|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,
- 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
- 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:
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.
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
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]