When I was in first grade, a Japanese person came to my class to talk about her country. It was part of my school's international program to have children learn about the world around them, that America wasn't the only country (but that it was the best one) blah blah blah. Anyway, it was a pretty typical grade school activity.
It was a bright day in early spring when this Asian strolled into our classroom. We were instructed to all sit down in a semicircle on the carpet in front of the blackboard, and to behave ourselves for our guest that day. This was a big deal because we usually had to sit at our desks on hard chairs that made my butt fall asleep, so it was a welcome change to sprawl out on the floor.
I don't remember a lot about Ms. Japan, except that she had black hair and exotic eyes. I remember she taught us the number system (itchy knees!), how to say "hello" (ko-nichi-wa), "goodbye" (say-o-nara), "please" (ku-da-sai), and thank you (do-mo ari-ga-to go-zai-maus). She wrote strange things on the board, symbols that were words in her country. Complex, flowery writing that flowed from the chalk, different, unrecognizable, mysterious.
Recalling these things is like reaching into a pool of muddy water for me. I can't see to the bottom, but sometimes I pull out a shiny rock or bauble. This day happened twenty years ago, and if my teachers and parents have anything to say about it, I wasn't a very focused kid.
Indeed, the most important aspect of that day is completely lost on me, but not, of course, my mother, the oral historian of our household. She got a phone call from my teacher at the end of the day. She was calling about my behavior with our Japanese ambassador.
"If Amanda would be as involved with this teacher as she is involved with me, she'd be the star of the class." Mrs. Zena said with a touch of annoyance (perhaps jealousy?).
I was by no means falling behind, but I was diagnosed with ADD a year later, and by fourth grade I needed glasses. School was tough but doable for me and I had a lot of difficulty listening and comprehending spoken instructions (my teachers learned quick that they needed to write down assignments on the board for me, or I would miss them). I knew it was important, but there was a lot of stuff in my brain (still is) that would rattle around, competing with classwork and lessons. I still lose my train of thought all the time, and often need to do something or write something down right away or I'll forget it forever, other thoughts intruding and overwriting my synapses. I'm pretty sure I've forgotten more than I'll ever know.
Yet I've never forgotten when this Japanese woman, who's name I can't even recall now, stepped into my life, however briefly, and changed my world.
After years of studying and schooling in the language and culture, I'll be going to Japan on October 1st. I think it will be a memorable experience.