1-2 Youko attended an ordinary high school. Other than it being a private girl's school, nothing exceptional could be said about it.
The school was her father's decision. She had done well in junior high and had aimed her sights higher. Her junior high guidance counselor had recommended a better school. But her father did not budge an inch. The school was close to home, had neither a disreputable nor controversial reputation. It prided itself as strict and traditional and that was enough.
At first, even her mother was disappointed with the rank of the school. After all, she had followed the results from Youko's high school practice exams. But he soon had her agreeing with him. Once her mother and father agreed on anything there was no room left for argument on her part.
She could have qualified for a better school a bit farther away. Among other things it had much nicer uniforms. But it didn't feel right to make a big fuss based on the style of a uniform, so she kept her mouth shut and did as she was told.
As a result, now well into her junior year, she possessed little of what might be called "school spirit."
A bright trio of voices greeted Youko as she entered her homeroom. The three girls waved to her from across the room.
One of the girls hurried over to her. "Hey, Youko, you got the math assignment done, right? Let me see it, could you?"
Youko made her way to her desk by the window. She retrieved the assignment from her satchel. Several more girls quickly gathered around and set about copying down her answers.
"You're such a good student, Youko. No wonder you're class president."
Youko shook her head self-consciously.
"No, really! I hate homework! It's all in one ear and out the other."
"Yeah, me too. The second I start thinking about it, I don't understand a thing. It's like watching paint dry. Puts me to sleep. I wish I was smart like you."
"I bet you didn't even have to crack the book."
"No, it's not like that at all."
"You really like to study, huh?"
"Don't be silly." Youko made a show of being outraged at the remark. "It's my mom, she's always on my case."
It wasn't true. Her mother wasn't strict at all about schoolwork. But it was best to go with the flow. "She checks my homework every night," Youko lied. "I can't stand it."
The truth was the opposite. If anything, Youko's bookishness annoyed her mother. It wasn't that she didn't care whether her daughter got good grades or not, it simply wasn't a priority. "If you've got time to study all day, then you've got time to do your chores, too." That was her favorite saying these days.
And it wasn't that Youko cared for studying, either. The simple truth of the matter was, the disapproval of her teachers terrified her.
"That bites, checking your homework every night."
"I know, I know. My parents are the same way. They expect to see me studying every waking minute. No normal person can stand studying that much!"
Youko nodded, if only from relief that she was no longer the topic of conversation.
Behind her someone said in a stage whisper, "Hey, it's Sugimoto."
The gaze of everyone in the room lit upon the girl who had just come in, and in the same instant fell away. A wave of cool aloofness washed into the void. Over the past six months shunning Sugimoto had become the sport of those in that class who mattered. Sugimoto stared back for a moment, a deer caught in the headlights, then shuffled over to where Youko was standing. She sat down at the desk to her left.
"Good morning, Youko," she said.
She spoke politely. Youko started to answer, only as a reflex, then choked off her reply. Once, not long ago, she had inadvertently exchanged pleasantries with Sugimoto. Afterwards her classmates had piled scorn upon her.
So she said nothing, acted as if Sugimoto weren't there at all. The other girls began to titter. Sugimoto bowed her head but did not look away. Youko felt her eyes on her. To hide her discomfort she made a show of engaging in the patter of conversation.
She might feel sorry for Sugimoto, but go against the rest and the next time she'd be "it."
"Um . . . Youko?"
Youko pretended not to hear. She knew what she was doing was heartless but she could not comprehend any other recourse.
Sugimoto persisted. "Youko," she said.
The conversation stopped. As one, the circle gathered around Youko's desk turned its attention on the girl. Youko could not fail to follow suit and found herself meeting Sugimoto's upturned gaze.
"Did . . . did you finish the math assignment?"
The timidity in the girl's voice launched the circle into another fit of giggles.
Youko struggled for an appropriate response. "I . . . sort of, I guess."
"Could you let me see it, please?"
The math teacher always assigned a student to explain the previous night's homework assignment. It occurred to Youko that Sugimoto's turn was coming up today. She glanced around the circle. No one said a thing. They answered her with the same hard looks they reserved for Sugimoto. Youko understood at once that they were waiting to see how she was going to rebuff Sugimoto's plea.
Youko swallowed the hard lump in her throat. "I . . . I still need to check it over for mistakes."
The roundabout refusal did not impress her companions. "Oh, Youko," one of them piped up, "you're such a pushover."
A voice filled with disapproval and reproach. Youko cringed inside. The rest of the group chimed in.
"You've got to be more direct than that, Youko."
"She's right. A person in your position can't leave any room for doubt."
"Else you'll end up surrounded by idiots who can't take no for an answer."
Youko had no idea what to do. She lacked the courage to openly betray their expectations. At the same time, she lacked the disciplined indifference required to hurl at the girl the kind of words they wanted to hear. Finally she responded with a nervous laugh.
"I'm sure . . . . "
"It's true! You're too nice all the time. That's why nobodies like her are always glomming onto you."
"But I'm class president."
"That's why you've got to stick to your guns. You've got real responsibilities, after all. You can't get distracted by every pest that comes along."
"That's right." A thin, wicked smile creased the girl's lips. "Besides, if you give Sugimoto your notes, she'll get them all . . . dirty."
"Yeah, you wouldn't want that."
The circle dissolved into another round of vicious mirth. Youko joined in the laughter. But not before she noticed out of the corners of her eyes the girl's bowed head, the tears streaming down her cheeks.
It's her fault too, she instructed herself. People like her don't get picked on for no reason. There's always a reason. They bring it on themselves.