I was a brand new ALT, in the classroom for less than a month. A student had her head down on folded arms, ignoring the activity going on around her. Assuming she was sleeping, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her a question. She raised her tear-streaked face, and the arms it had been resting on were red with fresh razor cuts. The question caught in my throat and I stood stupidly staring down at her until the boy next to her said something… I don’t remember what, something like “leave her alone”, and answered the question for her. I was very new. I was still religiously avoiding speaking any Japanese in front of the students (one of the more harmful absolutes impressed on new ALTs: “you must NEVER speak Japanese in front of students!!!” irrespective of the vastly different circumstances each ALT lives and works in). I didn’t know this girl. I didn’t know what to do. She graduated seven months later and I never talked to her about it. I tried to seek her out at lunch time; tried to make it clear in my awkward newbie way that I was a friend if she needed one. She found it funny and a bit strange. She was a rhythmic-gymnast. She ate nothing at lunch time except konnyaku, a jelly-like substance which takes more calories to chew and digest than it contains. Her bones were showed sharply through her skin. Her cuts covered her arms from wrist to elbow.
When she graduated she gave me a hand-made card. She said that my smile made her happy. I only saw her once after that. She was in the supermarket, wearing a baggy tracksuit, grocery shopping with her three-year-old brother on one hip. She ran over to me beaming, then after quickly getting to the end of her English vocabulary she stood awkwardly for a little while before saying goodbye. I’ve thought about her often. I hope that she is OK. I think about what I could have said, what I should have done. I thought about how I would handle the situation differently now.
Last year, a week after the end of the summer holidays, another ninth grade girl. Her cuts were crossed from one side of her arms to the other, not running lengthwise, but deep. And very fresh. This time, I didn’t keep it to myself. This time, right after the class finished, I spoke to the teacher.
“She has cuts on her arms” I said. “Is she OK? Do you know if anything is going on at home perhaps?”
A teacher I respect. An inspirational teacher. A teacher I learn something new from every day.
“I see” she said. And covering her mouth she leaned into my ear conspiratorially and whispered “actually, I heard that over the summer she bleached her hair! That’s the kind of student she is.”
There are so many things that I love about schools in Japan. The way students who self-harm are dealt with is not one of them. A system that sees hair dye as a serious issue but the urge to mutilate one’s flesh as of passing interest is a system that lets kids down when they need to be visible. This is not to say that Australia deals with it well either.
Eight years ago I was on a bus in Hobart. A teen-aged boy got on, arms cross-crossed with old white scars and fresh red lines. When I got off I dropped a note in his lap: “I saw your arms. If you want to talk, here’s my email.” He did. We emailed back and forth for quite a long time. He said that no one had ever brought it up: not at school, not at home, not his friends. People looked away. He felt invisible. He only felt alive when he saw himself bleeding.
Last term, an eighth-grade boy unpinned a giant safety pin from his bag and stuck it into his arm, pulling up the skin and wiggling it in deep. “He shouldn’t have something that dangerous at school” I said to the teacher. The boy is troubled. I don’t know what his family circumstances are, but he hasn’t had new shoes in a year and his toes poke through. His jacket is second-hand and too small, his trousers are torn and stained and several sizes too big. He is violent to other students and destructive of property. Why he was allowed to bring sharps into class is beyond me, but apparently that is just my weird foreign way of thinking. The teacher shrugged. The boy held his bleeding arm over his worksheet until he had enough blood on it to cover the page. Then he wandered out of class and didn’t come back. No one went to look for him.
Again, the could have, should have thoughts. Three years and I still haven’t found an answer.