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Anne Smarjesse

© 2005


I think it was on a day when I had nothing to do and no hope of feeling useful that I witnessed the penis parade. The third year students were practicing in the gym for their upcoming choral contest. The second year students were in their homerooms, playing their recorders in preparation for the heartfelt concert they would give at the third years’ graduation, and the first-years were making giant congratulations cards on butcher paper. “So where do I fit in?” The redundancy of this question and the predictable, solitary sound in the hallway of the same black Danskos I wore everyday had seized the repressed lump in my throat and was pulling upwards.

As I passed from class to class, I stopped to look through the classrooms’ sliding doors. Each class was organized, compact and identical: a well-packed bento, Japanese boxed lunch. First was a row of boys in brass buttoned black suits. Then a row of girls with navy blue blazers and skirts, a row of boys, a row of girls, boys, girls… and me. My reflection was always waiting for me in the plexi glass window, as if to remind me of my exclusion. I’d occasionally sneak in one of the rear doors of a room and slip into a desk at the back of the class, so as not to cause a celebrity-like scene and disrupt the students’ dutiful practice. When I came upon Yamatani Sensei’s class, a veteran ping of adrenaline encouraged me to stop in and admire the way he could get his students to do anything. 

Yamatani was twenty-six and had a serious demeanor about him, something that told me he spent all of his time at work on the weekends and never went out dancing with friends. During a faculty drinking party, Yamatani refused alcohol, claiming that his stomach hurt. I knew it was a cover up for his hatred of being drunk, which meant losing control. A retired champion sprinter, Yamatani stood out because his healthy build contrasted that of the average lanky salary man. Despite his masculinity, I was intrigued by his bright pink cell phone and ironically attracted to him. As I paused at Yamatani’s classroom window, my anxiety pushed me on to the next before my attraction to him lured me into an imminent disaster. 

I couldn’t bring myself to enter his classroom unless scheduled to give an English lesson because of Reya. In the quick second that I peeked into Yamatani’s window, I had spotted Reya. As usual he sat slouched over, no uniform jacket in sight, head resting on his desk while his classmates rehearsed “Sakura” on their recorders. Minute alterations to a uniform made a student’s priorities evident to me. The whole jacket gone meant a serious lack of motivation. Reya was one of those kids that everyone, including his teachers, had given up on. They had probably developed a bad-behavior-inhibiting form of sympathy for him at this point, like they did for the students whose parents were divorced, or the occasional student whose ADD or EBD continued to be ignored. But Reya wasn’t hyper-active and his parents, who were my neighbors, were not divorced. No, Reya was an ordinary Japanese teeny-bopper which included an obsession with his hair, plucking his eyebrows regularly, and telling sexual jokes. So what was it about him that didn’t fit into their formula? He was cute and social enough to be a part of the class, yet somehow he was still the reject rice ball of the bento. I related to him and despised him all at once. When I spotted him through the classroom window, I was still fuming over what he had said in front of the whole class yesterday about my undergarments.

Every class period began with aisatsu, a formal greeting exchanged between teachers and students. I hated aisatsu. If done properly it left me with a cryptic feeling. “Giritsu” “Attention!” the leader of the class would bark, or whine in a nasal voice, depending if the leader was a male or female student that day. In robotic fashion the class would rise in unison, whipping the air from my lungs and flinging it out the window. I’d catch my breath and pretend this routine, this army of children standing at attention, was something I witnessed everyday in the U.S.

“Good morning, everyone!” I’d say in my Minnesota-nice way. 

“Good morning, Miss Anne,” they would reply in a monotone chorus.

“How are you today?” I was trying to sound convincing now.

“I’m fine thank you. And you?”

I’m fucking great. I mean, “I’m fine thanks. Please sit down.”

I always felt so ashamed. Every suited body in that room knew I didn’t deserve their respect, but they went through the motions regardless.

Yesterday’s greeting was an unexpected variation. We stood for morning greetings, Mr. Watabe in place behind the podium, I, dutifully to his right, facing the class with a fake smile and waiting patiently for all 40 students to rise. Reya waited until there was a lull in the classroom chaos to ask in a loud, pre-pubescent, weasely voice, “An Sensei, pantsu ni haiteimasuka.” (“Anne Teacher, are you wearing panties?”)

The little shit! My face grew hot with anger and embarrassment. “You’re rude!” I screamed, feeling humiliated and trapped. It was the only phrase I could think of. This of course threw his giggling classmates into hysterics. Whenever I spoke Japanese to my students, I got one of three reactions: 1. Oh, your Japanese is so good. You sound so cute! 2. A sweaty forehead and a blank stare, or 3. Excessive laughter over the dumb, foreign plaything trying to speak Japanese again. It was definitely a #3 situation.

The trauma of yesterday came flooding back in a split second as I sized up Reya through the window. Reya, a little shit of a neighbor who played loud music on the weekends when his parents were working, wanted more than anything to have a hot girlfriend and to be David Beckham, and commented on teachers’ underwear, or the lack thereof. Needless to say, I was not in the mood for another embarrassing memory to record in my journal. I quickly forgot Yamatani’s appeal and moved on to observe the students in the next classroom.

Kadono Sensei

The teachers’ office was the source of all my stress when the teachers were present, and my safe haven when they had dispersed to class, a place where I knew everyone by the sound of their shoes passing behind my desk. It was also the large office where all of the teachers had their desks clustered together by grade level. Mine sat appropriately towards to end of one cluster with an English teacher’s desk to my left and the rarely occupied desks of the lunch lady, janitor, nurse, and guidance counselor to my right. The office manager and the disciplinarian were the only people in the office when I breezed through and plopped down at my desk. The manager, Naradate, sat at his desk talking to himself quietly and sucking his teeth while he organized papers, stamped documents, and did whatever it was that he did. He reminded me of a little squirrel, working busily in preparation for winter, oblivious to the happenings around him. While Naradate kept himself engaged in interpersonal conversation, Kadono, the disciplinarian, was hunched over his elevated desk so that from where I sat, I could only see the top of Kadono’s comb-over, and all that I heard was an occasional snore intermingled with Naradate’s murmurs. 

Lately Kadono was beyond fatigued, but on a typical day he could be found screaming at students in the most terrifying voice, or putting fear in the hearts of all he passed as he hummed Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. When he was in a lighter mood, instead of yelling at a student he would demand that the student make up a Haiku on the spot. He was ominous and pitiful. Once I found him wondering the hallways barefooted and ranting to himself about robots. His favorite hobby was to yell out random words in English to see if he could get my attention, and with a lexicon spanning from “oh berry goodo” to “naisu body” I usually pretended to be oblivious, but secretly chuckled at his insanity. Since Kadono’s bouts of full fledged sleep became more frequent, I concluded that he was either a man who literally enjoyed working himself to death, or he was having an affair with another staff member.

Since my apartment was directly across the street from the junior high school, I frequently jogged around the school’s dirt track in the late evening when it was dark and all of the teachers had gone home. But it almost never failed that the office light would be on, and as I would round the track, I could see Kadono sitting at his desk or milling about the staff office. Above the office window on the front of the school’s dreary, white face there was a large clock. I used it to keep track of how long I had run, but I also used it to keep track of him. What was he doing at 10:30 while the rest of the town slept and the last train of business men were making their way home from the train station behind the school? It could only be that Kadono was tirelessly plugging away at some obligatory work, or that he was staying the long hours to bank time with his secret lover. 

So there we were, the three misfits: Kadono slumped over from fatigue, Naradate conversing with himself, and me trying to think of a way to feel useful before it was too late and I’d be fighting back tears because I would’ve convinced myself that my presence in this school, in this town, in this country was worthless. While I brainstormed ways to be useful, I went through my daily ritual of cleaning and organizing my desk-top accessories. Lord knows I didn’t have any teachery stuff like piles of papers to be graded or a stack of text books invading the teacher’s desk next to mine. I did however come across a New Year’s card that an elementary student made for me. I had slipped the card beneath a package of markers I used on days when brainstorming failed and the only thing left to keep me sane was to color pictures of animals and fruits for lessons I would teach at the elementary schools. I lifted the card and examined the drawing on the front. In blue crayon the student had drawn three smiling monkeys in front of Mt. Fuji, as 2005 was the year of the monkey. The drawing was pretty typical for what I had seen second graders in Japan create, but it was impressive by my standards, so I had saved it to give myself something to smile about on days like today. I flipped the card over and on the back side it read in English “A Happy New Year” and the student’s name, Mika.

The Penis Parade

I studied the New Year’s card again and again, flipping it from front to back, thinking about why I had chosen to keep this card out of the other forty that the third grade class gave me. I pictured Mika’s eight year old face in my mind, amazed that I could distinguish Mika from the other three hundred elementary students I taught. I was lucky if I got to teach the same class twice in one year. Mika’s face was round, almost a perfect circle. Her name even sounded like mikan, tangerine. I frequently saw Mika at the mom-and-pop store across the train tracks from my apartment. I would catch her timidly peering at me from the snack aisle as I passed by on the way to the dairy section. If we happened to stand at the register together, she might say hello and avert her eyes, clutching her candy bar with a tight fist. Other times we would play a quick game of rock-paper-scissors because it was a guaranteed way to communicate. That’s why the elementary school visits were the highlight of my week. Most elementary students were still blatantly curious and not fearful, qualities that seemed to be lost by junior high school. Their straightforwardness let me know exactly what they were thinking. I felt so much freedom in not having to guess what a person meant. Every game of tag and rock- paper-scissors, every hand written note folded into origami, every New Years card was a little pocket of joy that I stored away and saved for the times when I needed to smile. I was glad I found the card from Mika. She was watching out for me today.

As Naradate tooled away at his corner desk and Kadono continued to snore, I got out my scissors and a giant piece of red construction paper, and I made Mika’s class a thank you card. The teachers had yet to return to the office when I had finished cutting out the big heart. Knowing I should ask permission to leave, but remembering the words my mother instilled in me, let sleeping dogs lie, I slipped past Kadono’s desk, carefully slid back the door and crept into the barren hallway. Uncertain if I could escape without being noticed, I removed my Danskos at my cubby near the front door and slipped into my street shoes with the swiftness of a guilty child. With my thank you card in hand and a purposeful stride, I walked three blocks to Minami Elementary School.

Once inside I slipped out of my street shoes and into the plastic turquoise guest slippers; “one size fits all” and always a size too small for me. I noticed the sliding door to the principal’s office was open. I shuffled over and knocked quietly. 

“Hai! Dozo.” (“Yes, come in.”) 


I excused myself and bowed before I entered his office. As a foreigner I had the advantage of not being expected to understand the protocol for entering my superior’s working space. This also meant I never felt half as nervous as my colleagues did when they were summoned to their principal’s office. I loved visiting this principal. He had a genuine smile and always appeared comfortable.

“Oh, Anne, please come in. Please sit. How are you?”

“I’m fine thank you. How are you Kocho Sensei?”

“I’m fine. Berry fine.”

“Ah good. Ii tenkidesune. It’s nice weather, isn’t it?” I replied, and took a seat in a short, brown leather chair.

“Yes, berry nice.”

Before I could plan what to say next, the secretary slid the door open. The coffee cup she carried on the round wooden tray clinked against its saucer as she approached the table between me and Kocho Sensei. We nodded our heads and smiled at each other. She placed the coffee cup and saucer on the table and rested a small china spoon, a tiny tube of powdered creamer, and a packet of sugar next to the cup. Her movements were automatic and swift. I barely had enough time to thank her before she was gone again. This quick pause had given me enough time to think of how I would tell Kocho Sensei why I was here.

I reached for the giant heart shaped card lying next to the coffee table and handed it to Kocho Sensei. I studied his face as he tried to figure out what it was. When his eyes lifted to meet mine again I could see that he understood why I was here. I explained that I would like to give it to the third grade class. Without hesitation he smiled and nodded, and used his arms to steady himself as stood up. With an excited spring in his step he left, and I continued to sip my coffee. When he came back he had Tanaka Sensei, the third grade teacher with him. Tanaka Sensei was my favorite teacher to work with. She enjoyed speaking English, and we always laughed about the funny things her students did during my English lessons. Her smile and high pitched voice told me she was excited that I had come.

“Hi! So nice to see you! I have an idea,” she whispered. “Let’s make your visit a surprise.”

“O.K…?” I questioned, unsure of what the surprise would entail.

“Please come to my class in five minutes. I won’t tell the students you are coming. I have to go back now. Five minutes is o.k.?” She waved her hands up and down in front of her like a child unable to express excitement.

I wondered what kind of reaction the surprise would cause.

During my visits to the elementary schools it never failed that I would be attacked by a mob of students. As I passed their classroom doors on my way to a designated room, one student would see me and yell my name. Then another student in the class would yell, and another, until they couldn’t contain their excitement and the whole class would burst from the door and spill into the hallway. I’d be surrounded by a jungle of little arms grabbing for every inch of my clothing. At first I would feel flattered by their reaction, but after I realized I had no control over where those little fingers were grabbing, claustrophobia would kick in and an onlooker would have to pry the children from my arms and legs. I hoped Tanaka Sensei’s class wouldn’t tackle me to the floor today.

Five minutes had passed and I walked cautiously to Tanaka’s classroom. I peered through the window, my reflection tinted by the giant, red heart-shaped card. Boys and girls sat at their wooden desks in no particular order. Their brightly colored sweatshirts and long sleeved shirts gave the impression of a disheveled box of crayons. Some students scrambled to cram their pencils into their overflowing, beloved pencil cases, too busy to notice me. Others were shoving homework in their cubbies at the back of the classroom. Tanaka gave me a sideways glance and signaled with her eyes to enter the room. As I slid the door open, she announced my surprise visit. The students dropped their jaws and looked to one another for reassurance that it was indeed a surprise. They squealed with excitement and continued with the clean-up.

“Anne, I am going to get a camera,” Tanaka beamed. “Please wait. Kenta will help you.” She put her hand on the little boy’s shoulder. As soon as I had entered the room, he had followed behind me shouting hello and giggling every time I replied. On her way out, Tanaka asked him to entertain me and show me their akachan. Kenta skipped to the front of the class near the green chalkboard and flipped open a white box. With a slight struggle he lifted a peach colored doll from the box. The doll was sewn similar to a sock monkey with plush, oblong limbs, and was featureless except for the umbilical cord and placenta attached to its stomach. Kenta laid the doll’s feet on the floor and made it appear to walk towards me. The doll sank into my arms as he lifted it to my chest and let go. To my surprise the only realistic aspect of the doll was its weight. While I held the doll, Kenta ripped the Velcroed umbilical cord from the doll’s body and swung it around his head. “Akachan!” he laughed and pointed to the doll. “Baby,” I replied, nodding my head and smiling.

He pointed at the doll again and covered his mouth as he giggled. I didn’t get the joke. He flung his hand from his mouth and yelled, “Chinchin!” He grabbed the doll’s penis and pulled. “Penis!” he yelled again and held it above his head. I lifted my eyes to see the reaction around the room. All but three boys ignored Kenta and continued organizing their desks and playing clapping games. Kenta began to run the perimeter of the classroom, the doll’s penis held proudly above his head, chanting, “Chinchin, chinchin, chinchin.” The three boys who witnessed the surgery were quick to join in. They trotted behind Kenta, chanting, “Chinchin, chinchin, chinchin,” and completed the penis parade after a few laps around the room. I stood paralyzed at the front of the class, holding the penisless Akachan