One day, in the academy, they ask a question:
"How strong do you want to be?"
It is a simple question for simple minds, but brings out complex answers - if only the teachers had thought to look underneath the underneath, as they keep telling their students to do.
The members of Team 10 each have a vital strength. Shikamaru has his genius, Ino has her wiliness, and Choji has his mental fortitude. At the academy, they missed this completely.
"I want to be strong enough to protect my friends."
Choji's answer surprises the teachers - he is a quiet student, and not particularly able despite coming from a prolific ninja clan. He mostly hangs around with the lazy Nara kid, but the two of them rarely speak to each other in class or during breaks, so they don't seem like close friends. There is Naruto and Kiba - but that seems more like coincidence than anything. And there's Ino, but they only know each other through their fathers, and she only uses him to rant at when no one else will listen.
So although Choji's answer is evident of the sort of attitude that Konoha prides, the teachers just smile awkwardly and move on, because they think Choji is deluding himself - he doesn't seem to have friends.
At this point, Choji and Shikamaru are only nine, and friendships at that age are usually full of squabbles and kids that haven't quite learned not to be selfish yet. So the teachers don't stop to think that maybe Shika and Choji have the kind of friendship where they don't need to speak.
They don't stop to think that Kiba and Naruto plan to skip classes when Choji and Shikamaru do, and for a reason other than Choji's constant supply of food. They don't think that Kiba and Naruto will fill the silence and be the strong-willed, hot-headed, motivated presence that Choji and Shikamaru need but won't get until Ino joins them as Team 10.
They don't understand that Ino goes to Choji because no one else will listen - because Choji is nothing if not dependable, and his easy-going nature is comforting to somebody like Ino, who, being a strong-willed girl, finds it so easy to give offence without meaning to. (And who said they met through their fathers, anyway? Choji certainly didn't meet Shika through his father.)
They never think, either, of the few times when a prank has got 'Naruto and Kiba' written all over it but Choji is adamant about having been with them at the time and, after a while, Shikamaru makes the effort to speak up and agree with him.
Choji is a simple boy, after all. Why would he lie for them?
And why would Shikamaru, a boy who is not even truly his friend, support him?
"Eh... it's too troublesome to be strong... I just want to be average."
The teachers aren't sure how to take this one, and move on quickly. Nobody realises that this is the first honest answer Shikamaru has given any teacher since the first day of school, when they asked him what his name was.
Not one teacher notices that Shikamaru is always - always! - somewhere about the middle of the class... almost like he had calculated how well the other students would do and carefully answered the questions to keep himself in there. There has not been one topic which Shikamaru particularly struggles with, putting him near the bottom of the class, and not one single topic which he excels at, putting him near the top of the class.
Not once, in four years of teaching, has the boy from the Nara clan - famed for their intellect - been anything other than average.
This should have raised suspicions - but the carefully phrased answers to quizzes and questions were not the answers of a student who could reach that higher level, and was just going about it in the wrong way. They were the answers of a student whose understanding simply stopped at a certain point.
So they assumed Shikamaru skipped class sometimes because he couldn't be bothered with something he struggled at anyway - not because he needed a break from all his hard work.
When Ino gives her answer, the teachers think she is just avoiding the question and scold her until she gives some answer about being 'Konoha's strongest kunoichi', which is the answer most of the girls gave. Ino does this a lot, avoiding work - often she will cajole Sakura or one of the other girls into doing her homework for her, or letting her copy, although they are sure she could do it herself if only she tried.
The fact is, though, that the Yamanaka clan already understand that strength is not defined in one way. Ino's father doesn't get his reputation from any traditional ninja arts, after all, and Ino herself is friends with Choji and Shikamaru and Sakura, and (still) chases Sasuke. Sasuke's strength lies in his skills with taijutsu and ninjutsu, Sakura's in her intelligence, Shikamaru's in his ability to plan and deceive, Choji's in his ability to cope with anything, so long as he has his friends.
Ino's strength? Well, she doesn't have the skills, intelligence, planning ability or sturdiness of those she knows. But what Ino does have is subtlety and manipulation.
None of those teachers noticed that Ino was never refused by the girls she copied homework off. And, because the skills of the students are rarely tested in anything more than a simple environment, they never got to see the way Ino will set a trap, but layer it in subtleties - and then set real trap somewhere else altogether. Because they were only tested in straight taijutsu matches, Ino never demonstrated her ability to goad opponents into a mistake or talk them out of confrontation altogether. And because the students were only asked to perform ninjutsu, not use them, Ino was never able to show them how she could use them to escape and trick an opponent straight into her waiting hands.
None of Ino's teachers saw that, in terms of what a ninja is truly meant to be, she was probably the sole best student in the class. So none of them even thought of taking her aside and telling her that Konoha didn't believe in that image of the ninja, anyway.
The members of Team 8, on the other hand, all had one major flaw: Hinata had no idea of her own strength, Shino was anti-social, and Kiba couldn't solve a problem without attacking it.
"I'll be strong enough to beat up anyone I want!"
The response to Kiba's answer is just muted scowling. It's to be expected, of course, from an Inuzuka, the clan that solves disagreements by fighting. Kiba is nine, and a boy, and an Inuzuka, and not a very good student intellectually, so of course this is the thing he would focus on the most.
The Inuzuka are a family who have produced many capable ninja and many good drinking buddies, so the teachers are liable to forgive Kiba his faults. If any of them remember an Inuzuka from their own academy days, they might notice that Kiba's fixation on 'beating people up' is a little unusual. Sure, the clan solves their arguments by fighting, but there is not a closer family in Konoha - their violence is never hurtful, closer to play-fighting than anything.
It doesn't cross any of the teachers' minds that in a clan full of capable ninja, one hot-headed young boy (even by Inuzuka standards), the brother of the clan's prodigy, and someone who isn't a naturally good student, is going to feel very, very inferior - and, being that not-naturally intellectual student, is he going to think of any way of solving his problems apart from violence?
The shinobi at the academy are taught very little about diplomacy. Why bother? After all, very few of them would ever have to deal with it, and the few who did tended to be those who had a natural aptitude from the very beginning, and needed very little teaching, or jonin, who had learned better by then. The students didn't need to be taught that violence didn't solve all problems, or that it wasn't the only option they had.
Kiba didn't learn that until after he graduated. He didn't even realise he'd learned it, for a while - he just observed Shino arguing with Kurenai-sensei or Hinata, and in a disagreement with his sister one day just started yelling at her instead of getting Akamaru to jump on her and start another fight he would only lose. It was a far cry from Shino's carefully calculated and reasoned arguments, but Hana was stunned.
She was also inordinately proud. It had taken her a lot longer to learn that.
"I want to please my father."
Hinata does not say "I want to be strong enough to please my father", because in her mind weakness and her father's cold, distant gaze are so linked that if her father still stares at her like that, she cannot possibly be strong.
The teachers know how much the Hyuuga prize strength, and though they think Hinata is a good student they never tell her so - their standards are not Hyuuga standards, and it would only hurt her more when her father contradicted their words. They do not interfere on her behalf, either - they can't interfere with the Hyuuga clan's ways, they are too powerful.
None of the teachers think that Hinata suffers at home. They think perhaps that her father is hard on her, but she never complains about her home life, so they assume she is fine. Nobody thinks that maybe Hinata never complains because she thinks she does not deserve the care and attention Hiashi lavishes on her sister and (sometimes) her cousin - because she is so pitifully weak, and her weakness reflects badly on the whole clan and her father in particular. She knows she deserves the cold gazes. She just wishes it didn't hurt so much.
It is not until Hinata graduates that anyone ever thinks to disillusion her about the difference between strength and approval, and that she can have one without the other.
"Why did you say you weren't very good?" Kiba asks, utterly bemused, when she's just beaten him soundly in a sparring match.
Hinata pushes her fingers together and looks at her feet, sure that what has just happened is a complete fluke. "Father says that Hanabi and Neji are more worthy of his time."
There is silence for a long moment. Shino is the one to speak first, and even the Aburame cannot keep confusion out of his voice. "I... do not see how that invalidates the implication behind Kiba's question."
It was also the first time anyone told Hinata that she didn't need her father's approval at all.
"How strong would I like to be? Strong enough to be an able ninja and a good leader of the Aburame clan."
This careful and precise response is nothing short of what anybody expected from Shino, the heir and genius of the Aburame clan. There are very few people in Konoha who can look past the kikkai that inhabit the bodies of the Aburame clan, so Shino's teachers are not inclined to pry further into their student's thoughts than necessary. Most of them get a shiver when mark his exam papers, like they are being watched.
They are, of course. Shino doesn't like to wait to see how things turn out - it's one of his weaknesses, and not conductive to being a fully able shinobi. Shinobi must be patient.
He tries to cut his weaknesses out of him, though.
The Aburame are not a sociable clan. Mostly, they are the same as Shino, quiet and (attempting to be) emotionless. It helps in controlling the kikkai. The teachers at the academy never find out about this, though, because they never ask. They just think Shino is a bit creepy, like the rest of his family.
Emotions are weaknesses, Shino thinks. They interfere with his control of the kikkai. They stop him from being a fully able shinobi. And emotions get in the way of decisions - they cause people to behave irrationally, which would be a huge detriment to the head of a clan. They are also a handicap for ninja in general. Logically, Shino concludes, he should strive to rid himself of emotions.
He never discusses this with his father, or with the teachers who made every effort to avoid him, so Shino never gets told that this line of thinking is, quite frankly, bullshit. So Shino struggles with losing his emotions, and not a soul notices. Shino is never taught the difference between emotionless and controlled.
When he graduates, Shino is put on a team with an Inuzuka, of all people. Kiba is loud, and comes from a clan where putting someone in a headlock is an acceptable way of saying hello. They are almost exact opposites. Kiba is so determinedly friendly without even meaning to be. Shino tries to ignore it.
It is not until their third C-Rank mission - where everything goes wrong and Kurenai-sensei isn't there and Kiba comes this close to dying - that Shino realises: there are some things a shinobi should never sacrifice, no matter how 'able' it will make them.
Shino is sure he's never moved faster than when he had to stop that knife, anyway.
And Team 7? Well... Team 7 just needed help.
"I want to be strong enough."
The teachers praise this as the wisest answer in the class, and marvel at how the Last Uchiha has recovered from the incident that destroyed his clan, his life, and everything he knew.
"He is not like Itachi," they say, "He does not seek strength for the sake of strength."
And they are right. He doesn't.
But not once do they ask him, "Strong enough for what?"
Because Sasuke would have answered truthfully, and without complaint, and without any hesitation. After all, nobody has ever told him that this burning desire for revenge - the boiling hatred that makes Sasuke block out anything else, turn away from those who care for him and those who could care for him until he is cold and alone...
Nobody ever told Sasuke that that was wrong.
"I... don't really know..."
This is a usual answer from the most studious student in the class, but the teachers decide that Sakura has probably not decided what discipline she wants to follow yet. After all, she seems suited for becoming a medic-nin, and they do not have to be strong. But a girl who tries so hard to learn all the proper ways of being a ninja, of memorising them exactly - she will succeed at whatever she chooses, they think comfortingly.
Nobody stops to consider that Sakura is never looking at the teachers when they praise her for this. She must simply be shy, they say. They don't notice she looks towards Sasuke, or sometimes Ino, because they don't look at where her eyes are.
None of them stop to think that maybe Sakura doesn't really want to be a ninja at all.
"I want to be the strongest ninja in the world!"
That answer, of course, comes from Naruto. Who else would hold such a ridiculous dream? The teachers yell at him and tell him to be serious, but skip along to the next person in line and miss the small, quiet words on his lips.
"...But I was being serious..."
Naruto is not a destructive person. It is not in his nature. He is a prankster, but none of his pranks have ever deliberately hurt another human being. The teachers do not ask why he wants to be the strongest ninja in the world. Part of their hearts - the part given over to fear and hate - sees only the fox's desire for slaughter coming out of the mouth of a child.
Nobody ever looks at the Hokage monument quite close enough to see the resemblance, so nobody thinks that it could be a different kind of influence altogether.
Except the Sandaime. He takes note, and hopes.
But what did they expect, trying to teach children to be ninja? Did they expect the academy to actually work? It can't work - not if the teachers refuse to see underneath the underneath of their own students. Sometimes, they didn't even need to look that far.
A/N: Well, uh, okay... this sorta came outta nowhere. One moment I'm thinking, seriously, nobody thought Sasuke's obsession with revenge was a bad idea? But then I start thinking that if the academy instructors missed that, then what else did they miss? I mean, most of these kids are from huge ninja families. You're not telling me that they're all well-adjusted, normal kids. Though I admit I was stretching with Kiba. I'm still not sure about what I eventually got down for him, but I couldn't think of anything better (though I'm sure there must be something). Also, I am strangely proud of how Ino's little section turned out.
Update 23rd April '10: Changed a word or two, fixed a few errors I noticed (Kiba was 12 at the same time that Choji and Shikamaru were nine...)