Sharply, at 8:00 in the morning, she arrived at school every day. Before she entered the classroom, we students were already quietly seated on our chairs with the English Grammar book opened to the right page, notebooks and pencils ready. With pale and scared faces, we were concentrated and waiting for her, each student like a chess player expecting for the opponent's next move.
Ms. Kimura was in her forties, a towering-short woman, economically built, with bony limbs and a sergeant's look. When she walked, she made quick and economic movements. If it were not for her silky-raven hair and almond eyes indicating that she was a nissei, or first-generation of Brazilian-Japanese, she would pass as a common Brazilian with her perfect Portuguese.
"Page 45, question 3," she shouted, already placidly seated on her baby-blue chair, her books on the jacarandá wood table, all against the pau d'arco blackboard. During her class, nobody was allowed to say a word, unless requested by her. "Number one, answer letter C." I hated her calling people by number, especially when it was mine. "Yes, they're," I answered. "No, not they are, 'they-r', 'they-r', with the last part of your tongue touching your upper teeth. Repeat it," she ordered. "They-rr", I spit out. "Better," she said. "Number 5," and 6, 8, 20, until all the Tag Questions, her favorite exercises, were answered.
I was fourteen. As a freshman in High School, I had no choice but to face her. Unfortunately, she was the only English teacher at that school. I had asked my mother to move me to another High School before the year started, but she said no. "Your brothers and sisters went to Polivalente High School, so do you." Every time I heard my sisters talking about Ms. Kimura's harshness at school, I always saw a kind of contentment on my mother's round face. Although she tried to show some empathy with my sisters' complaints, her slightly open mouth and a Monalisa look most of the time betrayed her. Chagas, my skinny and dedicated brother, never complained about Ms. Kimura, though.
Despite Ms. Kimura, I always enjoyed going to Polivalente High School. As you approached it, a big, massive, oak gate closed the school to the outer world. The inside part looked like a big gym. The ceiling was so high that it would be possible to play volleyball in the Main Lobby, if the Principal allowed it. Looked from the ceiling, the offices and classrooms would appear like white matchboxes glued to the floor. Among all, my favorite place was the classroom. It was a 15 x 15 square feet room, comfortably holding all the twenty of us. Besides, the room had light blue walls and a low white ceiling with big fluorescent lamps. The disproportionally big wood-framed windows with Persian blinds allowed us to see the flower garden, rounded by a short crenellated wood fence, across the patio, and to poke fun at the late students. The wooden classroom chairs were covered with a light gray vinyl layer, pencil friendly, and very useful during school exams. At the back of the room, there was a black granite sink, to be used during science classes, but virgin yet.
I had seen Ms. Kimura for the first time when I was six years old. One day, my older sister Iata brought me to my future teacher's house, where she helped Ms. Kimura fill out some bank paperwork. Looking at Ms. Kimura's home from the outside, it was not different from ours, except the color: this, light blue, ours white. It was made of wood, with a small porch and tile roof. The inside part was very different, though. There were empty spaces everywhere. Everything was conspicuously arranged. The kitchen was small, spotlessly cleaned and with some black china on the counter. I saw no couches, chairs, or tables in the living room, but only a group of small and big black zafu and zabuton cushions geometrically spread over a plain-beige rug. Then, I went to explore the other rooms. As I approached the end of a dark corridor, I saw a small bedroom, door half-open. Inside it and seated at the edge of a twin bed, there was an old, short woman, wearing a black dress. She said something to me, but I did not understand. Then, she signaled with her right hand, asking me to come inside the room. Confused and afraid, I walked in. She touched me, and I felt her bony, small, and cold hands on my cheeks. Next, she kind of forced me to sit down by her side and pointed her indicator finger to an opened notebook over her thighs. I tried to read the lines but they made no sense. I do not know these words yet, I thought. Then she took a pencil and started writing. What I saw made even more nonsense. She was writing upside down, completely different from my primary grade teacher. Now I really was stupefied and tried to leave. She held my arm, I pushed, freed myself and ran away like a frightened bear cub back to my sister. I said nothing about it to Iata.
Now, seven years later, I was seeing my sister’s friend again, the daughter of that mysterious old woman. To my relief, now I knew that what Ms. Kimura’s mother was writing at that time were Japanese ideograms. She was Japanese, therefore, she spoke and wrote Japanese.
So far, I had done a good job in my grade book. It was almost full of 10s, the highest grade. In Ms. Kimura’s English Grammar and Vocabulary, I had three top scores already. Even in Math, I had two 9 grades and one 10. My once fearful freshman year was now more of a carousel trip than a roller-coaster rally, I guessed.
Then, late in November, I received a phone call from my sister Marta inviting me to move in with her. She, who had babysit me when I was a child, now had married and moved to Guaxupé, MG. So far, I never had thought about moving out of Altamira, PA. But suddenly, after that call, it seemed as if new connections inside my brain had occurred and I started to wonder how my life could be in a totally different place. Marta told me that Guaxupé was very different from Altamira. There were no jungle, no big rivers, and no dusty roads in Guaxupé. Also, I would have the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. Another thing she told me was that Guaxupé was known for its high-quality coffee beans and rare orchids. Frankly, I did not care about these last details. We already had enough vegetation in Altamira.
To be in Guaxupé before the next school year, I had to get things done as soon as possible at my current school. However, I would not be taking the fourth bi-monthly tests until the last week of December. “But you should be here earlier than that,” explained Marta. Later, checking the test schedule, I realized that if I asked Ms. Kimura to anticipate her test, which was the last one, I would be fine. Then, one week before all tests started, I went to her office to ask for this favor. Ms.Kimura's cubicle was tiny like a phone booth. Because of the mountain of papers on top of the table, I hardly could see her head. “Ms. Kimura?” I called and she stood up. Like a frightened child talking to his mother after misbehaving, I made my request. With two cowardly deep wrinkles on her forehead, just like my mother’s reprehensible look at me, she said that she would give the test the next evening.
I did not talk about this request at home. I knew what my mother would say: “Do not give Ms. Kimura a hard time. She is an organized and busy woman.” Don't worry, mother, not it's time for me to take care of my own business, I thought to myself. As usual, given my hurry, I had forgotten to ask Ms. Kimura what pages I should study for the test. Nevertheless, holding already a triple-ten, who cared?
The next day, I went to school in the morning. Later in the afternoon, I went to the market fair with Ezequiel and Dil, my cousins, to have cupuaçú and açaí ice cream, two of the my Amazonian favorites fruits. Then, as night was falling, I headed back to school.
I met Ms. Kimura at the Main lobby. As I tried to say a polite ‘good night,’ she abruptly interrupted me and pointed to the Main Office, where I should ask Maria, the school secretary, for my test. The Office had a door on its right side and a long dark counter on the left. Maria was a stocky woman with a huge frame, Botero-sculpted legs, and a protuberant and friendly face. She had started at Polivalente High School at a very early age, as a servant. Now, with her 30 years of work, “my first and last,” she looked ripe for retirement. With the kindness of someone used to the public life, she handed me the test and showed me the place to sit: an office chair with a student table, literally in the middle of the hallway, where busy employees were constantly passing by. When I tried to sit, I almost fell on the floor. “Do not sit on the edge, sit on the center,” Maria oriented me.
As I read the test, from top to bottom, I was surprised. The test had only three questions, each subdivided and lettered from a to e. What is Ms. Kimura trying to do with me? Short tests are easy to fail, aren't they? Anyhow, I signed and dated it.
Trying to concentrate on the first question, I heard off-tone voices walking by the Office counter. Three night freshmen were talking about the upcoming volleyball championship, when all High School teams would be playing each other, including the one I belonged to. Then, this made me remember that I had missed the last practice. I feared for a moment the possibility of losing my position to Julio, the other striker of our team.
As I tried again to focus on the test, Maria asked me if I wanted a bowl of soy meat soup while it was still hot. I said no.
Realizing that it would be very hard to concentrate in that place, I asked Maria if I could move to a quieter room. She said no. “Who is going to take care of you, my dear?”
Suddenly, I heard the well-known, small, and calculated steps approaching the counter. “Done?” She hissed. “No-no, not yet,” I mumbled.
Now, I decided, with or without noise, I had to do something, unless I wanted to see a big round zero on my grade book. Then, I answered part of the first question, the entire second, only one in the third, and stopped writing and started to look fixedly at the wall clock, as the hand minute was arriving at the 45 number. Suddenly, like when we awake from a two-minute nap, I panicked as I heard the quick steps again. “Five more minutes.” Hurried, I went back to the first question, tried hard but nothing happened; I went to the third, squeezed to remember something but nothing came up. Next, I looked at the clock: five minutes had passed. Then, the stubbornly quick steps once again. The door opened. Someone walked towards my back. A bony hand abruptly took the paper from my opened hands, and I had no courage even to look at her eyes. I stayed paralyzed for a moment, then stood up. “Did you see?” I asked Maria. But she was so immersed in her soap opera magazine that she did not even bother when I kicked the office chair against the wall and left.
On Monday morning during her class, Ms. Kimura kindly handed me the corrected test. She crossed her arms and patiently waited in from of me, perhaps to hear my complaint. Needing four points to pass in that English test, those miserable three points written with red ink in the right-hand corner of the paper shut me off completely. This meant that I had to take the final exam in January and forget Guaxupé for at least six more months, when transfers between schools were allowed again.
Say what to her? How could I say anyting if I had never tried before? So far, all I had reverberated during classes were the usually ordinary answers to in-class exercises – in Ms. Kimura’s case, her Tag Questions. What was her point taggering in front of me if she knew that I was too shy even to say “they-r?”
So far in my school life, I have never gotten short in any discipline. I always had tried to do my best so I would never need to go beyond the paper with my teachers. Why bother dialoguing or discussing with them if I could live my academic life on my own? However, now with the possibility of moving out of state depending exclusively on the outcome of this English test, I felt, for the very first time, the need to address a teacher face to face. But it was not without much difficulty that I grunted my first words to Ms. Kimura.
The next day I went to talk to her. I tried to explain to her that the test had been unfair. “A longer and more varied one would give me more chances,” I said – and the place was not appropriate. She was unmoved, not showing even the least sign of compassion. See? That is why I never bothered talking to a teacher, they just do not care about us, students, I though to myself.
As the days passed and as I was gaining confidence with my adult words, I intensified the dispute, at times appealing to her rationality, “Ms. Kimura, you know me very well as a student. You know that in another circumstance I would never fail your test,” I argued once. Another time, I appealed to her sensibility, telling her that “one more point in that test would allow me to pass the year and to travel out of state, for the very first time." I was too proud to cry, although this was hard to hide through my whimpering voice. Her only answer to my grievance was that I needed to take the final test. “Ms. Kimura, please, help me,” I asked on another occasion, right after her class, using this sort of polite and unsuccessful speech for the last time.
Then, I started to spice my talking with some wrathful and foolish words. One day I went to her office during break time. “You do not know how to treat a student,” I jeered at her. She said nothing but I perceived some change in her mood, as she approached me with an even colder look than her usual and shut the office door, leaving me gawking outside. I continued peppering chaotically my utterances, hoping to hear anything from Ms. Kimura. Meeting her at the parking lot one day, I said that she was an incapable teacher. She kept saying nothing. Then I started to realize that this strategy was leading nowhere because she never said anything back. Finally, I tried to really provoke her and called her a vulgar name. Now she fought back. “Are you thinking that I’m going to give you one more point just because of all your babbling? And now you called me such a name? You will not even be allowed to take the final exam. I’m going to send you straight to recovery,” she told, meaning that now I would have only one more chance to pass, in February’s recovery. “Also,” she summoned, “if I hear anything else from you, I will make you repeat the year.” She had been teaching at that school for a very long time and really had enough power to do that against me, as Maria confided to me later.
Until that moment, I had proudly kept this exploding bomb with me. The truth is that I was really enjoying the whole situation. Being able to speak to a teacher, even in a disorganized way, was freeing me from my shyness, at school and outside. I remember that after this fight started, even my friends noticed some change in my behavior. For the first time, I was courageous enough to require the ice cream change in money instead of the usual candy that Tarik, the owner of the parlor, preferred to give us.
So, after all my effort to convince her to give me one additional point failed, I tried a homemade strategy. As a former Ms. Kimura's pupil, my brother Chagas had told me once that she liked him very much and that he always got along with her very well. As an electric technician, he had recently helped her with some wiring alterations at her house. So, I explained to him my problem and he almost beat me up. Later, he agreed to talk to her.
“I cannot believe that that little devil is your brother,” Chagas told me she said to him, among other reverberations that I did not bother paying attention to while listening to him. What I really liked in his message was to hear that she had added one more point to my score. I was definitely packing my stuff and heading to Guaxupé.
Years later, while remembering that episode, I realized that I had been a little harsh to Ms. Kimura. I had asked her a favor, thinking that she could help me fix my own failure. However, no matter how far I could have gone with my argumentation, I had failed that test. That was the bottom line.
Still, she could have been a little gentler to me, though. She certainly knew my inexperience in dealing with such a difficult issue. “Ran, come here, let’s talk about your test. I think that, together, we can find a better solution to this dilemma,” she could have said. However, to answer to my confused talking, all she uttered were short and predictable replies.
Besides becoming aware of my susceptibility to fail as a human being, I also learned something else from that episode, for which I would do the same fighting, over and over again. I learned to speak my mind, even if my first efforts were sometimes inappropriate. I learned the way out of my ball of shyness. Since that caustic episode, other challenges have appeared, but now I am certainly in better shape, right, Ms. Kimura?