Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Shining White

 

 

 

I see people’s colors. I have worked as a school nurse for a long time, and students at my school have some kind of collective will. When a few girls gather in the hallway, I see this collective resolve as a thin, gauze-like film. When they’re on the attack, it’s red. When they’re jealous, it’s black. When they share joy, it’s yellow. When they share sadness, it’s blue. Love is pink, which makes you want to skip along the hallway. The fabric of emotions the girls weave has helped me a great deal with my job as a school nurse.

 

My job is to look after students who don’t feel well enough to go to class. Since I started at Koshimizugawa, I have had a desk and a chair for a student who prefers to study on her own instead of going to class. I wish I could see the feelings of a girl seated alone at the desk, but I can’t see anything unless she’s in a group. In other words, I have no idea how an individual girl feels. That’s frustrating. I wish my sixth sense were more useful, but it doesn’t work like that. When some girl is bullied, a thick cloud of light-gray mist looms over the classroom, but I have never been able to prevent bullying itself.

 

Even so, my sixth sense came in handy once.

 

Once known as Koshimizugawa School for Girls, my institution  became coeducational four years ago because of shrinking enrollments, and opened its door to boys for the first time in its history. In the first twelve months, out of the twenty boys who applied, only five were admitted. But four of them then went to other schools. The president, one of the few men on campus, told the only remaining boy, “You will be the only male student,” halfway giving up on the idea of coeducation, but fortunately for us, the boy was rejected elsewhere and decided to come to our school.

 

At any rate, only one boy joined us at the formerly all-female school. It was clear from day one that this wasn’t going to be a smooth transition. However, the president had gotten carried away. He declared in front of the entire staff, “We can’t afford to lose him, so let’s work together to protect him.” He added, “The only way for us to survive the declining birthrate in this country is to succeed in coeducation.”

 

The president’s words revealed how precarious the station our school faced really was. Koshimizugawa lacks a track record as a prep school. Our girls aren’t interested in getting accepted to prestigious colleges, and even academically promising students hardly study. Instead, they are required to learn manners and social etiquette in addition to taking several home economics classes. Our handicraft and flower arrangement clubs are so popular that we have won prizes in national contests. The old-fashioned notion of finding a great marriage prospect and marrying him still prevails among our girls. This isn’t surprising in a school instituted to bring up “good mothers and wise wives.” But as a single woman nearing her thirties, I think instilling such future expectations into young girls is cruel in this day and age. As a result, our school fails to attract many students,. Going coeducational was pretty much the only way for our school to stay in business.

 

That’s how the president issued an inappropriate policy and endorsed preferential treatment for the sole incoming male student. Kondo Sensei, who teaches Japanese history, dubbed the whole episode the “Takeomi Incident.”.

 

Yes, the boy’s name was Yuuki Takeomi, as if his first name and last name had been reversed (well, I’m Yui Mariko, so I’m pretty much in the same boat). An unassuming boy, he didn’t draw too much attention to himself.

 

Takeomi wore a blazer with our school colors—brown and beige, plus a red ribbon. Surrounded by girls, he gazed up at the stage on the day of the commencement. In the middle of the ceremony, he was suddenly appointed a student representative and introduced himself on the spot. I still remember that moment like yesterday. A brown cloud of ridicule soon formed over the senior girls.

 

Three incidents led to Takeomi’s decision to come to the school infirmary after the summer break.

 

The first incident concerns the locker room. Until recently, it had been an all-girls school, so every girl changed in her classroom before PE class. A locker room was prepared when the school became coeducational. But no one, especially older girls, used it at all. When Takeomi’s class moved to the audio-visual room, they passed in front of the sophomores’ classrooms. Some of the girls later made a fuss: “Takeomi-kun was peeping while we were changing.” Instead of choosing to use the locker room, they blamed Takeomi for intruding on their space.

 

The second incident centers around shogi. Takeomi had been playing shogi ever since he was a young boy. He was good enough to join the shoreikai, but our school had no shogi club. So he tried to start one, but no one wanted to join. That alone would have been fine, but the posters he put up around campus were scrawled all over. Moreover, he didn’t get proper permission before putting his posters up. No one was punished for the vandalism, and it left a bad taste in our mouths.

 

The third incident involves a student from Rokudaiji High School, located at the next station. A boy from Rokudaiji jilted a sophomore girl from our school. I heard it from the girl herself and later from Takeomi. As ours was an all-girls’ school, Rokudaiji High was a valuable source of boyfriends for our girls. At any rate, the sophomore girl asked Takeomi to set her up with his friend. Takeomi’s best friend, the would-be Romeo, dumped her out of  loyalty, because he sensed that Takeomi was bullied at school. I think that was courageous of his friend, but after all, it was a big deal to the girl. She came to hold a grudge against Takeomi, whom she considered responsible for her broken heart.

 

On July 6, two weeks before the end of the term, Takeomi started coming to the school infirmary. He wasn’t as despondent as I had imagined. He completed his self-study tasks, and after school, he toyed with his phone while he gazed at his shogi board in front of him. I thought he was checking a social networking site, but he told me he was practicing shogi.

 

“Do you plan to play shogi professionally?” I asked.

 

Takeomi placed his hand under his chin and stared at the desk, deep in thought. He chose his words carefully when he spoke. “I’ll consider that possibility if I get good enough before graduation.”

 

“Why? Is there an age limit?”

 

“I’ve got a second dan already, so the age limit isn’t an issue, but if I don’t get a fourth dan by the time I’m eighteen, I’m going to quit altogether.”

 

“Is that so? Sounds very competitive. I became a school nurse at twenty-three.”

 

Takeomi looked confounded. Certainly, he didn’t want to commiserate with some older woman like me. As he searched for an answer, I tried to be helpful and blurted out, “Well, I’m sure you can do it.” Then he became withdrawn.

 

The school term came to an end. Leaving Takeomi in the school infirmary, the girls were wrapped in a yellow mist as they headed to the auditorium and formed lines, excited to start summer break. The girls who excluded Takeomi occasionally showed the beautiful color. I wished they could accept students like Takeomi and still emit such a color.

 

After the summer break, Takeomi continued his self-study sessions in the school infirmary. Even though I wasn’t able to see his color, I sensed he was hurt. Perhaps this situation hindered him from making his dream come true. However, all I could do was wait. Wait for him to get back to his feet. The president didn’t agree with me. He thought it wasn’t right to let the bullies force such a talented young man into the school infirmary, and he summoned his homeroom teacher and me. He asked us to work in tandem and help Takeomi go back to his classroom.

 

According to my experience, bullying often stops for no particular reason. Sometimes bullies find a new target. And sometimes bullies come to the sudden realization that bullying isn’t good. Of course, it’d be great if we could eradicate all bullying, but it’s difficult to be in charge of preventing such an unpredictable phenomenon. Well, it’s what it is. I was now required to hold regular meetings with Udo Sensei, Takeomi’s homeroom teacher.

 

Udo Sensei, as expected from a homeroom teacher, had almost all the bullies listed. According to his classification, the main culprit was a group of sophomore girls. The freshman girls were under the control of the sophomore girls through club activities. That was why the younger girls hated Takeomi.

 

“If we defeat the sophomore girls, the bullying will stop,” said Udo Sensei with confidence.

 

“Are you sure, Udo Sensei? What if it backfires?”

 

“Don’t worry,” he said in assertive tone. “This bullying stems from jealousy.”

 

“Jealousy?”

 

“That’s right. There are no boys among the sophomores. The girls are simply jealous. As a woman yourself, you surely understand this, Mariko Sensei?”

 

“Yes, but . . . how are you going to solve it?”

 

“Leave it to me.”

 

After our first not-so-fruitful meeting, Udo Sensei talked to the group of the girls who had accused Takeomi for peeping. He just told them, “I want you to stop being jealous.” The bullying got worse, and I too became a target along with Takeomi.

 

At my age, I don’t let anything get to me, let alone high school bullies. At times, I felt targeted, for sure. Nowadays bullies are better at attacking targets’ weaknesses. On the student-only social networking site our school monitored, the girls would write nasty comments such as “You old cradle robber, you pant too loud when you make love to the boy” or “You stinking old maid well past her sell-by date” before erasing them moments later. I noticed such insinuations and rumors. Whenever I visited the classroom, I saw a reddish-black twist of anger stirring above the girls.

 

Exhibiting unfounded confidence, Udo Sensei proudly declared, “If we ride this out, everything will be under control!” But my worry didn’t go away. I felt truly sorry when Takeomi apologized to me in person.

 

“Sorry about the rumors, Mariko Sensei.”

 

I couldn’t help crying. In addition to the rumors, the bullying never ended. As Takeomi consoled me, I made up my mind: I would support him in this school infirmary so that he could pursue his dream of becoming a shogi pro. No matter how much the girls made fun of us, I would try to help him go back to the classroom.

 

  *  *

 

In the end, Takeomi and I endured the situation for more than six months. He survived. The bullying stopped when five new boys entered the school the following academic year. Takeomi became a mentor to the five younger boys. As he left the school infirmary, engaged in an animated chat with his new friends, he was clad in a yellow mist of joy.

 

After that, Takeomi and I only occasionally talked. He was my comrade-in-arms. I didn’t know what I was to him. However, when we talked at his graduation, he was enveloped in a shining white glow. I have no idea what emotion it represented. No one, not even a single student, had showed that color before.

 

 

 

Fumiki Takahashi is an award-winning Japanese author. While still a student at the University of Tokyo, he made his literary debut in 2001 with the novel Tochugesha. Since 2007, he has edited the literary journal Hametuha. Translations of his short stories have appeared in journals such as Another Chicago Magazine, Eckleburg Review, Gargoyle, Mount Hope, and LIT.

(translated by Toshiya Kamei)