When I reported for the first day of school at Anesaki Chu-Gakko in Ichihara-shi, it was an oppressively hot and humid Monday morning. A group of girls was standing in front of the school and they noticed me right away. As a tall Westerner, I stood out. I waved at them and waited for them to run towards me.
Instead, they ran away screaming.
I tried to imagine how I was going to do my job under these circumstances. As a JET (Japanese English Teacher), the Japanese Ministry of Education was paying me to be in the school for the year to form relationships with the kids and encourage them to use the English they were learning in the classroom.
That was going to be hard if I couldn't get the kids to stop running away from me screaming.
As a first step, I got the kids used to being in the same room with me. Of course I was there for their English lessons.
I also spent time with them outside of class. At lunchtime instead of sitting in the teacher's lounge with other teachers I sat in the classrooms with the kids. When it was time for o-soji, I cleaned the glass windows and swept the hallways, right along with the kids. (Japanese schools typically don't pay for janitors, instead the kids spend about 15 minutes each day cleaning their own space.) At some point the kids started coming to my house on weekends and they invited me to theirs.
Over time they warmed up to me and soon I found myself once again surrounded by children all the time. They asked a lot of questions about what life was like for teenagers in America. And they wanted to know what Michael Jordan and Madonna and River Phoenix were like in real life.
To be clear, I never met any of those people.
One day, a sweet quiet girl whose name I can't remember gave me a necklace. Her friend had given it to her and she gave it to me. It was a tiny coral star on a delicate gold chain. There was a school rule that students couldn't wear any kind of jewelry other than hair ties. As she gave it to me she said, "I can't wear this but you can."
I thought that was the sweetest sentiment in the world. I can't use this but it will make me happy to see it on you.
It felt like the purest sense of generosity. I wore that star to school a lot and it always made her happy.
Over the years I've acquired and lost a lot of jewelry. Typically I don't buy expensive things so I don't have to be upset when I lose them. But that coral star has somehow stayed with me. From Japan to the Monterey Peninsula in 1996. From Monterey to Silicon Valley in 1999. From Silicon Valley to Beijing in 2005. From Beijing to Nashville in 2011. Somehow that coral star always managed to get into my bags and relocate with me.
Coincidentally, coral has become one of my favorite colors. Or perhaps that's not a coincidence at all, maybe it's exactly what you would expect given the way the color came into my wardrobe via that first little star. The other day I wore a coral sweater to work and that little star was a perfect complement. During conference calls that day I found myself wrapping my fingers around it, the pad of each finger settling into one angle of the pentagram. I thought about that sweet little girl and her generous spirit.
I have long since lost touch with her but where ever she is I hope she's in a place where she can wear whatever jewelry she wants.
And I hope she still has that sweet sense of generosity.
And if by some chance she sees this post and wants her necklace back, nothing would make me happier than to give it to her.