Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The God of the Bottom of the Class

 岡田淳  (OKADA Jun, born 1947) worked as a teacher before publishing his first children's books. So it is not surprising that more than one has a school setting. びりっかすの神さま (Birikkasu no kamisama, The God of the Bottom of the Class 1988) is a fantasy set in the fourth year class of a Japanese primary school, when the children would be about nine years old.

The main character Hajime is new to the school. His mother had moved to the area after the sudden sickness and death of his father, who had devoted his life only to getting ahead, something that Hajime's mother does not want for her son. The new class has a teacher keen on using tests to drive the children to do well. There are tests every day; and each child's place in class is decided by how well they are doing in the tests. Unsurprisingly, it's an unhappy class, especially the children at the back (the ones doing worst in the tests). But as Hajime introduces himself to the class, he makes an unusual discovery.

'I am -'

Those were all the words he had got out, when he caught sight of something really strange.

In front of his eyes, about a metre away, all of a sudden a transparent man appeared. The man was about twenty centimetres tall, wearing a worn out suit and a shabby tie. There were tiny wings on his back. He was flying through the air with lazy flaps.

He didn't just fly through it. His eyes met with Hajime's. His face was long, his hair dry and unkempt, his expression timid. His eyes still meeting with Hajime's, he blinked, and flying forward about fifty centimetres, he suddenly jolted with surprise. At that moment he vanished from sight.
 Hajime observes this little spirit, and finds that it appears at the desk of children who come last in a test. Although he himself has no special difficulty with schoolwork, he deliberately comes last to get the spirit to come to him, and gradually learns to communicate with it by his thoughts.  The man calls himself 'Birikkasu', the name for the person at the bottom of the class. He thinks that he was called into being by the unhappiness of children who were last in the many tests the class teacher gives.

So far, Hajime is the only one able to see Birikkasu; but his neighbour at the back of the class Miyuki finds out that he has been deliberately getting low marks. When she challenges him, he tells her everything. Next day, when Miyuki too, as often, gets the lowest mark, she too finds that she can see Birikkasu, and with that, communicate in her thoughts both with him and with Hajime. Gradually the whole class gets drawn in: the children cooperate to raise the grades of the worst students, and those that could do better hold back, so that a whole group of children can get the same lowest mark at the same time.

For the teacher, the improving average of the class should be welcome in principle; but the strange uniformity and the change in behaviour of the children becomes more and more disturbing. (The story is a comedy; but rewritten from the teacher's point of view it would be more like The Midwich Cuckoos.) Soon he is on sick leave and the children are left to decide among themselves what kind of real efforts are worthwhile, as the school sports day approaches.

This is an amusing and skilfully written book that handles with a light touch the kinds of real pressures that small children experience.

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