Shaping a new normal


From Tokyo, book review – Fresh into a new year and already past the first weekend school event. The academic year’s last event is an art and craft work exhibition to demonstrate a year of learning. Parents turned out in numbers as school children mingled. Some weaved through ambling visitors to a random point B, others wandered around searching for a favourite piece to jot down notes for their reports. Art, student curators, eager parents and wide-eyed toddlers. Without my trusted informers (children), some notable absentees would have stayed out of mind.

Some Primary 6 children haven’t reported back since the new year holidays, apparently preparing for the upcoming secondary school entrance exam season. Someone is rumoured to be suffering from burnout. Maybe some other kid is down with fever? Or was flu suspected? Who really knows what’s happening anyway?

Syoichi Tanazono’s『学校へ行けない僕と9人の先生』(Gakkou e ikenai boku to kyuunin no sensei, lit. Me who couldn’t go to school and 9 teachers; Action Comics, 2015) offers a peek into the mind of a boy who found going to school almost impossible. Throughout the comic, Masatomo Tanahashi struggles with flashback dreams of a tall dark shadow stalking him, which later turned into a migraine that kept him away from the classroom.

Tanahashi’s story begins in his early days of Primary 1. He was finding it hard to follow the lesson in class one day, and luck had it that his form teacher (No. 1) Ms. Oshima posed him a question. When he admitted that he couldn’t understand, she slapped him manga-esque hard. He had been taught that in kindergarten, that it was okay to not understand things, and to say so to get an explanation. And so he said it once more. Another manga-esque tight slap sent poor Tanahashi bawling.

That was the beginning of Tanahashi’s shut-in days. The foundations for building trust had been shaken, badly. It took him years and nine teachers – a dour relief teacher and a cheery home tutor failed to meet the countable cut – to end the period that covered his formative years. That left Tanahashi with the dark figure in his dreams, untimely migraines, feet that refused to step out of the door on schooldays, and an absence from class that brewed stories of him.

Those stories morphed quickly. On days Tanahashi actually made it into the classroom, he felt everyone’s gaze. A leg stuck out across his path. A body check in the hallway by an unknown girl. Silent sniggers. Audible whispers. The look. He knew this was “special” treatment. Dropping in and out of class, the more the teacher tried to ease him back into the class, the more the situation escalated. Until the day one level-headed boy actually spoke to him during a group task, breaking the cycle, but only temporarily.

On days at home, Tanahashi would doodle his favourite Dragonball characters, read Dragonball comics, and sometimes direct an epic duel among his figurines. But when the school bell rang, he would peer out his second-storey window to the street below to check on children passing by on the way home – a scene that will grow all too familiar.

As Tanahashi continued his battle to be normal, years went by. There was even a time when he became the center of attention, putting on the mask of an outgoing, outspoken senior. Acting normal didn’t last long. All those days away from school left Tanahashi way behind the curriculum, even with teachers visiting to help him attain the level required of compulsory education.

Confounded by the situation, his parents asked Ms. Inamori (No. 7) to take him under her tutelage. She had a track record of bringing shut-in children back out into society, and she noticed Tanahashi’s shy demeanor and drawing ability. The seasoned pro quickly identified the problems and offered a solution – a distant cram school.

His introduction to the cram school’s teacher Ms. Mori (No. 8) came with a stern warning: I can’t change the rules just for you. You come on three days a week, no more no less. Attending the cram school a few stations away made Tanahashi more relaxed. Among a mixed group of kids from primary to secondary school children, no one talked about his school. No one knew him outside the cram school. No one seemed to bother. Everyone was there for the same reason – to spend time together, play, study and learn, three days a week. That’s normal.

Cram school led to graduation, which seemed to offer the chance of starting anew. But despite Tanahashi’s valiant efforts at studying, he didn’t understand classes. He realized that it was impossible for him to be a normal secondary school student even if he tried.

Noticing the change in his mood, Inamori decided to help Tanahashi meet his idol Akira Toriyama (No. 9), the creator of the Dragonball series. When the day came, Tanahashi showed his best Dragonball doodle to Toriyama. He brushed that aside but had more to say about Tanahashi’s original manga. “I like how you already have your own manga world,” he opined. And then the world outside looked different.

Tanahashi’s story moves quickly on toward the end from there. That last quote filled him with the confidence to trudge on in life, through dreaded classes, extra curricular activities, and outings with friends, all with the goal of becoming an artist with his own world in clear sight. Not just that, but to accept and reflect on his shut-in past as a treasured part of himself, who by the end had become an accomplished manga artist and illustrator.

Based on Tanazono’s real-life experiences, the story is littered with many mentions of “normal” as if conforming were the ultimate goal of life. The bullying episodes certainly prolonged Tanahashi’s recovery from the initial trauma. That it was never properly resolved left a bad aftertaste. But the eventual reconciliation came with arduous support from family, until he finally found the confidence in his own ability, unlocked by the words of teacher No. 9.

This left me realizing how anyone struggling to conform, to fulfill someone else’s expectations cannot really be content, because it only means meeting someone else’s idea of what is normal. Seeing and accepting one’s current situation as it is, like in Tanahashi’s case, certainly helps to give one the platform and means to shape one’s own normal world.

Title:『学校へ行けない僕と9人の先生』(Gakkou e ikenai boku to kyuunin no sensei, lit. Me who couldn’t go to school and 9 teachers) by Syoichi Tanazono
Publisher: Action Comics, an imprint of Futabasha Publishers Ltd., 2015
First published as a monthly series in 2014 on webaction.jp

 

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