Today was graduation. I teach 10th graders, so the seniors are nice kids I see in the hallway and sometimes tutor for the Regents, but not the kids I’d cry over. Except one.
I don’t remember how he learned that I speak Japanese, but sometime last year he asked if I would teach him. I was pleased (a chance to use something I really enjoy!) but skeptical (these kids don’t even show up for tutoring when the test means the difference between graduating or not graduating).
He showed up twice a week, every week, for the next two years. He learned two alphabets, all the colors, tons of nouns, verbs in the present and past tense, and conversations ranging from “How many books do you read a week?” to “Last night there was a loud party in Shinjuku; did you go?”
His parents weren’t thrilled. Japanese, his mother told me at parent-teacher conferences last winter, would not get him a job. Spanish would. And his grades in Spanish weren’t fabulous. I told her I would talk to her son about his academics, but if he wanted to learn Japanese in addition to his regular course load then I supported him. Kids should be allowed to study the things that interest them. I would have killed to learn Japanese in high school.
Two months ago he told me he’d been accepted to college with a scholarship, and that he’d be studying Japanese there. He’d already gotten email from his new Japanese professor. And he’d be studying abroad. It was required.
Last week I brought all kinds of Japanese junk food to school and we had a picnic in my classroom. He kept the bottle of Pocari Sweat to show his classmates. He was ecstatic.
Today, at graduation, his mother came up to me. “Are you Ms. A?” she asked. I said I was. “Oh, thank god. You’re the reason he’s going to college. You’re the reason he’s going to school to study Japanese. And you never charged him for the lessons or anything! My mother wants to meet you. So does his uncle. So does his cousin.” They took pictures. I was hugged by grandparents. Uncles and cousins and nephews all promised me that he’d email and let me know how college was going. I cried a little bit.
He hugged me — he’s about 6’6″, maybe 250 pounds. He lifted me clear off the ground. “I don’t know how to thank you, Miss,” he said. “I don’t know in English or Japanese.”
And I don’t know how to tell him that this is the story that will keep me teaching on days when I hate the students and I feel useless and angry, or on days when I find out one of them is pregnant and kicked out of the house, or on days when I have to tell a senior she can’t walk at graduation because she failed the Regents by two points.