Tuesday, August 3, 2010


I've been putting off writing this post. Part of it is that Joe and I have been really busy preparing our exit from Japan later this month. But part of it's also that this is a tough thing to write about.

We've been saying a lot of goodbyes the past couple weeks, but the biggest was the final day of school before students' summer break began July 23. The school was to hold the usual closing ceremony in the gym that morning and I was slated to give my farewell speech to everyone, around 1,000 students and teachers.

But plans took a nasty turn. The night before the ceremony, as I laid down to bed, I got a text message on my phone from a fellow English teacher: A student had committed suicide at school. He'd jumped from a window.

I was stunned and went to bed crying. With a heavy heart, I returned to school the following morning and learned the details about what happened.

That whole week had been parent-teacher conference week, so the schedule had been modified. Classes were being held in the morning, and conferences in the afternoon and evening. Schools don't send report cards home in Japan. Instead, parents come to school to meet with their child and his/her homeroom teacher to discuss the student's performance.

This particular boy, an 11th grader, was having the meeting with his father and homeroom teacher about 5:20 p.m. The meeting was just about wrapping up when the boy stood up, walked across the classroom and simply jumped out the window, falling four stories to his death in the courtyard below.

Classrooms in Japan have large, single pane sliding windows with no screen. And since summer brings brutal temperatures and many classrooms don't have air conditioning, the windows sit wide open. Aside from a small ledge, there is nothing to stop someone from going out the window. For a long time I'd intended to post a photo of one of these shockingly unsafe windows on my blog with a snarky joke involving OSHA. Not funny anymore.

It's a mystery why this boy decided to jump. Bad grades, too much pressure? Not sure, though I was told that at least in the past he was always a good student. I remember having him in Oral Communication class all year last year and he never had trouble.

Of course his death changed the plan for Friday's closing activities. The whole school poured into the gymnasium and sat on the floor in front of the stage, silent. Teachers closed every window and door, every vent, and drew the curtains. This was to keep out any members of the media who might decide to nose around the building, or perhaps hide in the woods nearby and zoom in with a telescopic lens. With no air conditioning, we quickly began to bake in the muggy gym as the principal told the students somberly about what had happened to their classmate. In the back of the room, one teacher hugged a girl who sobbed continuously into a towel.

When the principal finished, it was my turn to go on stage and say my farewell speech in Japanese. I was already fighting tears when I went up on stage. In my hand I held an abbreviated version of my original speech, in which I would have encouraged the students not to be afraid to take risks, and to try doing something even if it makes them scared. That morning I'd shortened it to some generic thank yous and goodbyes. A few lines in I started to break down and then just cried through the rest of it. I'd always thought that it might be difficult for me to make it through my speech without getting emotional, but under the circumstances I just felt like falling apart.

After my speech, the president of student council gave me some flowers and a parting gift, and delivered a goodbye speech to me in English, which he'd memorized. I remember being surprised and impressed when he began speaking in English to me in front of the whole school, and very proud of him.

The ceremony ended after that and the students got to skip their standard school cleaning duties and go home. I think there were some counselors there to help students who were upset, and obviously the other teachers had their hands full supporting the students.

Once the school had emptied out, I wandered the hallways. Nobody had told me where the student had jumped from, but I wondered where and I was reluctant to ask because I didn't want to upset anyone. Outside in the back courtyard I found an older woman alone with a bucket, mopping a spot on the sidewalk. She greeted me with a smile and began speaking to me in Japanese, talked about my speech. In a lull in the conversation she stopped and said some things I didn't understand. Then she pointed to the fourth-floor window above her head. That was enough.

There was nothing there on that patch of brick sidewalk. No flowers, no candles, no notes or teddy bears. Nothing. Just an old woman mopping up any trace. I walked back inside and up the stairs to the fourth floor, peeked through the window in the door to the classroom where the woman had pointed. The room was dark. The curtain was drawn across the window in the middle of the room, and a lonely vase of lilies sat on the desk in front of it.

The school was empty, and I just felt heart broken. Shouldn't more be done to acknowledge what happened, some outpouring of sadness and love for this boy? Back at my desk I spent the rest of the day tinkering and crying. Even before any of this happened, it had already been an emotionally taxing week saying goodbye to one of my weekly conversation partners and struggling to write a meaningful speech that I'd be able to deliver in Japanese. I felt completely wrung out.

I thought about our student constantly for the next few days. In my mind I replayed what must have happened to him, and couldn't believe it was real. My heart ached for the student and for his classmates outside who witnessed his fall. And for his father and his teacher. I wondered why. I couldn't help but feel like every single person in the school held just a tiny sliver of responsibility for what happened. What if a smile and a kind word from any one of us that day might have been enough to change everything? I know that thinking that way probably isn't healthy, but still. What if?

It all felt like a really bad dream. I kept feeling like on Monday I'd go back to school and the boy would be there. We'd get to find out what was wrong and why this happened, and he would be there. But then you realize that of course he won't be there, and this is final. And that's what's so upsetting.


echo said...

What a terrible tragedy! My thoughts and prayers go out to you and everyone at your school, especially the students.

Ojisanjake said...

Every 15 minutes in japan someone commits suicide.