The Incident of March 2008
Mr. F, age 51, had just completed the fifth year of his second tour of duty at our school. His classes were fantastic. He drew expressive stick figures and cartoons on the board to explain complex topics like how to start a business and the lead-up to the Second World War. He was very knowledgeable about history and culture, and he continued to study it every day. He was our only social studies teacher, and his students always performed well on their standardized exams. He was responsible for technology, videos, and announcements at the school. His graduation videos brought tears to people’s eyes, and he was a gifted theatrical director: he lead the youngest class’s play for Culture Day, the one about the family who was crucified for standing up for the poor during a famine, and it was thrice as complex and affecting as everyone else’s work. Students who couldn’t remember a word of English memorized pages of dialogue in 17th-century Tokyo dialect, and not a cue was missed. Last year, he was the head of school discipline, and though he was not a homeroom teacher himself, out of respect for his advanced age, he was always the supervisor for one grade level or another. When Mr. F ate lunch with a class, the students prepared and cleaned up lunch as fast as they could, because he didn’t like to waste time.
He wanted to learn more English, and I wanted to learn more culture. He had a good sense of humor, and he made time to talk to people. I respected him, and I was his friend. I visited his home on March 30. I met his father (a retired social studies teacher), his mother, his wife (an elementary school teacher in another town), and his 15-year old daughter, who had just been accepted to the most prestigious girls’ school in Kumamoto Prefecture. He also has a 20-year old daughter studying at Kumamoto University, the best in the prefecture. I saw his family’s perfect doll collection, which required twenty minutes to explain. I saw the photos of his older daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony, and they took photos of me dressed in the family kimonos. He showed me his den upstairs, including a book and movie collection, a large TV, and one of the five most comfortable chairs I’ve ever sat in. I walked in the garden and played with the cats. I took a mental snapshot of him and his wife standing in the garden, looking at each other and out over the horizon. They were at peace with their lives.
Afterward, Mr. F drove me past a park with some ancient burial mounds, the pride of his town. Then he took me to the goodbye party for the 2009-10 staff. More than a third of our teachers were to change in April 2010, as in April 2009. We thought we were saying goodbye to five people. But it turned out to be six.
The following Saturday, April 3, Mr. F was arrested. He was charged with sexual abuse of a student who visited his home in late March 2008, just after she had graduated from our junior high school. The story ran in the papers Sunday, April 4, with a note that Mr. F denied the allegations. That morning, when I was about to leave for Easter Sunday Mass, where I was to sing the Psalm, the secretary called and asked me to come to the junior high for something important. I heard the news, and then I met the new teachers, including the assistant principal, who had started work on April 1. The assistant principal is in charge of the day-to-day activities of a school, and ours had walked blindly into a fire. Usually, Japanese are warm and welcoming toward new co-workers, especially the foreigner, but this wasn’t the right time to be excited about anything, so it was an awkward balance, like having ice cream at a funeral. The principal met with the parents of our 8th and 9th graders, who knew Mr. F, to debrief them. I said goodbye to the parents with trepidation. They couldn’t help but see us all differently, I imagined.
On April 5, the paper revealed more details. The girl had a nervous breakdown in October 29, and that’s when she told her parents what transpired a year and a half before. They informed the police, who investigated Mr. F without his knowledge for the next six months. On April 6, the paper divulged that he had admitted to misconduct with several students at the schools at which he’d worked. He, like all Japanese teachers, was moved to a different school every five years, so he’d gotten around our region. None of the students I knew have been abused, to our knowledge, but many were shaken up by the revelations and met with school and Board of Education counselors.
Our welcome party for new staff was canceled, as was our party after sports festival at the end of May. I wasn’t allowed to go to my elementary schools’ welcome parties for a couple months, either, because I was junior high school staff. We were all told to keep our heads down and work hard. Club sports practices were postponed until the first day of school to quell gossip, but that didn’t stop the text messaging. Fortunately, the PTA was supportive to the school throughout the affair, at least to our faces, and the students couldn’t have handled it any better. We had to move on without a social studies teacher, but technically, he was still a teacher at our school until he was sentenced. So our principal, who came to our school in April 2008, the month after the alleged incident, took time away from administration, conferences with other principals, dealing with the police, and so forth to teach social studies.
On April 8, we had our first day of school; the principal apologized to the students and talked about rebuilding their trust. On April 9, we had our entrance ceremony, and afterwards, while the students decorated their new classrooms, the principal talked to the parents of the new students and the community leaders who came as guests in closed-door meetings. The students were awkward and off-guard the first couple days, but afterward their normal personalities returned. Mr. F always stood at the front gate to greet people as they arrived at school. The students’ memories of 8 AM on school days must be as poisoned as mine now. I didn’t know the affected student, but some students must have. Yet they handled it extremely well.
In Japan, it is normal to keep quiet about bad things. Often, when students commit crimes, the teachers, the police, the offended, and the parents negotiate with each other about how to reform the kids while keeping it as quiet as possible. Our student shoplifting ring was handled that way a couple years ago. The police are very careful about making arrests, and sometimes decline to arrest someone who’s guilty if they think it’s not the best course of action. It’s often said that the West has a culture of sin, while Japan has a culture of shame. Sin can be forgiven, but shame can never be forgotten. Once Mr. F started talking to the police, one of their main concerns was keeping him from committing suicide in his cell.
I learned more about the case from the newspaper than from our principal. The other teachers were shocked, especially those who worked with him the most. The consequences to the girl’s family, not to mention his own, were heartbreaking. We were crushed, as well, because other students had been hurt and had grown up without ever telling someone about it. Teachers wondered if his bad habits, like propping his feet on a desk while reading and whistling in the hallways while walking, should have tipped them off to a certain laxity. (Personal standards are high here.) I remembered our staff trip to Osaka in February 2009, the one where we went to a comedy show and I laughed so loud that everyone in Japan heard my voice on TV. That night, everyone went out to dinner together but one – Mr. F. He went off, in the words of our principal, to do “a husband’s work,” and we didn’t see him again until we met at the airport Sunday afternoon. And his email address was “fucky” and some numbers. Those nuggets are two strikes short of damning, though. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” He helped hundreds of students, and when 9th graders passed their high school entrance exams, he was often the first person they thanked. So he did both good and evil.
Mr. F was sentenced to a single year in prison. He can never be a teacher again. It seems flimsy to me, but perhaps the conviction and lost license mean more than the time of the sentence here. He has met with our principal a few times and admitted his guilt, and he wants to find a way to move on with his life. Mrs. F continues to teach elementary school; the PTA there pulled together to support her. I haven’t heard about his daughters, who must hope the other kids don’t read the newspaper. Mr. T, age 67, judo master and lung cancer survivor, came out of retirement to teach social studies starting in June. He was confused by the new educational vocabulary, struggled with our noisier students, and slept at his desk sometimes, but all things considered, we’re extremely lucky to have him. He really enjoyed getting out of the house and talking to people, especially me, and he brought unwashed produce from his garden to school every week.
I could never have a relationship with a student. I couldn’t even see them in that context. I was closer in age to them than I was to the other teachers, but I felt like they were my children. Adults have too much respect, too much power, too much experience: young people are damaged by these experiences, even if they don’t realize it at the time, even if it happens all over the world. Zeus consumed Semele with lightning, and Mr. F lanced the psyche of a 15-year old girl. I felt enervated, dirty. I even started to hate myself, knowing I was a man too, just as capable of destroying someone, and there but for the grace of God went I. The night of Easter, as I was reeling from the charges, I sent Mr. F a text message in Japanese:
“You asked me before about what Christianity teaches. Today is Easter Sunday. On this day, Christians celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. He was crucified on Good Friday, sacrificed to expiate the sins of mankind. Where there is sin and suffering, there is redemption. I don’t understand what you’re going through now, but I pray for God’s mercy and blessing for you and everyone involved.”
No reply. For now.