There are good days, and then there are rough days. And then there are just rough hours. Case in point: my morning was great. I had three classes I assisted in and then I knocked some other work out after lunch. It was lunch that was a little rough.
Today I ate lunch with one of the eighth grade homerooms. Eighth graders are often an interesting lot. My teammate Ashley used to say, “Seventh graders have the courage to speak English and ninth graders have the ability to speak English. Eighth graders should have both, but instead they have neither.” There are exceptions to this rule. But the group I ate with today were not one of the exceptions.
I love all of these kids. Unfortunately, sometimes in my desire to love them I slip back into American patterns. Specifically the American pattern of showing love to someone by being interested in their life. After a lunch that was mostly silent, I asked Miu, on my left, how many cats she has. Cats, I am aware, are something she loves.
“Five” she answered.
“What color are they?”
“All of them.”
“No.” And she looked away, embarrassed. At the time I didn’t cognitively associate the shyness with the personal questions and my gut reaction was to attribute the awkwardness to their hesitancy to speak English.
“Yuske, how is your baby brother? Is he doing well?” This question was asked in Japanese.
“Yuya, how is your brother? Is he well?” Also in Japanese. More embarrassed looks.
At the end of class another kid shunned me. For entirely different reasons I may cover in another post.
Admittedly, this is far from the worst day I’ve ever had, or the worst lunch I had. There was a highlight: Tsuyoshi, one of the politest eighth graders I know, ate my soup for me. To understand the significance of that, you should know that we are ladled out food and then more or less required to eat it. As a teacher I have a little more leeway, but disposal of food is still frowned upon. When I’m watching how much I eat, I’ve discovered desserts can be pawned off on other kids pretty easily and milk I can smuggle home. But soup is hard to give away and hard to take home. And I’m so over miso soup. Months ago I said I would pay $100 to never have to eat miso soup again. Fortunately, Tsuyoshi doesn’t charge me for taking the soup off of my hands. It’s one reason I eat with that homeroom.
Nonetheless, the thick embarrassment of the lunchtime conversation cast a shadow over the afternoon. It’s easy to start second guessing myself. I say I’m here in Japan to love people. Well, what if I totally biff that? What if I’m not loving people? Not because my heart wasn’t in the right place but because I forgot to be intentional about not being American in the way that I love.
Somewhere in the musings I remembered an email exchange I was part of about five years ago. A journalist named Kevin Sites spent a year covering different war zones around the world. I read the weekly entries, and when the book came out I borrowed it from the library. Late I wrote him with some questions I had. One of these was, “I look at you and believe you have done something with your life, but do you look at yourself and believe you have done something with your life? Because I also don’t want to be the person who chases something only to find it was as unfulfilling as the other options. In your eyes, has your life so far left a legacy?” He replied, “i gave up a lot to do this job–stable family life, sense of community etc. i hope there is some legacy from my work, but you can never be sure. each person has to choose for themselves to fulfill what they believe is their life’s purpose. i’ve tried to do that–but i might have miscalculated. unfortunately, there’s relatively little comfort in our decisions while we’re living them, we just have to hope they’re the right ones.”
That has stuck with me. We don’t always know we are doing great things. Sometimes there is greatness in the day to day living and the daily perseverance, and that has to be enough. Maybe at the end we’ll look back and see that what we did was greatness. And meanwhile, in the midst of the journey, all we can do is hope, like Samwise Gangee in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, that what we are doing means something.
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”