On the very last day of school this year, we held the closing ceremony for the school term followed immediately by the send off ceremony for all the school staff who wouldn’t be returning for the school year. To say good-bye and thank you to the teachers who were leaving, many of the 6th graders who had graduated in last week’s ceremony came back with their parents to give gifts to and take even more photos with these and other teachers. I sat off to the side, watched the speeches, and at one point got a tap on the shoulder.
A round faced girl who had just graduated handed me a small envelope. “Thank you!” she said. I’d given here a small gift, a copy of the original Winnie the Pooh stories in English, as a graduation present.
It was mostly a gesture, rather than a reading recommendation. Her English isn’t native level. But, her sister’s was.
Normally, I give students who stand out small tokens of my appreciation when they graduate. But, those are typically letters and stationary. I’d only given this girl the book because she’d mentioned, over a year prior, that her among elder sister’s prized possessions was a set of books I’d given said big sister nearing her own graduation years prior. I’ve been at this school for almost half a decade. I’ve seen many siblings grow up and graduate. I’ve called big brothers by their little brothers’ names by accident. Kids come and go, but this girl’s older sister is a girl I can never forget.
It was my first year at this school that I met her. I instantly took notice. For the first part of the year we held English class in a side room near the music room instead of in the regular classrooms. Each class, students would bring their books and pencil cases and sit at long, college style tables. Unlike the assigned seating of a regular classroom, kids got to sit wherever they wanted in English class. Boys clustered near the back, girls in their cliques. But one girl, one round faced girl with a very pink wardrobe, always seemed to sit alone.
I know she wasn’t entirely alone in her school life. She had friends. Maybe it was just English class. She was what they call a “Returnee” or “Kikokushijo”. She’d spent a formative part of her life abroad and spoke native English. She was a regular Japanese kid, who was also a regular American kid. And, when she first made small talk with me, her American accent was like birds song to my ears.
It’s easy to guess that her level of English was intimidating in English class. But, she never resented coming to class. I tried to dote on her, to praise her, to thank her for her participation. I felt like nothing I did was ever enough. I wanted to give this poor girl the world. But, I settled on a handful of notes, a few books, and once, a pack of gel pens. It was a hard year for me. The school’s curriculum and scheduling were all over the place. I did not give her or her class the same level of teaching that I am capable of now. But, she was never critical. She was always kind. She always played the games, did the activities, and joined in the conversations.
But that was years ago, right?
It wasn’t until her little sister mentioned it that it even occurred to me that the memory of me might have stayed with this girl. Her sister was too young during their time family’s time abroad to have the perfect bilingual tongue big sis had picked up. But, she had the same gentle nature and round face. I waited to open the letter she’d given me after the ceremony was over and the students had gone home.
The stationary was appropriate. AnnaYuki! With my pale skin and braided hair, I’ve been compared to Elsa from Frozen since the film came out in Japan. The gift was appropriate, too: A pack of pencil lead in a case with my favorite character from the anime the 6th graders were all into this year. I did that magic trick where, despite being an adult, I was able to name all the characters on the nerdy girl’s folder that one time and from then on they knew. Teacher is one of us!
But the letter hit me like a ton of bricks. The top half of the page was sweet, simple Japanese from little sis thanking me for the book. The bottom half was big sis, basically on her way to high school, chiming in.
The last line of her note was:
Please come to my school!
I mean it’s a joke. It’s a silly teasing line. Lots of kids come back from the endless busy work and spelling tests of junior high English class and tell me they miss my classes where all we did was chit chat about ourselves using the grammar pattern of the day. Not quizzes! No homework! Awesome!
But it made my heart ache. She graduated years ago. She’s a teenager now. She’s well on her way to her awesome, adult life. But, she still had it in her to grab her baby sister’s note to teacher and teasingly invite me, the bumbling teacher who never did nearly enough for her, to be her teacher again.
And then I thought about the other, sweet girl who I had given a graduation gift to. Her family hadn’t spent time abroad, her family was, at least in part, foreign born. I had done the same for her. She had written me letters to practice her language skills, and I had always quickly, joyfully written back. The first time I heard her name, so different from her peers’ names, I praised it’s beauty and uniqueness. She repaid every bit of kindness with kindness of her own. And I hope that in three years, when she, too, is on her way to high school, that she can look back and say she had a nice teacher. I hope she, too, can look back and say she had a teacher who saw her differences for the strengths that they were. I want so much for them and their futures.
I beg of you. Take care of your students. Especially the different ones.
I’m the foreign teacher. Students who are touched by “foreignness” always seem to be shoved toward me by their peers, whether they choose it or not. I have always and will always give them the praise, adoration, and reverence they deserve. You should, too.