Mrs. Sada was an ordinary English teacher. One who had a traditional appearance: bob cut, white shirt, black blazer. One who used everyday example sentences to teach us English grammar.
I love my parents, Haruto and Sakura. She pointed at the whiteboard. “Here the reader may think the parents are called Haruto and Sakura. Not that the names are part of a list. So it’s better to add an Oxford comma — or serial comma — before and.”
She stopped being a typical teacher at some point.
Yuki locked himself in his room; he didn’t want to go out. She lowered her black marker and turned around. “Use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses that are closely related.”
I put my pen on my desk and squinted at the whiteboard. Wasn’t that example sentence a little negative? Depressive?
Maybe I was being too imaginative. On a closer look, the example sentence could have appeared in a textbook. Or maybe Mrs. Sada had taken it from one.
A university student, Daisuke Suzuki, died in a car accident, Mrs. Sada wrote. “The part between the commas is a nonrestrictive clause. It’s extra information that’s not essential to the sentence.”
I dropped my pen and frowned at the whiteboard. This was definitely grim. Ghastly.
I should raise an objection — but not in front of the class. I might end up in the spotlight for a few weeks. And not in a good way.
When the recess bell chimed, I discreetly followed Ms. Sada out of the classroom. As soon as we reached a deserted hallway, I called out to her.
She swiveled around and smiled. “How can I help you, Higashino?”
I swallowed dry air, suddenly feeling as if I were doing something foolish. Maybe I was. “I wanted to talk about your example sentences.”
“My example sentences?” Mrs. Sada asked, blinking.
I nodded. “They’re not very … cheerful.”
She laughed. “They’re not supposed to be.”
“But some are too not very cheerful. Like the car accident one.”
“I agree. But it’s the kind of sentence you’d find in the news, isn’t it? And using examples that are close to real life is useful to students, don’t you think?”
I didn’t like her reasoning, but I couldn’t disagree.
“Sorry,” Ms. Sada said, glancing at her blue watch, “but I’m late for a meeting.” She smiled at me, slightly lowering her head. “Feel free to ask me more questions anytime.”
She trotted down the hallway, pulled open the door to the teachers’ room, and disappeared behind it.
As for me, I turned around and went back to my homeroom.
Later that night, Sadako hung herself in her bedroom.
I sprang from my desk, drawing all the eyes in the homeroom on me. I had to divert them to the real issue.
“Look!” I said, pointing to the whiteboard.
Everyone turned to it. It was blank.
“We’ll finish early today,” Ms. Sada said in a serious voice. No, a somber one.
I shuddered. Now I wasn’t worried about Ms. Sada committing suicide, but about her killing me.
A few minutes later, I was sitting in the teachers’ room. In front of Ms. Sada’s orderly — or rather, empty — desk.
“Is this about the not-very-cheerful-example-sentences issue?” she asked in an eerily calm voice.
I gave a quick nod. It was all I could manage.
Mrs. Sada let out a small sigh. “Listen, are you sure you’re not … projecting?”
“Projecting?” I blurted.
Mrs. Sada nodded. “Maybe you’re transferring your feelings to me.”
Maybe Mrs. Sada was right. I’d never been particularly cheerful. In fact, I had a dark personality. Dark thoughts. I’d even entertained the idea of not existing. Just like before I was in my mother’s womb. Just like before I was given the name —
“Higashino isn’t projecting.”
Mrs. Sada and I turned around. One of my classmates, Shimada, stood in front of us, her hands balled into fists.
“With all due respect, Mrs. Sada,” she began, “I also think there’s something wrong with your recent example sentences. And I’m not talking about the grammar.”
I refocused on Mrs. Sada. Her face was so blank that you could have written on it. As if to prevent that from happening, she covered it with both hands. They shook. It was my first time seeing Mrs. Sada like this. My first time seeing any teacher like this.
“The truth is that I hate this job. Just the thought of coming to work makes me feel a tightness in my chest. It’s so bad that it takes me forever to get out of bed in the morning. I wish I could stay under the blanket for all eternity.”
After I recovered from my astonishment, I asked, “Why do you feel this way?”
“Because no one ever pays attention in my class. No one ever pays attention to me. It’s as if I don’t exist.”
“If that were true,” Shimada began in a firm voice, “Higashino and I wouldn’t have noticed that there was something wrong with your example sentences.”
Mrs. Sada lowered her hands. Her face wasn’t blank anymore; it was painted with shock and joy. “You’re … right. You’re right! How could I have not noticed? I must have been too wrapped up in my misery. My self-pity. Anyway, that doesn’t matter anymore.” She gave a low bow. “Thank you both very much. And sorry, Higashino, for saying you were projecting. I was deceiving you. And myself.”
After we finished talking, together with Shimada, I left the teachers’ room, one of the few times I did so with a smile on my face.
When Risa is playing with her friends, she feels like a butterfly in a field of flowers. Mrs. Sada pointed at the whiteboard. Beaming.