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A Sentimental Education: Selected Passages—Formative Experiences

Below, you’ll find a list of 15 passages depicting Nachi’s formative experiences in A Sentimental Education. Students can work individually or in pairs to analyze the passages and create posters that include the passages and their explanations.

1. As a child, Nachi was terrified of physical contact. Since she had never formed an attachment to anyone, whenever any of the sisters tried to pick her up, she would cry and fuss, so that they stopped picking her up. If she was embraced against her will, her entire body would convulse and she was thrown into a panic.

2. Nachi hated these outfits. They were loose and slippery, and for some reason whenever she had to wear them she was overcome with anxiety. She felt as if she herself had turned into a stuffed doll. She couldn’t stand it when an utterly unfamiliar man would tell her how cute she was and stroke her hair. Even worse was when a woman reeking of perfume would suddenly press her cheek up against her own. Look how precious she is, the woman would say as her eyes teared up and her bright red lips drew closer. Fearing that she was about to be devoured, Nachi would cower, her body shivering. 

3. Megumi was probably the first person for whom Nachi felt affection. That is not to say that she climbed up on her lap to nestle up to her like the other children, rather, merely watching Megumi’s back while she played the organ put Nachi at ease. Megumi was the first person who ever praised Nachi. She complimented her singing. She complimented her drawing. She praised her when she finished her meal. Softly, so that no one else could hear, she would praise her in a low voice. 

4. The second person for whom Nachi felt feelings of affection was a boy her age named Chuya. Chuya had been left in the parking lot of the Chushajo shopping center, which helped to explain his name. Six months later, his real mother came forward to claim him, but since she was schizophrenic and his father’s whereabouts were unknown, he had to be cared for by the protective home. His entire body was covered with eczema, and he was cockeyed, so all the other children tormented him. Nachi watched Chuya being teased, and even though his aggressors were five years old, he would stand up to them and retaliate. Chuya attached himself to Nachi and followed her everywhere. 

5. At the protective home, there were many cases like Chuya, children who stayed temporarily because their own parents couldn’t raise them due to illness, or couldn’t manage the effort. Sometimes members of those children’s families came to visit, and Nachi was vaguely aware that she was different from them. She watched with wonder as they would act up in front of their parents by pouting and acting spoiled, going through a whole range of emotions. When their parents were there, suddenly they became restless, behaving in ways that were completely different from how they acted in front of the sisters. Bewitching smiles. Violent tempers. Blatant pandering. Feverish excitement. Meanness. Petulance. Fearfulness. Melodrama. Autism. Servility. All of these were manifested in abundance.

But Nachi never once felt envious. She couldn’t understand them. Watching their behavior made her extremely uncomfortable. She felt as if she were witnessing something shameful. She wondered why they became that way only in front of certain adults.

6. It was a Godzilla film, and Nachi felt an affinity for Godzilla—it was easier for her to comprehend his reluctance to crush the Tokyo Tower than to understand how the children could so easily lose control of themselves in front of their parents. 

7. They [her adoptive parents] both liked Nachi at first sight. As for Nachi, she had no say in choosing her adoptive parents. From this day forward, these people would be her mother and father. That’s what the priest told her, and everyone from the home saw Nachi off as she went on her way out into the world. More than being nervous, it pained her to be separated from her beloved flower beds and from Megumi. When Chiyo took her hand and led her out the gate, Nachi could see Chuya crouching among the flower beds. He stared at her with an expressionless face as he plucked petals off the flowers. 

8. Going home quickly became unpleasant for Nachi. Kikuo was a mean and vicious drinker He started drinking as soon as he got home from work, and continued drinking until he passed out. Normally he was mild-mannered, but his personality changed when the alcohol was in him. It awakened a violence. At first, it was directed toward Chiyo only, but before long Kikuo turned on Nachi as well. Once he started drinking, it didn’t make the least difference to him whether his target was a frail woman or a three-year-old child. Suddenly he started yelling at them for no reason. Dishes came flying. Trays were kicked over. There were beatings. This went on every night. Kikuo was an alcoholic who couldn’t go without drink. On days when he didn’t work, he started drinking in the morning. He rarely went out drinking, he preferred to drink at home. For Nachi—who had never been yelled at by a grown man, much less beaten by one—being thrown into this state of panic was so bewildering that she even forgot to cry. 

9. In the mornings, Kikuo would show up at the breakfast table as if nothing had happened and then leave for work. He seemed to have no memory of the night before. For that same reason he didn’t seem to feel guilty. Chiyo was used to this, and made no mention of the events of the previous evening as she cleaned up the broken dishes and made the miso soup for breakfast. Otherwise how else could she live with a man like this? 

10. The best thing for Nachi was that this house had a cat. The presence of the small, silent animal, the soft touch of its fur, the creature’s warmth—these things soothed Nachi’s loneliness. Little Nachi would bring the even smaller cat into bed with her.  

11. Nachi would pet the cat, and she liked to sleep with it curled up on her chest. In fact, this was an indication that all she really wanted was for someone to treat her the same way. Nachi had found something onto which she could lavish her affection. By the way that she cared for the cat, she was unconsciously projecting her own desire to be loved. 

12. At the toy store or the candy counter, seeing other children whining, Buy me this, buy me that, Nachi would instead watch their parents’ faces. Offended by their children’s selfishness, their irritation would mount, and she would peer at their expressions with baited breath, expecting hysteria to break out at any moment. If they made their parents so upset, one of these days wouldn’t they leave these kids somewhere? Children couldn’t survive on their own, they had to rely on their parents to take care of them. For that reason, children shouldn’t displease their parents. Unaware of this, these children who foolishly bawled and flailed about like monkeys seemed extremely pathetic to Nachi. 

13. She wore the clothes that Chiyo bought for her without a single complaint, but on the other hand, she never seemed happy either. When Chiyo was late picking her up from the nursery, even when she was the last one and had to wait with the head teacher, Nachi never seemed sad. It was as if she had already given up on something. 

14. Nachi would pet the cat, and she liked to sleep with it curled up on her chest. In fact, this was an indication that all she really wanted was for someone to treat her the same way. Nachi had found something onto which she could lavish her affection. By the way that she cared for the cat, she was unconsciously projecting her own desire to be loved. 

15. She expected nothing from anybody. That was the one thing that the young Nachi had learned to get by on in this world. She was a lot like a stray cat. She would silently eat the food that was offered to her, but she didn’t trust people. She wasn’t used to being held or caressed, so she bared her claws. She had the ability to instantly discern which people might give her food and which people might throw rocks at her. No matter how hungry she was, she would never play up to anyone. She was prepared to accept whatever fate befell her. She would lick and nurse her wounds herself. And like a cat’s, her eyes were startlingly limpid. She knew, instinctively, that she was alone from the day she was born until the day she died.

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