Mata, ne?

After school I drove around to the creek.  I’m not really sure why I wanted to go.  I suppose I wanted to see if it would make sense if I went there.

It was a little after three when I pulled my car to a stop on the dead end  street.  There were some primary school students walking  home.  The creek is really a long, deep ditch with grassy banks and  wide paths running down either side.  It goes in a straight line past our school, and  then between  the school fields and the houses on the other side.  Lots of kids walk up it everyday to get to school.  From my classroom window I see people strolling  past, walking  their dogs, or students  who have slipped over the fence to wag.

I got out of my car and walked down  to the creek.  I was  surprised  how close our school was.  I could see our playing  fields and the back of the gymnasium.  Looking  the other way I saw the primary  school kids wandering  along  the path away from  me, and then,  across the creek, on the grass next to the bank,  a small white cross with your name on it, surrounded by flowers.

***

Two years ago I went  on the school trip to Japan with about 15  students  and  two other teachers.  It was the first time  that I had  been back to Japan since  I left in 2003, and  I was excited to be heading  there again.  I was especially excited to be able to show Japan to students  who were so keen to see it.  The first night of our trip was spent in a hideous motel in Auckland,  and  the kids were so excited.  They roamed between each other’s rooms banging doors and laughing  too loudly until the  other guests inevitably complained.  For the guests I suppose you were annoying teenagers disrupting a good nights sleep, but you had my sympathy.  How many times in your life are you 14, or 15, or 16 years old and away from home, and about to get on a plane to an  exciting, exhilarating place on the other side of the world?

Which was my feeling  most of the time on that trip: how wonderfully excting  it can  be to be young.  Most of the students on that trip reminded me of that almost everyday. 

Modern,  urban Japan  simply teems with life  and commerce.  It assaults you, and  in the summer it assaults and  the heat saps you.  There are so many people, and so much  noise,  and so much to look at that the eyes begin to almost ache at it all.  So it didn’t  surprise me that we had our first melt downs at the train station  in Tokyo before we had even managed  to get to our hostel for the first night.  Japan can do that to you.  I suppose it was then, standing  in  the middle of some  underground  concourse  surrounded by suitcases which were already falling apart, and  tempers that were already starting  to fray, that I began  to get to know this group of students, and to appreciate them.  It was a group of students with a good spirit, a good heart, but I also realised how young some  of you were, and  how big this place was, and that I needed to keep my eye out for you.

And of course you were  there.

I can’t talk  about the whole trip because it would take too long, but  I’ll never forget our visit to Harajuku.  There is a large park there, and around  the park there  is a path, and all along the path bands set up on  the weekend and  play.  Crowds of people come and watch them.  It is for the young, and  it is nothing like New Zealand.  Absolute masses of people cram through the paths and the park dressed in the most outlandish fashions,  listening to the most outlandish bands, and you wander  around  disorientated by  the roar of the music,  and  the press of people, and the smell of the stalls selling  hot food – little skewers of meat  splashed  in sticky sauce,  or wafers of crepes scraped off hot plates, or shaved ice in  cups coated in lurid flavoured syrups.  I stood with the students and watched one band  who were pretty good, and  were putting everything into it, and I looked at the silent,  admiring  faces of our students  and  I envied them their youth,  and  all its intensity of feeling.

Of course with that intensity of feeling comes some bad things.  The anxiety about what other people think, and trying  to fit in, and worrying  about how you look.  A lot of these anxieties were what caused our students  to rub each other the wrong way some times, and when that happens you need  people in a group who will be a friend to the isolated, and not mind  about fitting  in.  I think that was one of the things you brought to our trip.  Sometimes when one person  in our group was being isolated you would spend time with them, and give them  a friend when  everyone else wanted  to make them  an enemy or an outsider.  As a teacher unsure how to act with the shifting allegiances of a group of teenagers I appreciated this quality in you, and admired it. 

At the time I also noticed that you seemed unhappy about things to do with your appearance, but that you generally treated yourself and your anxieties in a humorous way.   That stuff is the bad  stuff about being a teenager.  The insecurity and not knowing who you are.  I think you learned a lot about yourself on that trip.  You absolutely threw yourself into school life while you spent  one glorious week as a student  in a Japanese high school, and the girls at that school loved you.  Some of our students struggled with this week, and  were happy to get it over with, but you thrived and  embraced every challenge.  You were the one who came out of this and wanted more, and vowed to apply for an exchange to Japan.  I remember being pleased that you had loved it so much.

And  I remember talking to you last year and you telling me you weren’t going to go after all, and I felt a bit sad.

***

This is the only good photo I took on that trip to Japan.  We are at a famous Zen  rock garden  in Kyoto.  Before we went in I told all our students  that this was a special place, and that people came here to look at the garden and think.  Our students were good.  They sat on  the edge and  looked at the garden and  were silent.  Some of them were moved, and  one girl – thinking  of home and all the problems there – began  to cry.

You’re in that photo too.  I don’t have many photos from that trip with you in them, but when  I look at them now you always seems to be apart from the others.  Apart, and perhaps a little unhappy, although this is may be just a quirk of the few photos I took, and isn’t a true reflection of how you felt.   In either case, I’d like you to know how grateful I am that I met you on  that trip, and how much of a pleasure it was to see such a fine,  caring  person  respond  to such a challenging and stimulating  culture.

After the trip I saw you round the school and said hello.  I saw that you had changed,  and  I saw that you seemed  more comfortable, more at ease with yourself but,  of course,  still – now more than  ever – the outsider. 

The warm, funny, well-liked outsider.

***

It didn’t explain  anything.  The creek.  Little spots of rain fell in it, and on  the bank below the white cross the grass  had  been  squashed flat.  I looked at the paper flowers, and  the real ones that people had brought.  I looked at the corrugated iron  fence  covered in tagging  and  the primary school kids further off now down  the path.  It was quiet for awhile.  Birds singing  in the scrub,  sweet and unseen.  My heart ached dumbly for something, but  in the end I just had to go back to my car, and drive home.  All the long way home.