It’s always a frisson-inducing reminder of the length of your career when your first generation of students approach the age that you were when you were teaching them. Anyway here’s a story about our relationship with one of them that has a pretty pleasant beginning and middle. You’ll see the ending when you get to it and then you can decide if the entire episode deserves to be called positive or negative.
We got a student about 10 years ago who was in the 5th grade and whose parents were thinking of sending him abroad for JHS and HS. We had twice-weekly lessons for a while, and he was a good student, fully prepared for the eikaiwa class style in which the wall between grammar and communication is expected to be porous. As I remember it, he was quite good at turning something we’d done earlier in the hour around and using it in his own way by the end. It is a rare and wonderful thing to see a student capable of doing that in every lesson. During the time he was our official student we also helped with his student visa and did some overtime on the phone with a study abroad agency in a distant time zone in exchange for MOS Burger from his parents. As you have probably gathered this was a much less cynical time for us.
After he’d moved away, we kept in contact with him and his parents. His mom stayed on as a student, although what she wanted more than English ability was to talk with us (in any language) about her son and his life. She was also very into “spiritual” culture and products, and did quite a bit of proselytizing about her chosen vocation. Her husband, whom we also met once or twice, was a business owner and therefore her job had a very housewifey lack of proportion between her passion for it and its objective importance. She wasn’t a bad person, but I don’t think she would mind us saying even now that we cared much more about her son.
The son himself was back in Japan every summer and took a few perfunctory short-term lessons as a pretense to maintain our relationship, which was welcome. We took him out on the weekends, once to a local farm/petting zoo and once to see The Dark Knight in theaters. No doubt it was hard for him to keep contact and a feeling of familiarity with his old elementary school friends, and we sort of got the feeling he didn’t have that many to begin with. It was nice to feel like your effect on someone’s life was bigger than the time they spent in your classroom, although there were times the second or third year of this we thought maybe it was time to let this fade away into an occasional-email-writing kind of thing.
One Sunday evening when he was back in school abroad we got a call from his mom. We were driving toward an Italian place we liked for a late dinner, and pulled into a convenience store parking lot as it became clear that this call would take all our attention. As my wife heard it, the son had the flu, and his mom wanted us to call his doctor and ask about his condition. We had a cheap IP phone which we had used to call those charged with his care abroad before back at our school, 20 minutes back where we had come from. That this was a Sunday night combined with that he had just talked to his mom himself and seemed not to want her to worry led us to believe that this could wait. His mom though insisted that she had to communicate with his doctor right then, and would not be persuaded otherwise. As my wife’s attempts to make her consider waiting at least until we were on our way back continued hitting a brick wall, her voice began to sound more frantic than worried, and at times broke into crying, yelling, and choked whispers. I’m sure in her mind, we were choosing spaghetti over her son’s life, and looking at it from her perspective prevents me from condemning her completely for losing control. The final thing my wife said was (in the politest phrasing) “Why don’t you talk to the doctor yourself?” This finally burst whatever was left of the dam, and the mom told us she was 縁を切る en wo kiru “cutting ties” with us and hung up.
We haven’t talked to anyone from the family since then. Losing our relationship with his parents is fine with us – it should be clear from the above that we consider his mom at least a rather unstable person, and his dad seemed to have that very common combination of absent and authoritarian, not exactly someone we’d like to walk down memory lane with. Even the son would likely have lost touch with us a long time ago in the best of circumstances. What bothers me the most about this entire episode is that I have no idea how he now remembers us. He may have heard the worst version of that night’s events, in which we callously refuse a pleading mother. Even if he is appropriately circumspect about his mom’s way of interacting with people, he may still regard us as selfish for refusing to take an hour to put her mind at ease. In this he wouldn’t be entirely wrong. I hope he has come to some understanding on his own of what happened that he can feel satisfied with. And I hope despite our feelings that he doesn’t hold it against his mom.