The Wagtail

By John Larson

My name is John. I’m a high school English teacher here in Japan. I’ve been in Japan for more than fifteen years. This is a true story, or it was when it happened anyway. It was years ago now, so god only knows what has happened to my memories meantime.

So anyway, I was teaching when the wagtail flew past my class. It was fifth period in late January, and class seven was a moist, smelly pocket of warmth. The oblique afternoon sun slashed through the curtains tinting everything orange. The kerosene heater ticked as its heat bled off. We were all warm and sleepy, the students and I. None of our hearts were really in it, which was fine for them as they had other classes.

The wagtail was a black smudge streaking past the white-frosted glass which separated the classroom from the hallway. As I saw it then it could have been anything, but somehow I knew what it was. Of course I knew it was a bird, but I think I might have even known it was a wagtail. Or maybe I didn’t know know, but later maybe, when I did know, it solidified my previous suspicions. How strange the way memory works when we’re doing other things.

Pied WagtailWagtails are small, and look a little like sparrows in shape, except for their long tails. They bob their tails up and down pretty much constantly when on the ground, hence their name. They spend a lot of their time on the ground, running here and there in search of whatever they are searching for. Most are brave enough to let people get close  and see their stark black and white markings. I watch wagtails sometimes, when I see them.

I stopped teaching, dropped the chalk in the tray, and walked out into the hall without a word. Some things are more important. The crisp air hit my face and eyes. Most schools here, and for that matter most homes, don’t have central heating, instead heating only the rooms where people are. Not enough warmth to go around. I slid the door shut, turned left and saw the wagtail.

How’d you get in here, little guy? (All animals speak English in my book, even ones in Japan.) Someone had left a window open, or more likely a door, and the wagtail had no doubt just hopped his way inside. Inside: a place the wagtail didn’t even have a context for. He was here now though, and he knew it, and he wanted to get back to the somewhere else he was before, which I thought quite understandable.

I watched as he took a running, jumping start and bounded towards the trees, the sky, towards the distance he could see above and in front of him. Again and again he jumped, flew, and crashed into the window. Back on the floor, he looked confused, even a little embarrassed that there was something there, something he didn’t see or know about. How cruel a thing that glass was for him; showed him clearly where he wanted to go, and at the same time stopped him from getting there.

He had obviously been at this for a while in other parts of the school. He’d had this battle before and he was growing desperate, his mouth open, tongue out. He was tiring, and I didn’t know how much more fight was left in him. At the end of the hallway was an emergency exit, a sliding door. I would have to sneak past him twice; once to open it, and once again to get back behind to scare him out. I started to approach the wagtail, and he stopped his suicidal jumping game. He hopped and turned and stood there looking at me, tail bobbing.

Hey little guy, I’m trying to get you out of here. I gestured, my hands pressing down, calm down. He didn’t understand though. It’s okay. He hopped away as I advanced, one step, one hop, black eyes always meeting mine. Shhhh. Finger over pursed lips, I pressed myself against the windows of class eight like a fugitive in a prison break. Step, hop.

What the students must have thought I have no idea, but no one poked their head out the door to see. Was that strange? I don’t really know from strange anymore. Why was it me here, and not someone else? Out of all the hundreds in this hall, at least a few must have seen him fly by their classrooms. Was it strange then that the only stranger there was the only one trying to help another who didn’t belong?

Now there was nowhere for the wagtail to run, he was right up against the door. Once again he resumed launching himself at the windows, this time to escape me. Intent, I strode the last three steps and threw open the emergency exit, but as I slid the door wide, I felt the wagtail shoot past my shoulder the other way down the hall. I turned and watched him disappear up the stairwell. I sighed.

Up was easy for the wagtail, less so for me. I sprinted up flights, two stairs at a time, checking quickly left and right at each floor. I figured that after being denied the sky here at school for so long, he would fly as far and as fast as he could in that direction. When I reached the top of the stairs on the fourth floor my lungs and legs were burning and I was trembling from fatigue and excitement. I found the wagtail perched on a doorjamb at the end of the hall. I started opening windows. He watched.

Look, you can get out here. I stuck my hand out and felt the cold, dry air. See? I opened the windows while the wagtail watched. The hallway was otherwise silent. There were no classes going on up here right now. Don’t go bashing your head again. The winter wind blew in through each window as I opened them. The wind knew a way out somewhere. Just go out one of these windows. Soon, they were all open and I backed slowly to the top of the stairs. Trust me, okay? With comic timing the wagtail cocked his head. I smiled. Did he understand? that I was a friend come to help? or was it the other way around after all? What in the hell am I doing here whispering to myself? The wagtail just waited.

I spread my arms wide. Ready?

My clap rang through the silent hallway, raced down the stairs, echoed down each floor, past the classrooms. The sound, like the wind, knew the way out. The wagtail took flight and everything slowed dramatically, or my memory slowed it down after. Funny how it doesn’t matter which. I saw the wagtail start to fly towards me. I raised my hands like a magical invocation, willing him to stop and turn. He did. The wagtail wheeled around in a perfect moment, right in front of one of the open windows. He saw. And I saw him see it. I can see him there still, frozen in the instant before his headlong plunge into emptiness and freedom.

willy-wagtail-take-off-editedI ran to the window to watch him fly, streaking out and up, swooping in reckless delight. I stood there leaning out, watching until the wagtail was gone, after he was gone. I stayed there leaning through the empty  window with eyes closed, feeling the cold outside air rush past my face.




Mead, Ann (2011). Pied Wagtail (edited). Retrieved Dec. 13, 2016. photos/15494309@N00/5347125122

Wenniger, Sascha (2009). Willy Wagtail Take-Off (edited). Retrieved Dec. 3, 2006. https://

John Larson teaches English at Isesaki High School and serves various roles in Gunma JALT. As a student, he wrote for fun and as a columnist for his high school and college campus newspapers. He loves helping his students express themselves through their own words, written and spoken.



by Michele Steele

Walking down the hill to the station, I encountered a pack of high school kids, mostly boys, riding their bicycles to school. Their faces were glistening with perspiration from the effort of riding in the early morning heat. They wore blazers and striped ties, the uniforms I have been told are worn by the students who go to low-level high schools. This is a great tragedy of school uniforms – the social hierarchy that is established as a result, the marking at such an early age. These kids are said to be the ones who never studied and who care nothing about responsibility.

I looked into their faces, watched the evident strain as they pumped their legs to propel their bicycles up the slope, saw in their eyes an earnestness, an inextinguishable determination to reach their destination. In that moment they were the greatest winners in the world, and I loved them all.

Michele Steele has been involved with JALT for over fifteen years, almost as long as she has lived in Gunma. She works as a university instructor, primarily at Gunma Women’s Prefectural University.

The Gas-Mask

By John Larson

On my way to school yesterday, I saw that they had decided to demolish the old laundromat near my station. They had one of those demolition machines with the scissor beak attached to the industrial arm. I saw the guy in the sealed control booth had this gas-mask on. And that immediately concerned me because here I was just walking past without any protection, sucking in whatever he was kicking up. However, I later reasoned that he probably had the mask on because he was in that environment constantly, day after day, year after year, and that by just briefly walking by I was in no real danger.

At school, we process boys and girls, round off their sharp edges, make them into people. We take in awkward pieces of humanity and turn out thinking members of society. To accomplish this we encourage, we love, we praise. We also coax, we threaten, we punish.

What happens to those of us who are trapped in this stone tumbler day after day, year after year? Where do all these joys crystallize? How far have all these malignant fibers woven into our subconscious? Who of us knows how to protect ourselves? When have we breathed enough to make any protection useless?

John Larson teaches English at Isesaki High School and is the man who pulls it all together as President of Gunma JALT. As a student, he wrote as a columnist for his high school and college campus newspapers. His love of language inspires him to help students take ownership of language, engaging them in a dynamic literacy study based on self expression.

Clippings of Kanji

by Terry Dassow

In hallways stacked like blocks
Japanese teens
trade wordless half-thoughts beneath the words mo iiyo.

whistles in window cracks
from Akagi and Myogi,
cracking the white noise

A chime.
Youth salute teachers, stand, sit,
open textbooks, break pencil lead
in neat rows of close-quartered desks.

Weightless characters drift upwards.
Chunks of words
get caught in oscillating fans
positioned above pencil cases, name tags,
pericura, clear files, and barrettes.

Clippings of kanji fall from the static.
Someone takes apart a pen.
Students exchange glances.

Letters appear along dark strands of hair.
—three years—
attempts a futile escape to
mountain ranges beyond the glass.

The teacher jerks around.

Beads of salt drag across
foreheads, arms, backs.
Teens crouch over notebooks,
pull silence over themselves,
take apart another pen.

A chime.
Bits of fallen sentences
drift across the floor.
Haruna winds stretch palms
pick up static, split letters, and punctuation
to offer to the children.

Terry Dassow teaches English at Tsukasawa Junior High School in Takasaki. Her poetry has appeared in AJET Connect Magazine and she is a co-founder of Gunma Poets Guild. She recently became the web and design editor of Speakeasy Journal and manages the teaching site ALT+ALT Scene at