Thanksgiving

For me there is hardly a day worth celebrating more than any others. When I was a kid I used to pout at my own birthday parties. I’ve had the hardest point remembering anyone’s birthday (a bane because everyone can remember mine falls on a holiday), and really one of the days I’ve enjoyed more than others in the past years is Black Friday. Maybe that particular attention is why I’m only now realizing how different my timeline is in Japan. I mean, after all, Halloween was seen and talked about pretty well among the students and commercialized places, but I haven’t seen a single display for Thanksgiving and thus–almost thankfully–nothing about black Friday.

Obviously Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday–food, family, and football–but for me its always been a little more. Through the past couple of years I’d gotten into looking at Thanksgiving as a time to do something nontraditional in my life. One year I traveled to Charlotte to eat soul food with the family I’d only heard about in stories (or even letters to prison). Another year I traveled to Tacoma to make a truly college but independent dinner with a completely different type of family (#trackhouse). Christmas would later be the time for the family I saw everyday, so it seemed that in times of thanks I needed to reach out and be with the people that I didn’t always show gratitude for.

OK, and that above has convinced me to completely change my direction on the feelings I had for this post. Originally I was planning and pointing out how much I missed Thanksgiving this year, when really I guess I did what I normally would (even if it did technically come a week later). I should mention the weird feeling I got explaining Thanksgiving to a class of kids who literally had no clue what I was  talking about, but really I think those moments do more to remind me everything I miss from America.

Anyway, living in a foreign country full of people in the same situation with a pretty strong network of events or communication it seems pretty obvious that there’d be more than one somewhat traditional Thanksgiving celebration. Even the night before, gathered in an apartment for a “California beach” party wearing shorts and eating Costco sheet cake, a group of us were discussing what types of foods we’d contribute to the weekend potluck. I’d really considered trying to put something together at the last moment: mashed potatoes, fruit salad, steamed vegetables. I think apart from laziness I just lack any sort of equipment to make a decent dish (in my small sized kitchen), and despite being days away from a paycheck I was (as it always magically seems to be around this time of the month) strapped for cash. Thus, I decided to just pay the fee and enjoy the joys everyone else felt like sharing.

thanksgiving food

I think we were there for a good four hours, and damn I was glad we got there early. I think the last time I was at a potluck was my senior college year of cross country running, an annual event after our first home race, and that–after from delicious baked goods–had nothing to compete with this. There were Japanese, Irish, Vietnamese, Chinese, American, and so on dishes of all variety. It seemed like every time I finished my plate and felt like I was finally full, someone new would show up and put a different dish on the table. (Really, I should’ve thought ahead before typing this and eaten something because now I’m craving it all again). It really was a Thanksgiving dinner because I kept eating and feeling good and eating some more.

thanksgiving line

Apart from the food, it was really just good to see everyone again. I mentioned earlier about how obvious it would be that the powers that be would organize an event to get all us (majority American) foreigners together for the holiday, but I often forget just how many of us foreigners there are (a really bad problem when I have to avoid using someone’s name I’ve forgotten after three months). Not only foreigners, but also local Japanese people showed up to join in the celebration.  As someone who usually spends a Sunday cleaning, vegging, or just generally sticking to his apartment, it was a good occasion to get out and enjoy the community that I can’t always interact with.

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And the food, again, was fantastic. I even had to pull off the remnant of one of the five or so turkey’s they brought in because of how quickly they were devoured. Really between the Irish soup, the home-baked bread, the eggnog, and the no-bake cookies, the turkey was the least of my options. I really need to practice more varieties of cooking now, or at least figure out where everyone gets their ingredients. I think the biggest hub is Costco, and oh, how I long to get to Costco.

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Test

There are some things you forget in life. I’d give you a list but I can’t remember what to put on it. It seems like some of the most important parts or people I want to retain in my mind only now come across as a vague blur. Especially my fleeting youth. I remember being in eighth grade and thinking the six graders were babies, looking at freshman as a senior and high school and wondering how I could have been so little. The key being whenever I look back I didn’t feel so little. Still I cannot recall most of my early teenage years. How did it feel to finally enter high school? When did I start hanging out in other friends’ basements? How did I lose contact with some of the people closest to me? Why on earth did Steph ever agree to shave my legs?  These things I can’t come up with the answers to, despite trying my best at journal-ing. But it’s questions like that I’m confronted with so often when interacting with my students–especially the sannensei who are heading into their final semester. Will they choose the same high school as their friends from elementary school? Will they realize the implication of their choices? Will they remember me in three years? How much will English even matter to them? All these choices seem to fly by without time to decide. Some of the biggest points in our lives sort of just happen.

However, no matter how mundane and unimportant they could be, no matter how predictable and nonsensical the content, I think anyone in my generation would be able to remember taking a standardized test. The escort to some prearranged room, the handful of pre-sharpened #2 pencils and erases, the water bottle, snack, and bumblegum (because “studies show that chewing gum helps you take tests”), the snickering through instructions, the scantrons. Truly the scourge of President Cheney on the education system. Maybe it’s just a grudge I hold against the general education hierarchy, but I hoped at least in Japan with all their sports days, and home ec. classes, and emphasis on community, and just the overall perception of efficiency that somehow the testing system would be more reliable. Alas, it seems like there is no hope for students anywhere.

Thus begins my last night, staying at school until 10:30 (when the rest of the teachers stayed well into midnight). Huddled around a table with two tower heaters scanning the room, two of the English teacher, my fellow ALT and I delved into the pile of third year tests stacked in the center. We read and then reread the standards for grading, clicked our red pens open and started our marking. This was of course, the second out of three times we would be reviewing the students short (required 5 sentence, realistically 0-4.5 sentence) paragraphs. We knew what we were getting into, but with the addition of adding points the confusion started to grow. It didn’t help that I was under the impression (given the impression) that the tests were extremely important to their grade and affecting the aforementioned choices that Junior High students have no control in.

I started to see answers that–while not being entirely the most natural way to answer something–seemed perfectly reasonable, especially for an uproarious question that was even hard and confusing for many of the region’s ALTs to answer. I think the main difficulty was its combination of a asking about a Japanese concept while giving an English answer. The students could relate, but even with the right vocab I think it was hard to put in the right order.

Slowly, my spirits crumbled inside until finally a test was brought up for a round table discussion. By far the most creative answer, a full eight sentences, I thought it deserved full marks. We went over the spelling errors, OK, nothing to be done there, but then went back to content. I was only in giving him 5 points, with four and three also taking the board. Still, after reviewing the standard guidelines and erroneous requirements (sentences like “it’s very interesting” are OK, but others like “For example, if we do it the school will be shining” miss the mark) it was brought up that maybe the student should only get two points.

I basically was a balloon being filled with too much air. For every missed point here or there I thought it couldn’t be helped, after all the student only wrote four sentences to begin with, or maybe the way it was written was really too unnatural. But this student clearly knew what he was getting himself into. I wish I could tell you what he wrote (privacy law) because I’ve got it memorized. Sure it had a couple of problems, but compared to the pool they were menial. The steel was sharp, but finally, after realizing that mine was not the only bubbling pot on the stove, I gave in. My balloon deflated.

In a moment I decided that my job was wholly less important than the teachers. I thought about how inexperienced I was, that one student was not worth the grief of delaying the rest of the night. I was honestly tearing up over my failure to express why this kid deserved to keep half the total he was going to lose.

But then I realized that wasn’t it at all. That just because I’m getting paid less and have the role of assistant doesn’t mean to the students I can’t be just as important. Just because I’m inexperienced doesn’t mean I can’t strive to put out my ideas (and after working with young people on the autism spectrum for the past two years that way of thinking is overflowing). And I certainly wasn’t tearing up because I failed, but because I gave up on this student.

There are 684 students on the schools roster, and I probably couldn’t name more than eighty, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t deserve every amount of the same effort I can give them. I certainly look forward to favorite classes, and encourage the students I interact with more often, but I think I’ve been slacking in my job until now.

It’s so easy in this job to put together last moment powerpoints, and copy someone else’s worksheet, to correct worksheets on the fly word by word instead of rearranging entire phrases to sound more natural or use better grammar. That’s certainly what I’ve been doing until now. After doing this, though, looking through our third years test and seeing how often they make mistakes and utilize the simplest of phrases, I’m finished with being that kind of teacher. I’m blessed to have another person to split the workload with, and great English speaking teachers who respect us.

Only now I’ve realized that I have someone’s future in my hands. Even if it’s probably one of the least useful subjects in their education, it still has the power to change their lives. Maybe the most powerful aspect of this has come from ikujyoubu, running with the track & field team. One of the teachers told me a student wants to learn English more because I’m around, and I realize that I have the same feeling. Sure I want to be able to learn Japanese fluently, but better yet I want to learn more about the students: what do they like and hate, how do they spend their free time, what do they think of Japanese culture and their lives in the countryside. I want them to speak better English because I want them to know I’m listening.

staying late

So, I think that’s enough of a soapbox  for me to step off of. The above photo represents the amount of teachers still at school after we left at 10 o’clock.

Despite whatever I’ve said this moment was very critically in changing my perception, and it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe without experience. When I think back on my most favorite teachers: Mrs. Bramwell in 3rd grade; Mrs. Duff and Mrs. Stark getting me through Junior High; my high school savior Señorita Hudacek; my piano teacher/more-or-less guidance counselor; JRS, Richards, Ben Percy, and practically the entirety of the Asian Studies Department at St. Olaf who set me on the course I am today.

I’ll end with a new revelation. That it’s probably the above (and certain others) who have shown me the spirit I want to emulate, and the knowledge I need to imbibe to become a better teacher, so that one day–hopefully–these students can do the same thing.

 

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Ps. Sorry for the lack of posts coming this way, I’ll certainly be too busy with school to do anything fun, and I’ve got enough planned in  December to keep me offline for a while. Hopefully that means by the New Year I’ll be able to backtrack on the happenings as I wind down Winter Break. Stay Tuned.