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Translated by Stephen Snyder
By Kanae Minato
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After calling off her engagement in the wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old child, Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.
But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a diabolical plot for revenge.
Narrated in alternating voices, with twists you’ll never see coming, Confessions probes the limits of punishment, despair, and tragic love, culminating in a harrowing confrontation between teacher and student that will place the occupants of an entire school in danger. You’ll never look at a classroom the same way again.
Once you finish your milk, please put the carton back in the box. Make sure you return it to the space with your number on it and then get back to your desk. It looks like everyone is just about done. Since today is the last day of the school year, we will also be marking the end of “Milk Time.” Thanks to all of you for participating. I also heard some of you wondering whether the program would be continuing next year, but I can tell you now that it won’t. This year, we were designated as a model middle school for the Health Ministry’s campaign to promote dairy products. We were asked to have each of you drink a carton of milk every day, and now we’re looking forward to the annual school physicals in April to see whether your height and bone mass come in above the national averages.
Yes, I suppose you could say that we’ve been using you as guinea pigs, and I’m sure this year wasn’t very pleasant for those of you who are lactose intolerant or who simply don’t like milk. But the school was randomly selected for the program, and each classroom was supplied with the daily milk cartons and the box to hold them, with cubbyholes for your carton to identify each of you by seat number; and it’s true that we’ve kept track of who drank the milk and who didn’t. But why should you be making faces now when you were drinking the milk happily enough a few minutes ago? What’s wrong with being asked to drink a little milk every day? You’re about to enter puberty. Your bodies will be growing and changing, and you know drinking milk helps build strong bones. But how many of you actually drink it at home? And the calcium is good for more than just your bones; you need it for the proper development of your nervous system. Low levels of calcium can make you nervous and jumpy.
It’s not just your bodies that are growing and changing. I know what you’ve been up to. I hear the stories. You, Mr. Watanabe, you grew up in a family that owns an electronics shop, and I know you’ve figured out how to remove most of the pixilation on adult videos. You’ve been passing them along to the other boys. You’re growing up. Your minds are changing as quickly as your bodies. I know that wasn’t the best example, but what I mean is, you’re entering what we sometimes call the “rebellious period.” It’s a time when boys and girls tend to be touchy, to be hurt or offended by the least little thing, and when they’re easily influenced by their environment. You’ll begin to imitate everyone and everything around you as you try to figure out who you are. If you’re honest, I suspect many of you will recognize these changes in yourselves already. You’ve just seen a good example: Up until a few moments ago most of you thought of your free milk as a benefit. But now that I’ve told you it was an experiment, your feelings about the milk have suddenly changed. Am I right?
Still, there’s nothing too odd about that—it’s human nature to change your mind, and not just in puberty. In fact, the teachers have been saying that your class is actually a good bit calmer and better behaved than the usual group. Maybe we have the milk to thank for that.
But I have something more important I wanted to tell you today. I wanted you to know that I’ll be retiring at the end of the month. No, I’m not moving to a new school, I’m retiring as a teacher. Which means that you’re the last students I’ll ever teach, and I’ll remember you for as long as I live.
Settle down now. I appreciate your response—especially those of you who actually sound as though you’re sorry to hear I’m leaving—what? Am I resigning because of what happened? Yes, I suppose so, and I’d like to take some time today to talk to you about that.
Now that I’m retiring, I’ve been thinking again about what it’s meant to me to be a teacher.
I didn’t enter this profession for any of the usual reasons—because I myself had a wonderful teacher who changed my life or anything like that. I suppose you could say I became a teacher simply because I grew up in a very poor family. From the time I was little, my parents told me they could never afford to send me to college—and that it would have been a waste to send a girl anyway—but I suppose that made me want to go all the more. I loved school and I was a good student. When the time came, I received a scholarship—perhaps because I was so poor—and enrolled at the national university in my hometown. I studied science, my favorite subject, and I started teaching at a cram school even before I graduated. Now I know you all complain about cram school, having to go right home from the regular school day to hurry through supper and run off to more classes that last late into the evening. But I’ve always thought you were incredibly lucky to have parents who cared enough to give you that extra opportunity.
At any rate, when I reached my senior year I decided to forgo graduate school—which might have been my first choice—and get a job as a teacher. I liked the fact that it was a secure career with a stable income, but there was an even bigger factor: The terms of my scholarship required me to repay the tuition money if I did not become a teacher. So without so much as a second thought, I took the test to obtain my license. Now I know this may cause some of you to question my motives for becoming a teacher, but I can assure you I have always tried to do the very best job I could. Lots of people fritter away their lives complaining that they were never able to find their true calling. But the truth is that most of us probably don’t even have one. So what’s wrong, then, with deciding on the thing that’s right in front of you and doing it wholeheartedly? That’s what I did, and I have no regrets.
Now, some of you may be wondering why I chose to teach middle school rather than high school. I guess you could say that I wanted to be on the “front lines,” so to speak. I wanted to teach students who were still in the middle of their compulsory education. High school students have the option of quitting, so their attention can be divided. I wanted to work with students who were still completely committed to their education, who had no other choice—that was as close to a true calling as I could find. It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when I was passionate about this work.
Mr. Tanaka and Mr. Ogawa—there’s nothing particularly funny about that part of my story.
I became a teacher in 1998, and my first position—on-the-job training, really—was at M Middle School. I was there three years and then took a leave of absence for a year before coming here to S Middle School. I found I enjoyed being away from the bigger cities in the prefecture, and this has been a pleasant, relaxed place to work. This is my fourth year here, so I’ve worked as a teacher for only seven years total.
I know you’ve been curious about M Middle School. Masayoshi Sakuranomi teaches there, and you’ve probably seen him on TV recently.…Please settle down, everyone. Is he that famous? Do I know him? Well, we worked together for three years, so I suppose you could say I do, but in those days he wasn’t such a celebrity. They’ve made him out to be a super-teacher, and he’s in the news so often that I suspect you know more about him than I do.
What’s that? You don’t know the story, Mr. Maekawa? Don’t you watch TV? All right, I’ll tell you. Sakuranomi was the leader of a gang when he was in middle school, and when he was a sophomore in high school he assaulted a teacher. He was expelled and left the country, and for the next few years he apparently wandered around the world doing all sorts of dangerous things and getting into trouble. He witnessed war and other violent conflicts, and he lived among people suffering from extreme poverty. From those experiences, he came to realize the error of his ways and regret his violent past. He returned to Japan, passed his high school equivalency test, and entered a prestigious university. After graduating, he became a middle school English teacher. It’s said that he chose to teach middle school because he wanted to help students avoid the kinds of mistakes he had made when he was that age. A few years ago he started spending his evenings in the video-game centers and bookstores where students get into trouble after school. He would seek them out one by one, talking to them about self-respect and offering them a chance to start over. He was so persistent he acquired the nickname Mr. Second Chance, and they even made a TV documentary about him. He published books and expanded the scope of his work, trying to reach more students—what’s that? You heard all that on TV last week? Well, my apologies to those of you who already know the story.…What? You’re right, I left out an important point. At the end of last year, when Sakuranomi was barely thirty-three years old, his doctor told him he had only a few months to live. But instead of feeling sorry for himself, he decided to devote his remaining time to his students. So now they’ve given him a new nickname: the Saint. You seem to know all about it, Mr. Abe. What’s that? Do I admire Sakuranomi? Do I want to be like him? Those are tricky questions. I suppose you could say I want to learn from his life—but only the latter half.
But I can see what an impression he’s made on some of you, and it makes me realize that I may have been an inadequate teacher in certain ways, especially compared to someone with his total dedication. As I said before, when I first became a teacher I wanted to do the best job I could. If one of my students had a problem, I would ignore my lesson plan and try to get the class to solve it together. If a student ran out of the room, even right in the middle of class, I would go after him. But at some point I started to realize that no one is perfect—me least of all. And when you tell a young person something with all the authority of a teacher, you actually risk amplifying the trouble. I began to feel that there was nothing more self-indulgent and foolish than forcing my opinions on my students. In the end, I worried I was simply condescending to the very people I should have been respecting and trying to help. So after my leave of absence, when I started work here at S Middle School, I laid down a couple of new ground rules for myself: First, I decided I would always address my students politely and use Mr. and Miss before their names, and second, I would treat them as equals. These seem like small things, but you’d be surprised how many students noticed right away.
Noticed what, you ask? I suppose they noticed how it made them feel to be treated with respect. You hear so much about abusive families that you might think that all children are being persecuted at home. But the truth is that most children these days are coddled and spoiled. Their parents bow and scrape and beg them to study, to eat their supper, whatever. Which may be why children show so little respect in return, why they talk to adults in the same tone of voice they use with their friends. And a lot of teachers even play up to this—consider it a badge of honor to be given a nickname or to be addressed informally by their students in class.
That’s what they see on TV, after all, with all those shows about popular teachers who are “buddies” to their students. I’m sure you know how the plot goes—a popular teacher has trouble with one particular class, but out of the conflict a deep trust develops between them. And when the end credits roll, the rest of the school and the teacher’s other classes have vanished and it’s as though the teacher’s there for that one group of troublemakers alone. Even in class, the TV teacher talks about his personal life and delves into the problem student’s most intimate feelings. Do the rest of you want to hear all this? Oh yes, of course we do. Then some serious student gathers the courage to ask about the meaning of life…and then the drivel continues. In the last scene, the serious student usually ends up apologizing to the troublemaker for having been insensitive…which might be fine for TV, but how about in real life? Have any of you ever had a personal issue that seemed so pressing that you wanted to interrupt class to talk about it? There’s too great an emphasis placed on the sheep gone astray. Personally, I have more respect for the serious student, the one who never got into trouble in the first place. But those kids never get the starring roles, either on TV or in real life. It’s enough to make the well-behaved student doubt the value of his efforts.
People often talk about the sense of trust that develops between a teacher and her students. When my students started getting cell phones, I began to receive text messages saying things like: “I want to die” or “I have no reason to live”—cries for help. They often came in the middle of the night—two or three o’clock in the morning—and I have to admit I was tempted to ignore them. But of course I never could. That would have been betraying our “sense of trust.”
Of course, teachers also started getting much more malicious messages. A young male teacher got a text asking for his help. The sender said her friend was in trouble and asked him to come to the entrance of a seedy hotel in the center of town. Now, you might think he should have been a little more cautious, but he was young and earnest and he hurried off to help—only to be photographed with the girl in the compromising location. Her parents showed up at the school the next day, the police got involved, and it turned into a major incident. His fellow teachers knew, of course, that the poor fellow had simply been tricked. We knew because he had told us that he was transgender—he had been born with the body of a man but he was actually a woman. Even under these circumstances, however, we saw no reason to reveal the truth. The young man himself, however, was determined to defend his honor as a teacher, and he ended up telling his students and their parents. But this whole tragedy—and the disastrous outcome for the teacher—had started from almost nothing. From a student’s hurt feelings at having been told to stop talking during class.
What? Was the student ever punished? Of course not. On the contrary, the teacher and the school were blamed—how could they expose impressionable young people to sexual deviants…or gays…or even single mothers like myself? The parents ignored what their own daughter had done and blamed the school, and in the end they won—though I’m not sure it’s ever appropriate to talk about winners and losers in a situation like this. The teacher? He was transferred last year and teaches at another school now, as a woman.
I know it’s an extreme example, but these kinds of accusations get made all the time, and for male teachers they’re very difficult to disprove. Since that incident, we’ve made it a policy to have a female teacher go in place of a male teacher when he has to meet with a female student, and vice versa. That’s also why we have two male and two female teachers for each grade. If one of you boys were to ask me to meet you somewhere, I would immediately get in touch with Tokura-sensei from the A Class and ask him to go in my place; and if something happened involving a girl from the A Class, Tokura-sensei would contact me. You hadn’t realized? There was never an announcement made, but we thought you’d figure it out for yourselves.
So now you boys are probably wondering whether it’s even worth contacting me when you’re really in trouble if Tokura-sensei is going to show up anyway? What’s that, Mr. Hasegawa? Yes, I remember when you had that problem in gym class. You told me it was serious, but in the bigger scheme of things it was quite minor. In fact, I doubt it’s more than a few times a year when one of you really needs me. I’m sure when you text me saying you want to die, you truly believe on some level that “life has no meaning,” as you all seem to like to say. And I’m sure that from your own self-absorbed point of view, you feel as though you’re all alone in the great wide world. That your troubles are completely overwhelming. But I have to say that I’m less interested in catering to your adolescent whims and more concerned that you grow up someday to be people who are capable of considering the feelings of others—for example, the feelings of the person who receives such a thoughtless message in the middle of the night. To be honest, I doubt that anyone who was truly despondent, who was actually considering doing something drastic, would send an email to announce the fact to her teacher.
You may have guessed by now that I was never the sort of teacher who thought about her students twenty-four hours a day. There was always someone more important to me—my daughter, Manami. As you know, I was a single mother. Shortly before Manami’s father and I were planning to be married, I learned that I was pregnant. We were a little disappointed that it had turned into a “shotgun wedding,” as they say, but the truth is we were delighted at the prospect of having a baby. I began getting prenatal care, and we decided it would make sense for my fiancé to have a physical as well. Quite unexpectedly, the tests revealed that he was suffering from a terrible disease, and all talk of the wedding stopped at that point. Because of the illness? Of course, that was the reason. Was it hard for him to accept? I’m sure it was, Miss Isaka. And of course some couples go ahead and get married even though one of them is ill. They choose to face the problem together. But what would you do in this situation? What would you do if you found out your boyfriend or girlfriend was infected with HIV?…HIV—the human immunodeficiency virus—better known as AIDS. But most of you already know all about this from the novel you read for your summer project. So many of your book reports said that you had cried at the ending that I decided to read it for myself. For the few of you who chose another book, it’s about a girl who contracts HIV while working as a prostitute and eventually develops AIDS and dies.
What’s that? You don’t think the story is that simple? You found the woman—the heroine—more sympathetic than I made her sound? I can understand that, but if you sympathized with the girl in the book, why did so many of you push your chairs back just now when I told you what happened with my fiancé? If you’re so sympathetic to people with AIDS, why did you move away when you found out that the teacher standing in front of you had sex with someone infected with HIV?
You look particularly uncomfortable, Miss Hamazaki, sitting here in the front row, but there’s no need to hold your breath. HIV is not spread through the air. The fact is you can’t catch AIDS from most kinds of physical contact—not from shaking hands or coughing or sneezing, not from the bath or the swimming pool, not from sharing dishes or from mosquito bites or from your pets. In general, not even from kissing. You can’t get AIDS from living in close contact with an infected person, and no one has ever caught it simply by being in the same class with someone who was infected—though I know the book didn’t mention any of that. And I apologize for keeping you in suspense—but I’m not infected, either. Don’t look so shocked. It’s true that sexual intercourse is one way of spreading HIV, but not every act of intercourse results in infection.
I was tested during my pregnancy and the results were negative, but because that seemed so hard to believe, I was retested several times. It was only later, when I learned the real infection rate from intercourse, that I understood why I had escaped, but I won’t tell you that figure since I know how easily influenced you are by statistics. If you want to know, you’re free to look it up yourselves.
My fiancé contracted HIV overseas, during a wild period in his life when he hadn’t cared much what happened to him. I’m afraid I found it difficult to accept this part of his past. It had been a terrible shock to learn that the man I was planning to marry was infected with HIV, and despite the tests I continued to worry that I was infected, too. Even after I was sure that I was safe, I lay awake at night worrying about the baby in my belly. While I never stopped respecting my lover, I have to say that at times I truly hated him for what he’d done. And I suppose he could sense that. He apologized to me repeatedly and pleaded with me to go ahead and have the baby. But I have to say that the thought of ending the pregnancy never crossed my mind. Irrespective of politics, it felt like murder to me.
I should also tell you that my fiancé didn’t dissolve into self-pity after learning he had AIDS. On the contrary, he seemed to feel that he was simply suffering the consequences of his actions, and he was always careful to distinguish between his situation and that of hemophiliacs and others who had contracted the virus through no fault of their own. Still, I can’t imagine the despair he must have been feeling.
Eventually I realized I’d been wrong—partly because I so much wanted my baby to have a father—and I told him that we should go through with the wedding, that as long as we both understood the situation, we would find a way to face the problem. But he refused quite stubbornly. He was strong-willed, and he was absolutely determined to put the child’s happiness above all else. Prejudice against people with HIV is terrible in Japan—if you want proof, just remember how you all held your breath a moment ago when you thought I was infected. Even if the child turned out to be HIV-negative, how would she be treated when it was learned that the father had AIDS? If she made friends, would their parents forbid them to play with her? When she was old enough to go to school, would the other children—or even the teachers—mistreat her and try to force her out of the cafeteria or gym class or anywhere they thought a problem might occur? Of course, a child with no father can also experience prejudice, but the challenges are much less serious and she has a much better chance of finally winning acceptance. At any rate, we decided to call off the wedding. I was left to raise our daughter alone.
After she was born, Manami was tested and turned out to be HIV-negative as well. You can’t imagine how relieved I was. I made up my mind to give her the best care a mother could, to protect her at all costs, and I poured every ounce of my love into her. If you were to ask me which was more important, my students or my daughter, I would have answered without a moment’s hesitation that my daughter was far more important. Which was, of course, only natural.
Manami asked me about her father only once. I told her that he was working very hard, so hard he couldn’t come see her. And this was, in fact, quite true. Having given up the right to call himself Manami’s father, he had thrown himself into his work as though the rest of his life depended on it. But his sacrifice was meaningless in the end.
Manami is no longer with us.
When Manami turned one, I put her into day care and returned to teaching. In the city, day care centers will keep a child until late into the evening, but out here in the countryside, even extended care ends at six o’clock. So I consulted a placement service for seniors looking for part-time work and found Mrs. Takenaka. She lives just behind the school swimming pool. Yes, that’s right, the house with the big black dog named Muku. I’m sure some of you have fed Muku your leftovers from lunch through the fence.
At four o’clock when the day care center closed, Mrs. Takenaka would go to get Manami and keep her for me until I finished work. The two of them grew very attached to one another. Manami loved Mrs. Takenaka and called her Grannie, and she loved Muku, too, and was very proud of the fact that she was often given the job of feeding him. This arrangement continued for three years, but at the beginning of this year, Mrs. Takenaka fell ill and went into the hospital.
Because we had been so close, I felt uncomfortable looking for a replacement simply because she was laid up for a few weeks, so I decided that I would go get Manami from the day care center myself until Mrs. Takenaka got well. In general this worked well enough, since they were willing to keep Manami until six o’clock and I was usually able to wrap things up at school by then. But on Wednesdays, our faculty meetings often went later, so on those days I would get Manami at four o’clock and have her wait for me in the nurse’s office. Miss Naitō and Miss Matsukawa, you often played with her while she was there, didn’t you? I’m truly grateful to you for that. She loved those afternoons. She told me that you girls said she looked like her favorite cartoon character, Snuggly Bunny. She couldn’t have been more delighted.
Please don’t cry, girls. Those are happy memories.
Manami loved rabbits, and she loved anything that was soft and fluffy. So of course she was crazy about Snuggly Bunny—though in that she was no different from most of the girls in Japan, even those in high school. Just about everything she owned—her backpack, her hankies, her shoes, even her socks, had his little face printed on it. She would climb up on my lap every morning with her little Snuggly Bunny hair bands and ask me to make her look like Bunny, and on weekends when we went shopping, she would always spot some new sort of Snuggly Bunny product that made her eyes sparkle.
About a week before Manami died, we had gone out to the shopping center. There was a Valentine’s display with all kinds of chocolate, including a whole selection with especially cute packaging, probably for girls to give to one another instead of to boys. Manami was drawn to the display and immediately spotted a Snuggly Bunny–shaped bar of white chocolate that came in a Snuggly Bunny–shaped fuzzy pouch. Of course, she wanted me to buy it for her, but we had a rule that she could only buy one item when we went shopping, and I’d already bought her a Snuggly Bunny sweatshirt that day—the pink one she was wearing the day she died. I told her she could get the chocolate bunny the next time we came shopping and began to lead her away from the candy.
- PRAISE FOR CONFESSIONS
- On Sale
- Aug 19, 2014
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Mulholland Books