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.