Saturday, my husband and I drove to Maryland for the day attending to some errands. I’ve lived in Maryland most of my life; we moved to nearby Northern Virginia a few years ago, but I still go up to Maryland periodically to visit family, friends, and to see my doctors.
We drove by a neighboring high school and I felt a tug. We drove farther north through an area near the high school where I used to work and I felt the strong tug of nostalgia for the summer of 2005 when I had spent a lot of time working on library displays and processing a large book order. It hit me then that my memories were particularly poignant because I’m being haunted by ghosts from Japan.
I have two friends who are living in Japan now. When I read about the earthquake in Japan, I worried a little, and when I heard about the tsunami, I worried more, and when I heard about the reactor, well, it started to really make me nervous.
The first ghost was Helen, who worked at the high school we drove by Saturday. Helen, is a friend that I made when I was in library school at the University of Maryland more than twenty years ago. Helen had a more difficult time than most of my classmates; she was recently divorced with two young daughters, and she worked 20 hours a week in addition to a full time schedule of graduate level classes. Some of the professors didn’t like her. One gave her a C in Reference, which in graduate school is a major setback. It would have encouraged any other student to drop out, but Helen was even more determined to succeed. She graduated a semester early and went to work at a high school in Prince George’s County.
A year later, I also took a job in Prince George’s County. Eventually I ended up at the high school near hers. We spent a lot of time collaborating on lessons, book orders and managing our libraries. Helen was particularly helpful to me since I was new to being a high school librarian, and she helped me deal with the computer lab from hell.
The thing about running a library in Prince George’s County Schools is that for many years librarians had to fend for themselves. I wanted computers in my school library but didn’t have funds for them. I obtained donated computers but had no technical support to keep them running, not to mention dealing with computers that had been deliberately messed up by students. Helen drove over to my school on several occasions to sort out computer problems. She was smart – smarter than my students, and knew the secret to unlocking computers students had locked up with their own passwords.
Carpooling to the central office several times a year to attend book review sessions and other meetings gave us a chance to talk about our schools. I had a fairly good situation at my school; the principal and staff respected me. Helen had a different situation at her school where she didn’t get along with several members of the staff. She couldn’t prove it, but was pretty sure that one of the teachers had vandalized her car after school hours in the school parking lot. The principal didn’t like her and tried to get rid of her. I can’t imagine dealing with a situation like that. If my principal had disliked me, I would have transferred or resigned, but I had that luxury since I had a husband's paycheck to fall back on. Helen didn’t have that luxury. She was a single mother with inadequate child support. She has always been such a fighter. She is a small woman, about 5 feet, and size 2, I think, but she would always stand up for herself and her library. One day she told me that she would outlast this principal, she’d outlasted the two before him and she would outlast him.
Sometimes I thought that it might just be that she was perceiving things in a negative light and was exaggerating how bad things actually were. But one day, one of the repairmen who serviced both of our schools told me that he’d seen how mean some of the staff talked to her.
Despite the issues with staff, the students loved her and she loved them back.
I never thought she would leave her school, but she did, taking a position to teach children in the American schools overseas, first in Korea, and then in Japan where she is now. She loves the children and never has a complaint about the staff or her budget.
After the tsunami I worried because I didn’t see her online in the morning like I usually do. I messaged her, and saw that other friends had also. She was online the next morning and said that she was fine, several miles from where the tsunami was doing the most damage, and though she was a little concerned about the reactor, she thought the wind was blowing northwest toward the Pacific, away from Tokyo so she felt she would be okay. On Thursday, she posted that the schools were closed indefinitely and the Department of State would be evacuating the US citizens. Friday she posted that even though the schools were closed, they weren’t going to evacuate the teachers yet because teachers were considered critical personnel. I guess it’s kind of flattering they consider teachers to be critical personnel, though that seems to be a mixed blessing. Sunday she posted that it was supposed to rain and they were being told to stay indoors because the rain might contain radioactive particles. And the low pressure system bringing in the rain will be blowing in a circle around the Tokyo area.
Breaking: Today she posted that Families and dependents of military. Now families and dependents of teachers have been authorized to leave. Hopefully teachers will be evacuated soon after.
My other ghost is a former student. Shannon came to the school once a week the summer of 2005 to help in the library. On my way to school I picked her up at her house. That was why I felt the nostalgia when I drove through her neighborhood on Saturday.
Shannon is now working in a Japanese school teaching English. I didn’t see her online the day of the tsunami, but she was online the next day and reassured me that she is nowhere near where the tsunami hit, though she thought the town where she did her training might have been hit very hard.
Shannon graduated from college two years ago and wasn’t able to find any job except a part time job as a retail clerk. Last year she was accepted in a one year program to teach English in Japan. The job ends in April, though she has the opportunity to extend the job for another year. She has been deliberating whether or not she should come back to the United States. Pros – in the U.S., she has family and a boyfriend who adore her. Cons – The job situation in the U.S. sucks.
During the years that I worked in the high school, a lot of students helped in the library and joined when I started a Friends of the Library chapter. Shannon was one of the most supportive, and in addition to shelving books, she participated in numerous library fundraising activities – e.g., book sales during the school fair, lollipop sales, and a Cup of Noodle Soup sale we held one winter.
Bringing money into the library was always necessary since I had a minuscule budget or some years, no budget at all, but it was also helpful when students gave me suggestions as to what kind of books I should buy. Shannon was one of the first to encourage me to create a manga collection. Manga is (are?) Japanese graphic novels which were originally published in Japan. The ones that I purchased for the school library were translated into English. Manga inspired a strong interest in all things Japanese and our Japanese dictionaries were always in demand. It also encouraged an interest in manga style art and Shannon and other students created their own manga, which they shared with me.
Though I never became a manga enthusiast, I read some at the request of students and to review for the school system. I never got why students liked them so much, but I tried to purchase as many as I could because the students were so happy to have them. When I got a new series in, students were thrilled and there were always students clustered around the circulation desk where I kept them.
Some of the students’ passion for manga expanded and there was a renaissance of writing and illustrating their own graphic novels. Some studied Japanese on their own during high school and later in college. That’s how Shannon ended up in Japan.
I exchanged emails with Shannon this morning and she reassured me that she is “perfectly fine” and will be coming home in two weeks, just in time for her little sister’s graduation from high school.
Helen and Shannon are safe, though sadly, another American teacher, Taylor Anderson, 24, drowned when the tsunami struck her in Ishinomaki earlier this month.