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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

August 16, 2011

Students you never forget- In memory of Moe

In retrospect, it seems like fate that the student I met first on the walk from the parking lot to my office that morning was Aki. If anyone could confirm what I had heard, it would be her. After all, Aki was the one person I had seen with Moe regularly. But how to broach a topic like this-- to find out whether the shocking news was true or just another case of student exaggeration…

“Aki, I heard something terrible about a student in your class but I’m not sure who it was, or even if it’s just a rumor. If you don’t know of anything then maybe I’m mistaken, but if you know something can you please tell me?”
Aki needed no more prompts. She looked me straight in the eye.
“Yes. It was Moe”

I felt the shockwave jolt my body. Aki must have sensed it. We instinctively looked away from each other-- at nothing in the distance. I felt myself exhale harshly. There seemed to be nothing appropriate to say. Words felt superfluous.
“Are you OK?”
“I’ll be fine”
We headed off to the class in silence, our focus for work and study lost.

There’s a tiny black and white decorative cup and saucer in my office. It was given to me by Moe’s parents because, in trying to solve the puzzle behind Moe’s actions, they came across some flattering entries about me in his diary. The cup and saucer seem out of place in the teacher's clutter of my room, but at the turn of every August into September I place them prominently on my desk. I do this in memory of Moe because it was on September 6th, 2004 that Moe took his own life.

You wouldn’t forget Moe, for several reasons. I noticed Moe in the very first class when students were asked to make name cards for themselves and Moe, sitting with all the other guys near the window, had written only his surname.
“Where’s your first name?”
“I don’t like it. It’s a typical girl’s name,” came the reply.
Thinking it might be one of those names, like Masami or Kaoru that when Romanized could appear feminine, I checked the class list. But not only was the first name listed distinctly that of a woman, Moe was also explicitly listed as a female. Since the students were working while I checked the list, I snuck a quick look at Moe. He caught me looking, met my eyes knowingly and smiled-- with a nearly imperceptible nod. "Sorry," I said as I passed by a bit later.
Good question.

Moe was transgender. Biologically female, Moe had recently claimed his social identity as male. He had made a decision and seemed at peace with it. There was no further issue for me. If Moe thought of himself as a male then that’s how I would too. So at the beginning of the next class I suggested the name ‘Moe’ (as in Larry, Curly, and…) as a suitable moniker. He was quite happy with that.

Transgender issue aside you would still notice Moe. Moe was insatiably creative. He was no shrinking violet, racked by personal conflict, unsure of his social footing. Moe seemed to celebrate his outsider status. Moe was somebody who actively wished to imbue his print on any classroom activity, particularly role-plays and skits, where he would take over the preparations and proceedings with a singular vision that other students immediately acceded to. If anything, Moe had little patience for students who did not try to add a personal stamp to their classroom work. You knew that Moe would always have a unique take, an interesting angle, to present. Teachers notice those types of students.

Moe came to my office on several occasions, ostensibly to go over the various elaborate English class projects he was working on but also because I think he saw me as a kindred spirit. He once asked me about the experience of being a foreigner in Japan, especially in a small city. Was it tough psychologically, being an outsider? I answered that I had long ago accepted my Gaijinhood, that that's who I am and I make no apology for it. I told him that I expected some Japanese to be over-conscious of the fact, negatively or positively, and that I took that in stride-- but mostly that I had stopped thinking about it much. Moreover, I told him, when I stopped being acutely conscious of being different myself, the local people treated me less as a foreigner and more as a customer, teacher, colleague, neighbor etc.

Moe liked this answer. I remember him responding with a knowing smile, a re-confirmation perhaps of the legitimacy of his own identity. Moe also liked the fact that I allowed for student productivity, originality, and creativity in my classes. He seemed to see it as a healthy manifestation of my ‘outsider’ status, just as he associated his own aesthetic sensibilities with his gender situation. I rarely brought up the gender thing with Moe because his wide scope of interests naturally transcended it as a defining identity but I do remember once asking him if he preferred men or women romantically (we had developed no hesitation in being frank with each other). He said that he didn’t care- a beautiful person was a beautiful person.

You might expect that this article will conclude with a critique of an uncaring society, a world in which Moe was unappreciated or couldn’t fit in, and that it eventually broke him. But I won’t-- I can’t-- say this in good faith. In fact, Moe would roll his eyes if I wrote that because he would see it as too easy, too hackneyed, too… Hollywood-- and Moe had moved beyond that facile representation. His transgender situation could not have been easy but it wasn’t this alone that broke him. Rather, it was more his heightened sensibilities, the desperate romantic that he couldn’t contain-- the monstrous muse inside that he sought both to tame and to stimulate-- that tore at him. But I don’t think the two were entirely separate. One informed and even exacerbated the other. I became only too aware of this in retrospect.

Moe took my counseling in English elective class and seemed particularly intrigued by the edgy case studies-- the compulsive obsessives, those who were trapped within routines that they couldn’t escape from. He made no bones about the fact that his interests in medicine lay in this direction. Above all, he adored the visual aesthetics of the androgynous- particularly the goth/glam rock star oeuvre. But he wasn’t just your cookie-cutter fragile, artistic soul. Moe had a wry sense of humor and more than a touch of the cynic. He also cultivated his sense of the dramatic, the macabre, the tragic. I don't know if he knew of Ian Curtis but I think Moe would have felt some affinity for the Joy Division frontman—the lingering sense that love will indeed eventually tear you apart-- that perhaps you even want it to. In keeping with the theme, Moe surrounded himself with décor of stark black and white-- the raw emotional impact of opposites never fully conjoined. Like the cup and saucer that sit before me now.

You don't forget students like that.

This article was written and posted with kind permission from Moe’s parents.

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