I came to the US when I was in the third grade from Japan and did not speak or understand English. Also, back then, there was no such thing as ESL, and it was really bad to be an Asian sitting at the "Dummy Table." I overcame the obstacle(s) and eventually earned an MFA from Wichita State University (long long time ago). I'm a retired US federal law enforcement officer and now have the time to write again.
The Educational Bow
My first class at Arlington Elementary was the sixth grade. My family had arrived in the United States from Japan only three months earlier. I remember sitting at a small table in the corner by the back wall. It was only two months earlier that I used to sit near the front, next to the teacher’s desk. My old table was often referred to as “The Oriental Table” since only the Orientals and the smart Caucasians sat there. No one had to tell me my new table was in the dummy corner; it was the part of every classroom where the teacher placed the hopeless. Dan Zukle, Joe Fisk, and Bobby Tymick sat at my table. We were all good friends. They understood my situation so they didn’t speak English to me really fast or use complicated words.
It was eight weeks into the semester that day. I remember the event too well. I wanted to watch the birds play on the rubber tree outside, but the location of my new table made that impossible. If birds could communicate, so could I; maybe, I thought, I could learn something by observing them. Forty-five minutes remained before we would be dismissed, but the abnormal, absolute silence, and the different behavior patterns of others led me to the conclusion that something was wrong. On a regular day, people would be throwing graham crackers at one another. Only my friends and I tried to act as we usually did: Joe and Dan played tic tac toe on top of the desk, Bob picked his nose, and I pretended to yawn. Then it happened, five minutes before class ended. “Put everything away! Come up here when your name is called,” our teacher said. Immediately, I knew the situation wasn’t good.
Mr. Magoo was what I used to call our teacher. Like the cartoon character, he was bald and had slanted squinty eyes. Back then, I often wondered how he could see out of them and thought he had Oriental blood. He wasn’t incompetent or unfair as a teacher, but Magoo could only see what the exterior showed him. I didn’t meet his expectations when compared to other Orientals.
“Mike Acott, Mark Bollinger, Joe Fisk . . .” Magoo called names in a rapid succession. “Jack Mayesh, Takeshi Tsukemoto . . .”
The last name was mine. I walked up, stood in line, and talked to Joe in front of me. Others, who didn’t sit at our table, were quiet standing in line. But my friends and I acted normal, since we were used to being called to Magoo’s desk. Naturally I was nervous since this type of event was a first, but I would have been really surprised if Magoo had not called me. After a period of time, a person knows what or what not to expect without being told.
All the Orientals at the smart table appeared to be doing their homework, but I knew they were really writing to one another and making a list of people being called to show to their parents. I knew what they were doing since I used to be one of them.
“Bobby Tymick, Diane Sakamoto . . . “
Students started to whisper to one another. I even stopped talking; I was shocked! Diane sat at the Oriental Table. Like the rest of the girls in the Oriental community, she wore a knee-length skirt, a freshly pressed blouse, ankle-length laced socks, and polished black shoes. She had her ponytail tied back with a pink bow. Diane cried as she walked toward the line with her head bowed.
Magoo gave me a piece of paper. “I want it back tomorrow, and I don’t want to hear that you say again that you forgot it.”
The cartoon Magoo had a bad memory, and I thought our Magoo was the same. I sat down, folded the paper, and stuffed it in my shirt pocket. People at other tables read theirs. I would have read mine too, but I couldn’t read English. Diane cried out loud, her arms covered her head on top of the desk. These papers must be really humiliating, I thought.
“Edgar Watson, Norma Vega, Daniel Zukle.”
The dismissal bell rang. Bob took books out of his desk. “Bobby, “ I asked, “why all book?” I never took books home since I couldn’t read them. Although I once did take books home with me, I soon realized that it didn’t make any sense.
“Mom and dad will think I study. It always works.”
“What it?” I pointed to the piece of paper in my shirt pocket.
“ ‘D’ notices! Don’t you know that?”
I didn’t, but I knew ‘D’ was a bad grade. This was worse that expected, I thought. It wasn’t just another bad grade. A fist-sized black and blue bruise was still on my chest from last week. The bump on my head was for a ‘D’ on a spelling test. I knew the paper would give me a stomachache.
Everyone who received a notice left the class with lots of books, except me. In fact, even the Caucasians looked like the Orientals. Diane cried at Magoo’s desk. The rest of the Orientals didn’t wait for her as they usually did. Maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t be the only Oriental at my desk.
Dan and Bobby walked home with me.
“What does it say you’re flunking?” asked Dan.
I pulled out the folded paper and gave it to him.
He placed his three books under his arm. “Gosh! You’re flunking everything: Science, History, Spelling, Health, Reading, Social Sciences. Everything but Math.”
Magoo didn’t know that my father did my math assignments on an adding machine. “Dan, mom and father mad this night?”
“Naw, they tell me try harder. I’m only flunking two subjects. Much better than before.”
It wasn’t the proper moment to criticize him for taking home books he had no intention of reading, for he was now one of my new Caucasian and only friends.
“Gosh,” Dan said, “I thought all you Japs were smart.”
So had I, until six weeks ago. Being different and an outcast meant no longer having to conform to a set of rules.
Diane walked past us crying, her head lowered, talking to herself as though she was counting the cracks in the sidewalk. She carried a big bag full of books, more than usual; she knew what was expected of her in this situation. I walked behind her with my head up.
“What you going to do?” Dan asked.
“Not know. Good-bye.” I turned right, onto the street I lived on.
Vic Kuramato, known as the “The Oriental Brian,” walked down the street two houses ahead of me. He carried lots of books home every day. Vic’s mother had told my mother that his father needed all of those books to do Vic’s homework. I crossed the street and passed him. “Vic, hello.” He didn’t turn his head. We had been best friends, but he hadn’t talked to me since Magoo moved me.
Our house looked real Japanesey. Bonsai trees were planted in the front yard. They looked like little green balloons attached together with thick brown rope. Oriental lanterns hung around the exterior of the house, just like the ones on our old house in Japan.
“I’m home,” I said in Japanese. I forgot to take off my shoes and walked inside.
“Shoes! Shoes!” my mother yelled from the kitchen.
To take off dirty shoes and put on dirty slippers didn’t make any sense to me, since dirt from either the shoes or the slippers would have dirtied the shag carpeting; slippers were used to walk on wooden floors in Japan. I went back to the doorway and took off my shoes. Again, I said, “I’m home,” in Japanese. My mother stopped arranging the pots and pans and looked over the kitchen counter at my feet.
I went to my room and looked at my notice. I thought about tearing it up, but Magoo would then call my parents like the last time. I tried to read a Japanese anthology Yukio Mishima’s works that I had hidden under my bed but wondering what might happen to me that night didn’t allow me to concentrate. The book was a present from one of my teachers in Japan. My parents didn’t like me reading anything written by Mishima; they said that people in Japan thought he was crazy--something about how the Japanese changed after World War II and then committing suicide.
Don Pedersen tapped on the window. He lived across the street.
“Let’s play basketball,” he said.
“Ya,” I replied. I went to the kitchen and asked my mother. “Mom, me going play basketball with Don.”
“No!” She stood behind the kitchen counter, washing dishes. “You should play with Vic Kuramoto. Your father said you should play with your own kind. If you play with Vic, maybe you will get better grades!” she said in Japanese. She poured water into the rice cooker. “You play Vic, not Don.”
I went back to my room, hid the anthology under my pillow, turned up the radio volume, and removed the wire screen of the window with a screwdriver I had taped under the desk. I removed the little metal hook on the bottom of the screen, pushed back the screen, jumped out, and put back the screen.
At both sides of the entrance of Don’s driveway were three-foot high brick planters, in each were green lanterns held up by metal poles. We played basketball for an hour, and I, as usual, won. He was a better player than I, but I always outwitted him. I studied his moves and memorized what he would do in every situation. Every time he drove for the hoop, he would either step left or stop. I also knew his favorite shooting spots. He rarely beat me after the first time we played.
We saw Vic Kuramoto and Gene Yasuda playing basketball in Vic’s driveway five houses down the block. Don and I went there. Bonsai trees gave a background to a miniature model of Mt. Fuji in the front yard. Lanterns also hung on the exterior of the house; Vic’s mother had hung them after my mother put ours up.
“Hey, Vic, how about a game? You and Gene against me and Tak,” said Don.
“No,” said Vic.
I let Don do the talking. I sat down on Mt. Fuji’s crater. Gene dribbled the ball on the other side of the driveway. He never did say much.
“Come on,” said Don.
“Can’t,” said Vic. “I’m not allowed to play with Tak.”
I nodded, yes. I always gave the instructions.
“You’re chicken, aren’t you! You’re afraid that we’re going to beat you! Ain’t that right, chicken?” Don bent his elbows, flapped his arms, and cackled, “Chicken! Chicken!”
I also bent my elbows, flapped my arms, and yelled, “Kokekkoko! Kokekkoko!” That was the Japanese version of what a chicken sounded like.
Don and I circled them, flapping our arms. Don cackled, and I kokekkokoed.
“No! We ain’t scared of you!” yelled Vic.
“Then prove it!” said Don.
Don and I smiled at each other. We gave them first outs. During the game, I studied their style of play. Gene always drove right for a lay-up. Vic dribbled the ball low, then broke left toward the hoop. Don and I let them win.
“Hey guys,” said Don. “How a rematch for fifty cents.” Don showed them the money.
“Fine,” said Vic.
“Yea! We’ll kick your asses now,” said Gene.
“We’ll even let you have first outs,” said Vic.
“Yea! Put up or shut up!” yelled Gene.
Gene stood in front of me and tried to dribble the ball between his legs.
Don and I huddled under the basket, and I drew diagrams on my hand to show him what I had observed about the style of play. All I did during the second game was to block their approaches to the basket. Vic would turn left, so I waited and intercepted the ball when he did. I stood in Gene’s lay-up path, and he would miss. They hardly scored. I did miss a few easy shots that I usually didn’t miss.
The game was over in five minutes. Gene stood on the other side of the driveway and didn’t say anything, and Vic went inside to ask his mother for money. Both looked downwards.
Vic’s mother came outside and yelled, “Go home!” She reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West with an apron.
Don and I bowed. “Thunk you,” we said; Don used his best Japanese accent. “Yu need hari hari now.”
Vic and Gene ran after us and threw rocks.
My father’s red Toyota was parked in the driveway, so I went with Don to his house. We walked past the green lanterns and went inside. There was a fire in the fireplace and the entire house was warm. I sat in Mr. Pedersen’s easy chair, and its awesome size surrounded me. The aroma of roast filled the air. An antique spinning wheel was in the corner of the living room.
Mrs. Pedersen sat down next to Don. “Don, Mrs. Kuramoto called and said you and Tak cheated Vic and Gene out of five dollars. Is that true?”
“No! They bet us and lost, and it was fifty cents.”
“Okay. Thank you very much. But you know about how I feel about betting.”
Don whispered in her ear.
She walked towards me and sat on the chair’s armrest. “Tak, did you receive a ‘D’ notice?”
I looked up. They understood me.
“Why don’t you stay for dinner and as long as you like,” said Mrs. Pedersen.
“Thunk you,” I said. I wondered if she would sign my notice, but Magoo already knew my father’s signature. I sat next to Mr. Pedersen at the dinner table. He removed the roast from the oven, cut the string, and carved a big portion for all. He wore a white shirt and blue tie. I really like mashed potatoes. My parents later called, and I had to go home.
Mr. and Mrs. Pedersen escorted me to the door. She knelt down and looked me straight in the eyes. “Remember, you’re welcome here anytime.” She straightened my collar, but she didn’t let go until she looked up at her husband, who shook his head in a horizontal motion.
I walked into my house. My father came towards me with an ‘I’ll fix you’ look in his eyes. I had never seen him like that before. He wore a white tank top T-shirt and briefs. His potbelly hung over the elastic.
“What matter with you!” He always yelled at me in English. He wrapped his fist with my hair, dragged me to the kitchen, and started hammering his knuckles into the bump on my head.
I felt blood ooze out of the bump. My mother put something in the oven.
“Mom not face Mrs. Kuramoto because you get bad paper!” he yelled. “Mrs. Kuramoto called and asked Takeshi get one?” He rolled the ‘D’ notice into a ball and shoved it in my mouth. “Mom so embarrassed, say no. Japanese smart, get all ‘A.’ What matter with you! Mom not look at Mr. Kuramoto because you get bad paper. You cheat at basketball too!” He dragged me by the hair into the hallway, drove my head into my bedroom door, and then he kicked me in the stomach. “You not embarrass? Huh?” He grabbed my hair again and banged my head into the door. “Huh” You not embarrass? Answer? Yes! No!”
My forehead was driven into the door every time I didn’t reply.
“Huh?” You not embarrass?” He hit me in the face with his right fist, and I fell on the opposite side of the room.
I closed the door and was finally able to crawl into bed; the blood from the bump kept sticking my hair to the pillow, and I couldn’t move my head.
My father came back in. “What my employees say? You play with Vic, you get smart. You no fucking good! What people say! Me have to hide face!” He grabbed my head and forced me to kneel in front of him. Hairs stuck out through his T-shirt at the peak of his belly; he hadn’t taken a shower. “All Japanese smart. You fucking stupid. What people say! Me have to hide face from employees!” I felt him hitting my head with the heel of a hard shoe. “Not embarrass!” He rhythmically kept pounding my head with the shoe. “No? Yes? Huh?”
I didn’t answer.
He held my head to the ground, the right side of my face against the carpet.
“No? Yes? Huh?”
“Ya,” I finally had to say. “Me embarrassed.”
He lifted my head with my hair. “You embarrassed?” He grabbed my hair and manipulated my head to nod up and down. “Play with Vic?”
I didn’t answer until I felt the heel of the shoe pounding the left side of my face. “Ya, me play Vic!” I screamed. He kicked me in the face and left.
I looked out the window. I removed Mishima’s anthology from under my pillow, along with the flashlight that I used to read with after bedtime, put the anthology in the closet, looked downwards, and climbed into bed. Suddenly, the pain stopped, and I fell asleep.