Mr. Yamazaki was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and smothered in wabi-sabi. We knew a little about him from the way he looked and behaved, but most of what we knew about him came from rumors and stories passed down from our older brothers and sisters. One of those rumors was that he had previously taught at Sorbonne University in Paris, France. However, finding that not suitably challenging, he decided to make the move to Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. It seemed plausible enough at the time.
He taught English and French, and I had him for both all four years of high school. We called him just “Yamazaki” amongst ourselves, or sometimes “the Japanese vampire”, because it was very easy to imagine that’s what he was. Never to his face of course, because that would have been suicidal.
We never ever called him Keith either. That was his given name. Calling him Keith would have been even more suicidal because he despised that name. We called him Mr. Yamazaki because that was the proper way to address a person in his class – title plus surname. Leslie was Miss DeBusk, Kyle was Mr. Muoio, Amberly was Miss Marcinkowski, I was Mr. Keene, and Mr. Yamazaki was Mr. Yamazaki.
Mr. Yamazaki wore a dark suit every single day. In colder months we would see him gliding to and fro with a long black cloak over him. Sometimes (but not always) he would walk with a silver-headed cane. He would occasionally wear ornate medallions around his neck, and chunky rings on his fingers that seemed to imply membership in some arcane order. One of his pinky fingernails was much longer than all the others. He wore dark glasses at all times, so you never knew exactly who he was looking at until he intoned your name. He spoke in a voice that was a cross between James Earl Jones and George Takei, low and quiet, with crisp enunciation.
One day we found out why he wore the dark glasses. In a moment of uncharacteristic frivolity he allowed his ninth grade English composition class to decorate one wall of the classroom any way we liked with posters we had brought from home (my contribution being a nice picture of Ozzy Osbourne chewing on some offal). He left the room for a bit while we hung our posters at the crazy angles dictated by 80s teen design sensibilities. When he entered the room again, to our great surprise he was wearing regular clear eyeglasses (which made him look less vampirey and more like a regular Japanese guy), and he immediately began to stagger. He whisper-growled at us, Straighten the posters! and left the room again. It seems that he suffered from an inner ear disorder, and our playfully askew posters had literally thrown him off balance. The dark glasses were to mitigate such effects. I suppose it was just a fringe benefit that they also contributed to his illuminati persona.
The cane was a pillar of Yamazaki lore. Rumor had it that one day as he was standing at his lectern, holding forth on some such topic as the correct conjugation of the verb être, two girls in the front row were whispering and giggling. Miss Harris and Miss Gonzalez, he murmured, Please pay attention. They did, and he resumed the lecture, whereupon they resumed their chatter. He paused a second time: Miss Harris and Miss Gonzalez, please shut up. Which they did, just long enough for him to get underway again. He let them continue a few moments and then he said, Miss Harris and Miss Gonzalez, do you know what happens to people who TALK? And on that last syllable he whipped a fucking sword out of his cane and held it poised an inch from Miss Harris’s throat. The entire class gave him their undivided attention.
There was a lot that teachers could get away with in the 80s that teachers now can’t even dream of, like threatening to gore a student with a rapier. Another thing a teacher today would never do is leave his box of drug paraphernalia sitting out on his desk, like Mr. Yamazaki did one day. At least that’s how the legend goes.
Two Harvard-bound seniors went to Mr. Yamazaki’s room after school one day to pay him a visit. Mr. Yamazaki was very supportive of any student who showed aptitude and interest in pursuing higher education – KCHS was not an elite high school by any means – and such students often sought his advice. Just as they entered, they espied him hastily closing an intricately carved wooden box. He had not been quick enough to keep them from noticing the box contained a small mirror and a pile of white powder. They asked him their questions and they conversed briefly, pretending not to have noticed the suspicious box. However, unable to subdue his curiosity any longer, one of the two students finally said, So Mr. Yamazaki, what’s with the box? Now, Mr. Yamazaki never laughed; when he was amused he would purse his lips and jut his tongue into the side of his cheek, and sometimes his shoulders would shake like a person laughing, but he would never make a sound. That is what he did just then, and when he recovered from his mirth he replied, Chalk dust. And to prove it he opened the box and let them inspect it.
Mr. Yamazaki was definitely the odd man out in our mostly white, mostly working-class high school, and he was the butt of much pea-brained snickering among the students and I suspect also among the faculty. The year after I graduated, in 1989, a drooling lout named Jason Baudry was caught with piece of fiction he’d written in which several outrageous and obscene acts were described between Mr. Yamazaki and Ms. Simone, the librarian. He had the document out in class and was entertaining his classmates with it when Mr. Yamazaki confiscated it. Mr. Yamazaki read it for a moment, then left the room in silence and stayed gone for some time. Mr. Baudry was stripped of his National Honor Society membership as punishment (though it’s a mystery how he had managed to qualify in the first place). As it should be, but I still like to imagine there really is a hell for him to burn in.
I think the event was a turning point for Mr. Yamazaki. He retired not long after that. As a retirement gift, several of his former students, myself included, pooled money to buy him an authentic antique samurai sword. That seemed to please him; when he mentioned it the last time I saw him, he did an extended tongue-in-cheek thing. Perhaps he was imagining what he would do to Jason Baudry with it.
There was no one more passionate than Mr. Yamazaki about the future academic welfare of students with potential, not even the guidance counselors. The most I can remember getting from my own guidance counselor was the question, So what do you think you’d like to do after high school, Mark? Mr. Yamazaki had favorite students and he made no effort to conceal it. He gave them extra credit assignments in class, met with them after school, invited them to his home for cultural activities such as French cooking lessons and to show off his medieval weapons collection. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I was not a good student until my junior year. Mr. Yamazaki was one of the prime motivators to get my act together, and without him I would not have even known many of the options available to me.