Chapter 1:

This morning's homeroom isn't normal

Good Luck! Students (*hiatus)

Class begins at 8:00 A.M. sharp. Everyone comes filing in early so they can avoid having to get a dreadful tardy slip.

"Good morning."

"Good morning!"


"Good morning…"

Another morning brings shallow greetings. No emotion… No sincerity. Everyone heads straight for their seats with no detours. We made no stops for idle chatter and no time for mingling. Every morning, the empty classroom fills up with these soulless students. No one ever interacts with each other. Everyone just keeps to themselves unconcerned with the affairs of others, and those who want to speak up are too intimidated by the unwelcoming atmosphere we've created. It's just like acquaintances struggling to break the ice. But it's not at all surprising that the class is like this….especially at a school as competitive as Kentō Academy. We all want to reach the top of the class and earn the coveted title of valedictorian. You know, I'm not so different from my classmates. I'm not worried about making friends with my peers. I have to stay vigilant at all times. After all, my classmates are also my rivals. They don't waste time forming bonds with others and they're only here to stay on track with their studies. 

But can you even call this a competition when the others are fortunate to come from wealthy and powerful backgrounds? If it weren't for the rigorous entrance exams, the students' families would probably just pay tuition fees instead if Kentō Academy was a private school. I'm at an unfair disadvantage, so I worked hard to be accepted into Kentō Academy. I won't lose to high-class wannabes like them. Once you become the valedictorian, rest assured that the academy will have you set for life. You'll hold the future in your hands and the world will become your oyster. The whole idea of becoming a valedictorian is a western concept. That said, the concept of students at the top of their class becoming valedictorians is non-existent here in Japan. This sets Kentō Academy apart from other schools.

Sometimes, I wonder how things would turn out if we weren't so focused on our studies. If we took the time to talk to each other, would we become friends? I can't even imagine what that would look like. And who knows how that would make the others feel. Everyone's in it for themselves, but deep down do they wish that they had someone they could talk to? If that's what they wanted, wouldn't they have said something by now? At this rate, my peers and I would have to be put into a room and forced to follow any weird commands given to us if we were ever going to cooperate. And even if we ever found ourselves in such a situation, everyone would probably be at each other's throats because we lack communication skills. We're not collaborators or mediators. So, no one would be well-equipped to deal with a difference of opinions. Or maybe we would just stick to our guns and do whatever was in our best interests. But doing so would defeat the purpose of trying to get us to work together.  Oh, whatever. It's hard to say what we'd do in a situation like that.

It can be tiring having to come into class and be greeted with nothing but a frigid atmosphere. And you're surrounded by people who only want one thing. It makes you wish for a different reality.

Well, not that it matters.

I'm used to it. In fact, I prefer it. Despite everything, I don't want things to change. It's easier this way.

Yes, that's right.

I don't want anything to change.

The time was now 8:00 A.M. on the dot. By now, everyone was accounted for. Not a single straggler. A full house. Any moment now, our homeroom teacher will walk through those doors. We were ready to stand and bow with our morning greeting. The class patiently waited in their seats. There wasn't a stirring to be heard, which made the room sound deafeningly silent. Every morning, the class would sit like this, frozen on the edge of their seats. It was impossible for this feeling to go unnoticed. And the funny thing is that if this class felt any emotion at all, it would be anticipation first and foremost. It was a common observation that I made every morning right before our teacher arrived. Some had sweat rolling down the sides of their faces, others grinned as they sat like models with a posed look. Then there were the students who furiously scribbled in their journals and the studious ones who took the time to review the previous day's notes to prepare for an inevitable pop-up quiz. Excitement and anxiety were rolled into one. This feeling swept across the room because we all knew that class couldn't begin without our teacher. The competition couldn't continue and that would make us unable to advance.

We waited….and we waited…

We all sat in our chairs without making a sound.

Any second now.

This eternity of waiting carried on for another ten minutes and our patience waned. But more importantly, this created a cause for concern. Punctuality was an essential quality for any student to have. It would reflect poorly on those who failed to attend scheduled meetings promptly, especially if you wanted to become valedictorian of Kentō Academy. Naturally, we suspected something was off when our teacher failed to come in promptly at 8:00 A.M sharp. It was truly something out of the ordinary. My classmates began whispering among themselves in what seemed like their very first interaction together, aside from the usual daily greetings. A panicked discussion rang throughout the room.

"What should we do?"

"It's not like him to be late. Mr. Manpai's always on time!"

"I hope everything is okay. Maybe something came up?"

"It's fine. Don't worry about it. He'll be here."

I wasn't losing my marbles over my homeroom teacher being late to their own class, but I could agree with the others that it raised some eyebrows. Where was our teacher Mr. Manpai? What was he doing? We were all clueless about the unknown whereabouts of our absentee teacher. And if that wasn't enough, a bell rang over the intercom, signaling the start of an unexpected announcement.

"Attention everyone! We will be holding an assembly for the first-year students this morning in the gymnasium. At this time, we kindly ask for all first-year students to make their way to the gym."

The message closed out with the usual clunkiness of the announcer turning off the intercom. Usually, the students know what to expect whenever there's a scheduled event on campus. However, the announcement for the assembly came out of leftfield because none of us were informed about it beforehand. What else was there to do? We didn't have our teacher, but we were finally given instruction. We could finally kick start our day. Everyone began standing up, preparing to leave. Some of us looked at each other as if to ask, "what could this be about?" But of course, no one had the answer to that question, for no one knew what was going on. Most of the class filed out of the room in an orderly fashion, the same way they had entered. The students who still lingered in the classroom shambled their way out of the door as well. I wanted to leave much sooner with the first group, but somehow I stood rooted in place by my desk, unable to move my foot forward. You could say it was doubt that made me stay behind. I didn't trust any of it. For a school that functioned on schedules and routine, it was strange that everyone was being called to an impromptu assembly first thing in the morning and without their teacher no less. Although, I couldn't speak for the other first-year classes. Just when the remaining few students left the classroom, a girl spoke out to me in a monotone pitch.

"Come on. You're not gonna stay in here the whole time we're gone, are you? You're probably confused like the rest of us, but sometimes you just gotta follow the crowd, you know? Don't get left behind."


Her name is Yukimura, I think... She's a redhead who keeps her hair up in a ponytail with hair running down the sides of her face, and she has a noticeable forehead. We haven't held the voting for class representative yet, but among all my classmates, I think she would be a suitable candidate. She seemed responsible enough for the role.

Yukimura had a point. I had my reservations about going to the assembly, but staying behind wouldn’t get me anywhere. Yukimura stood in the frame of the sliding door. If I didn't know any better, I'd say she was waiting for me to leave with her. I couldn't have that. I didn't want…her sympathy. If that's what it took to get me to join the others, then I had to get out of here. She's supposed to be one of my rivals and yet she's still here waiting patiently. How embarrassing. I forced myself to pick up my feet and walk past Yukimura without giving her a second glance, but I still heard her footsteps following closely behind mine after she closed the sliding door shut. As our class moved through the halls, we saw the other first-year students marching single-file alongside us while sticking close to their classmates. It was just us kids on our way to the gym. Not a single teacher was spotted walking with their students. That means it wasn't just my class. The other first-year teachers didn't show up to their respective homeroom periods, just like Mr. Manpai. So that begs the question: Where are they?

We reached the gym and found that the doors were already wide open for us to enter. As we marched in, we received instructions from faculty members regarding where and how they wanted us to be seated.

"Welcome, students!"

"Please be seated on the bleachers in order by classroom. Class 1-A is on the first row. Class 1-B shall be seated above them. Class 1-C and Class 1-D, follow behind them. Please work your way up the bleachers until you reach the highest row."

As we were told where to sit, we instinctively sat down by seat number as we normally would in our classrooms. Some of the faculty members present in the gym consisted of the principal, vice-principal, and a counselor. There was also a group of five people that I did not recognize standing on the sidelines. They all wore matching red, long-sleeved uniforms and black pants. Who were they, anyway? Volunteers? Visitors? I didn’t know what else to call them. I wondered if they would play a role in today's assembly. But there was one thing we all couldn't take our eyes off of. The sight of our teachers all neatly gathered in one room distracted us as we tried to get situated. We were worried about them and here they stood, smiling and waving at us without a care in the world. Now that we knew they had been in the gymnasium all along, I guess we could finally put those concerns to rest. But a heads up would've been appreciated at least. Still, that was just the least of our problems. We still didn't have a clue why an assembly was happening this morning. What was the academy planning by gathering all the first-years together like this?

By the time every student had been seated with their classmates, the total number of rows occupied by the first years only totaled up to four. One row for every class. Well, there were eighty of us and the bleachers were big enough to fit roughly twenty to thirty students per row. Just like in the classroom, we waited silently for the announcement that would start off the day. With a microphone in hand, the vice-principal introduced the main speaker of the event without further delay.

"I will now turn things over to Principal Kagemori. Please stand and bow."

We all rose from our seats and watched Principal Kagemori slowly approach the center of the gym floor. Once he took the microphone and turned forward to look at us, we all leaned down and gave our principal a long bow. We remained in this position for at least five seconds, which was to be expected, but we didn't lift our heads until Principal Kagemori gave the word.

"Please be seated."

"Thank you all for being here today and apologize for the sudden disruption. I have gathered you here because…well, I'd like to address the current state of affairs. As you know Kentō Academy is a school dedicated to fostering growth and rewarding those who have made exemplary accomplishments. Every year, we select dedicated students as potential candidates for the race for valedictorian. By the time you all graduate, only one student will be chosen to earn the title and the rewards that come with it. The student that is chosen as the valedictorian will receive funding from the academy after graduation to pursue their goals while giving them stability for their future."

That wasn't anything new. Everyone sitting in this gym already knows that fact. Kentō Academy was founded to aid outstanding students at the top of their class so they can follow their dreams and continue to make impactful contributions to society. Again, it's not like these kids need the extra support. They're rich—need I say more? But I guess it's not so easy for the academy to go back on their word, regardless of the student's social status. How unfair. I dwelled on that fact as Principal Kagemori proceeded with his speech.

"Because of this, the school has formed a competitive atmosphere where everyone has distanced themselves and put up barriers. Everyone has become so focused on one goal that they bottle up their issues and refuse to reach out for help. I look back on previous years and realize that I hold regrets. I think about certain cases where the worst could have been avoided."

The crowd shifted slightly on the bleachers. Everyone's ears perked up at the mention of the principal's regret, curious as to what he could have been referring to. Whispers spread among us but quickly fell silent once everyone realized their voices grew loud enough to bounce off the acoustics of the gymnasium. The sudden chatter did not bother principal Kagemori. He paused briefly, gathering his thoughts for what he was about to say next, then he carried on.

"We want Kentō Academy to be a place where students feel comfortable with each other. That's why I'd like to try something different. This year will be the start of a brand new movement within the school. Going forward, Kentō Academy will focus on unifying the student body. We don't want you to feel alone. Your peers are not enemies to compete against. This school is not a field of battle. Everyone in this room can become friends under a warm, loving roof."

And then Principal Kagemori reached the end of his speech. We had no idea what was in store for us, but what he said next would mark a new beginning for Kentō Academy. With strong conviction in his voice, Principal Kagemori made a declaration that none of us would ever forget.

"Today, starting with all eighty of you, we will create a new environment that bolsters empowerment. I encourage you to build healthy relationships and spread positivity. Today will be known as…"The Day of Change!"

Arashi Sensei