Mr. Yamamoto has had a long day.
Finally finished, he gets on his bicycle and winds his way through narrow streets lined with old, dusty shops and brown wood weathered houses. It’s winter, 6:30pm, and already dark. Heavy, white snowflakes fall in slow motion through an indigo sky, the way they have in Kyoto for 1400 years.
Mr. Yamamoto emerges from the back streets of Old Kyoto and into what looks like another world, wide avenues full of vertical neon signs, high rising financial institutions, and upscale department stores. He pulls in front of a Seven Eleven, grabs a bento, and a box of butter cookies to share during the break, gets back on his bike and realizes he’s late.
Mr. Yamamoto is a 50 year old high school math teacher who dreams of retiring. Inside his beat up leather briefcase, which is now resting, seemingly exhausted, in his bicycle basket, he’s got his students’ math exams, which he will be grading late into the night because, this evening, he will take a class he wants to take, a class for himself.
Mr. Yamamoto’s hoping to learn more about his body. He wants to have more energy. He wants to have some fun, do something good for himself. At the suggestion of a friend, against his better judgment, he signs up for a series of classes in the Alexander Technique.
About twelve students have gathered, men and women, old and young, people for the most part who just want to feel more alive, a bit lighter, a little happier.
Tonight I’ve been working with the students doing things they have to do at work that they don’t like doing. I worked with a man who receives phone calls from disgruntled customers complaining about what they just bought and wish to return. I worked with a woman scrubbing a wooden floor on her hands and knees. I worked with a man who has to listen to his boss yelling at him first thing in the morning.
It’s Mr. Yamamoto’s turn. He unsnaps his briefcase and slides out his stack of ungraded exams. He sits behind a desk in the front of the room, drops the pile of papers onto the desk, pulls out a pencil from his shirt pocket, lets out a big sigh, and begins.
I just watch, feeling how he feels, seeing what’s happening throughout his entire body. Under the table I can see that his feet and legs are turned in, especially his left leg. His pelvis is rolling back. His stomach’s tight. His chest is sunken. His head’s dropped and tilted to the left. His body looks like it’s crying, but Mr. Yamamoto is not crying. Then I see it: quiet, almost desperate, resignation.
Mr. Yamamoto scribbles something onto the first exam. “How did your student do?” I ask. “D. Not good.” Mr. Yamamoto continues. C. D. C+. F. He’s shaking his head. He’s aging right before my eyes.
“Mr. Yamamoto, (that’s what everyone calls him), how do you feel about my helping you a little?” “Onegaishimasu,” he says bowing slightly. Please help me. I walk behind him, softly place my hands, one on either side of his neck, and gently guide his head back on top of his body. His body rises up like a man underwater who’s finally coming up for air. His chest swells, his whole body expands reflexively in every direction. A thin, tired Mr. Yamamoto now sits at his desk exuding a quiet, focused authority.
“Okay, Mr. Yamamoto, begin grading your papers and let’s see what happens.”
B. Everyone smiles, but not Mr. Yamamoto. B+. Eeeeehhhhhhh!?, a rising sound heard when Japanese people are pleasantly surprised. More smiles and some laughter, but not from Mr. Yamamoto.
A. A. A+. A. Now everyone’s almost falling off their chairs. The laughter is irrepressible. Mr. Yamamoto remains still and expressionless. I’m not sure what he’s feeling. I’m doing my best to stick with him, but the unbridled laughter in the room is too contagious. I just lose it.
And, suddenly, so does Mr. Yamamoto. He’s laughing so hard tears are rolling down his cheeks. “Maybe those crazy Buddhists are right”, Mr. Yamamoto says. “Maybe the world is nothing but one big mirror.”
“On that note, let’s finish,” I say. Quickly everyone sits in a circle on the floor, kneeling in seiza, and bows deeply. Still smiling from ear to ear, we loudly exclaim, “Doumo arigatou gosaimashita.” Thank you very, very much.
We’re thankful to be together, thankful to be learning, thankful for a little lightness in our lives.
Mr. Yamamoto throws his scarf around his neck, tosses his briefcase into the basket, and hops on his bike. The crisp night air fills his lungs. The snow looks whiter. It’s swirling. It’s falling up.