This is just another letter from one of your many adoring fans who will miss you something terrible. I’m not one of those screaming, fainting fans, though I can certainly understand how they felt. In fact, I had totally taken you for granted while you were here in the physical form, as a force of nature no more mortal than a cyclone. And, I didn’t realize the depth of the feelings I held for you until the news of your death reached me here in Japan.
I was at work. I had just finished teaching a class and I received a text from a Japanese friend of mine informing me that you had passed. I read the message, looked around and read it again, and looked around again. I couldn’t believe it. Why? Because the world was still spinning on the same axis it had been before I read it, and teachers in the teacher’s office were still making out like they were busy, or were laughing, or sipping green tea and chatting with one another…all normal. Nothing to indicate that the world as we know it had been drastically changed, that a life force such as yours was no longer in it.
So, naturally, I knew my friend must have been mistaken.
Then, I checked the Internet and on the MSN homepage, just like hundreds of other famous deaths over the past years, there was the news of yours. The headlines were the normal fare, with just enough warmth to remain impartial and informative yet show minimum consideration for the millions of visitors who may have been, like myself, in shock. I clicked absently on a few stories…all mentioning “King of Pop” (which for some reason feels and sounds like a slur to me now,) and of course the scandals, within the first paragraph. After I read the word scandal I couldn’t read them any further. I wasn’t around when Marilyn Monroe passed away but from Elton John’s song “Candle in the wind” I knew how it must have felt for the people who loved her. I couldn’t think of anything but you… I hoped the media had jumped the gun like when they’d called the 2000 election for Al Gore before the Florida count was in. Maybe you were on some operating table doing that magic that only you can do and giving the Grim Reaper second thoughts about taking you.
I turned away from the monitor to the teachers’ office and I saw that the television was off. Not like when the Swine Flu had landed in nearby Kawasaki, or when Japan was playing the USA or Korea in the World Baseball Classic…and it made me feel alone. I figured none of them knew yet. I could hear you singing in my soul, You are not alone… I hummed it in my heart like a silent musical vigil as I made my way to the Vice-Principal’s desk…
“Can I turn on the TV for a moment?”
The vice-principal never understands my Japanese. I had figured he had some kind of mental block against understanding Japanese when spoken by a non-Japanese person, something that is quite epidemic here. But, this time, he understood.
“Why, what happened?”
Another teacher chimed in, “Oh, Micheal Jackson passed away.”
I was shocked! Someone knew! In fact several teachers knew and several didn’t. All looked at me as if I might give them some hint as to how they should feel about this news. One turned on the TV and started flipping channels. No breaking news, no banners racing across the top or bottom of talk shows about food and quilt making.
“I’m sorry,” one teacher said to me, like you were a friend of mine or a family member. Usually this kind of thing would irk me. Reminiscent of the slew of congratulations I received when Obama was successful in his coup d’état. But I somehow felt it was appropriate at this moment because I truly was beginning to feel like I had personally suffered a terrible lost. I kept flipping through the channels, telling myself this is a good sign, for naturally your passing would be big news everywhere in the world, and Japan, at least news-wise, is on this planet, most of the time.
The bell chimed for the next class, which I was due to teach and had totally forgotten about.
“Shit!” I snapped, grabbed my lesson materials and ran up the four flights of stairs to the classroom, arriving just a little late. I looked out over the faces of the children, huffing and puffing from my exertions, and was reminded of what you must have encountered on your many visits to this country: a sea of adoring Asian faces, crying, screaming, fainting, etc… My children, though some are still adoring, were anxious about the test they were about to take.
They stood and bowed and grumbled “onegai shimasu” as is the practice at the beginning of a class here and I bade them good morning and asked them how they were doing.
“Fine, thank you, and you?” they replied in unison.
The Japanese teacher, who had been in the office for the news, and probably had an inkling how I must’ve been feeling, for my eyes unfortunately tell my whole story sometimes, looked at me anxiously, probably wondering if I were going to kill the mood in the class by announcing that I was upset.
“I’m fine, thank you very much,” I responded to the kids to the Japanese teacher’s obvious relief.
Everything was so ordinary in the class. It felt so unnatural. You might be dead, or dying. The Japanese teacher had to repeatedly remind me of the role I’ve been playing for the 3 years we’ve been team teaching now I was so distracted. While the students were taking the test I sat on the teacher’s desk and watched them. They probably hardly know who you are, I thought. With visions of Arashi and Exile dancing in the heads, You would be just another strange American pop-idol, if they even know that much. The Japanese teacher knew though. In her mid 20s, she was just old enough to know about your plastic surgeries and the child molestation charges and your strange eccentricities…no, she wouldn’t understand my feelings, either. This lack of understanding seemed to surround me and then collapse upon me. The loneliness of it all hit me sharply. I had no one to share my feelings with. You were dead…I knew it, suddenly, like you had confirmed it to me, and I turned away from the class and faced the board…and I cried. The Japanese teacher was beside me and asked if I were ok. Her eyes were filled with concern for me…nothing for you, Micheal. You touched so many people, but none in this room. I didn’t want to cry there, not amidst those who wouldn’t understand.
“I’m ok,” I told her, and wiped my eyes with my sleeve. I turned back to the class. they hadn’t noticed a thing.
Towards the end of the class we began an exercise but I couldn’t focus. I kept contemplating a world with no you. You’re words kept bouncing around inside my head. A song got trapped in my mouth. It was “Beat it.” I started singing right there in the class…The kids in the front few rows could hear me. They looked up from their note taking and listened.
“Whose song?” one girl, Harumi, asked, bobbing her head, clearly enjoying it.
“Micheal Jackson’s,” I said. “You don’t know Beat it?”
She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. You were awfully big in japan, but of course she wouldn’t know of you, I thought. My god, the song is older than her, by more than a decade. Still, it’s so incredible to talk to people who don’t know you or at least your work. I might as well have been talking about Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Little Richard, Chuck Berry or Chubby Checker.
We use English songs in class quite often so the kids are used to singing in English. But usually the Japanese teachers choose the songs and they invariably use songs that the kids are familiar with already, either from their use in famous commercials or popular TV shows. Thus they are familiar with Karen Carpenter, The Beatles, Queen, George Micheal and several others.
But they don’t know beat it.
Just singing it made me feel good. And the students somehow sensing and acknowledging your magic made it feel even better, suggesting to me that even if you had been born in this time you would have still been the greatest ever. My grief dissipated for the moment and I started doing some of the more basic dance moves from the video. When the Japanese teacher caught me dancing she was aghast but the kids loved it and upon noticing their glee she relaxed. Some of the wilder kids got up and tried to do your moves, too. Some knew them better than me. They didn’t know you, but knew of your moves. Maybe they’d filtered down to some J-pop band or maybe they knew Usher, or something. They didn’t know you were dead, either. To them, you were alive. They could see you in me. You touched them through me!
…to be continued