Yesterday I was given a relief class. I covered a Japanese class for the Japanese teacher who shifted to another school last week. His replacement begins next term and until then his classes are being managed by a series of bewildered teachers. Five years of living in Japan means I can blag my way through junior Japanese without too many problems, but it must be fun for the other relief teachers.
The Japanese teacher worked at our school for around ten years. Everyone seems to be surprised by this fact. When I heard it I was surprised. I think this is because he quietly went about his business in a highly professional way without kicking up a stink or drawing attention to himself. He probably should have drawn attention to himself more. Every second year he took a group of kids to Japan for a field trip. The fundraising required over two years in a low decile school to make this happen is impressive, and managing the actual trip itself exhausting.
I went with him on the Japan trip last year. The teachers had to pay their own way and give up their school holidays. A draining process financially and mentally. Looking after students at school is one thing, but looking after them 24 hours a day for 14 days in a foreign country is quite another. Throughout he was calm, reasonable and highly organised. Every morning he would rise, go to the next room, and do Buddhist chanting for ten to fifteen minutes. In my experience in Japan this is not a very common morning custom, and it made me realise that I didn’t know this man very well. After that he would get ready to calmly marshal us through the heat and train systems to bring us to our next destination intact.
As I sat at his old desk in his old classroom and looked through his abandoned papers and textbooks I couldn’t help but feel sad. Institutions ask for loyalty (I think they do this to keep sick pay costs down), but there is no reason to be loyal to institutions, because they have no loyalty to you, not even the cursory loyalty of memory. The students in the class I covered yesterday had little understanding that their teacher had left, and that a new teacher was coming. Some of the students in his form class who’d had him as a form teacher for the last four years were even unsure what his name was (“I just called him Mister”). Institutions must perpetuate themselves through ritual and systems. There is no possibility of stopping the clock, or turning off the bell. Once the farewell speech has been made the system moves on. Without you.
You expend an enormous amount of yourself in the classroom. Some days you experience moments you will carry with you forever whether those moments are to be cherished or shuddered at. Yet when you walk into an empty classroom all you see is the dog eared student poster on the wall, or the scuffed carpet and desks, or the teacher’s desk covered in paper, and it seems that nothing of any importance could happen in a room like that. And at 3.30 the cleaners come in and wipe the windows, empty the bin and vacuum the floor. The only thing that lasts out of those rooms and the encounters that occur in them is memory, and that too wears out, cracks and finally disappears.
My father and my mother were teachers. My father wasn’t a teacher for a long time, but it was my mother’s career. Now I am a teacher. Something of myself, my mother and even my father exists I suppose through the memory of our former students. That “something” is probably very little in reality, and ever diminishing with the passing of time. This fact and the process of this gradual elision reminds me of a passage in Borges that has always greatly resonated with me.
Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder – and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death…. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
I felt that before I went much further with the story of the number one hits in New Zealand I should introduce some of the people in my family around the time that I was born, but this has proved to be harder than I thought it would be. I think this is because I have no memory of it. In fact it occurred to me as I looked through the photos interspersed through this post that three of the five people in them are now dead. Two of those that have died exist only very faintly in my memory, while the third lives on strongly. This makes it a hard thing to write about. It’s a little bit like having no memory of how you disgraced yourself at a party when you were drunk but getting told about it later. You were certainly there, but the moment only exists for you as hearsay. How do I get access to this time?
Well, I have been talking to my mother and thinking about my daughter. The expression on my face in the picture above with Gran reminds me powerfully of bathing Eleanor when she was an infant. Even though my daughter is now only two and a half years old it is still sobering to think that I will never hold her tiny little body in my arms again and bathe her as she was when she was two months old. More sobering still that she will have no memory of this time.
But I will remember it. Her specific weight as I rested her body along my arm, and the movement of her startled eyes as the water ran from my hand and coursed over her head back into the bathwater. And when it comes time, she will remember me, and carry me with her, just as, I suppose, some student, now old himself, remembers my father as a teacher, and just as some teacher remembers a former colleague who has left his classroom, and cleared his desk to move on to other things.