Hayato drummed his pencil on his Kanji notebook, watching the second hand drag its way around the clock face. 2:34pm. Any second now the bell would ring. His gaze switched from the clock to the schedule board underneath. Period five: Japanese. Period six: Club Activity. He rolled his eyes. He wasn’t even willing the second hand onwards. Japanese, club activity: he didn’t care. They were as boring as each other.
“Takei-san!” a shrill call snapped him out of his thoughts, and he looked at the teacher. She was scowling at him with that face he’d grown so familiar with this year, tapping the blackboard with a piece of chalk.
“So sorry for stopping your daydreaming, Takei-san,” she said in that sing-song sarcastic tone, “But would you grace us with your attention?”
“Yes, Miss Uchida.”
“Come on boy, you should know the meaning of this kanji by now,” she drummed the tangle of lines and corners on the board, “It’s pretty relevant!”
Hayato squinted at the board. It was like trying to decipher a squiggle. He shrugged.
Giggles rippled through the class
“‘Festival’, Takei-kun!” Miss Uchida gave an exasperated gasp, “For goodness sake, it’s on all the posters around town!”
“How could I forget,” Hayato mumbled.
Miss Uchida looked like she was about to give him a thorough scalding when the bell rang. Hayato quickly packed his books, grabbed his club bag and dashed for the door before she could collar him.
In fact, it was Nozomi who bumped in to him first, and she gave him an equally stern look.
“You knew what that kanji was, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did!” Hayato grinned, walking to the sinks and spinning open a tap to rinse his hands under. “I was just having fun.”
“It’s a bit mean to wind up Miss Uchida like that, though,” Nozomi washed under the next tap, “She’s a nice teacher.”
“I know that, it’s just…well, I’m getting sick of everyone going on and on about this festival.”
“You are?” Nozomi raised an eyebrow, “I think it’s exciting! Think of all the food, the music, the dancing, and –”
“And how it’s going to be the same as last year, and the year before that, and the year before that…”
“But we get to be the drummers on the float this year, Hayato,” Nozomi gave him a friendly nudge, “You’ve got to admit that’s pretty cool.”
Hayato shrugged, turned off the tap and shook his hands dry, “It’s alright, I guess. But all we’ll be doing is banging the same beat over and over for an hour.”
“It’s tradition, Hayato-kun,” she said flatly, “That’s the way it’s always been done.”
Hayato held his tongue. He knew that when the ‘it’s tradition’ card had been played, there was no point going any further. He rolled his eyes. It was a stupid excuse. He had an image of a festival where people whacked themselves over the head with a wicker broom while singing ‘Sakura, sakura’ from sunrise to sundown simply because it was ‘tradition’, no questions asked. Thankfully the festival in Namerikawa wasn’t that silly, but still…
The bell rang again. He dragged himself into the music room, where everyone else was all sitting eagerly behind their instruments. Nozomi and Hayato took seats next to each other behind the drums, and waited for the music teacher, Mr. Iitsuka, to arrive. While they waited, Hayato bashed out a freestyle tune with the drumsticks, ignoring the glares his classmates were throwing at him. At least, he thought they were glaring at him: when he properly looked around, he saw they were all looking behind him. Uh-oh.
He stopped drumming, and turned slowly around to look up into the spectacles of Mr. Iitsuka.
“Well, I’m glad you got that out of your system at the start, Mr Takei-san,” he said in a deadly quiet voice, “Hopefully now we can enjoy our last practice without any of your usual smarmy interruptions, agreed?”
“Well then,” Mr Iitsuka took his usual spot behind his music stand of old music sheets, and the band struck up the same old tune it had played the last two weeks. We’ve had this mastered for ages, Hayato thought as he drummed away automatically, Why are we still practising this? He gave himself a wry smile. Of course, he already knew the answer to that. ‘Tradition’. The same old, same old. Would it really be so bad to try something new?
But Hayato didn’t want any more grief from the teachers today, so he held his tongue and played obediently. By the time the bell rang forty minutes later his brain felt soft from the mindless repetition. How was he going to keep this up for a whole hour tomorrow?
His feelings must have shown on his face, because as he packed his drumsticks into his back Nozomi was patting him on the back.
“Come on, you party pooper!” she said brightly, “Just tomorrow to go then this will be all over.”
“Hooray,” said Hayato with as little enthusiasm as possible. “Well…I guess it’s a day off school, too.”
“Exactly,” said Nozomi, “Give me a festival over school any day!”
We headed out into the corridor, and we were halfway down the stairs when another student stopped me.
“The headmaster wants to see you in his room,” she said, with all the seriousness of a police officer, “Immediately.”
He frowned, wondering what he could possibly have done now. He turned to Nozomi, wondering if she knew anything, but she shrugged. “I’ll wait for you at the gates,” she said.
So, while all the other students dashed to change to their outside shoes and were talking about tomorrow’s festival in whirlwind of excited frenzy, Hayato headed back into the school, head bowed, and knocked on the headmaster’s door.
“Enter,” came the immediate reply.
Hayato slid the door aside, bowed, entered, and slid the door open. He knew better than to act clever with the etiquette when it came to the headmaster. He sat at his desk at the back of the spacious room, writing a letter. He didn’t look up but waved Hayato into a seat. He sat, and waited patiently.
And waited. He even cleared his throat at one point to remind the headmaster he was still there. Finally, after ten long minutes of silence, Hayato was about to stand up and make his excuses when the headmaster finally laid down his pen and held him with a gaze over the rims of his glasses. Hayato sat up. The headmaster looked like a wrinkly old tortoise, and the way he kept pursing his lips all the time only made it more so. His hair was black – an unnaturally uniform shade of black. If he didn’t dye his hair, Hayato would eat his drumsticks.
“So…” the headmaster said at last, “How are things with you lately, Takei-san?”
Hayato hesitated, thrown off by the question. “Err…fine thanks, sir. And you?”
He ignored my reply. “You’re a good student, Takei,” he went on, “But the other teachers say you’ve been…how shall I put it? Frustrated, lately.”
“It’s nothing, sir.”
“Is it, now?” the headmaster gave a little smile, and rose from his desk. He walked around it and sat opposite me. “So it’s nothing to do with the festival whatsoever?”
There was no point hiding it now. Hayato chose his words carefully. “It’s just…well, I understand the Namerikawa Festival has lots of…traditions,” he winced at the word, “But, I dunno, it feels like we’re just doing what we’re told and not actually learning why these things are what they are.”
The headmaster nodded. “An excellent point, my lad,” he said, “After all, what is the point in following tradition if we don’t understand it’s original meaning?”
“Exactly!” I was on a roll now, feeling everything I’d kept bottled up in music class tumbling out, “I mean, at some point these traditions were created, right? It just seems silly that we just blindly follow when we could be creating new things.”
Hayato bit his lip, wondering if he had said too much. But the headmaster has nodding fervently, his glasses nearly toppling from his nose.
“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” he agreed, “We run the risk of our festival going stale if we don’t inject some fresh ideas into it. I tell you what, my boy: you are one of the drummers on the float, tomorrow, am I correct?”
“Yeah,” Hayato nodded back, “I’m in the first group with Nozomi and some other students from class 6-3.”
“Well, I have a little assignment for you. I want you to go out on that float tomorrow and try something original. Make it as bold and daring as you like. Don’t worry about being told off: I’ll do the explaining. With luck, you could be making new footprints for the festival to follow for years to come!”
Hayato nearly leapt of his seat with excitement. “Y-yes, Sir! I’d love to, Sir!”
“Good to hear, my boy. Now run along, you have a big day tomorrow.” Hayato really did jump from his seat this time, and almost headbutted the door on the way out. He turned, bowed to the headmaster, and slid the door shut behind him.
The headmaster picked up the phone on his desk and dialled a single number.
“Yes. He’s ready.” he said into the receiver.