Gossip had awoken the staff room from a monotony-induced slumber. A teacher had been fired. Something to do with harassing female students during class was one of the rumors doing the rounds. Another was that he’d been caught shoplifting from 7-Eleven. Neither would have represented a first at Heartful Eikaiwa, Japan’s largest chain of English conversation schools.
Since John had joined Heartful’s Kita-Senju branch in eastern Tokyo three years earlier, a succession of teacher scandals had sent waves of excitement through the staff room, briefly penetrating the daily drudgery of teaching eight back-to-back “English Up” classes. The first was an Australian called Dave, arrested one summer night in possession of marijuana outside a nightclub in the Roppongi district. None of the teachers that knew Dave were surprised, and none complained when he was fired in absentia the next morning; murmurings only started a week later, when Heartful tried to bring in drug testing for all its non-Japanese employees.
At the time, the prospect of monthly urine samples didn’t bother John. Nothing at Heartful did to begin with; he was still so in awe of his new life in Tokyo to care. The crowds and incessant tempo were invigorating. Almost every sight, sound and scent was unknown; far removed from the English village where he had grown up and then felt he had grown stale.
Then the honeymoon period ended, as with many a marriage soured by the repetitive and banal. The novelty of teaching broken-English had worn. School rules that initially seemed comical had gradually become an irritation—no leaving school premises during work hours, no mixing with students after school, no facial hair. The list went on. Less than a year after leaving university and entering the global workforce, any newfound sense of adulthood had been swept from under his feet.
A year on from Dave’s demise, another sacking had provided a fleeting distraction from the misery of Heartful. Mark, a 30-something from Wisconsin with a comb-over and a paunch that threatened to pop the buttons on his white polyester work shirts, had parted company with Heartful after being accused of sending obscene photos of himself to a high school student. One variation of the story—and like Chinese whispers, at Heartful there were always variations—went that Mark had got the student pregnant, too. In truth, nobody in the staff room knew the exact details, but whatever they were, Mark had fallen foul of Heartful’s non-fraternization rule; even though it was usually more of a don’t ask, don’t tell, and don’t get caught policy.
The next sacking came several months after Mark’s indiscretion; shortly after John had got engaged to a girl who he’d first met in class. Ken, a recently graduated Japanese-Canadian from Toronto, had arrived drunk for an afternoon shift to offer his resignation with a string of obscenities that echoed through each of the five-person cubicles used as class rooms. Some colorful vocabulary was learnt in Kita-Senju that day, all without the need of Heartful’s usual chorusing drills. The other teachers later found out Ken had been tipped off that he was about to be fired for poaching Heartful students for private lessons. The ultimate breach of Heartful’s rules. “You can’t fire me because I quit,” went the sanitized version of Ken’s Cobain-esque parting words, as he was ushered into the school’s elevator by the head teacher, not to be seen in Kita-Senju again.
Now, as John’s co-workers dissected the latest scandal, John felt a sense of relieve. Satisfaction. The gloom had lifted. The shy high-school kids and overly eager housewives waiting in class were momentarily out of mind, banished far below the sub-conscious along with the overworked businessmen who would come later in the evening. Even the group of 4-year-olds John had to teach that afternoon as part of Heartful’s “Pera pera eigo kids” program didn’t feel like such a depressing prospect right now. They could pull his tie and punch him in the groin as much as they wanted today and he’d still be able to smile at the mums watching through the classroom’s large windows.
“You need something outside of the classroom to keep you fresh or you’ll start to hate Japan,” was the only piece of advice that had stuck with John during Heartful’s one-day basic teacher training session. For some teachers that was studying Japanese or working toward a new career, for others karate or cosplay. Lots more took to drinking, especially upon realizing they were “lifers”; married to Japan, stuck in teaching, no Japanese language skills to get another job, no skills of any kind transferable to another career, and no motivation left to try and do anything about it. John was soon to be married, and maybe he already was marked as a lifer, but long ago he had decided he wouldn’t be ending up like that.
Three weeks later, as the other teachers prepped for their classes, John excused himself from the teacher’s room. He slipped out of the fire exit to the back stairs and took out his phone. He put a handkerchief over the receiver. His routine.
“Yes, I’d like to speak to someone in the personnel section. I’m afraid it’s about one of your teachers in Kita-Senju…”