Today was an emotional day. This morning, my school held a graduation ceremony for the Grade 9 students who will all move on and go to senior high school next month.
It was supposed to be a happy occasion but, for me, it felt like a funeral. I knew that after the ceremony ended, I would never see these kids again.
In seven short months, I’ve become incredibly attached to some of the Grade 9 students. I’m probably breaking some sort of secret teachers’ code by admitting this, but I have favourites. These are just a few of the students I will miss the most.
This is Kasumi. I liked her right from day one. My first week on the job consisted of little more than going from class to class to deliver a 20-minute presentation about my life in Canada. Some kids slept through the presentation, others seemed genuinely interested. But no one reacted with as much enthusiasm and curiosity as Kasumi.
She “oohed” and “ahhed” over every picture. She asked so many questions that the other kids started snickering every time her hand shot up in the air. But she didn’t seem to care that they were making fun of her. She had a rare kind of self-confidence that doesn’t come easily to most 15-year-old girls.
Kasumi was bright and clever and hilariously funny but she wasn’t a very good student. She failed most of her classes and had to take the high school entrance exam twice. Still, she was one of the few students who spoke English so well that she was able to hold a conversation with me. Unfortunately, she wasn’t tested on how well she could speak English. She was tested on how well she could memorize and regurgitate the textbook and there was nothing Kasumi hated more than studying.
Still, no one loved speaking English more than Kasumi. We’d talk in the staff room between classes. We’d talk in the hallways. We’d talk while we were supposed to be cleaning the school. We’d talk long after the final bell had rung.
We talked about boys and hairstyles and high school and music. She gave me a huge hug every time she saw me. She told me she didn’t get along with her parents and said she wished I were her mother. I told her that if I ever had a daughter I’d want her to be just like her.
I saw Kasumi for the last time this week. Just before I left school, I pulled her aside and told her she was smart and funny and beautiful. I told her to study hard at high school so that she could do whatever she wanted in life. I told her she would be amazing no matter what she did.
It was the first time I saw her without a smile on her face. She pulled me in for one last, long hug. My chest tightened and I could feel a lump rising in my throat. I knew if I didn’t get out of there that instant, I would dissolve into a sobbing mess.
So disentangled myself from her embrace and walked out the door. I was about 100 feet away when I heard her call out my name. I turned around and saw Kasumi waving at me from a window. I walked back. I gave her a few more words of encouragement. I took her picture. She tried to smile. I turned around and started walking away again. When I looked back, she was still waving at me. And then I rounded a corner and couldn’t see her anymore.
There were two mentally disabled Grade 9 students at my school. Takuya and Yuya had their own classroom and a special needs teacher. The other teachers took turns teaching them regular subjects like math and science and art.
I taught them English with a Japanese teacher a few times a week. Their level was pretty low so we’d usually just play games or do fun activities in English (like the time I taught them how to cook Kraft Dinner). It was a wonderful experience.
Takuya and Yuya were completely dependent on each other and their teachers, so there was a real feeling of warmth and love in the room. This created an incredibly positive learning environment. Unlike the regular classrooms, there was no academic pressure and no discipline problems. With a student to teacher ratio of 1:1, I had a chance to really get to know them.
It took a while for them to warm up to me but once they did their personalities came shining through. Yuya let me into his world of imaginary people. Sometimes when he was stumped on a question, he’d get down on the floor and whisper the question into the ear of an imaginary friend and then furrow his brow in concentration while he waited for a response.
Takuya was the class clown. He was always cracking jokes and Yuya was there to smack him in the head if he ever crossed the line (like the time he pointed out that my breasts were larger than the Japanese teacher’s). There were days when they were completely unresponsive and I wasn’t sure if I getting through to them. But they always seemed happy to see me and I was always happy to see them.
The boy on the left with the white gloves and the tongue hanging out of his mouth is Tomoaki. This is the kid who nicknamed me “nipples.”
I don’t even know where to start with Tomoaki. He made my life both a living hell and an absolute joy. He was the most exasperating kid inside the classroom but he was also the most fun kid outside the classroom.
He was a terrible student. The worst. But this wasn’t entirely his fault. Tomoaki was the star of the baseball team, which meant he could get away with murder. He didn’t have to take an entrance exam to get into high school. He didn’t even have to pass his classes. All he had to do was to show up and play baseball.
This meant that he had absolutely no motivation to do well at school. So he’d spend all his time in class sleeping or talking with his friends or yelling out “Nippluss!” from the back of the room. I’d march over to his desk and ask him to do something and he’d flat-out refuse. He’d wait until my back was turned and yell out, “I want you!”
But once class was over, he would suddenly morph into a sweet and charming boy who would pretend to be sick so that he could sit across from me in the staff room. His English was terrible but he liked to impress me with his vocabulary of swear words and dirty talk. While most of the other students were shy and reserved, Tomoaki would scream my name down the hallway.
After the graduation ceremony today, Tomoaki pulled me aside to shake my hand and say thank you. I was touched. I felt like he was on his way to becoming a mature young man. And then he walked out the door, blew me a few kisses and, with a mischievous grin lighting up his face, yelled out “Nippluss!” one last time.
Sigh. I really am going to miss these kids. Even Tomoaki. School just won’t be the same without them.