Since moving to Japan four years ago I’ve had to say goodbye many times, to friends, family, colleagues and students. Each time, I tried to hold back the full extent of my feelings until just after parting. For me, showing too much emotion has always felt like a loss of control. Yet in hindsight I regret the times I held back more than the times I let go.
I grew up believing that expressing positive feelings, affection and appreciation was unnecessary or even embarrassing. Admitting to or showing sadness or vulnerability made me feel weak and ashamed. So I learned to suppress a lot of my emotion, especially sadness, distracting and numbing myself with various behaviours and habits.
Kiki Smith, Pool of Tears 2 (after Lewis Carroll), etching, aquatint and watercolor (2000)
Then in late 2005, I had my first panic attack. I was at a small workshop for editors and we had to give a brief self-introduction. As I waited for my turn, I noticed that my heart had begun beating extremely fast, and so hard that I could see the front of my shirt pushing in and out with each beat. I felt like I was suffocating. I was very hot and sweating all over. I became so out of breath that I didn’t know how I was going to be able to speak. I badly wanted to escape, but felt equally terrified of getting up and running out of the room because then everyone would clearly notice my crazy behaviour.
I’d always been nervous about public speaking, but nothing like this had ever happened before. I still don’t know why it began that day. But from then on, for the next twelve years, it happened most times I had to speak in public. I quickly grew to dread any occasion where I might have to say something in front of others.
I’d hoped that with the constant speeches we have to give in Japan I might start to get over it, but I didn’t. There were phases when it was better or worse. The number of people did not matter. It could happen in front of a handful of colleagues, or during an interview with one person, or in a school hall of 800 students and teachers. Or it might not happen at all. I could never be sure when it would come on or not, or whether it would come and go before I started speaking. I stressed before each occasion and avoided many things as a result – never volunteering to present at teachers’ conferences, and choosing not to join groups or go to events where I might have to make some kind of self-introduction. I tried to hide it from most people, out of embarrassment and pride and also because I felt some apprehension around the fact that I had not disclosed this issue before accepting my position, one that involves talking in front of people every day and frequently giving speeches. But despite never having taught before I somehow trusted that teaching would be different, and it was. The attacks almost never happened in class, which I find quite different from public speaking that doesn’t involve any interaction. Still there were a few occasions the panic would come on during a lesson, particularly if there was some emotional content involved, like giving parting messages during last classes.
When I left my previous school, where I had grown close to the students and teachers, I was sad and reluctant to go. But during my last few weeks there I was mostly preoccupied with how I was going to cope with the goodbyes and speeches without panicking. I went to see a counsellor who taught me some calming techniques and memorably played me a scene from the movie Dune in which a man is challenged to endure extreme pain knowing it will not harm or kill him – a test that everyone before him had failed. It was helpful, but the two sessions I had were not enough to fix a problem that had persisted for over a decade. Still, I managed to get through the speeches. And I didn’t cry until the last moment before I left the school.
Two years later, it was time to leave again. But this time was different. There was no panic. I knew that this did not mean it was gone forever, but the fact that I had not been caught up with anticipating it was a big step. I had begun to accept the panic as part of me rather than trying to escape it. I decided that if I was going to have the most visible attack to date, or start to cry uncontrollably, so be it. This time, the fear just didn’t seem as significant as my sadness and what was underlying it – gratitude and love for the people I was leaving.
At first I was worried about being unable to speak while crying, but after I let the tears come the first time, I started to let go and allow it to happen – in front of my last classes, during my farewell speeches, and in my principal’s office when he called me in to give me a beautiful scarf he’d chosen for me. I cried saying goodbye to my ballet class and the elementary school kids who wrote me letters with sweet but accurate pictures of me showing the dark brown and grey roots in my hair, which made me laugh too. I cried during the third-years’ farewell party and when the teachers waved me off on the evening of my last day. I cried giving my landlady my rather pathetic-looking pot plant to take care of and she completely understood what it meant to me – the first plant I have ever managed to keep alive – and promised to send me photos of its progress. I cried on my last night, saying goodbye to my friend and her little boy. And on several other occasions. I stopped feeling quite so embarrassed, and fought it less and less. I let myself feel sad.
Agnes Martin, Gratitude, acrylic and graphite on canvas (2001)
Over the past few years of teaching, I have spent most of my time with young teens, and have been reminded daily of the ups and downs and heightened emotion of that phase of life, which is still fresh in my memory probably because I have not completely moved beyond it. I have watched and identified with the students’ struggles around expressing their feelings, sometimes reacting with anger or meanness or withdrawing when sadness is too painful.
I too have tried to avoid the pain of sadness. After parting from the students at my previous school, I held back just slightly at the next, thinking it would hurt less when they graduated or when I left. It didn’t work. At times I was overly concerned about not wanting to encroach on or disrupt the systems the other teachers had put in place, or to arouse too much envy at the easy relationships foreign assistants are able to have with students. It’s what I’ve always battled with – caring too much what others’ think, trying to control perceptions, being afraid to be fully myself. Although I formed close bonds with many students and teachers, I wish I’d shown a little more of myself sometimes. There are things I wish I’d said to past students, one in particular, who is no longer here. I feel sad when I think about how because of my cautiousness I did not express what I wanted to before it was too late. So as the time came for me to leave this school, I was determined not to let that happen again.
During my staff farewell party, the teachers asked me if I had a ‘special student’. I’d never been asked this question before, though I know the other teachers are constantly talking about which students they find difficult to manage or who they are fond of. In the past I would have been vague, but I answered yes, and told them about the student I thought was special and why.
I was a rebellious and at times uncooperative student in high school, but there was one teacher who despite her frustration tried to encourage me, writing me notes at the bottom of my essays about how I was different from other teenagers and should share my thoughts and ideas with others. She called me in for a meeting one day to talk to me about my cutting class but, battling not to cry, I was unable to say a word. I couldn’t tell her that despite how it seemed I actually admired and respected her, this teacher who read us poems in Afrikaans that brought her to tears, had bright red hair, wore stockings with interesting patterns and invited Hare Krishnas and Buddhists to come and talk to us about their beliefs (during one of these visits, shamefully, she had to send me out of the room because I was talking so much, trying to impress a boy I liked). I never forgot her comments in those essays, and it has taken me over twenty years, but I am finally doing what she said I should do and sharing.
When I arrived in Japan, I knew very little about the country and had never taught before. Once a week, I visited an elementary school about twenty minutes from my base school. From the start, without knowing exactly why, I felt connected to that school. I lead most of the classes by myself, which makes a difference in your relationship with students, and I found out later that many of the children had complicated home lives — several of them lived in children’s homes and many had lost family members during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.
From the beginning, one of the students in fifth grade stood out, always raising his hand enthusiastically, attempting to answer my questions and responding encouragingly to things I said. I could sense his ability to empathise with this nervous newcomer, his efforts to make me feel at ease and welcome. I was touched and impressed by this awareness and compassion in someone so young. I later found out that he has a difficult family situation, and got into some trouble in his first year of junior high school.
I left that elementary school after two years, and started at a new base school. It was a difficult time for me – I didn’t want to leave the school I was at, and the students with whom I had spent almost every day since I’d arrived in Japan, but it was a rule of the programme that we had to change schools every two years. At the same time I found out that the person I was dating had been cheating on me, and my closest friend left Japan. At first this new school felt foreign and strange after the modern, brightly lit building of my previous school that was packed to capacity with over 700 students. This school was old, dark inside and slightly spooky (like many schools here it was built on a graveyard and apparently had a ghost on the fourth floor, the stairs to which had been roped off). And having been built for twice as many students it was far too big for the 300 or so it now contained. There were several unused rooms, and to get from the staffroom to where the students were you had to enter a different building. I felt stranded, no longer constantly bumping into kids or walking with them to school in the mornings as I was now arriving at the staff entrance. I felt quite alone. And then on that first day as I was walking around outside orienting myself a friendly voice called out my name, and it was the boy from elementary school.
Over the next two years he was consistently friendly and enthusiastic, not changing as many children do (myself included), going from being cheerful to withdrawn or rebellious between one grade and the next. I watched as he would call out answers and words of appreciation to a guest speaker who was beginning to bore the other students, tell a kid who had frozen in front of class not to worry, or attempt to answer a difficult question when no one else would dare raise their hand. He would sometimes try to translate for me, running up to the blackboard to help explain something I had said to the rest of the class using pictures and gestures. He was not afraid to speak out in front of others or to stand up for less popular students, even in a communal culture which does not promote sticking out in any way. I could tell how deeply and intensely he felt, what a big heart he had, and sometimes I could see that the other kids, and some of the teachers, thought he was too much. They would say he was ‘crazy’, not in a mean way but in a way that said they did not quite get him. And despite all his seeming confidence I sensed a sadness and longing beneath the surface. Sometimes I would see him sitting in a corner alone, deflated, and I imagined he might be exhausted from all the effort and energy he was constantly giving out to others.
I know his homeroom teacher noticed his empathy too, and could see what I saw. She is one of the English teachers and my supervisor, and from the start we had a slightly awkward relationship. I was never quite sure why – I thought it could be because I had not been in the best space when I started at this school, and also suspected it might be shyness on her part. I wondered if she too might sometimes find it difficult to show her real feelings. Despite seeming less demonstrative than other teachers, stricter and more closed off, especially with me, it was clear that her students loved her. And I am sure that this contributed to their warmth and friendliness towards me, too.
Shortly after the staff party, she started to put together a goodbye video from her three third-year classes. They chose a song I liked, and translated the lyrics into English. She encouraged them to look beyond the literal meaning of each line to the message beneath, as it related to meeting and parting. She told me that there had been much debate over the best way to translate each line. Though the English is not perfect, the sentiment is clear in phrases like ‘Let’s step forward on a new road in a world full that is of love’, ‘We don’t run away [so] you aren’t alone’ and ‘Don’t be changed by a bad world’. Along with these lyrics were touching messages and footage from the students saying goodbye on different occasions. They also made another video of them singing ‘Stand by Me’.
All of this was a surprise. After my final goodbye speech, late in the afternoon, I was packing up my desk, thinking they had all gone home, when the boy from elementary school came to call me from the staffroom. I’ll never forget the moment of walking into the darkened music room and seeing all their faces again after I thought we’d already had our last farewell. After watching the video and singing ‘Stand by Me’ together, the teacher said I should go round the room and say goodbye to each student one last time with a hug. Then after everyone had left, she took the boy and me aside and explained that she had told him what I’d said at the staff party. She said that he’d been in charge of planning and coordinating the video, and had come up with the idea of throwing a surprise party where all the third years would gather to show me the video and say goodbye in person. She said that for weeks he had been reminding everyone not to say a word about it, and on that day had set up the room before coming to call me from the staffroom. I expressed again the things I had said at the staff party and also written in our diary exchange, and she translated my words into Japanese. I could see that she felt it was important for both of us to hear these things, and I think it was for her too.
Later, in the evening, two of the girls who’d graduated earlier in the year came to say goodbye, bringing roses and sweets. I’d come to know them well, chatting to them in the library where they would spend most break-times because they liked the librarian, as did I, and preferred not to sit with their classmates. I sometimes watched them play tennis and sat with them during various school events. They reminded me of myself at school, not outcasts but outsiders, keeping to themselves, neither disruptively rebellious nor strictly towing the line. They were always together, best friends despite their differences – the one girlish and dating a popular boy in the basketball club, the other openly gay and identified as a boy. They made me laugh a lot, criticising and correcting my Japanese pronunciation, at times mocking me exaggeratedly at others despairing that I would ever learn to speak coherently. They were good teachers, giving me honest feedback as opposed to the praise sometimes heaped on foreigners for being able to say ‘konnichiwa’ after years of living in Japan. Most mornings I would pass the two of them on the way to school, the only students who took that road, which I am fairly certain was forbidden to them. About a minute away from school, they would stop at the same doorway so that the one who identified as a boy could remove her tracksuit pants and put on her skirt while her friend held her school bag. I had not been able to say goodbye to them properly when they graduated, and had felt sad about that. Their coming to see me gave me further hope that even when we can’t express things in the moment, or overtly, they are still understood and felt.
Cy Twombly, Blooming, acrylic and wax crayon on ten wooden panels on canvas (2001–2008)
Among the many feelings I have had this week is gratitude that I had these opportunities to tell or show people in person how I felt. Even if the tears and overwhelming emotion made me incoherent at times, it is progress. I didn’t withdraw or suppress my emotions, or rely only on writing letters as I usually do, because it is easier than telling people how I feel in person.
We do all kinds of things to avoid the pain of parting, keeping a distance or even contemplating whether it is worth meeting at all. In a book I read recently, Shiokari Pass by Ayako Miura, one of the characters quotes the saying ‘Living we die, meeting we part.’ He wonders, ‘If meeting means parting, surely it would be better not to meet anyone in the first place,’ and feels ‘a bitter desolation at the bottom of his heart’.
Parting is hard. As a friend pointed out, this is why most people choose to stay where they are. But if I had not come here, I would never have experienced all this love. And there is so much to be learned from leaving, like how it makes you appreciate things more and then, hopefully, carry that appreciation into the next meeting, opening you up to loving more. In the poem below by Adrienne Rich, ‘Stepping Backward’, she summarises what these past weeks have taught me. From now on, I think I would rather say too much, overshare and risk being judged than say nothing or wait until it is too late.
Good-by to you whom I shall see tomorrow,
Next year and when I’m fifty; still good-by.
This is the leave we never really take.
If you were dead or gone to live in China
The event might draw your stature in my mind.
I should be forced to look upon you whole
The way we look upon the things we lose.
We see each other daily and in segments;
Parting might make us meet anew, entire.