A Death in the Family
While cleaning my room, I found an old memo distributed to the schools in Kyoto Prefecture. It noted that two students had been killed in separate bike accidents, and urged teachers to stress the importance of bike safety onto the students. The Japanese are big on anonymity, so the students were identified only as “Student A” and “Student B.” “Student A,” a Junior High sannensei, was biking home, when he crossed an intersection at the green light. A driver turning right into the intersection, entirely too fast, slammed right into him. He was thrown off his bike and landed hard on his head. He was rushed to the hospital, but nothing could be done.
The memo gave no further information about Student A, but I know who Student A was. He was one of my students.
I remember going into work that day. I had barely made contact with the chair at my desk when the principal came over to tell me that one of this school’s students had been killed in a traffic biking accident. I was shocked. Other teachers came into the teachers’ room with their usual cheery “Ohayo Gozaimasu!” only to have someone rush over and inform them of the news. I watched as their countenances instantly changed, much as mine must have.
There was an assembly that morning. The ichinensei and ninensei entered the gym solemnly, some in tears. Then the sannensei came in, and they were all in tears. The principal explained what happened, and stressed the importance of bike safety. He urged every student to please take care when going home today, and every other day. The students were dismissed, but the sannensei and the sannensei teachers stayed behind for an additional talk. I’m not a sannensei teacher; I don’t belong to any year grouping. But my legs didn’t feel like taking me out of the gym, so I stayed behind.
The head sannensei teacher, your typical Japanese male, tried to get up and give the “Let’s all do our best in the face of adversity” speech, but he couldn’t get three words through it without choking up and crying almost uncontrollably. Although I’d heard the boy’s name, it wasn’t a name I was familiar with. I scanned the sannensei, trying to find familiar faces, trying to figure out which one was missing. After the speech, the sannensei were dismissed, and they left the gym in a virtual daze. One girl however was completely wrecked. She was a crying mess on her knees, and just simply couldn’t be moved. Two of her friends tried to get her to stand, but they didn’t really have the heart for it either, so they just fell and cried beside her. I later found out that this girl was the boy’s girlfriend, and that he had been riding her bike at the time of the accident.
Afterwards, I quietly mentioned to the principal that I didn’t recognize the student’s name, and asked to see a picture. He took me into his office, pulled out the class photo, and pointed out the boy. It was a familiar face. He wasn’t one of the students I regularly talked or joked around with, but I did remembered having class with him. I was saddened at the loss, absolutely, but unfortunately I didn’t feel the loss quite like the other teachers and students did. I felt guilty for not even knowing his name. In a country where we are defined literally as “outsiders,” this was a moment when I felt the most outside.
This unfortunately wasn’t my first experience with death in school. When I was a high school freshman (same grade level as Japanese Junior High sannensei), one of my classmates accidentally shot himself in the head with his father’s gun. The next day at school, before I even heard the news, something just felt wrong. He wasn’t one of my friends, but we were classmates. That day everyone just kind of drifted through the day in a daze. Many people returned home, and counseling was available for those who couldn’t.
He was in my 7th period science class. I’d been dreading it all day. When I got there, the teacher echoed my sentiments. Very few students actually went to that class. At first some people shared their favorite stories about him, which eventually turned into a discussion about death and mortality. And everyone avoided looked at the empty chair. Now, 10 years later in Japan, I’d have to relive that day.
I thought the students might be sent home and classes cancelled. Instead the day proceeded as normal. When one of my English teachers tried to discuss the sannensi’s lesson for the day, I stared back, probably with disbelief all over my face. “We’re still going to do the sannensei’s class?” She looked at me blankly and said yes, as if I’d asked something as obvious as, “What color is the sky?” She explained that we’d be playing a consumer game, where the sannensei would pretend to buy and sell various goods. I prepared myself for what I figured was going to be my worst class. Ever.
The sannensei were as I expected them to be – stunned. One boy, a friend of the victim, just stared off into space. I couldn’t imagine trying to do a fun game activity… but that’s what I had to do. I went to the front and explained the game, without my usual animated movements and theatrics. I just wished the class would hurry up and end.
Much to my complete and total surprise, the students really got into the game. Dare I say, enjoyed it even. They milled about, carefully buying and selling goods, and figuring out the best way to manage their money. The boy who had been staring off into space…he and his group were rather good at it. They had amassed quite a monopoly, and at one point more or less kicked back and exploited the market for every penny. Kids were smiling and laughing.
In fact, by the afternoon, things were completely back to normal. Kids ran and shouted and laughed in the hallways. The teachers went on about the weather or sports or whatever other pointless banter would fill the air. Even the head sannensei teacher, who could barely choke out his speech earlier, was smiling and joking around as he always does. The difference between that morning and that afternoon was so stark that I almost felt as if the morning never happened, or I’d somehow ended up at a different school without noticing it.
While in class, I said to my English teacher, “Wow… I wasn’t expecting this game to go over well at all, but it looks like they’re actually enjoying it.” She turned to me and said, “Yes…it’s much better to see their smiling faces, isn’t it?” It wasn’t what I’d expected. I expected crying and mourning and grief all day, as I had experienced back when I was their age. It had struck me as strange at first, but then my English teacher’s words came back to me – their smiling faces are much better. Why shouldn’t they be smiling?
Later in the week, my English teacher came over to me at my desk. “We were supposed to have English fourth and fifth period,” she said, “but we’re going to have to cancel fourth because the sannensei are going to the boy’s funeral. But they’ll be back in time for fifth, so we’ll play a game.” …Great, I thought at the time. Upon going to the class, I found the boy’s girlfriend sitting in the back. …Even better. But much like before, they got right into things, and were smiling and happy. In particular, the boy’s girlfriend really wanted to win. Even the group of boys who don’t particularly like English, and tend to sit back, cross their arms, and give the bare minimum, somehow managed to be good at this game and were winning. My English teacher used a few subtle ways to cheat and give the girls’ group the victory. “I really wanted her (the boy’s girlfriend) to win this one, and those boys always have a bad attitude,” she’d said later. The girl seemed absolutely thrilled to have won, even though there were no prizes awarded.
I asked some Japanese friends about this later, and they said it was just the Japanese way of dealing with death. Life goes on. The victim wouldn’t have wanted them to be sad all day over his death. They find comfort in returning to their everyday lives. It doesn’t mean that the boy is forgotten, far from it. It’s more like, a respect of the life he lead, by continuing to lead it. Much like many other aspects of this country, it was something I had a hard time understanding…but this time I got the feeling I didn’t really need to understand it.
When I think back to that day, I remember the boy who could only stare off into space, and the girl who couldn’t even pick herself up off the floor, but then I also remember them smiling and happy, laughing with friends, playing games and having fun. I like the latter memory much better. And I think that’s what “Student A” would have wanted too.