Thursday, May 10, 2007

And then my heart broke

A 12-year-old boy broke my heart today.

I was teaching the alphabet to a class of seventh graders when it happened.

I was calling out different letters at random. The students had to listen and then write the correct letter down in their notebooks.

Halfway through, I got to the letter “P.” I had already repeated it three or four times when Takuma, one of my favourite students, waved his hand in the air and yelled, “Mo ikkai!” ("Once more!").

A boy two seats behind him leaned forward and hissed, “Baka” ("Moron"). The word sliced through the air like an arrow, hitting Takuma square in the back. In a split second, he went from being a bright and bubbly boy to an utterly rejected one. The smile disappeared from his face and, to my complete shock, he started crying.

He just slumped over his desk, head in his hand, and cried without making a sound. He looked so hurt and so despondent I was almost in tears just watching him.

“Oh, kid,” I thought to myself. “I know exactly how you feel.”

The Japanese teacher marched to the back of the class and scolded the offending boy. I’m not sure what she said but it must have been pretty harsh because he sat like a dog with his tail between his legs for the rest of the class. She gestured for me to just keep going.

So I continued calling out the letters of the alphabet, stealing the occasional glance at Takuma. But he just sat there listlessly, tears sliding down his cheeks.

It broke my heart to see him so upset. He’s such a loveable, happy kid. He’s always so enthusiastic and excited about everything. He’s goofy and dorky and hopelessly uncool. His shirt is tucked in a little too tight. His pants sit a little too high on his waist. He doesn’t spike and layer and style his hair into place like the other boys do. He’s more of a child than they are. He’s retained an air of sweetness and innocence that makes him such a joy to be around. But I suppose this is the same thing that makes him a target too.

It was heart-wrenching to see him retreat into himself. To see the light in his eyes grow a little dimmer. I felt like I was witnessing him battening down the hatches for the coming storm of adolescence.

I wanted to give him a hug and tell him to hang in there. I knew a small act of kindness could make a big difference. But I didn’t want to embarrass him or draw more attention his way.

So I waited until the kids were busy working on a homework assignment at their desks. Takuma had stopped crying by then but I leaned over his desk, put my hand on his back and whispered, “Daijoubu desu ka?” ("Are you okay?")

He didn’t look me in the eye and he didn’t say anything. He just nodded his head once to let me know he was fine.

I walked away thinking, “Well, that’s it then. We’ve lost a sensitive child and gained a sullen teenager.”

But then Takuma did something I wasn’t expecting. He bounced back. Not because of anything I said or did but because he was more resilient than I gave him credit for. He came skipping over to me after class, as enthusiastic and dorky as ever. I felt a whoosh of relief as he excitedly talked about his favourite video games and did I like Metal Gear Robot (or something like that) and could he please, please, please have a Canada sticker.

I think he’ll be okay. It just might take my heart a little longer to recover from the shock of seeing him cry.

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