Natsumi and Yuki
Natsumi is a sannensei at one of my schools. By now I’d known her two years, since she was an ichinensei. One thing I couldn’t help but notice was her wit – she could keep up, and many times even outwit me. So it was always a pleasure talking to her in the hallways. The other thing that made her really memorable was, one day early on she asked me to teach her a regular American greeting. (I think the kids kind of know “Hi, how are you?” “Fine thank you, and you?” is a little too stiff.) I thought about it for a moment, then settled on the casual guy greeting “Yo.” Complete with the slight hand raise and casual look on one’s face.
Every time I saw Natsumi, she would give me the “Yo” along with the hand motion. It was hilarious, because at first she was trying really hard to get it right, so I’d get the “Yo” (coming from a 12-year old Japanese girl, this is already funny), but then she’d also have this serious look of determination on her face as she did it. Later on, she got the hang of it, and became more natural. Well, as natural as she’s going to get anyway.
Yuki is one of Natsumi’s friends. They’re both in the brass band, and were in the same English class as ninensei. Yuki is one of those girls who finds everything funny. She is just always laughing, and she has a laugh that is especially loud.
This year, I wasn’t teaching Natsumi and Yuki’s English classes. Their teacher was busy with many other things and didn’t have the time to plan team-teaching classes. One day I was going to the bathroom from the teacher’s room, and I ran into Natsumi and Yuki heading back to class after running an errand for the teacher.
“You never come to our class.” Yuki pointed out.
I told her I really wanted to, but it wasn’t up to me, and it seemed the teacher had many things to do.
“Well then, come now.” This wasn’t so much a request as it was a warning. Yuki took me by the arm and more or less lead me back to class. There wasn’t anything for me to help with, so I simply took a seat behind Natsumi and joined the class. While they took notes on the English content, I took notes on the Japanese content. Yuki, of course, laughed a lot. I asked her what was so funny, but she couldn’t stop laughing long enough to actually tell me.
The week before Spring Vacation, I ran into them after school as they were getting ready for band practice. They asked me if I had any plans for the break, and I told them I was going to go back home for a week. They said it sounded good, and asked me to bring them back souvenirs. They weren’t entirely serious about it, and I knew that, but I told them I would. Why not?
One day before I was to go back to Japan, I made it a point to stop by the pier in San Francisco and just pick up a few trinkets for the both of them. Just a few small things, some pens, a friendship bracelet, a little trolley car, things like that. It only took me 15 minutes to find that stuff, and all in all it cost less than $5. I happened to be with my parents, and mentioned I was doing souvenir shopping for two of my students. My dad stepped up and said that kids love t-shirts (dad is currently a high school teacher), and I should get them some San Francisco t-shirts. I told him that was probably overdoing it a bit. But he said if I didn’t want to do it, he’d do it… just tell him a size and a style, and he’d buy it. I still thought he was overdoing it, but I picked out two shirts.
I returned to Japan, and a few weeks later went to Natsumi and Yuki’s school. I ran into Yuki again one day after school as she was preparing for band practice (come to think of it, she doesn’t do all that much playing… just wanders around, talks to friends, and laughs a lot). Yuki asked me about the souvenirs. I told her I’d brought them back, did she want to get them? Yuki was shocked. “Really? You really brought back souvenirs?” I told her yes, and suddenly Yuki was beside herself. She got so excited, she even started to hyperventilate a bit. She managed to calm herself down, and ran and got Natsumi.
They came with me back to the teachers’ room. First I gave them the little things I’d picked out, and told them it was from me. They were thrilled at the various little trinkets. “You know, we didn’t actually expect you to bring back souvenirs,” Natsumi told me. I told her I knew. Then I explained that when I bought them, I was with my parents, and my dad wanted to send something as well. I told them the next gift was from him, and then I gave them the t-shirts. They were completely floored by it, and exactly as dad said, they loved it (it took me over twenty years to realize that dad is usually right). They again thanked me, and made me promise to extend their thanks to my father as soon as I could. They ran off, still in shock and marveling at their souvenirs.
The next day, I was wandering around again when I ran into Yuki. She told me she was going to go visit relatives in a remote area of Japan pretty soon. “That area has lots of stuff it’s famous for,” she pointed out. “So…what do you want?” Huh? I didn’t quite understand. “You brought us back souvenirs from San Francisco. So I’m going to bring you back something from an area of Japan maybe you don’t think to go.” I told her it was okay, I didn’t want or expect anything in return. Yuki crossed her arms, matter-of-factly. “No no. I AM bringing you back something. What do you want?” Oh, well then. I said I really didn’t know. She told me they made some kind of famous coffee cake down there, and asked if that would be okay. I told her it would, but that she really didn’t have to.
Later, I was in the teacher’s room when I heard a soft voice calling my name. I looked up to see Natsumi poking her head through the door, waving me over. “Here,” she said simply, and gave me an envelope before running off. Inside of the envelope, written on four leaf clover stationary inscribed with the message, “I have a feeling that it’s going to be a good day,” was a letter.
Thank you for the souvenirs. I’m really interested in them. Tell your father thanks as well.
I really thought I’d write this letter in English, but I have no ability in English so it became a Japanese letter. Next time I’ll try to write it in English.
I’ve had a lot of talks with you since around when I was a ninensei, huh? From now on let’s continue to talk often.
When I go on the school trip, if I can buy you a souvenir I will. Look forward to it.
Well then, see you again.
She also included a card with her cell phone email on it, and wrote “If you ever need anything, please email.”
Before coming here, I had no teaching experience, so I can’t really claim to know what I’m talking about or even say I’m a good teacher. I can’t claim any psychological expertise either, despite often being the go-to guy for friends’ deep personal problems). But believe that in life, we often need someone else to validate our existence. We know we exist, but one of the hardest things to do is to look at yourself. Sometimes, we need someone else to say, “I see you. I recognize you.” It was an issue I’d been struggling with myself at that time, especially in a country where everything is one big in-group, one that I will never fully join simply because I wasn’t born Japanese.
In schools oftentimes it’s easy to get caught up in the bad students, trying to reform or save them, something like that. Or even get caught up with the exceptional students, always praising them and marveling at their abilities. I try to recognize everybody. Every kid may not stick out, they may not be a problem child or a prodigy, but they all deserved to be recognized. I don’t think that a kid should be overlooked just because he or she is doing what they are supposed to do.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but me bringing back souvenirs to Natsumi and Yuki was my way of telling them, “You’re more than just a name and a number, a seat in a class, another kid in a uniform. You’re an individual, and I see you.” In return, Natsumi and Yuki validated my existence, showed me that I’m more than the guy who comes to their school every few weeks and teaches them English. I may not be able to bring back souvenirs for every kid, but the very least I can do is pay attention to them… from the girl who likes a boy who already has a girlfriend, to the boy who is annoyed with the badminton club’s constant gossiping, to the girls who would rather go home and read their comic books than go to cram school.
This is my way of saying thanks, by the way, to Moeko.