A Headless Short Story by Tristram Lowe
The teacher handed Yoshio a two-page vocabulary test on the new kanji words they were learning. They were still fairly basic kanji as he was only 6 years old, and in grade two.
He scanned the questions as the teacher moved on. He saw “door,” “summer,” “older brother,” “forest.”
Ms. Ide continued handing out the tests to the rest of the students, talking as she walked down each aisle of desks. Her voice was slow and careful, her enunciation perfect.
“There are twenty questions on this test. Each one is a sentence that uses the hiragana for the kanji word we’ve been studying. Please write the correct kanji for that word in the space provided.”
Yoshio gave a quick glance at the other students and saw their grimaces and scared faces; he heard their groans and whispered complaints. Then he picked up his pen.
The teacher continued. “You will be graded on the correct stroke order. I will know from looking at it if you did it in the correct order or not. So please pay attention to this. You have 30 minutes to complete it. I will collect them at the end of 30 minutes whether you are finished or not.” To the sound of a few more groans, she placed the last test on the desk in the back corner by the windows. “Please, no talking. You may begin.”
She turned to walk back toward her own desk at the head of the class. Yoshio waited for her there with his test in hand.
“Do you have a question, Hirakawa-kun?” she said quietly as she approached him.
“No, ma’am,” Yoshio answered.
“Then please return to your desk and finish your test. You don’t have much time.”
Yoshio looked at her quizzically. “But I’m finished,” he said and presented the pages for her to take.
She reached for them ever-so slowly, her face twisted in a weird frown.
Why do teachers always look at me that way? Yoshio wondered.
They had just moved to Kofu and this was his first test at the new school. His grade one and two teachers in Minobu had both looked at him the same way whenever he had finished his first couple of tests far ahead of his classmates. The look gradually became less frown and more bafflement each time he would hand in homework or quizzes, each time he went to the board to answer a question in front of the class.
The students’ looks were usually different. They were more like scowls. It didn’t seem like they liked him very much, but he couldn’t figure out why. So he mostly ignored them.
As soon as he felt Ms. Ide’s grip on his test, he quickly dropped his hand and returned to his desk.
He watched her as she sat at her desk and looked over his test. She glanced up at him a few times, each look becoming more puzzled. She looked toward his book bag too.
She thinks I cheated, Yoshio thought. That’s what Mr. Muto had thought too.
But his bag was closed and tucked under his desk. He would not have been able to reach it without being obvious. And anyway, he knew the answers. It would have taken him longer to copy the answers from a cheat sheet than it would’ve to just write them down from his head.
Ms. Ide set his test aside and looked at the clock.
When the 30 minutes was up, more groans ensued. But the teacher was true to her word. She gathered all the tests regardless of their state of completion.
At the end of the day, while the other kids scrambled for the door, dragging backpacks and satchels, Yoshio heard the words he had expected. “Hirakawa-kun, please stay behind for a few minutes.”
Yoshio is a character in Headless, the upcoming new novel by Tristram Lowe.