From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

The Scrapbook

Life is to be fortified by many friendships. To love and to be loved is the greatest happiness.

Sydney Smith

Teaching English in Japan has been incredibly rewarding. I came here out of a longing for adventure and travel, and for a little relaxation. Miraculously, I’ve achieved all that and more. I’ve traveled all over the main island of Honshu, filled the pages of five journals, read over 60 books, written four short stories, and made friends with teachers and scholars from all over the world. I’ve been able to receive and had the chance to give back.

But my heart lies with my students—the businessmen who are being transferred to America, the housewives who want to expand their horizons, the high school students whose fondest wish is to attend a university in the States.

Over the course of the year that I have taught, I’ve often wondered who was the student and who was the teacher. The pupils nurtured and comforted me, helping me to better understand the Japanese culture. They applauded when I struggled with my first hiragana letters. They accompanied me to grocery store after grocery store, where I searched for three months to find peanut butter. They showed me how to fold paper into an origami swan and took me on riverboat rides. They invited me to traditional tea ceremonies, and over omisoka, the Japanese New Year, they took me into their homes, where they prepared meals in my honor. They also took me to the temple and taught me how to select a fortune; then they quickly gathered around, crying, “You have much good fortune! You big lucky!”

The last few weeks, as I’ve made preparations to return home, have been jam-packed with sayonara parties and gifts. So many students have showered me with presents: purses of handwoven silk, jewelry boxes, designer handkerchiefs, jade earrings and gold-trimmed china plates. We’ve sung ourselves hoarse at karaoke, hugged, held hands and exchanged countless good-byes. And through it all, I’ve managed to keep my emotions in check. Instead, I’ve let them shed the tears while I comforted them with promises to write.

Tonight is my last night to teach, and I’m ending it on an exceptionally high note with my favorite class. They’re the advanced students, and over the year, we’ve engaged in political discussions, learned slang, role-played and done something rare among different cultures—we’ve laughed at one another’s jokes.

While I’m preparing for this last class, Mika, the school manager, calls me to the front lobby. I enter the room and see the staff and several students standing around, hands clasped in eager anticipation. All eyes are turned in my direction. Mika has one last gift for me.

I carefully unwrap the paper, as the presentation of the gift is as important as the gift itself. The wrapper slowly slides off, and I see that she has given me a scrapbook. She tells me she prepared it just last night after weeks of collaborating with the students. I see the redness in her eyes. I open the cover.

Filling the pages are recent snapshots of all my students. Beside the pictures are personal notes written by them on small, colorful squares of paper. They’ve decorated the papers with hearts, smiles, little cat faces and neon-colored lines, stars, dots and triangles.

I know the challenge my students face in stringing together even simple phrases, and as I read, the dam of emotions I’ve been holding back begins to crack.

Thank you for your kindley teach.

I had interesting class. Now maybe someday I go to America.

I am forget to you.

I’ve been enjoying to study English.

Thank you for everything you did me. I very sad you go to America.

Please don’t forget memories in Japan.

My tears begin to fall. I grope for words that have flowed so easily over the last year. My hands lightly touch the pages, and I outline their faces with my fingertips. I close the cover and wrap the book in my arms, holding it tightly to my heart.

The scrapbook has captured them forever. I may be leaving, but I’m taking each one of them back with me to America.

Gina Maria Jerome

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