Josh Muggins's Blah Blah Blah


December 13, 2010

The Gift of the Maki


When I find myself in the mood for some nostalgic wallowing, the Christmas season of 2001 is not a period that I choose to wallow in. Small wonder, considering:

  • I was but a year and a half removed from a very spirited attempt to kill myself (as documented in my first memoir) and, while I had resigned myself to remaining in this world, I was still plenty cranky about it.
  • Mrs. Muggins was quite justifiably playing the divorce card on me at regular intervals.
  • Teaching at NU, I usually took refuge in class whenever Real Life got too sticky, but this year had brought me the worst classes and the most inept students I would face in my seventeen years there.
  • Oh, and there was the matter of the whole planet’s having been plunged into gonad-tucking terror and uncertainty a mere three months earlier. That certainly did nothing to brighten my season.

Friday, December 21, was the last day of regular class before the holiday break; and although the fall semester would run on for another month into the new year, the university had designated some days during that last week of December for makeup classes. I had not missed any classes that semester, but I scheduled a full day of makeup classes for the 24th—Christmas Eve—simply because so many of my students had fallen so woefully behind in their work that they would not be able to pass their required English courses if left to their own devices.

So this special Makeup Day was not for everyone, but would be an invitation-only affair. Indeed, I printed up actual invitation cards, using one of those faux-cursive fonts: You are cordially invited to attend a full day of tedious extra assignments, and so on and so forth, replete with Christmassy clip-art. In the preceding week I had doled them out, leaving behind me a trail of delayed-reaction whines and groans as the recipients digested the contents.

My journal entries from this period make much of my tremendous generosity, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice in arranging this opportunity for the doomed to improve their fate. Most of my colleagues, I felt (and quite accurately, I think), would simply have let all of them fail. In retrospect, however, I suspect that my primary motivation was to avoid being alone at Christmas, for this was a period of aimless drift and self-loathing and loneliness, of astonishingly self-indulgent and self-destructive behavior that I had not yet been able to face up to.

The invitation list included freshmen and sophomores; it included those failing English Reading, English Writing, English Speaking and Listening, English Muffins… Boys and girls. The attractive and the plain. Virgins and sluts, dweebs and lotharios. There was even a hint of ethnic diversity in that the half-Thai girl Prangrat got a card. So did Ayako. And Maki. And of course, those Three Stooges of first-year Level 2: Ken, Kenta, and Hideeeeeeo, along with many lesser lights who no longer linger in memory.

They were told to arrive in the computer classroom that I had reserved for the day by 9 a.m., so of course most of them trickled in after 10. Since the types of classes they were failing were so varied, I had prepared a vast array of tasks of every type to parcel out. The concept was simple: Each failer was to remain in the room until he or she had somehow earned enough points and burned enough calories to justify my giving him or her a passing grade.

What most of these parceled-out tasks were, I can no longer remember. All I do recall is that the largest contingent in the room consisted of those failing Writing, and each of them was given one major assignment to complete: a typed, five-paragraph persuasive essay on the theme “Why I Deserve to Get Credits in Spite of Being a Lazy and Worthless Human Being.”

In typically Japanese fashion, nobody visibly bristled at the insult implicit in this assignment. And only one writer took umbrage at the proposition in his essay. I don’t remember who he was. One of those Peter Lorre-type individuals—you know, you don’t despise them, but if you gave them any thought, you probably would. The first paragraph in his body, grammatically cleaned up, went something like this:

First of all, I’m not a worthless human being. And I don’t think I’m lazy, either. All right, I couldn’t do some of the assignments, but that’s because I have my part-time job five nights a week and my parents don’t give me any allowance. If you think I’m lazy, I can’t do anything about that, but you have no right to call me a worthless human being!

I gave him some helpful hints and made him clean up his grammar, and then let him go.

Kenta, as was his wont, cheerfully misunderstood the assignment and wrote a five-page essay about something completely different. I put him through a couple of revisions until the logic of the thing wasn’t quite insane and then let him go, too. By mid-afternoon, the writing contingent was down to Hideeeeeo and Maki.

The reader may have forgotten that Hideo Nomo’s breakthrough in American Major League Baseball was still fresh in everyone’s mind during this period, as was the parody of “The Banana Boat Song” that, much to Nomo’s chagrin, followed him everywhere he went:

Hi-deeee-yo! Hi-de-yay-yay-yo!

It was thus inevitable that this freshman boy bearing the same name should be dubbed Hideeeeeo, and that, by the end of the year, the habit had become so ingrained that I even called him Hideeeeo when I was annoyed with him, which was most of the time. As I peered over his shoulder at a still mostly blank computer screen, Hideeeeo and I had this exchange:

Hideeeeo: I’m flying to Hokkaido today. My flight leaves Haneda at five.

Me: Fuck you, Hideeeeeo. You can leave when you finish a perfect essay.

Hideeeeo: I just want to be with my family.

Me: Bah!

Hideeeeo: But…it’s Christmas Eve, Mr. Muggins!

All right, memory may have fogged some of the details, but that was the gist of our exchange. Hideeeeo did not produce a perfect five-paragraph essay but he produced a thing that, if held at arm’s length and scanned by peripheral vision while squinting, vaguely resembled one. He was allowed to fly to the bosom of his family.

The afternoon wore on; the sky blackened over the gray, dead grass outside the windows; the crowd dwindled away as one by one they managed to raise their chins above the bar of minimal academic adequacy. Maki continued to struggle earnestly with her essay.

Maki was nineteen going on twelve. In those days I often felt an obligation to help struggling NU girls with their work out of gratitude for the fantasy fodder that they provided, however unwittingly, but in Maki’s case I simply hadn't been able to let my mind go there. She was slight, pixie-like, with the helmet-like ‘do of junior high school girls who play sports, and she sat through every class with an expression that suggested she expected me to punch her in the face at any random moment. Her work had been consistently awful all year. In my desperate quest to find a reason to like her, I would find myself starting to think that, well, it seemed like she might grow up to be an attractive young woman in six or seven years but—again, best not to go that route. Oh, let me shun that. That way madness and hard time lie.

Taking all this into account, I kept my distance from her, occasionally stealing a glance at her pouty, manga-girl face bathed in the cathode-ray glow of the boxy Fujitsu monitor, until she finally printed out her essay and presented it to me.

Here's the gist of what she wrote, to the best of my recollection:

I am sorry to trouble you by taking so long to write my essay.

I don’t have any reason why I should get credits. I know that my assignments are not good. The class is very difficult for me.

At the beginning of the year, you said to me that I should maybe move to Level 1 class because Level 2 will be too difficult for me. To tell the truth, I also thought it’s too difficult for me. But I wanted to stay in Level 2 because Level 2 is Muggins’s class. Everyone in International Relations says Muggins is the best teacher. And I think so, too. I can’t understand the class well, but I enjoy the class, and I learn English in this class. Muggins teaches us so earnestly and kindly.

I’m sorry that I make trouble for Muggins. I’m lazy sometimes. I will work harder from now on. Thank you for this chance to raise up my grade. I will not disappoint Muggins anymore. Then, Muggins, take care to rest in this vacation and don’t catch a cold. Muggins doesn’t look fine recently, so I worry. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The proverbial scales fell from my proverbial eyes, and in that moment I saw myself for the wretch that I had become. This pristine little jailbait angel had descended from heaven into this dingy, half-subterraneaun computer classroom to remind me of the compassionate, decent, committed--albeit somewhat oversexed--educator that I had once been, and might, with some modicum of self control, yet become again.

I corrected Maki’s errors, added a short note, and sent her home; then headed for my own dusty, drafty abode to cry in my beer.

[Gratuitous embellishments added Dec. 15]