By Edward Levinson
There’s a boy in my English class and his face is turning strangely red. As I’m belting out sentences for repetition, Taro is strangling himself. Something has upset him and he wants to die, at least inwardly if not physically. His body is tense and hot, like a volcano that’s about to blow. Maybe I should have paid more attention during the traditional “How are you today?” opening exercise.
The smell of sweating students suddenly increases. The repetition volume goes down as the class’ attention and mine centers on Taro. Nonchalantly, I’m trying to remove his lock-gripped hands from around his throat while I continue leading the language practice.
“I play baseball on Thursday,” the students are repeating but their thoughts are on Taro. The Japanese teacher sharing the lesson with me stares helplessly. Teacher training didn’t prepare her for situations like this.
Heaving silent sobs with his contracted breath, Taro calms down a bit and relaxes his hands as I rub his shoulders and back. I continue the repetition practice as I massage him for a few minutes.
“I go to the park with my friends on Sunday,” the class repeats in unison. I wonder what Taro does on Sunday. Can this easily excitable 13-year-old boy ever relax and feel peaceful? What makes him happy? His usual affectionate greeting to me, “Edward chan” shows me that he is capable of relating and feeling happiness.
Taro is not what you would call a shy boy. His odd physical shape – he looks like Humpty Dumpty – and his extroverted manner make him stand out. His classmates do not dislike him, though he’s often the butt of their jokes.
I move away from Taro’s desk trying to get my attention back on the class, and the students’ stare off Taro. “I study English on Friday,” the class chants. “Boy strangles himself out of frustration,” I’m thinking.
Five minutes later he’s doing it again. I proceed to apply the same therapy. The Japanese teacher wakes up and takes control of the class, chattering at them in Japanese. I work with Taro until he calms down again and the chimes finally sound the end of today’s teaching bout.
Later, Taro appeared to be fine and amazingly unembarrassed about his display of self-strangulation. That’s the kind of guy Taro is. The homeroom teacher said that something had happened during the lunch period right before my class. Perhaps it was the school Iunch that upset him. It certainly upsets my stomach and culinary consciousness. Maybe classmates bullied him or there may have been a problem connected to his home life that finally just overwhelmed him.
One thing is for sure: he was healed, even if temporarily, by attention, concern, a warm touch of the hand, and the love generated by the sympathetic hearts of those in the room. I don’t think anyone enjoyed watching Taro try to strangle himself. I wasn’t the only one who was scared, and wanted him to stop.
Taro centered our attention on his suffering and made us want to relieve it. On a micro scale, Taro was manifesting the suffering of humanity and generating in us the compassionate quality. I dare say that this happening in class had a greater impact on the group than any planned lessons in morals.
People like Taro are bright lights that demand that we notice then. By coming closer to, these bright lights we are allowed to grow. We may even get burned, but through this burning we can discover something in ourselves that we didn’t know existed. It may be love. It may be fear. The list of feelings and qualities experienced will be as varied as the people in the room. It may hurt, but it is by passing through these fiery episodes, that the bonds of friendship are sealed.
When I was teaching I would seek out the unusual students and teachers and find out what made them special. Often they would seek me out in hopes that I would nurture their unappreciated, neglected individuality. I tried to give them space to spread their wings rather than be nails that get hammered down. I told my students, “Call me Edward, because I am your friend.” When Taro greeted me as “Edward chan” it was the ultimate compliment.