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Evening Class

by Joneve McCormick
(originally published in Japanophile)



Hitoshi picked up the mink jacket and handed it to the tall blond woman towering over him.

She snatched the coat from his fingers. "Can you tell me where to find Professor Suzuki's class?"

"There, Madame," he replied, gesturing with an open hand to a door several feet away. "I am Hitoshi Suzuki."

"Professor Suzuki!" Hitoshi heard Dean Herzogg's voice at the end of the corridor. "I want a word with you, Professor," the dean demanded. Even at a distance Hitoshi could see the dean's pale blue eyes blinking behind silver rimmed glasses."

"My name is Judith Morriss." The woman appraised Hitoshi's face and slight frame, then abruptly walked away. He turned to meet the dean.

"Let's step in here," the dean suggested, opening the door to a vacant classroom. He turned on the light, closed the door, and plunked his short pudgy body on the edge of the nearest chair. "Hitoshi, I'm going to get to the point. It's the third week in the semester. There have been complaints...students say you leave class twenty to thirty minutes before the period officially ends." He looked gravely at Hitoshi, then at the floor. "I heard this last semester, too, but frankly I've been too busy to take it up with you. Some students feel they aren't getting their money's worth." He put his hands forth like a supplicant.

"I stay until necessary," Hitoshi answered. "All I can do for every one, then I depart. No reason to stay."

"I understand," the dean replied, uncertainly, "but you must conform to school rules. Classes end at nine o'clock, not sometime after eight. The students expect to see you there. And how do you know one of them won't have a question for you?"

Hitoshi looked at the ceiling. He was at a loss for English words. He knew when to leave, when the time was right. What seemed so simple to him was too difficult to explain, and he understood the dean had to explain to students.

"All right," Hitoshi said. He didn't want to agree. It seemed contradictory to stay past the time to depart. And he could put that time to good use.

The dean smiled and told Hitoshi he was glad he could count on his cooperation. He reached out his hand. Hitoshi didn't want to take it. To take the dean's hand would indicate agreement. To not take it, however, would be defiant and impolite. Hitoshi felt his jaw tighten. He took the dean's hand. Dean Herzogg didn't look happy. He had wanted understanding and agreement, not a reluctant conformity.

"I'm sure you'll agree after you think about it," the dean commented, as they walked to the door. "You're a fine artist, and we're glad to have you here."

Hitoshi needed his teaching job. Although he had paintings in museums throughout the world, and sold paintings now and then through the gallery that represented him in Los Angeles where he lived and worked, he didn't make enough to live on from his art alone. He knew he and the dean must have students to survive. But that these students should have so much power was a mistake. How could they learn from example that way?

He could not let what he couldn't subscribe to rule him. He was here to serve, but he was not a slave. He felt the heat rise to his forehead. Get their money's worth! They got their money's worth ten times over. He gave his best, each time, pointing out to each student at the right moment what he or she needed to know, helping each to grow in knowledge of art. He saw students develop, saw their joy. That was the measure of his success. He took a deep breath and sighed.

There was another thing. Although his students enjoyed their progress, some complained to him that he didn't talk enough, didn't explain enough, as though painting and drawing were about talking and explaining! Hitoshi had come from Japan to the United States because modern art fared best here. He could not speak English well, but art was about seeing. He'd tried once to explain that to the dean, but ended up agreeing to talk more because that's what students were used to. It had dismayed him, then, though it came as no surprise, when many of them concentrated on his words rather than on their work.

He walked into the hall and stopped for a drink at the fountain, looking at himself in the mirror above it. He was sixty years old. When he was unhappy, how his cheeks sagged! Enough to depress anyone! That's what he got for thinking unpleasant thoughts and letting his breathing get too rapid. Letting circumstances affect him negatively was a betrayal of his light. He would find ways to make staying by the clock beneficial. Hitoshi looked in the mirror again, glad to see his expression serene. He walked eagerly to his class where he had set up a still life for his students.

"Let me," Hitoshi told a beginner struggling to adjust her easel. "Good, good," he told her, looking over her materials. She had brought the colors and brushes he had suggested.

Steven, a tall, dark-haired boy with soft brown eyes called to him. "I can't decide what color to use," he said. Hitoshi showed him how to try different colors for effect, painting swatches and holding them up to his canvas.

Hitoshi continued walking around the room, stopping to point things out, to comment. Though this was the third lesson of the term, Judith, whom he'd met earlier, was here for the first time. The canvas she had brought was too small, her brushes too large. He went to his locker and chose two smaller brushes and brought them to her.

"You use these," he told her. "Next time bring large canvas."

She glared at him, her grey eyes flashing. "I want a small one." She didn't take his brushes so he left them on the stand next to her easel.

He walked a few feet away and watched as she tried to get her easel to hold the small canvas without the overlap of the grip covering it. Her face was beet red. Hitoshi began to laugh. The scene was so funny. He was totally unprepared for what happened next.

She walked quickly to him and slapped him hard across the face. "You're making fun of me, you...yellow...fly!"

Hitoshi felt his cheek, hot under his touch. Judith was making a hissing sound, her face contorted with anger. Hitoshi could not help himself. He roared with laughter, his small body shaking. Some students giggled. Others stared, stunned. Judith threw her canvas, brushes, and a small palette covered with paint into a large plastic bag.

Hitoshi suddenly felt compassion for her.

"Madame Judith," he said quietly. "It's there." He pointed at her chest. "Let it go away." How could he make her understand?

Judith grabbed her sack and nearly ran to the door, knocking over a palette. Its owner picked it up, gasping in dismay at the newly squeezed paint spattered on the floor.

"I would learn nothing from a person like you," Judith yelled back. Then she was gone.

Hitoshi felt anguished. He had been taught from earliest childhood to be sensitive to others and honorable. He still had not learned! The woman was irrational, but what was he?

He put his hands in and out of his pockets. Had he behaved with more respect, the whole matter could have turned out well.

Most of his pupils had resumed working, but a few were still talking in low voices about the incident. Hitoshi got a drink of cold water from the fountain in the hall. He would be more alert in the future.

He walked around the room looking at the work in progress. He showed another student how to hold up painted swatches. She was delighted when she saw her painting come to life with a change in color. Hitoshi knew everyone had talent to develop and took great pleasure in each student's growing involvement. He looked at Steven, feeling the boy's eyes on him. Steven smiled. Hitoshi smiled back.

By 9:15 most had finished washing up and packing their belongings. Soon only Steven remained.

Hitoshi was putting on his jacket when Steven called to him. "Do you teach...on a private basis?" he asked.

"No," Hitoshi replied.

"I've admired your paintings for a long time," Steven told him. "I saw your show at the First Street Gallery last month. I was very impressed. I would just love for you to teach me. Privately. I would learn more."

Steven moved closer to him. Suddenly the boy reached out and put his hand on Hitoshi's. Hitoshi took his hand away.

"Not interested," Hitoshi told him, gently. "You go now."

Steven's lips began to tremble. He crouched and knelt on the floor, burying his face in his hands. "You don't care about me," he sobbed. "Or anyone. You only care about yourself."

Suddenly he looked absurdly funny.

"If I were a girl you wouldn't refuse!" Steven accused, his face flushed, wet with tears. This was even funnier, but Hitoshi took care not to laugh.

"Yes, I would refuse," he said.

"You're homophobic," Steven retorted angrily.

Hitoshi looked at Steven, still on his knees, and shrugged before turning and walking out of the room. He took the elevator to the ground floor.

It had been raining and the night air was fresh. Hitoshi breathed deeply.

"Professor Suzuki?"

He recognized the voice.

Judith was standing in the shadows at the edge of the sidewalk. "I want to tell you...I was fired today...I gave you a hard time. It wasn't you. You are a good man. I know that. I am very sorry."

There was enough light for him to see her face, pale and wistful.

"It is okay," he told her. "Do not worry. Come to class next week. Bring large canvas." He had felt her relief the moment she apologized and remembered his own reflection in the mirror.

She thanked him and left. He continued on his walk. Colors peered from the darkness, fresh and luminous from the rain. The cobalt purple sky seemed to be holding infinity. All was well. He put his fingers out to touch the nearest star.



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