prepare anything," she said with a guilty smile.
Kalamazoo overheard me. "Can you come to my class second period?"
"Oh! I didn't know you had any classes today. Of course!"
The first-year students are memorizing the months of the year, and ordinal numbers used in dates, so Kalamazoo had prepared an activity that involved asking other people about their birthdays. She used me as an example before we started the activity. "What's the date today?"
"It's March 16th."
"Emily, when's your birthday?"
"It's March 16th."
We smiled at the students, but most of them were either thoroughly unimpressed that it was my birthday that day, or hadn't understood us (I couldn't be sure which), though a couple kids looked puzzled, like they thought they'd understood, but weren't sure. So Kalamazoo asked again, "When's your birthday?" I repeated my answer, and this time the lightbulbs flickered on over a few more heads. "Emily no tanjoubi? (Emily's birthday?)" one asked. And then they all applauded politely and wished me a "happi baasudei."

Back in the staff room after class, W-sensei handed me a small stack of spelling tests to correct. "Oh, a birthday present?" I said. "Thank you!" She's used to hearing me wish her a merry Christmas when I hand her a stack of corrected papers, but this one caught her off guard.
"Hm? When's your birthday?"
"Oh! Happy birthday!" A couple other teachers nearby also wished me a happy birthday. And later, while I was helping the nurse serve lunch in the staff room, Kool-Aid Man (one of the five) caught wind of the birthday news, and made a small announcement, shouting, "Mina-san, kyou wa Emily no tanjoubi! (Everybody, today's Emily's birthday!)" I tried to shush him, but everyone was clapping by then, so I stopped trying, and just acted embarrassed. But really I was happy.

The afternoon was hard. I've recently learned how to make origami roses, and they're kind of complicated, so the teachers I think were genuinely impressed that I could make them (instead of being fake impressed, like they are with my mad chopstick skillz). I made a couple roses. I used my one metallic gold sheet and made a rose for the science teacher who sits next to me (another of the five). She thanked me, and thought briefly about where to display it. I had a massive headache from trying to keep my eyes from watering. Friday was my last day of the school year at Yokota JHS. I cleaned up my desktop somewhat, throwing away old newspapers instead of giving them to the art teacher (another of the five), cos, what's he gonna use them for now? He won't want all that paper to bring with him to his next school. When I left at 4:40, the staff room was maybe half full. Forcing myself to speak through the huge lump in my throat, I managed to eek out an "osaki ni shitsureishimasu," for the last time to the teachers who will be leaving, and they replied "otsukaresama deshita" for the last time to me, and I hurried out of the room, down the hall, and down the stairs to the entryway, where I couldn't hold back the tears any longer. I cried all the way home, keeping my head down so passers-by wouldn't wonder.

I couldn't just stay home and lie in bed like I wanted to, though; I'd already told my supervisor that I would attend a retirement party for Cheeky Supervisor (the First), who had become the Big Cheese last year. I seriously wanted to call and say I wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be able to go to the enkai, but I do like CS, and didn't want to miss this opportunity to say goodbye. I tried to cool my eyes with a wet washcloth, but they were too red and puffy, so I just went to the Board of Education as I was. Jo (formerly New Girl) noticed, but I couldn't tell her then why I was upset without getting upset again. CS noticed, too, but I started talking before he could say anything. "I heard you will become a Buddhist priest."
"I'm becoming a Buddhist priest," he corrected me.
"Oh really? I'm surprised. You're such a silly guy."
"Silly guy? What?" He sounded genuinely shocked. I thought he'd known!

The enkai was held in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area outside of Matsue. Jo and I rode up together with my former supervisor, and spent most of the time at the enkai talking with each other. About halfway through, I saw out of the corner of my eye someone pull a cake out of a box. Cakes are not typical enkai fare, so I got suspicious, but ignored it in case I was misunderstanding its purpose. But a minute later, New Cheeky Supervisor (the Second) got up and made a short announcement, which went roughly like, "This is a retirement party, but there's another event today, too." People were like, huh? NCS continued: "Today is Emily's birthday." Everyone was impressed and sang Happy Birthday to me, and the designated photo guy even got a shot of me blowing out the candles—all in one puff. It turned out that Jo had told NCS that it was my birthday, and NCS took it upon himself to arrange for a cake. It was really sweet of him, and I was glad I hadn't backed out of the enkai.

Three hours later, when I was back home and away from everyone again, without distractions, I just as miserable as I'd been when I'd left.

I know that this is not the end of all happiness in my life, and that this pain that's so raw will heal. But right now I don't give a damn about the future unseen. I just care about what I'm losing.