Saturday, March 17, 2007

Birthday

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?"
"Today."
"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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Happy Belated Birthday

Emily Watkins said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Heidi said...

Emily, happy birthday! Your last couple of posts have been excellent, and this particular one made me tear up a bit. I hope you find who and what you're looking for when you change lives again.

Emily Watkins said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, and thanks for the compliment, too. I hope I haven't been too maudlin lately. I need to write more about my students... they're so good at cheering me up.