Mayuka To Ryu (繭価 と 龍)
Hattori put his left hand in the air, waving at Kenji and Takaya that just arrived. Today, they decided to try out the new floral rice wine owned by Hattori’s uncle. Hattori sent a quick invitation email to the boys, and they agreed. Takaya became the first person to reply, while the last was Ryu. An anticipated result.
They began with exchanging rants about summer courses. Hattori and Takaya attended the same university but in different departments. They complained about the new compulsory summer courses that happened to start for their intake. The previous batches were given choices; either to take those courses during summer or include them in their normal 14-week semester schedule. However, the seniors disagreed with the system and insisted that their juniors shall not face extra hours and projects during the already hectic 14-week semester.
Takaya scoffed. “Who asked the senpai to decide for us though?” He slouched his body. “It’s not like they paid our tuition fees.”
Hattori placed down the ceramic bowl of his first rice wine serving. The fragrance was too strong for his sensitive nose. It stung and he would not welcome a second serving. “But I think it’s good,” Hattori disagreed with Takaya. “Your department has the most actively participating alumni. They even established a foundation to provide scholarships for all of you who scored excellently. You were exempted from paying the tuition fees for three semesters. What’s the problem?”
“Tori-kun,” Takaya sighed, “I didn’t ask for the tuition fee exemption. I just want my summer break after bustling for 14 weeks!” He whined.
Kenji chuckled with his eyes stuck at the young girl who wore a pink apron while holding a notebook and pen. She seemed like an accustomed acquaintance but he could not recall 'who', ‘when’ and ‘where’. “Tori-kun, did uncle hire a high-school girl for this sake shop?”
Upon hearing the question, Hattori followed Kenji’s gaze and landed on the petite young girl. “Seriously, Ken-kun?” Hattori teased him while Kenji was already frowning in between confusion and disapproval.
The sun was slowly leaving the horizon, more and more people in suits and formal attire occupied all tables in the shop. Some came with a group while the rest preferred solitude and settled down on the single-person seats. Several customers entered and eyed around but quickly left when they saw the big tables were unavailable.
“That’s Sayu-chan!” Hattori purposely increased the volume of his voice and Sayuri turned towards them.
Takaya and Ryu also turned their heads and stared at Sayuri. Sayuri, whose hands were holding a tray of empty cups and notebook immediately put them on the tiny prep table and dashed to the boys. Kenji’s ears have started reddening and he looked down, drawing an endless circle on his lap.
“Nii-chan!” Sayuri beamed happily. “Oh, Takaya-kun and Ken-kun are also here. I’m sorry the store is very lively that I didn’t get to greet you guys. I only got to say ‘hi’ to Ryu Nii-chan just now,” Sayuri said and glanced at the quiet Kenji whose head was hung low. She noticed that Kenji dyed his hair in light brown. “Ken-kun’s hair looks weird.” She giggled and excused herself as she saw waves of hands from a few tables.
Kenji blinked as his hand slowly ruffled his hair. “Weird? Does it look weird, Ta-kun?”
Takaya shook his head. “It suits you.”
Kenji has lost interest in Takaya’s response and began shooting questions to Hattori about Sayuri. Sayuri was Hattori’s cousin, the second daughter of his uncle who owned this sake place. Sayuri was in her senior year, studying for the college entrance exam.
They all grew up together, went to a similar elementary and middle school. However, as they entered high school, the boys enrolled for an all-boys academy while Sayuri moved to another city. They have not met until today. Since Hattori and Takaya were a little rough, Sayuri was always under Kenji’s and Ryu’s supervision.
For Kenji, she was more than a little sister.
“Has she decided on the college she’s entering?” Ryu asked, pouring the second serving of the floral rice wine into his ceramic bowl. Takaya narrowed his eyes at Ryu as a protest sign, disapproving the second serving, but Ryu pretended that he missed the glare by pushing his spectacles until they touched his long lashes.
Hattori shook his head as a ‘no’. “She wanted to pursue Literature. I told her to talk to Ken-kun.” Hattori smiled mischievously. “Has she contacted you? I gave her your phone number and email address.”
They were surprised when Kenji sadly denied it; he did not receive an email or message from Sayuri. Takaya made a blunt remark saying that Sayuri was not interested in Kenji and his university.
“I don’t think so,” Ryu refuted. “Remember when I asked you about your department last year, Ken-kun?”
Kenji frowned but slowly nodded. He recollected that it happened last year during the spring season. Ryu requested his university map, pamphlets, dormitories, and everything about his university. Kenji was studying Sociology and he was not well-versed in other departments but he gave as much information as he could regarding the Literature department. Oh, yeah, Ryu asked about the Literature Department, Kenji susurrated.
“Sayuri was the one who asked me. And she told me to ask you. She’s pretty resolute in considering your university, Ken-kun,” Ryu calmly explained.
Now, Takaya was in denial. “But why? Hattori has given her Ken-kun’s number and email address. Ken-kun can even bring her for a short tour around his university if Sayuri-chan had the intention to pursue her study there.”
Ryu smiled. “I think Sayu-chan is not comfortable with Ken-kun. Just like how Ken-kun is-”
Before Ryu could say more, Kenji grabbed his full bowl and gulped the whole sake in one shot. He managed to murmur a slow ‘please stop’ before he finished his first bowl of floral rice wine. Ryu who understood the labyrinthine emotions and countless ‘whys’ in Kenji’s head decided to leave it as how it was. Some personal matters shall be discovered slowly and at the perfect time. Although Takaya seemed like he wanted to tease the helpless lovestruck young man, Hattori warned him with a murderous glare. They knew Kenji.
If Ryu was physically weak, then Kenji was emotionally fragile.
. . . .
Mayuka distributed tiny pieces of paper that she had cut before the tutoring session. It was a QR code that led the students to her website. She created and uploaded various online exercises there. Mayuka got the idea when she marked the student's latest mock examination. Some scored excellently, while a small percentage did poorly. It made her question her capability that she met the manager to discuss the small percent.
Keyo Haruki thanked her for the passion and hard work she put into teaching the students. However, Mayuka shoved the gratitude aside and highlighted her concern.
“I have observed each of them meticulously and identified their weaknesses,” Mayuka started. “But these three students keep failing, Keyo-san. What did I do wrong? Where did it go wrong?”
Keyo flipped to the next page of the student file that Mayuka brought into the office. Mayuka is stressed out, he thought. He instantly spotted the outliers and recognised these failing students. He also knew their parents. They were the kids who silently rebelled for having to join a cram school that immolated their passion for sports and clubs at school.
Closing the grey file slowly, he glanced at the digital table clock on the corner of his neat workspace. The young lady in front of him came an hour early to discuss this matter with him. He made up his mind to give her a bonus at the end of this month.
Keyo was a well-built man in his early thirties who viewed youngsters as a group that needed a lot of practice. When he said ‘a lot’, it insinuated perfection. Therefore, the idea of perfection was portrayed effortlessly in every little thing he did, including his office and the table that separated him from Mayuka. He knew Mayuka since she was in her freshman year. She was a quiet girl who became talkative in front of her students. She loved them and was willing to go the extra mile for the students. Unlike typical young ladies in her age who got distracted easily, Mayuka did not seem to fluster with little encounters. She was also a bit cold, despite her adorable feature and braids.
“You did not do anything wrong, Tsukushi-san,” Keyo responded, “These kids have no will to study. This poor result is their weapon to provoke their parents. You know, parents send their children here, paid so much money to see good results. And when they saw this,” Keyo tapped on the grey file, “They will lose their mind. Exactly how those kids wanted. It is not your fault.” When he caught those empty eyes of hers, he was slightly concerned. “Tsukushi-san?”
Mayuka was listening but a huge fraction of herself repudiated his explanation. She acknowledged that Keyo was still blethering but it was not something that she looked forward to eagerly listen. It was just another expression to insist her on accepting the students, rather than solutions that she could work for.
“Tsukushi Sensei,” one of the students called her with a hand raised up high. It startled Mayuka and her eyes wandered around the classroom, scanning each student to seek for the one who summoned her. “We didn’t get the code,” she said and Mayuka immediately spotted her. She was one of the rebels that Keyo mentioned. She gazed at them softly and she noticed that they were all young girls who had no sparks in their eyes at all. Their wavering pupils were screaming ‘pillow’ and ‘karaoke’ as they were only physically available in front of Mayuka.
Walking closer towards them, Mayuka separated three pieces of paper and handed them to the girls. “Girls.”
The three of them simultaneously looked at her. “Yes, sensei?”
It was a few seconds of locking their gazes but Mayuka felt a lump in her throat. “I always think you girls are beautiful,” Mayuka held her tears and demanded her voice to remain stable. “Perhaps you can teach me how to apply the mascara one day?”
The girls were stunned by the sudden friendly approach from Mayuka. They remembered that they bumped into Mayuka outside of the cram centre but decided to ignore her.
However, the girls noticed that Mayuka herself was not as friendly as she was at the centre. Mayuka’s entire existence as a non-teacher entity screamed the ‘stay-away-from-me’ aura. She did not glare or make irritating expressions, yet the girls could feel that Mayuka was not a cordial person when she took off her teacher cap.
Therefore, they have always been extra careful with Mayuka for they could not figure out her personality. They completed all Mayuka’s work and paid attention to her lessons. However, to spite their parents, they did poorly in all exams, including Mayuka’s English lesson.
“Sure, Sensei,” the girl with the short hair replied as her lips curled into a wide smile. Mayuka nodded and returned to the front part of the classroom.
She started her lesson induction with the popular mistakes that the students made during the recent test; him, his, and he. As expected, most of them scrunched their noses, displeased with today’s lesson.
“What’s wrong with Tsukushi Sensei?” A girl named Ayase Yui whispered to her friends. The girl with the short hair, Yukimura Hana, just gave them a shrug while writing down ‘Pronouns Lesson – Him, his, and he’ on the notebook with her purple glitter pen.
While Ibuki Akari tapped the pen absent-mindedly on her chin, trying to figure out the impromptu friendliness of their teacher. “But she said we’re pretty. And she noticed my mascara!” And they brought up about the encounter with their mysterious teacher at the café. However, the ones who continuously commented were Akari and Yui while Hana was enjoying the topic. Hana admitted that she answered all the pronouns section correctly and wrote down a pointless and absurd essay that caused her to lose so many marks, then failed.
“Yu-chan, Ri-chan,” Hana voiced out, pushing some locks behind her ear. “Focus. Sensei is talking in front.”
. . . .
The clock struck at ten. Fifteen minutes left before all air-conditioners in the cram centre automatically went off. Some lights will also shut down by themselves with the smart-clocking system. The students had left half an hour ago, fetched by their family members while some groups walked together. However, there were still a few students left in front of the centre, sitting on the benches while sharing snacks.
Their joyful laughter was audible and it made Mayuka smiled as she looked at them from the second floor through the window. Her desk and another three language teachers were placed in the first staff room, facing the road where they could see the students going in and out of the building.
The STEM teachers were placed in the second staff room which was more quiet, spacious, and nearer to the college preparatory classes. The social science teachers reserved a smaller room on the third floor.
Keyo’s office is on the first floor. Although the teachers suggested moving to the third floor for tranquility, he insisted to be there. Initially, the teachers were a little hesitant with his decision. However, one day, the centre was visited by an old couple who wanted to register their grandchild; an amputee father; a special child. From that moment, the teachers respected Keyo’s resolution, and nobody has ever questioned him.
“It’s nice to be young,” Keyo spontaneously voiced out and caught Mayuka off guard. Her heart raced and it took her a few minutes to cool down. She only hummed, agreed with him, and quickly studied her Samsung tablet. Just now, she introduced her website to the students and informed them that she also provided a chatbox for inquiries.
Mayuka advised the students to enter their nicknames and posed questions there. If other students knew the answers and she has not replied, they may help their clueless friends. They looked excited and started posting meaningless ‘hi’, ‘hello’, ‘oyasumi’, and more on the chatbox. Mayuka had warned them to refrain from spamming unnecessary things. Currently, several students were chatting about random matters and exchanging jokes at the chatbox on her website. Her forehead furrowed in disapproval for their empty talk was irrelevant to the lessons.
Keyo who saw how attentive Mayuka was on her tablet became curious. He moved nearer to her right ear and saw a maroon chatbox that was bombarded with endless replies. “Didn’t know you were into a group chat with strangers.”
Mayuka froze. She was supposed to flinch since his breath tickled her pinna but she knew she must not move an inch, neither should she turn her head. Keyo was too close to her that wrong moves could cause an unwanted collision. She breathed normally until he pulled away and stood up straight.
It was 10.10 P.M. Twenty minutes before all teachers wrapped up their discussions, preparations for the next class, and went home. Other language teachers were printing their teaching materials on the third floor.
Let us go home. Mayuka kept the tablet in her schoolbag. Now that she put the strap on her shoulder, she looked like a typical university student who studies hard on summer vacation. And she felt the urge to correct Keyo. “Keyo-san,” Mayuka began as she stood, “I decided to keep in touch with the students outside their juku session. I put up various exercises on my educational website and provided a chatbox. That was the chatbox you saw. The students are enjoying themselves but I can disable the chatbox anytime. Please do not worry.” Keyo was listening to every word she uttered. “And I concluded that out of those three failing students, one of them never wants to fail.”
Keyo was surprised. “Are you sure?”
Mayuka grabbed the strap of her bag and spun around. Her French braids swayed together with the little spin she made. For a moment, Keyo could not remember how cold she was. “Yes!” Mayuka beamed. “I will try my best. Please don’t call them the failing students again, Keyo-san. Wait for me and I’ll prove to you that they are very bright young ladies.” Mayuka pledged, ended with an assured nod, and left the staff room before Keyo could say anything.
She strode confidently and never turned back until she faded away from his sight. Keyo could feel the burning passion when she openly disagreed with him. Perhaps she was not ready to give up on her students. Perhaps she was born to be those limited inspiring teachers. Or maybe she has fallen in love with teaching badly. Keyo got anticipated to witness the outcome yet he discovered wishful thinking that he had repudiated for as long as he could remember.
“It’ll be great if she was born a year late rather than a decade later,” Keyo heaved a short sigh, “It’ll be very great.”
As Keyo walked out of the first staff room, other language teachers were climbing down the staircases from the third floor, still discussing several teaching methods that incorporated gamification. When they saw him, they bowed slightly and quickened their paces into the staff room to pack their things.