The door opened, and the boy entered without a word.
“Oh, hello. I wasn’t sure if you were coming.”
He just grunted while he pulled out his books. I thought nothing of it — it certainly wasn’t out of the normal.
“So, how are you today?”
“Fine…” This was clearly not a truth.
“Really? You seem… I dunno. People who are fine say, ‘Fine!’ but you said, ‘Fine…’”
He looked around the room. “I mean, uhhh… futsuu?”
“Ah, then I guess ‘fine’ is okay. Maybe ‘so-so’ is better today, though?”
He nodded. “Yes. So-so.”
“Okay, gotcha. Why so-so?”
He shrugged. “Just because?” I asked. He nodded once. Fair enough.
We continued the normal class opening. I asked him the day, and the date. He thought it was yesterday, for one reason or another, but he could say both so no problem. I asked him the weather. I asked him what he had for lunch. While he was answering, I noticed scrapes here and there on his hands and elbows. Looked like he’d taken a fall off a bike or something. My troll brain immediately started seeing him as a zombie.
Zombification would certainly explain his being so-so.
The topic was THINGS VERB OTHER-THINGS. Specifically, we were focusing on the verb ‘eat’. “Can you read this sentence?”
“Um… Lions eat meat.”
“Good work! Do you eat meat?”
“Yes. Meat is yummy.” Zombie, I’m tellin’ ya.
“Good. How about this sentence?”
“Hippos eat plants.”
“Right. Do you like hippos?”
He thought for a moment. “Yeah,” he drawled in his nasal child voice, “they’re cool, I guess.”
“Right. Last one.”
“Alligators eat fish and animals.”
“Good. Do they eat birds?”
“I think so. But look at the picture! Zazu got away.”
“Lucky Zazu!” Wait, an alligator in Africa? Surely this is a crocodile. Dammit, Disney.
We carried on to the next page. Some phonics funtime. Hearing the difference between /ar/ and /or/. Yarn v. corn. Then, it was song time. The book provides lyrics, but as I don’t have the CD, I have to make up the tune on my own.
“Lions eat meat. Yes they do. Woaohaohaoaoh.
Hippos eat plants. Yes they do. Woahaoahaoahoh.
But giraffes and elephants, they eat leaves.
Leaves aren’t plants — they are leaves.
Lions eat meat and hippos eat plants.
Look, take it up with the Disney English people, not me. I’m only the performer.
At the start of the class, the boy had seemed a little sullen, but once we got into the work, he seemed like his usual self. When we reached the end of the chapter in the book, we still had a bit of time. The next chapter is about that movie Disney/Pixar made that’s exactly the same as that movie Dreamworks made the same year. I decided we’d deal with that next week and so I let him choose a game.
He rummaged through the card drawer, and didn’t find anything he was interested in. He looked through the board game pile and was similarly unsuccessful. He went to the secondary board game pile. Nothing. He found the small foam football, but placed it one side. He lifted up the half-deflated mini-soccer ball and retrieved Uno from its hiding place. “Can we play this? Please?” We were nearly out of time anyway, and he’d worked hard, so sure, why not.
“Okay! Sounds good!”
The luck was not with me this day, friends. A cold wind blew from the west, and I couldn’t for the life of me win a hand. Even that one hand where, somehow — probably due to poor shuffling on my part — we both ended up with hands full of +2 and +1 and +4, which are stackable under common Japanese house rules, and he had to draw 19. Even then, he somehow managed to come back and beat me. No, the cards were angry this day.
When time was up, we gathered the cards and put them away. “Thanks for coming! Good work. Remember your homework.”
“Three pages, right?”
“Yup. Have a good week.”
He left. I watched him descend the outdoor stairs to the office, grasping at his hat as the wind tried to take it from him. Black clouds were moving in, replacing the clear blue sky.
At the end of the day, as I was cleaning up and returning my texts to where they ought to be, the Boss Lady asked me how the boy was. “He was normal. Good kid, bright kid. Works hard. Why do you ask?”
“Well, his mother came here this afternoon.”
Here we go, I thought, what am I not doing in class that she wants me to do. Parents can be so meddlesome sometimes. Trust me, I know what I’m doing, I don’t need pointers from parents. “Oh?” was all I said, though.
“Did he say anything about his father today?”
“No. I don’t think he’s ever mentioned his dad. His mom, but rarely his dad.”
Boss Lady nodded solemnly. I could see her eyes were red. In that split second, I saw it coming but couldn’t react.
“His mom came to tell me that his father died two weeks ago. I couldn’t ask for details, it would be rude, and she didn’t offer them beyond that.”
Yep. “Oh, wow, that’s terrible. No, he didn’t say anything. I guess, in retrospect, he seemed a little down at the start, but if I didn’t know this, I’d just have thought it was normal mood variation.” Yes, I really talk and think like that. This is why I’m alone.
“Ah, I see.” She paused. “The mother, I could tell she’s still quite sad. The tissues had to come out.”
“That’s really too bad.” I am bad at feelings, especially those of others. Besides, nothing I could say would make things better, so why say much at all?
“Well, don’t bring it up with him, but if he brings it up, talk about it as much as he wants to.”
“Yeah. I know kids, and I know trauma. Don’t worry.”
She nodded. Conversation moved to other topics and then I was away home for the evening.
Perhaps I’m cold-hearted. Perhaps I’m just stunted because of my relationship with my own parents. But I find it incredibly difficult to empathize with people having trouble with their parents, or even people who’ve lost their parents. Friends, yes. Parents… I can’t do it. It’s a flaw of mine, to be sure.
As I walked to the bus stop, the cool rain started to fall, and the wind blew stronger.