Friday, 14 November 2014

Look at me, watch me, see me (Flashback Friday)

Winner of an children's poetry contest, written by a first-grader:
Hey, mum...
Don't look at your smart-phone
Look at me

The thing kids in orphanages said to us most often wasn’t “play with me” or “carry me” but “look at me, watch me.” Whenever we went to play there would be a cluster of children around us all the time, calling out “watch me do handstands!” “Look at me run to that tree!” At school they would be in a class of 30 to 40. They’d come home to an institution where again, they’d be one of 50, 60, even 100. What they wanted most from us was our undivided attention, our focus on them and them alone, even for a few minutes. Look at me, watch me, see me. Tiger’s orphanage had kept a photo album for him, and when he first came to live with us he loved pointing to group photographs and asking me to guess which one was him. It blew his mind that I could identify him as a five year old in his kindergarten class photo or that I recognised him in his baby pictures. How did I know it was him? He would ask me to do it again, over and over. Look at me, watch me, see me.

 In my first year as an ALT I taught a 4th grade elementary class and noticed a gregarious boy with shocking bleached-blond hair who had a gift for languages and was generally charming and hilarious. The home room teacher was going out of her way to be nice to him, and I had been at that school for nearly a year but had never seen him before, so I assumed he was a new transfer student. He was barefoot; maybe he’d brought the wrong shoes for the new school and taken them off in embarrassment, I thought. I asked about him after the class finished. “Oh no, he’s been here since kindergarten” the teacher told me. “He is often absent though. He has many younger siblings and they’re abused, so he stays at home to look after them.” I stared at her, blankly. What did she mean, they were abused? If the school knew about abuse and had for years, why had nothing been done? A few months later the boy, I’ll call him Shouma, moved up into 5th grade, meaning I saw him more often (5th and 6th graders have more English lessons). He was the kind of boy every Shonen Jump manga features; always smiling, throwing his head back to laugh in an exaggerated “HAHA”, holding his rice bowl to his face and shoveling food in so fast you feared he’d choke then demanding seconds with his mouth still full. He loved to make everyone laugh, and he was universally liked, but close to no one in particular. I asked him once about his lack of shoes, and he told me that it was painful to wear them. He pointed cheerfully to cigarette burns on his feet before running off to play. 

At the time I couldn’t understand why no one seemed to be doing anything except being extra nice to him. Shouma is part of the reason I initially did the research that led to this post on the situation regarding child abuse and institutionalisation in Japan. Although ALT support has been reduced even from the low level we had when I was on the JET Programme, we did at least have periodic meetings where we could discuss issues with our peers. I raised Shouma at one such meeting, and another ALT told me that she’d been asked by her school to be particularly encouraging of one female student, because “her uncle rapes her but she doesn’t have anywhere else to live”. We sat silently, not knowing how to help each other. For a long time I was simply angry, and felt betrayed by the school. Surely they had some training for this, why was I the only one who seemed to be worrying about him? As I learned more, I began to understand their position a little better. 

There would be relatively little a social worker could do to intervene. If the parents could be persuaded to give up the children voluntarily they would almost certainly have been separated and placed into different care situations. For an older child who has been responsible for keeping younger siblings alive, feeding them and sheltering them from blows with his or her own body, to be separated and have no idea what had become of them would be the cause of intolerable anguish. The most likely outcome for Shouma would be placement in a large orphanage, with all of the attendant issues that come with institutionalisation. I don’t want to suggest that abuse is ever OK, but there is some research to indicate that abused children may fare better than neglected children and even the best large scale orphanages offer little more than benign emotional neglect and at worst are sites of abuse themselves. I don’t know what the school’s reasoning was, but as I did more research I came to feel that perhaps trying to get social services involved would be unhelpful and potentially damaging. I moved from rage at the teachers to rage at the entire system. There are many wonderful individuals who have dedicated their lives to trying to improve the system, but Japan still fundamentally fails its most vulnerable. I watched Shouma whenever I could. When the kids were working quietly at their desks and he no longer felt the centre of attention, his face changed. I saw a different Shouma. He seemed much smaller, somehow. 

When he graduated elementary school I cast my eyes around the auditorium throughout the ceremony, wondering what his parents looked like. Wondering if I had the courage to try and say something to them in my imperfect Japanese, which becomes even worse when I am trying to communicate something emotional. I watched him as everyone gathered outside afterwards for photographs. He parents weren’t there. No one had come to watch him. He kicked off his shoes and walked home alone, his diploma in one hand and his shoes in the other. 

A few weeks later junior high began. The rules are stricter there; he had to dye his hair back to black. He took the opportunity of the new environment to ramp up his class-clown act. I remember one class in particular he’d taken down a wire coat hanger (we use them to hang cleaning rags to dry in the classrooms) and twisted it into the shape of a giant erect penis, which he held in his crotch and complained loudly about how stiff it was. The teacher said “put that down immediately” so Shouma used his other hand to try to bend it downwards, but as soon as he released it, of course it flicked back up again. “I’m trying” he yelled brightly, “but it just won’t stay down”. The entire class was in hysterics and even the teacher had trouble keeping her stern face on. As the year progressed, though, cracks began to show. He was an incredibly clever kid, and the pace in elementary school is so slow you can probably pay attention 10% of the time and keep up if you’re bright. By junior high though, everything accumulates quickly and if you missed the key point last week you’ll find yourself with no idea what is going on in this week’s class. His innate intelligence stopped being enough to carry him through, and he grades dropped badly. His need to be the centre of attention and make everyone laugh became increasingly painful to watch, and as the other kids got used to him he began pushing his behaviour to further and further extremes trying to get reactions.

My desk at the junior high was opposite the school nurse’s, and she would often treat minor complaints there rather than in the infirmary. We saw a lot of Shouma. One morning he came in early, before classes had begun, asking for a dressing for what looked to me like a large burn on his arm. As she patched him up the nurse quizzed him in her kind but firm way: “How did you get hurt like this so early in the morning?” “I fell on the way to school” he answered. “If you fell outside there would be dirt and debris in here, but it’s clean” she chided. “I feel in the corridor, inside school but on my way to class” he amended. “It’s pretty bad” she said, “shall I send someone to clean up the blood in the corridor?” He shifted uncomfortably. “I cleaned it up before I came here” he said, looking at the ground. I listened curiously. I assumed the elementary school would have notified the junior high about his home situation, it’s the kind of information teachers are usually careful to share, but I wasn’t sure. I asked the nurse if she knew he was being abused and she said “oh yes, I know, he lies about all his injuries. But until he tells me for himself there’s nothing I can do except treat the wounds.”

Second grade junior high (8th grade) is hard for most kids. Helpfully, in my experience, they all go through puberty at once and get the nasty moody part over and done in the one year. It makes them not very fun to teach, but it does mean they are back to their usual lovely selves by third (9th) grade. Shouma lost something that year. I don’t know how to describe it, really, except that he had always been so bright, and the light seemed to go out. Around that time we were well into our adoption application. Our social worker asked us bluntly “how old are you willing to go?” and hating the idea of having to say no to any child, we settled on 12. I was 28 and in principal in Australia the adoptive parents should be 18 years older than the adoptee, so we were pushing it, but we assumed (erroneously as it turned out) that we’d be waiting for a few years before a placement anyway. Nevertheless, when we said “12” I immediately thought of Shouma. There are children like him all over Japan, and although he wasn’t being placed for adoption I still felt like we’d just said “no” to him. It’s an awful (but necessary, I do understand that) part of the adoption process, listing the children you will say no to. “Yes” I wrote for cerebral palsy. Under autism I wrote “yes if high functioning”. Under Down’s Syndrome I wrote “no” and struggled with myself for days.

A couple of months before the summer holidays in Shouma’s second year of junior high I got a call that we had been matched with a little boy. I was given just a few cursory details over the phone in that initial call. The little boy is now our son, Tiger. But his real name he shares with Shouma, and that shook me profoundly. It was my last term teaching with the JET Programme. On my last day at Shouma’s school he had a fever. He was sitting, slumped on a chair in the infirmary waiting for permission to go home, and missed my farewell class. I wanted to say goodbye but I didn’t want to wake him up. I tried to write him a letter. “I’ll always think of you as the boy with blond hair” I wrote. “You are very special to me. You share a name with my son, and I think about you when I see him.” What else could I say? Like every other adult in his life, for the past four years I had been a bystander to his abuse. I left the letter beside him without waking him up.

I looked at Shouma, I watched him. I saw him, and I did nothing.
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  1. I think you did and have done a lot. And you recorded it for us. Life, in all its intricacies, is never black and white.

  2. How heartbreaking...reminds me of Schindler's List where he breaks down realizing he could have done more despite saving as many as he did.

    I asked my dad once when I returned to visit Manila about how he handled all the street kids coming up begging for money or trying to sell useless stuff at the stop lights. I grew up there and I know I got numb to it all after a while, didn't even see them. But it was shocking after being in the US for a while and seeing it again. He said some people give whatever they can to them, but it ultimately does more harm than good. He doesn't give them anything at the stop lights, but he did adopt two of them into his family. He couldn't help all of them, but he could do real good for my two sisters.

    Sadly, our attempt at adoption in Japan didn't end up going through, but I too remember those questions, along with the other shocking ones: What race would you prefer? Any issues with parentage (i.e. drug abusers, alcoholics, wealthy/poor)? We tried to not act shocked, but it was hard. Of course, when it came to the medical questions it was harder. One of my adopted sisters was high functioning autistic. She was such a destructive force in our family, it's hard to quantify. I did not want to inflict that experience on my wife and son. Still it was difficult to describe what we were ok with. We ended up with "Any issue that won't result in a life-long debilitating condition such that it would require continuous medical/psychiatric care." Turns out there wasn't a checkbox for that. It is often hard to know the line between selfishness and wisdom.

  3. I am not brave enough to look. I am not strong enough to see.
    The work that you do and the life that you lead is awe inspiring.
    I desperately need to crash on your floor and ply you with coffee and a catch up.

    (And your prose is stunning as ever)

  4. Thank you all for commenting and I'm sorry for taking such a long time to reply. I have been, as a friend of mine would say, "having all the feels", and I needed to step away for a little while after this one.

  5. Ah Soph, you made me cry. This story is so tragic and beautiful. So very well written. You're such an inspiration.


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