“This is hard,” the friend said.
She was slouched over on the desktop. Her head resting on her arms, she scrolled through her iPhone. Then she tried to take a nap. Then back to the iPhone.
She was right: this is hard.
The computer room didn’t have any computers. They were put away—back when the school was still serious about avoiding students gathering in large groups, or sharing things.
The only computers left were at the teacher’s desk at the front of the room.
“This isn’t hard,” the teacher said. He lied.
The education system in this country valued memorization, consensus, and risk-avoidance, and not critical thinking and self-expression. However, it did peculiar things like hold English speech contests at maybe every high school in the land.
As an English teacher, it was his job to make it look like asking teenagers to express arguments in a foreign language was not peculiar or abrupt at all.
On the teacher’s right, sitting in front of a computer, was one of the students he was coaching for the speech contest. He coached her last year, too.
Her writing skill in Japanese was uncanny. She wrote in a haunting, poetic way that made you look at her twice. A normal looking high school girl with a ditzy demeanor and a goofy sense of humor, her writing betrayed depth that he rarely saw in even the grown men and women who were supposed to be teaching her.
But she still had a lot of studying to do before she could do the same in English. And, like most of the other speech students, she knew what she wanted to talk about, but didn’t know how to explain why.
His student decided that she wanted to talk about gender issues in Japan. When asked why, the girl hoonestly answered she didn’t know. The teacher, trying not to sigh, reminded her about the importance of specificity. So she went to Google, looking for LGBTQIA+ celebrities to draw inspiration from.
To the teacher’s left sat his student’s restless friend. He honestly would’ve prefered her not to be there. He always got a little competitve about the speech contest, and he didn’t want to hurt one of his students’ chances of winning an award while helping some other teacher’s pupil.
But he understood how strong the girls’ friendship was. They were almost always together, even if one of them had to sit around and wait in desperate boredom.
Anyway—the teacher was lying.
“It’s not hard,” the teacher lied.
“A good speech,” the teacher continued, looking at the friend, “will make a strong connection between the speaker and the audience.”
“You have to take the feeling inside of you,” he said, pointing at himself, “and make the audience feel it too,” and pointed at her.
She looked at him blankly.
“For example,” he said. Sat in front of the only other computer, he pulled up an image search. In the search box, he entered the querry ‘Trayvon Martin.’
“I’m Black, right?”
At this obvious observation, the girl could only nod.
“But I can’t just tell people, ‘Oh, racism is bad.’
“They know that already,” he said. “If I tell them that, they will stop listening. ‘Why should I listen to you? I already know what you’re going to say.'”
“So,” the teacher said, pointing at the picture of Trayvon.
The boy in the Hollister t-shirt.
The dead boy in the Hollister t-shirt.
(There are other pictures. Pictures of Trayvon smoking, or making ‘gang signs’, or lying dead in the grass, pictures pushed to the top search results by racists who would villainize a boy already dead.)
“So,” he said again (and ignoring the other pictures),
“This boy’s name is Trayvon Martin.”
“I used to live in a little town in Toyama,” he began.
The Japanese countryside. Mountains. Rice farms. A whole town of Japanese people.
On one night, many years ago, it’s nighttime and I’m getting ready for bed.
I always browse the Internet a little bit before I go to bed.
Somebody shared something on Facebook: a link to a news story.
There’s a recording. It’s a 911 call.
On that night, Trayvon had went out to buy some iced tea and candy. He was walking back home when a man named George Zimmerman stopped him.
Zimmerman said, Who are you? What are you doing here? and so on.
Trayvon said, I live here. and so on.
But Zimmerman didn’t believe him. Trayvon was Black. He didn’t believe him.
So he followed Trayvon in his car.
Trayvon tried to run. Zimmerman tried to catch him.
They ended up in a fight.
Someone in the neighborhood called 911.
“…there’s someone screaming outside…”
They caller was terrified.
I hit the play button and listen again.
A gun shot.
I, sitting in bed, in the dark, on the other side of the world, have no idea what is going on.
There’s a picture of a Black boy.
There’s a recording of his death.
What is happening in my country?
What is going to happen?
The recording ends again. I hit the play button.
All I can do is keep listening. It’s dark outside my window and it’s dark inside my room.
I press the play button on the recording over and over again.
“I was scared,” the teacher said.
“I was safe, here in Japan,” he continued. “But when I look at this boy’s picture, I see myself,” he said.
The girl nodded.
“The next time I go back to the US to visit, it could be me next,” he said.
The girl nodded.
“Even if it’s not me—it could be my mother. My brother. My sister. It could be any of my friends or family. It could be today, it could be tomorrow, that I recognize someone’s face on the news,” he said.
The girl nodded and nodded.
“We can be killed at any moment. Just because we’re Black.”
The teacher looked at the computer screen.
He saw Emmett Till.
Keep it together, he told himself.
Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin. Himself. Someone he loved. His own future children.
He felt something. “So,” he said.
It was almost too much. He pushed it down.
“Anyway,” he said, “you can’t just say ‘racism is bad’ or ‘gender discrimination is bad’ or ‘homophobia is bad.’
“You have to make people feel something. Tell them why it’s important to you. Then they will listen,” he said.
The girl understood. She let out a deep sigh. She looked up at the ceiling.
The teacher’s speech student, the girl sitting right next to him, the girl he was actually supposed to help, was still looking at pictures. She may not have heard a damned word of what he just said.
Meanwhile, her best friend was quiet. It wasn’t boredom—it was contemplation.
The teacher wanted to thank her. What he had said out loud to her, on the spot, without thinking, were words that had been stuck inside him for a long time.
He doubted his fitness to bear these words. His worthiness. These things were too sacred and too important.
What if he didn’t have the skill to write the write words exactly the right way? What if the words he wrote failed to communicate the importance of this boy’s life? Or his own life?
Or how much their lives matter?
And without this young lady’s need to be everywhere her friend was at every opportunity, he may have never expressed these words at all.
As the two girls continued to think about how to express the things that matter to them, the teacher sat in his chair, and he too went into deep contemplation.
A storm of words and images and emotions was beginning to rage and swirl inside of his mind.
There was only one way to end this storm.
And it would be very, very hard.