Friday, 16 April 2010

Passed It

"You've got a new student here for the test," Keiko whispered, "and just wait until you get a load of him!"

I leaned forward. "Why? What's wrong with him?" I whispered back.

"He's eighty if he's a day!" Keiko rolled her eyes. "He's waiting for you in the lounge. Though seriously, I don't know what you can do for him." She handed me a test paper. "Just explain it in Japanese if he doesn't understand."

I found Mr. Yanagigawa in the lounge, wearing a stern expression and a grey suit. Keiko definitely hadn't exaggerated his age: with his wrinkled face and white hair, he looked at least eighty years old. He scowled up at me when I walked over to him. I introduced myself and invited him to come with me to the examination room. He understood me, but once I'd seated him and given him the test paper, he waved away my explanations with a terse, "I understand."

Twenty minutes later, I came back for his completed test paper. The system at our school was that every prospective student took a simple grammar test, then, if she passed it, a harder one. No matter what the student's score was, an interview was then conducted, after which the student was placed in the appropriate class.

"Have you finished?" I asked gently.

Mr. Yanagigawa frowned and handed me his paper. "I'll be right back," I said, and went off to mark it. Halfway out of the classroom, I stopped. A quick glance had shown me that he'd gotten the first ten questions right. I read through the next group of questions and saw that he'd answered every one correctly. "Umm...I think you'll need to take our next test," I told him. Mr. Yanagigawa shrugged and grunted his assent.

Back at Keiko's desk I brandished the paper. "Look at this! He might be eighty, but he's nailed this test!"

Keiko blinked as she gaped at Mr. Yanagigawa's test paper. "My God, that's incredible!"

"Mm," I said. "Looks like he'll need the hard one." Wordlessly, Keiko handed me a copy.

"Interesting man, isn't he?" I couldn't resist commenting. "What did he put down under Occupation?"

Keiko pulled out his application form and frowned at it. "Retired." She raised an eyebrow. "He'll never get through the second half of the test!"

"Well, we'll soon find out, won't we?"

Keiko sighed. "Even if he does pass it, there's no way he'll be able to speak English." She examined her fingernails. "I guess he's retired so he needs some kind of hobby."

There was nothing I could say to that. Keiko was probably right. She wasn't being ageist in assuming that Mr. Yanagigawa's English skills would be limited. Thanks to wartime anti-American and anti-British propaganda, few Japanese people his age knew more than the most basic English. During the war years, English language education wasn't only discouraged, it was strictly forbidden. English loan words were purged from Japanese and people were imprisoned or punished severely simply for possessing English language textbooks. Most of our older students who had been children or adolescents during the war years seldom made it to the intermediate level. The fact that Mr. Yanagigawa knew as much English as he did was amazing -- and intriguing.

I took the next exam sheet back to Mr. Yanagigawa and told him I'd be back in fifteen minutes.

Barely ten minutes later, Keiko called me. "He's finished," she murmured, handing me his paper. I sat down with the answer key and Mr. Yanagigawa's completed test paper. He'd gotten every single question right. Even some of our better students didn't get every single question right.

Mr. Yanagigawa was sitting in the lounge, his back straight as a rod, his white head held high. He looked up as I approached. I held out his completed test paper. "You are obviously very good at English," I began, but he waved away my comments.

"I'd like to ask you some questions now --" I started to say, but Mr. Yanagigawa frowned and jerked his elbow back to look at his wristwatch.

"I'm sorry, but I'll have to come back another day for the interview," he said in perfect, hardly-accented English. "I've got a meeting in Ichigaya and I really have to attend it."

My jaw dropped as I watched Mr. Yanagigawa stride out of the lobby and vanish through the front door past an astonished Keiko. He never did come back for the interview, but he really didn't need to: I doubt there was anything we could have taught him.


AnneB said...

I've never been the first commenter on your blog before! I'm so excited I forgot what amazing thing I was going to write! Must have been something like, "I bet he was a mystery shopper."

Marian said...

And I'm the second commenter! :)

I was also curious about why he came to you. His English certainly didn't need much improvement.

Charles Gramlich said...

So why in the world was he there?

Chocolatesa said...

I bet he was a retired spy testing out the school for his granddaughter!

Miss Footloose said...

What a great story! Teaches us to be careful with our stereotypes and generalizations. Still, now you are stuck with that mystery!

TechnoBabe said...

Maybe the ease to take the test also showed him he had no reason to return. So you both knew it. Good for him.

Charlie said...

I think TechnoBabe is right. Otherwise, it seems somewhat odd.

Robert the Skeptic said...

It is perhaps a long-shot, but I almost feel the man needed to prove something to Himself. That is why he came and took the test.

Vijaya said...

Like others, I wonder why ... perhaps he was lonely.

Blythe said...

Well, what would you do with your time when you are 80, retired, and curious? Remind everyone that the world is full of surprises. It's like a visitation from an odd, un-recruited angel.

kara said...

maybe some people like taking tests for funsies? i don't know any of those people, but i bet they exist.

Angela said...

So what was his motivation to take the test? I hope he comes back and you can find out. It's always fun when life throws a surprise our way. :)

laura said...

Wow! A real mystery. I would LOVE to know what that was all about, and just imagine the possibilities! You should use this as the basis for a book. And remember, I suggested it first.

Chris Eldin said...

Mary, you have to go find him! We have so many questions!

Robin said...

How intriguing! I'm wondering along with everyone above, why he was there! Here's my fantasy: he went home, told the story to his wife, and they cracked up.

"You should have seen her face!", he said.

"What time is our flight back to New Jersey?" she replied.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- This IS a first! I've been the first commenter on your blog once (I'm pretty sure), so I feel quite smug.

Mr. Y was a mystery all right. All these years later and I still remember him.

Marian -- We were sick with curiosity after he left us. Every few days I would ask Keiko whether he'd come back and the answer was always no. I'd give a lot to have found out why he came in.

Charles -- We never did find out! One thing I'm sure of: his history must have been fascinating. He'd definitely learned his language BEFORE the war, and judging by his accent, in America.

Chocolatesa -- I'd put money on his being a retired spy. Seriously. He had such an air of authority about him.

Miss Footloose -- Yes, that is exactly what this did. Back in those days, I tended to see elderly people as innocuous and, although it pains me to say it, somewhat ineffectual. Mr. Yanagigawa made me feel like a total idiot, and then he left us wondering just what his story was. I'll bet Keiko still remembers him too.

TechnoBabe -- I'd like to think that it was Keiko and not I who put him off, but it's quite possible that he took a look at both of us and figured if we were representatives of the place, he wanted nothing to do with it. What was cool was the way he totally shattered our preconceived notions.

Charlie -- It was VERY odd. Over the years, I've given him a lot of thought and have come up with a number of explanations. At his age, with native-standard English AND Japanese, he had to have been in intelligence during the war. I'd give just about anything to know his story.

Robert -- After 17 years in Japan, it used to drive me wild when people waved me away BEFORE I opened my mouth with protestations that they didn't speak English and thus could not communicate with me. I can't help but feel that Mr. Yanagigawa felt the same. That from time to time, he just wanted to see the astonished faces of young people like Keiko and me.

Vijaya -- At first, we thought that he was retired, possibly widowed, and looking for an activity to fill his days. But there was such an air of confidence and pride about him -- and he never came back to us! Whatever he was, he certainly piqued our curiosity.

Blythe -- You're right. Once he had left us, we were left feeling almost bereft -- as though someone amazing had slipped through our fingers before we could properly appreciate his rare gifts.

Kara -- I have two students who claim they love taking tests, so you never know: stranger things have happened!

Angela -- It certainly livened up our day and gave us something to think about -- trying to figure out his story was like having an itch we could never reach. And it changed us too: Keiko didn't assume that elderly people would all be total beginners after that.

Laura -- You and me both! There are so many possibilities. If I run out of things to write about, that will certainly be number one on my list.

Chris -- This happened in 1987, and if he was 80 then, I can't believe he's still alive. So I guess I'll never find out unless some day I run into his children. I could put out an ad maybe, but just imagine the wording: 'Children of elderly man who came to British Council Cambridge English School in 1987 to take placement exam...'

Robin -- We actually wondered if he might have been Japanese-American, but if he was, he'd spent a lot of time in Japan: he had Japanese mannerisms and dress sense down pat. I still think he was in the military intelligence during the war, and most likely not a warm and fuzzy guy.

Anne Spollen said...

Weird man, but a great story - goes to show truth IS really stranger than fiction.

angryparsnip said...

Great story. I really wonder too ! I like Robins and Chocolatese comment.

@ your answer to Robert... When I visit Japan I love watching when my son answers in Japanese. He is tall blondish and very hairy... such a hoot ! Happens more in Tokyo than Osaka.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneS -- Sometimes I try to imagine just what Mr. Y's story was, but I'll bet the truth is more interesting than any of the scenarios I've envisioned.

AP -- I've never stopped wondering!

When I lived in Kyushu, I had friends from Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We had a blast watching people's reactions to us when we spoke Japanese.

Pat said...

Yay for Mr Keiko. I'd like to think he was typical of octagenarians but I let the side down somewhat:)

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- Believe me, Keiko and I never looked at 80-somethings the same way after this encounter. I suspect you'd have taught us a few things too!

adrienne said...

Interesting man. Too bad he didn't come back - I'll bet there are a few things he could have taught you.

Carolie said...

Oh, Mary! I think his brother must have been one of my students! Ha ha!

Ishibashi-san writes to me DAILY (even now that we're back in the U.S.) with "What does such-and-such mean, please? Does it mean (insert perfect definition here, along with sentence using the term perfectly)?"

Lovely, lovely story...thank you!

Patrick said...

Wow, he's good!

Kappa no He said...

I was going to say, I think I taught him! But, no, yours was super special. What a delightful story!