Sixteen years ago or so, I began teaching a little girl called Nanami. I remember the day she came for a trial lesson – a shy, skinny child, looking over at her mum every so often and releasing the most heartwarming of proud smiles that she’d just said something in English. I liked her immediately. For 5 years, I taught Nanami, and for five years she was a delightful student. She was not the most academically gifted kid I had taught by any means, but she had that indefinable asset ‘likeability’ in abundance.
One week Nanami didn’t come to class. I thought nothing of it. Kids are sometimes absent and their parents don’t always call in advance. Then she was absent again and we thought it was unusual. My wife called her house to check all was okay. Her mum began crying on the phone. Nanami was being bullied and had stopped going to school. She had stopped going anywhere.
This broke my heart. Tales of bullying always do, but I found it hard to think of any reason why anybody would want to tease such a sweet girl. She wasn’t a bragger, a show-off, or a weakling; she wasn’t outstandingly pretty nor lacking in charm or beauty. She was kind, pretty, talkative, good-hearted and, well, nice. But I don’t suppose bullies need reasons and he, she or they picked on Nanami and destroyed her confidence. I don’t know how bad it was, but she stopped going to school and missed at least two full years of junior high school. I bumped into her by chance with her mum one day when she was about 15 and she was overweight, pasty-faced and stared at the ground while her mother and I chatted. She didn’t smile and she barely even said hello or goodbye. She was little more than a shell, the empty, bloated casing of a long departed spirit. She may have started leaving her house again, but she was outside only physically.
That was how I remembered Nanami. I taught her sister for a few years longer, and my wife and I occasionally stopped and chatted with her grandmother, who didn’t live too far from us. We would ask after Nanami but we never got much by way of reply. Just a sort of ‘She’s okay,’ manner of response. We didn’t like to pry too much. We didn’t want to seem nosy. Sometimes her grandfather walked his dog past our house and we would say hello and perhaps comment on the weather.
A couple of days ago, the kairanban (a sort of community noticeboard that gets passed around the houses in the neighbourhood) contained the unexpected news that Nanami’s grandfather had passed away. On such occasions, neighbours often visit the home of the deceased to light some incense and convey condolences. As we were neighbours who had also had several years of close connection to the family (albeit some time ago) my wife and I decided to wander up there to do just that. The grandmother invited us in to the front room where her husband lay, his peaceful face looking ‘just as it did when he was sleeping’.
‘I keep thinking he is going to wake up,’ Nanami’s grandma said.
My wife and I lit a stick of incense each and placed them in a small pot at the deceased man’s head. We closed our eyes, put our hands together and said a prayer.
As we were about to leave, a young woman entered the room. She said hello, thanked us for coming and then smiled the smile I remembered of a little girl bursting with pride because she had just uttered her first words in English. My wife and I grinned broadly, too, and Nanami sat down and chatted cheerfully with us as her late grandfather lay silent on the tatami mats beside us. It was an odd situation. Nanami was in mourning, of course, but she seemed genuinely glad to see us and I think she was pleased to be able to show us what she had become. She wasn’t staring at the ground, she wasn’t bloated, she wasn’t reticent or withdrawn, she wasn’t a shell. She was a 23-year-old version of the seven-year-old I knew before the bullies got to her. We talked a little about her job and her life now, but it wasn’t really the time for emotional catch-ups, not with a grieving widow and a coffin in the room. Still, we left happy and strangely uplifted.
On our way out we met Nanami’s mum coming in. We offered our condolences and my wife told her how pleased we were to have been able to see Nanami and how well she seems to be doing. Her mum had tears in her eyes. They were mostly for the loss of her father, of course, but I think one or two might have been a mother’s pride for the fine young woman her daughter had become.
It was delightful to see Nanami, even in such peculiar circumstances. I hope she has left her scars behind and that she is proof that you can rebuild your life. I hope so more than ever, because a few weeks ago my wife had another telephone conversation with a crying mother. It’s a boy this time and he hasn’t been to school since November. He is ten years old.