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Memories of Saint Maur

Motomachi Park, Yokohama. (Photo credit: the author)

It’s rather early to feel nostalgic about my high school. Only two years ago I graduated Saint Maur as the class of 2019–a tightly-knit group of thirty-three–satisfactorily concluding my high school career. I do, though, want a reasonably recent recollection of my time at the school, with a fair bit of objective distance, but not too far for the familiarity to fade. The tainted building revealing centuries of history and tradition, the colorfully redecorated cafeteria, the smell of quiet afternoon classrooms, and the familiar school bell aren’t yet lost–not enough to feel foreign. My teachers still keep their offices. Ms. Maki will again greet me at the reception when I visit. I might still have books I forgot to return from the library, which Ms. Schumacher will grill me for. But the distance of two years have, irreversibly, made me but a visitor, an alumnus.

What’s good about Saint Maur, though, is that once you’re accepted, you’ll never leave. My classmates in my seven years here are my lifelong friends. I hear Mr. Ito’s voice integrating vector functions or reducing matrices, and smell the dry air of the computer lab coding in my college dorm. I hear Ms. Seddon yelling “You need more rigour in your sentences” writing reports, and of course, Mr. Scoggins will give you an assignment, from on the other side of the world, while in the college he put you in–for a comment in his new history book, so aptly, about this beloved school.

The memories deserving my fondest appreciation is in Saint Maur’s academics. With the IB curriculum, each class is independent and private, with its own traditions–and with all faces so familiar there’s little hesitation to speak up.

Our twelve-people Literature class–uncommonly large, and comprising students either with a vague passion for reading or superiority against mere English Language students–were packed in a tight room in a corner of the staff office. The walls were decorated with remnants of its past inhabitants: a “Code of Conduct” on a parchment-like printout signed and framed by the Class of 2018 including a clause to email Ms. Seddon, our teacher, when one has finished reading, at any point in their life, Pride and Prejudice; a thumb-tacked meme referencing The Crucible (a required reading); and a deck of Punderdome cards, a favorite of our teacher that induces a groan from most and giggles from some. It was like an exclusive club, if not a secret literary society–and most recognized and took on this identity welcomingly.

Sitting in our usual seats, our arms pushing against each other and sipping our bottled tea, we might discuss the role of jealousy reading a chapter of Othello in conjunction with an anecdote from a students’ personal relationship; or watch the movie adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 on our telescreen projector. Though the discussions seem aimless and wandering, its purpose to each member of this exclusive club, was clear. I was the scientist, along with the romantics, socialists or feminists among our panel, but my natural scientific reasoning wasn’t enough to satisfy my teacher nor peers who always demanded more, that there was more purpose to literature than the analysis to text itself, as well as to life than a functional role in society and evolution.

Literature’s function, in my interpretation then as a reductionist, materialist physics student, is to appreciate the complexity of the human experience, to understand the perplexing personality of a person–often lost through an excessive pursuit of clarity in principle or under the pressure of daily life. Such a corny sentiment is difficult to package us teenagers whose main concerns lie outside introspection, yet the culture of rigor and intensity, with a light enough touch of approach was the perfect fit for the lesson. Our teachers were youthul enough in thought to personify dense themes into digestible chunks, and we were critical enough in their consumption to taste every nuance. We were Enlightenment thinkers, not afraid to question textbook readings of classics but also to challenge our teacher’s alternative interpretations. Emotional innuendoes were subtly announced, and critical thinking dissected and analyzed these movements of the heart, of the character in books and ourselves reading it.

Mr. Marsh’s physics lab, though, was a little different. This understandably unpopular science option had four students, with just two in Higher-Level. Classes were more on-on-one lessons than lectures, and our private tutor was a white-haired, English-accented physics enthusiast (his looks enough would grant fellowship to the Royal Society), whose resume says: “left [Saint Maur], realized his mistake, and returned.” His passion for physics shone through the trademark Britishness stoicism, especially in lectures which always went a step further than the curriculum–steps we sometimes actively pushed for, which were then explained with matching enthusiasm.

The physics lab reflected the subject itself–in-jokes, infographics and equipment lined the pristine white walls that enclosed the sparse room, and the sterile sunlight was interrupted only occasionally by, for instance, light spectra demonstrations.

The teachers referred to us as IB Physicists–a phrase that brought me nerdy joy–and our science, though amateur, was exact. Uncertainties were propagated with rigor and equations derived following the footsteps of famed figures, our teacher as our tour guide. Lectures frequently diverged to discuss deeper interpretations of these natural phenomena, masked as mandatory Theory of Knowledge topics but more as treats than labour.

To be in the science building was to partake in this scientific process, and each topic took us through the centuries-old idea of empirical evidence overtaking our immature, still infantile susceptibility to unfounded intuition or impression. We were scientists here, and our intensity in doubt and precision was no less than that of Kepler or Newton. The two years in Physics was a personal scientific revolution.

We’re often mocked for our lackluster sports performance–I remember the basketball season when we couldn’t win a single game–but few of us are embarrassed of this fact–because we know we’re not jocks looking for heart-pumping stimulation or high school popularity, but instead are artists and scientists, holding exhibitions in corners of the Fine Arts building, getting a high from perfecting extra-credit AP exams, or being awarded an All-stars at an inter-school speech contest.

* * *

Those with less academic ambition, though, still have a firm place here. We are, after all, in Yokohama, a vibrant tourist destination and a historic port city, where early Western settlers shaped the streets that, while still Japanese, has a distinctive flair of Europe–our school, in fact, was founded by French missionaries during Japan’s initial opening to the West. It’s a reminder that our identities far exceed that of Japan or our mother nations’ or any group we might look like at a glance.

Downhill from our school is Motomachi street, lined with shops that all Saint Maur students are a regular at: a decades-old Japanese Ramen place, an old man’s crepe stand, an Italian restaurant which offers exclusive discounts for our students, and a Starbucks where school gossip is most actively exchanged and overheard. Its atmosphere is closer to, say, a terraced cafe along Champs-Elysees than a Japanese station front, but the muted conversations of mannerly passer-bys remind us where we actually are. Daily commute is an extensive trip through the seaside hilltops with a view to the Pacific, past the aging mansions along a bricked path, in spring, spotted with cherry blossom leaves. On a clear enough day, you even have a glimpse of Mt. Fuji against a spotless sky. Consciously or not all of us were affected, shaped and molded in youth by this surreal, eclectic landscape, learning to consider our place in a broader system of cultures, and to see the importance of heterogeneity and tolerance, with an appreciation and admiration for this beauty arising from the historic diversity of the city.

Our weekend destinations, though, aren’t much different from other Japanese students’: Tokyo Disneyland, an hour trip from Yokohama station, is frequented for a date or friend group formation, and soon became a hotspot for gossip. More haughty friends, though, choose calmer, classier locations–my few close friends often visited Enoshima, an island along the Shounan coast south of Tokyo, where both old Tori (red shrine gates) and cafes from shows like Terrace House occupy shores with best ocean views. Most trips are nothing more than a hike up the island, making jokes chasing fish with a dip in the seas, ending on a lousy supper with thin wallets. We’re always foreigners here, and this identity distances ourselves to make mundane tourist towns extraordinary. We speak English and Japanese and Korean. Our clothes have minute differences than passer-bys. And that discrepancy is enough to entertain us on any average trip.

Being with these friends makes me feel I’m always at school–if a stranger comes up to ask who we are, we’ll have to say we’re Saint Maur students. Because it’s probably the only thing we have in common, but also because it’s who we are: students not of Japan, but of the world, whose extensive stores are never encapsulated by a where are you from?; whose passports’ or appearances may mismatch their identities; and who may feel closer to the world, humanity, than a particular community. A broad mindset risks instability and disorientation, but fortunately we have a single but robust anchor to ground and guide us: our school.

* * *

One thing that stands out during my time here, is that I’ve had the fortune of transferring into this school twice. After the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake my family were one of the first to leave Japan, and naturally I transferred out of Saint Maur. I finished elementary school in Korea, then graduated into a nearby public middle school–and in the three years of the underfunded and uninspired education I missed my old school, realizing how fortunate I had been. Along with a change in my parent’s workspace in 2018, I was given an opportunity to move back as a high school student, and I gladly accepted.

Returning was a treat in itself. It’s a pleasantly surprising crossover when, for example, a student council meeting is held in my old homeroom classroom, or when we throw Halloween parties (“socials”) in the recreation hall where we used to sing along to our third grade homeroom teacher’s guitar. I met him again in high school as my speech contest coach, and I keep his signed note of encouragement from the eve of the competition, still in a drawer in my dorm.

Nostalgia exists because of transience. Saint Maur is always evolving, but I believe the modifications to the buildings, faculty or curriculum still won’t erase the heart of this school. I missed Saint Maur back then and now still, and though the memories there are treasured nostalgia is not my sole takeaway. The education founded on liberal arts in its original definition, delivered with enthusiasm and mastery by memorable teachers, and the lack of hesitance in accentuating the clash of cultures, is a lesson I cannot take lightly.

While I move on, these principles will stay at the school; and only when I take time to recollect these memories I realize that I’m no longer a member of literature class, or an IB physicist anymore. The cafeteria is redecorated, and they don’t have the usual Friday barbeques in the veranda anymore, but now they hold Christmas parties with hot chocolate and donuts from the high school student council. The underground auditorium, where children performed a spinoff play “Emperor’s new clothes” and an adaptation of Billy Jean for our IPC class in front of starry-eyed parents, now is a stage for IB Drama students performing 1984 or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with intermissions where staff can order alcohol and pretentious students pretend we’re perfectly relaxed discussing literature with adults.

As the school evolves, so will I. I’ll graduate finally from higher education, get a job and a family, or study for a higher degree. I have oceans to cross and buildings to climb, but my heart–the intensity in curiosity or the broadness in identity–I will maintain, as they will in Saint Maur.