Authors: Jennifer Maruno
“Next time, I'll run you over.” His cold blue eyes told her he meant what he'd said. He turned and picked up his bike.
Michiko watched the white-walled balloon tires turn the corner. She continued to walk, but when she turned the corner, the Union Jack was fluttering high on the pole. That meant school had started. She broke into a run, making her pigtails smack hard against the side of her face.
Out of breath, she pushed open the schoolhouse door. Without thinking, she slipped off her shoes as she did at home and stepped into the schoolroom, leaving her shoes outside the door. Thirteen pairs of unsmiling eyes turned her way. The teacher put down her piece of thick yellow chalk. Michiko waited in the aisle, not knowing what to do next.
“Come in,” the teacher said.
Michiko moved forward.
A boy on the aisle looked down. “She ain't got no shoes,” he exclaimed. “She must be even poorer than me.”
Everyone laughed, and Michiko hung her head.
“Now, now, boys and girls,” cautioned the teacher.
“She must have shoes. Her socks are a lot whiter than any of yours.”
Several children bent to examine their own socks.
“Put your shoes back on,” the teacher directed Michiko kindly. “We don't take our shoes off here.”
Michiko returned and thankfully slipped them back on. The coolness of the dark linoleum floor was already seeping through her socks.
“Come up to my desk,” the teacher said. She sat beside a clay pot of scraggly geranium plants. “My name is Miss Henderson,” she said softly. “You must be the little girl Mrs. Morrison came to see me about.”
Michiko stood before her, her hands at her side. She didn't know what to say.
“What is your name?” the teacher asked.
Michiko whispered her full name. “I am Michiko Takara Minagawa.”
“Please say it again,” the teacher requested. “I didn't quite hear you.”
Michiko whispered it a second time. The teacher shook her head.
“Maybe she's Italian,” someone from the back offered. “Maria didn't know English when she first came.”
“Write your name for me, please,” Miss Henderson directed as she pushed a piece of paper towards her. Michiko picked up a pencil and wrote her name.
“She better not be one of those yellow bellies,” a different voice from the back piped up.
The teacher looked up and frowned. “That's enough,” she said. She looked at Michiko's name for a minute and
picked up the pencil. She crossed out some letters and wrote down some new ones. She examined the paper for a moment, then looked up at the class. “We have a new student,” Miss Henderson announced. She focused directly on the boy with the bike. “Boys and girls, meet Millie Gawa.”
“Hello, Millie Gawa,” they chorused.
The teacher pointed to a desk in the second last row. “You can sit beside Clarence.”
“Hey, Clarence,” a boy in the back called out. “Looks like you finally got yourself a girlfriend.”
Miss Henderson clapped her hands loudly. All went quiet.
Michiko slipped into the seat beside the boy named Clarence, who looked as if he had been born on the sun. Red hair fell about his freckled face in curls. His large ears, rimmed with sunburn, stuck straight out like the open doors of her father's car. His nose peeled. Clarence wore a long-sleeved plaid flannel shirt and brown corduroy pants. One of the buttons on the cuff was missing. The corner of the pocket was slightly torn.
Her mother would never have let her come to school like that, Michiko thought. She'd let down the hem of Michiko's cotton skirt, washed it, and dried it. Her white blouse was spotless.
They spent the morning writing out addition questions and multiplication tables. At recess, Michiko stood with her back to the wall, watching the children coo like pigeons over the green and ivory bicycle leaning against the wall.
“It's the New Elgin Deluxe,” one of the boys called out to the others.
Its owner patted the silver mound between the two handlebars. “This is an electric beam,” he boasted.
Clarence came late into the yard, returning the coal bucket from the small stove to the shed at the back. The sun tinged his red hair with gold as he closed the shed door with the toe of his boot.
At lunchtime, Miss Henderson asked Michiko to remain inside, while the others spilled out on to the wooden trestle table in the side yard. She gave Michiko a few words to spell and several passages to read. Then they ate their lunch together in friendly silence.
After lunch, the class had a botany lesson. The teacher directed them to sketch a flowering plant. If they wished, they could use watercolors to enhance their drawing. Michiko's eyes shone when the students passed back pieces of drawing paper. She found that drawing often helped her to ease her fears. Her joy diminished, however, when she opened the green enamel box. Most of the cakes of colour were gone. Those left had large holes in the centre, and the white enamel of the box's bottom showed through.
Clarence watched her sketch a long stem with small buds. Below, she drew clusters of small-petal blooms.
“That's good,” he said. “It's a lilac, right?”
Michiko looked up, but he turned back to his work.
“Prepare for dismissal,” the teacher announced.
Michiko blew gently on her paper before slipping it inside her desk.
“No leapfrogging across the desks,” Miss Henderson warned the boys at the back as the children crowded towards the door.
Michiko raced along the hard dirt road until she reached the wooden bridge. Then she slowed down to walk the rest of the way. School had not been anything like the one she went to at home. She didn't know how to tell her mother that she had a new name.
At home, she slapped her
on to the kitchen table, laid her head down and closed her eyes. Her mother moved her hands to retrieve the bundle.
“What are these small cuts on your fingers?” Eiko asked. “What have you been doing?”
A bundle of thorny dark green stems and small pink roses fell out of the
Michiko opened her eyes. “The teacher said,” she mumbled, “if you pick flowers and hang them to dry, they will keep their colour.” She closed her eyes again. “We always had flowers on the table at home.”
Everyone is to begin on page one,” Miss Henderson directed as she handed out the papers. “Work as far as you can.”
The class groaned as their day began with an arithmetic test.
Michiko twisted her braid before she started. She whizzed through the first page. It was all addition and subtraction questions. She turned the page. Clarence, she noticed, was counting his fingers inside his desk.
She completed the second page of multiplication and division questions and moved on to the third. It was word problems. After reading the first, she gazed across the room. Miss Henderson smiled at her. Michiko lowered her head to make a small drawing to help solve the problem.
A sudden sting on the back of her head made her jerk upright. Clarence picked up the bit of crumpled paper that bounced on to his desk. He slid it inside and unfolded it. His face flamed redder than his hair.
Michiko looked behind her. The boy with the bike smirked at her. Clarence ripped the note in half and stuck it in his shirt pocket.
“Put your papers on my desk on your way out,” Miss Henderson directed.
The girls skipped but didn't invite Michiko to join. She stood and watched until Miss Henderson emerged from the school. As she waved the hand bell, Clarence ambled up to her side.
“I always wait until the rest have gone in,” he told her. “That way nobody pushes you.” He waited with Michiko until everyone was inside before he spoke again. “Most of the students dislike George,” he told her. “Try to stay out of his way.”
“Millie,” the teacher called out as she entered the classroom. “I've marked your arithmetic paper. Well done. I'm moving you up a grade. You are to sit beside George from now on.”
Michiko's eyes darted to Clarence's as she picked up her notebook and pencil. She moved to the desk beside the boy who owned the bike, took a deep breath, sat down, and smiled.
His clear blue eyes narrowed as he looked at her. “Are you one of those Dirty Japs?” he whispered.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I asked if you were a Dirty Jap,” he repeated.
Michiko heard him clearly that time.
George stared at her, waiting for something to happen. But Michiko couldn't think of anything to say. She flipped through the pages of the textbook. She would have liked to have said something, if she only knew what.
At home Michiko talked about her day at school. “A boy in my class called me a Dirty Jap,” she said to her mother's back as she prepared dinner.
“And what did you say?” Eiko asked without turning around.
“I didn't know what to say.”
“What is a Dirty Jap?” Michiko asked, moving to her mother's side.
Ted and Sadie overheard as they came into the kitchen.
“Did you do or say anything to this boy to make him angry?” her uncle wanted to know.
Michiko shook her head. “After the arithmetic test, the teacher made me sit beside him.”
“That means he's jealous,” Sadie said. “He was used to being the smartest in the class until you came along.”
“Why did he call me dirty?” Michiko asked. “Even the teacher complimented me on my clean socks.”
Ted pulled her into his arms. “I'm afraid in the eyes of some people, all Japs are dirty.”
“Especially Hiro, when he fills his diapers,” Sadie said loudly. She laughed heartily.
, Sadie,” Eiko cautioned her. “This is why I didn't want her to go to school.” She leaned against the sink. “I could have taught her here.”
“With what?” Sadie retorted. “We don't have any books. Besides, she should know what is going on.”
Sadie pulled Michiko away from Ted. “Listen, Michiko,” she said, spinning her around to face her. “The lesson you learned at school today wasn't about arithmetic. It was current events.”
“Stop it,” Eiko cried.
Sadie ignored her. “Canada is at war with Japan after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in the United States,” she continued. “For some reason, people think all Japanese people are enemies.”
Michiko's eyes widened. “Enemies?” she repeated.
“That's why we left Vancouver.” Sadie stopped holding Michiko and relaxed her arms. “Everyone who was Japanese had to move away from the coast. It is the law.” She slumped into a chair. “We left before they threw us out.”
“Stop it,” cried Eiko. “Stop it, Sadie.”
But Sadie didn't stop talking. Her voice grew louder, as if she were telling a whole roomful of people. “The government made new laws for the Japanese every week. We weren't to have cameras or radios. Then we couldn't have cars or boats.”
Ted walked away to look out the window.
“We couldn't go to certain stores. Japanese children couldn't go to public schools or use the libraries. They even shut down the schools that taught Japanese culture and language.”
Michiko raised her fingers to her mouth. It was the government that had stopped her lessons in calligraphy?
“First, they took your uncle's boat,” Sadie exclaimed, “then they took your father.”
Michiko ran to her mother. “You said my father was working in the mountains,” she said, searching her mother's face.
working in the mountains,” her mother replied
tiredly as she smoothed the top of her daughter's head. “He is building a road and receiving a wage.” But her voice sounded strange, as if she was unsure of what she was saying.
Michiko turned to her aunt. “Is that true?”
Sadie shrugged. “You can call it work and wages if you like, Eiko.” She walked over to the wooden box beside the stove. “You should start reading the newspaper, my little Japanese princess.” Sadie bent down and removed several logs. “That is, if you can find it.” She pulled out a newspaper, dusted it off and handed it to Michiko. “Soon you won't be the only Dirty Jap vacationing in this town.”
Ted crossed the room in two strides and snatched the newspaper from Sadie's hand. He opened the iron grate of the big black stove and threw it into the fire. It went up in a blaze.
“That won't change anything!” Sadie yelled. Then she slumped into the chair and put her head in her hands. “That won't change anything,” she mumbled.
Ted sat opposite her. “You are right.” He took one of her hands and held it. “We can't change anything, but we can be brave.”
Sadie didn't look up. The only sound in the kitchen was the hissing of the kettle.
After a short while, Ted let go of her hand. He picked up Hiro, went to the door and lifted the lantern from its nail. “I was going to wait until tomorrow to show you something,” he said. He jiggled Hiro up and down and stuck his hand out to Michiko. “But I think now is a good time for my surprise.”