From our first meeting on, this had become our routine: I’d come to the class a little early and catch him rattling windows with his vociferous screeching and menacing other students…upon seeing me, he’d stop whatever he was doing, holler, “LOCO-SENSEI!” and run-jump into my arms, all hugs and an irresistible quality.
Having routines with students was not unusual. I have about a couple dozen students with which I have a greeting routine, many consisting of some variation of the pound or the pound hug. They’ve seen in umpteen movies that black people have some of the coolest handshakes and most of the students had memorized their favorites and were dying to try them on the real thing, you know: me. Some of these handshakes I recognize, and remember the movie, video or TV show that gave them international fame, but some of them were obscure. Some of them, when produced by a sixteen year old Japanese boy, surprise the hell out of me.
I’ve taught some of my students one of my all time favorite handshakes: The “Fresh Prince of Belair / Jazzy handshake.” They love it!
But, Matsui-kun simply liked leaping into my embrace, like a loving son might do upon his beloved father’s return from a prolonged business trip abroad, or a chimpanzee might do when his favorite trainer shows up with a tasty treat. I think that’s the feeling he might have tapped into…something paternal and protective, because when I saw him I was all cheesy grins and open arms.
Yep, he’d found my weak point and charmed the hell outta me.
His charms didn’t work on Takahashi-sensei, though. She saw right through him for the terrorist that he was. He was a non-conformist, something I found admirable but Takahashi called, “trouble” almost from the start. It took me a little while to see through my rose-tinted lenses, though. I was still seeing Spanky, not Damien.
But it wasn’t long before I saw the “666” birthmark behind his ear.
One day, a couple of weeks into the semester, he decided that English class was recess, the classroom was the playground, his classmates were his flock, and Takahashi-sensei was the Jungle Jim, the see-saw and the swings…almost metaphorically speaking. I mean, he didn’t actually ride Takahashi-san, not physically anyway, and his classmates weren’t exactly overly willing participants, but the rest is a non-metaphorical description. All learning or even pretense at learning basically ceased to happen.
I’ve been at this for a few years now but until this year I’d never had a class like this. My co-workers would tell me horror stories and I’d be like, “that happened in Japan!?” “You’re exaggerating!” “C’mon…that’s bullshit! Ain’t no student spit on the teacher…get outta here with that!’
At this point, I should mention that I don’t work for the school, but for a contractor the Board of Education hires to provide English teachers for the schools in their district. And, the company I work for has handed down certain guidelines regarding reprimands and disciplining students. And, to put it simply, the rule is: Don’t! Don’t touch them. Don’t scold them. Don’t even think about touching them or scolding them. It’s not your job. Leave it to the Japanese teachers.
My first year at the school, there was an isolated incident where one student who was being bullied by another finally had had enough and went after him, in the middle of the class, with a pair of scissors. As I approached the student with the scissors stealthily from behind, the Japanese teacher practically dived in front of the damn thing to stop him from slicing the other. The way he had thrown himself into the fray led me to believe that maybe the Japanese teacher’s guidelines say something to the effect of: in the event of an altercation, if there is blood spilt it had better be yours, or heads will roll.
So, when I walk into Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, and see Takahashi-san trying to go through the motions of teaching a class, almost on the brink of tears or collapse, while the class is going…well, berserk, according to my guidelines that come from on-high, I should allow this. But, fortunately, I didn’t have to, at first, because most of the students were a little intimidated by me. Either by my maleness, my height and girth, or perhaps even my blackness was a factor. All these factors conspired to keep these rascals in check. But, one day, it didn’t matter anymore. It only took me a moment to realize how I’d been neutralized.
Yep, you guessed it: it was Matsui-kun, with all his running and leaping and hugging he’d shown all who’d been intimidated that Loco-sensei ain’t nothing but a great big Teddy Bear. Like Poo-San (Winnie the Poo), only SUKEBE!
You gotta give him credit, though. He’s a bright kid. I watch him, sometimes. I watch how he manipulates the other students. One of the advantages of not being afraid to be in the limelight and having a very big mouth and no reservations about saying anything that comes to your head to anyone, students and teachers alike, is, in Japan anyway, you’re un-common. Damn near a working-class hero. Add to that he’s naturally charismatic with a Joie de Vivre, daring, funny… Yep, half the class was wrapped around his finger and the rest kept their mouths shut.
And, if challenged, he was merciless- before, during and after classes.
Last week, in the middle of my lesson, while I was getting the students to repeat some English phrases, Matsui-kun kept taunting another student, twice his size, sitting clear across the room. Telling jokes and making insults. Most of the class was laughing and the rest wanted to. At one point, the target of his derision said something I couldn’t understand. To be honest I can’t understand much of what they say- maybe 50% at best- because the kids speak in code and slang and sometimes the Japanese equivalent of Pig Latin, so it’s virtually impossible to catch everything unless you’re a thirteen year old Japanese student. But, whatever he said must have rubbed Matsui-kun the wrong way because at that point he got up, stood on his chair (he’s really short) and threw his pencil-case, with a little mustard on it, at the other student, who took the blow upside the head like he’d had it coming, his comeuppance for challenging Matsui-kun. Then Matsui-kun asked politely, at volume 10, for the student to return the case and don’t you know he got up and brought it back to him. Matsui-kun accepted it and thanked him with a nod/bow, like this was just the way it is and there was nothing either of them could do about it.
Then he looked at me. I’ll never forget his eyes that day. He was smiling that same 1000 watts of love smile he always shines on me, but his eyes…There was something there, like wisdom. Not like an adult’s wisdom, but definitely wiser than I feel comfortable with any child around me being. That look broke the bond between us, I think. At least for me it did.
The next day when he saw me in the hallway and came running, I side-stepped his leap. He landed on his feet like a cat, turned on me, and the smile was gone, replaced by something that was always there but somehow I’d missed it before; something dark and unforgiving and calculating. It was only there for a moment, just a flash of the real Matsui-kun, I think.
Then he turned away and ran down the hallway like the incident had never occurred.
The next day he threw something at Takahashi-Sensei…and I threw a piece of chalk at him.
“OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHH!” the entire class exhaled aloud. As shocking as it was for me to see something being thrown at the teacher, it was even more so for the reverse. Students looked like I had taken a dump on him. Their looks were so shell-shocked I actually got scared and thought, “Oh fuck, what have I done now.”
Takahashi-sensei turned around from the board at the sound of the students and asked, “What? What happened?”
None of the students said anything, Not even Matsui-kun, So I said, “…I’ll tell you later.”
And you won’t believe what happened next…
to be continued…