Birthday

With over 650 students it’s pretty hard to make a connection with all of them, remember their names, or even interact with all of them in any given week. Thus, one of the easiest things I could think of to make them feel appreciated (and force me to wiggle my artistic limb) was a birthday card. It’s actually quite time consuming some days–when there are five or so birthdays–but it’s also pretty self rewarding when I feel like I’ve done something extremely clever. There are certainly times when I make variations of the same theme, but I try to make them original and somewhat related to the interests of the student. Here are some of my favorites:

I’ve had plenty to write about, and with the end of summer vacation and festivities I suspect I’ll finally have some time to write about them. Stay tuned.

Overtime

If you’ve questioned my existence in the past couple of months, don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Truth is I’ve got a backlog of drafts to posts because I have been doing a decent amount of adventuring. On top of that, however, I’ve also been working. Really, at this point it’s hardly working and more like living. And although for the longest while it was mostly like riding a storm, I think there’s finally a rainbow in the sky.

For the past 19 days I’ve gone into work. It started on June 6, a Monday, but an unusual Monday because I actually technically had the day off. The previous Friday all the students had gone either Kyoto, Tokyo, or a campground for school trips (while me, my co-American, the secretary, and vice principal were stuck all day in the school’s teacher’s office), and since the trip would overlap into Saturday, we got the consecutive school day off. I thought I’d go in to work on the blank bulletin board outside our language room. I did actually pump out a couple of posters (grammar mistakes aside), but I also signed on for a much bigger project.

As part of my job requirement, during the summer I’m put into two English day camps. Last summer my experience with these were mixed, by the end of the day I was comfortably enjoying my time, but completely exhausted and not at all thrilled at spending half the day sweating in a humid gym full of teenagers. Turns out this summer there was even more to dislike. One of the English teachers at my school had been designated as director of this year’s camp, which handles the duty of going organizing materials and meetings. I suspect this is usually an easy process of distributing the materials from last year, tweaking the cover page, and the endless supply of typos. In fact, going over a binder that was passed down to me from the lead ALT from last year I found out that in the past 7 years nothing has changed. From the crappy WordArt text to the even worse and borderline racist/sexist clipart, it seems the only thing that had been shuffled around were some of the games for one of the workshop. So really, the collective of schools coming to this meeting each just had to approve this ancient text of DIY 90s design and be on our merry way.

However, there’s a flaw in this design because although the Japanese teachers a liable for the camp, they rely almost solely on the dozen or so ALTs to take charge of the groups, motivate the activities, and make the day a success. The fact that we ALTs are almost entirely not of Japanese culture and thus don’t accord to Japanese bureaucracy also means we don’t sit idly. As an American I tend to question everything, and as a person I’m typically the worst when it comes to agreeing with anything neutral. So, hardly flipping through the poorly contrasted pages of this mono-colored document I knew this year would be different. Even outside of the fact that I’m a control freak who doesn’t work well with others, this f-ing camp hasn’t been changed in SEVEN years! On top of that, each year there are pages of feedback precisely listed out for each moment of the camp. It’s like they looked at it, nodded a bit, and said whelp we’ve already got the material so no need to change it.

Now, I’ll take a breath and admit to being a bit crass. These camps are always extra work for teachers who are already working enough, and I can see the full reason why they would just want to get it over with. Especially since ALTs are typically not expected to do any work with the planning of the camp. But really to think that over the past decade no one has been capable to come up with some improvements or just try something new seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to step in. Here’s where I’m also really glad that I’m so chill with my English teachers. They don’t have a problem asking for my assistance or advice, or the way I want to be involved with the school just like every other teacher. So on that Monday afternoon when I was at school even though I didn’t need to be (with practically half the other teachers) and I turned to my neighboring English teacher poured over papers on his desk like he was filing taxes to ask “What’re you working on?” his short reply of “Oh, just the summer seminar.” got me wrapped up in this biz that I’ve only temporarily levied.

Usually I make it to at 7:15, not the first person but usually in the first crowd. I need this time to unwind. At the start of spring I actually was the first person to arrive, overestimating my biking time, and just hung out on the grounds watching the sunrise until someone else arrived and unlocked the doors. This behavior wasn’t planned entirely. I’d just slowly gotten in the habit at going to bed at 9 o’clock, and as a result left me waking up at 5 the next morning. Eventually I started naturally moving the time even earlier, and instead of being cooped in a small apartment decided I needed to just start the day. For a while I was running, until one time I went a mile into a run and got soaked in the heaviest torrent of biting rain I’d least expected. When I made it home three miles later I found my kitchen turned into a pool and my mattress was a sponge. I rushed to shut the windows and whipped out my space heater and recently acquired fan while draping bed-sheets and towels across desktops and counter-space.

I’d finally nailed the average of waking up, making scrambled eggs while listening to MPR/All Things Considered, showering and shaving, making a PBJ sandwich, dressing, and eating said sandwich, heading out the door, and arriving to school at just the right time. From there I’ll pull up three tabs on my computer: WaniKani for quick studying, Lifehacker for general well-being, and Bloomberg currency rates to see just exactly how much (until recently) I’ll suffer when I send money home. Then we have a morning chat for about twenty minutes.Each morning one class gets split into ten groups of three students to talk with me or my co-ALT. Usually it’s great, but it’s quite monotonous and if I’m unlucky the three minutes we talk will be a grueling roll of fishing for answers. Hopefully when the first bell rings, I’m not going to class, and if I am I only pray I don’t have class back to back. Any planned class activities or even periods are regularly changed which leaves me with a heap of last moment adjustments and worksheet creations. If my version of Microsoft Office wasn’t entirely in Japanese, I would be a pro by now.

At 3:30 there’s a bit of respite: fifteen minutes for mokudou, a traditional style of of the regular “cleaning time” ripped from zen monasteries where the students wipe down the floors and walls of school silently. It’s a brief relief since after that and a sort of cool down meeting they all zip off to their club activities and I gather with the track team outside the school. That practice usually lasts over two hours, yet we still only manage to run between 5 to 7 miles every day. I forgot how easy I used to have it with running. Our fastest guy can run a 4:30 1500m but most of them are struggling to break 5.

At least when it wasn’t June, now would be the time I go home. Actually, I’d rally a bit of studying in, mope around on Flipboard to figure out what global events I’ve missed out on, stop by the grocery store and then make it home around 7. Lately I’d gotten into watching Japanese anime (as “listening practice” for my upcoming test) while waiting for the next season of Mr. Robot to come out, but I’d also been trying to sit down and make sure I write for at least an hour each day. Well, that was before I signed on for this summer camp.

Every night for a week I stayed past 10 o’clock, and always left earlier than at least one of my co-workers. Then the following Saturday after an awesome start to the day with track practice — something I’ll write about later — I wound up staying at school until 11 o’clock. For the next week that became my new norm, but I didn’t exactly mind. I found out a lot more about some of my co-workers who’d go in and out throughout the night. A majority of nights someone brought in ice cream treats or snacks from the nearest conbini, and over such a span the workload became manageable. Except that was for me, the boy who started packing his dinners, got to exercise halfway through the day, and didn’t really have any responsibilities waiting at home. I figured I’d really be wasting my time watching TV shows anyway, so I might as well stay and be productive. Most of my co-workers, though, have lives. This is especially true of the English teacher leading the seminar (the same free spirit that took me surfing in January). He has two young boys at home and can hardly get the chance to see them before they go to bed at night any given week day. Apart from last Tuesday, the final marathon where we both were the last to leave a few minutes after midnight, I’ve never seen him leave school before me. That is the aforementioned bureaucracy I’m trying to combat. The mindset of overworking is embedded in almost all job I’ve come across in Japan, but that is especially true of Junior High School teachers. They act like surrogate parents, but to the extreme that they are more responsible for a lot of things the students do. So they stay at school and work because working from home is still a milestone many parts in Japan have yet to reach. It’s actually such a problem that the prime minister is rapidly working to change the culture. My guess is he hopes if more people can go home early then maybe more people will start having babies and solve the current population conundrum between the generations.

But, it’s really easy to fall into. Without really meaning to I just fell into the system. I’ve had Rhinna’s “Work” running through my head for the past week, and it’s sort of a sadistic meditation. I was averaging 12 hour days, seven days a week and thinking that finally I would make a permanent change.

And then we had a meeting for the summer seminar.

As I mentioned, it’s rare that ALTs have any part in the planning of the seminar and so showing up to the meeting was probably an uncomfortable surprise for the other teachers. I remember in high school and college hearing the foreign language teachers talk together in non-English while going down the halls and thinking how awesome they were. Here those instances are fewer. Of course, whenever one of the ALTs are around at my school all the teachers are well equipped to discuss in English, but I feel like the majority default to Japanese. So the meeting went, with awkward exchanges as some of the teachers tried to encourage the use of only English, and other stuck strictly to Japanese. I get how intimidating it can be to sit in a room with an official meeting of important things surrounded by your peers who can immediately judge your skill by comparing it to their own, but both me and the other ALT at my school (both far below the level of Japanese used here) were present so the lack of any effort was a bit annoying.

Even more annoying was the inevitable fact that I didn’t want to back down from any of my ideas. I was extremely dismayed and bolstered at the shudder that went through the meeting room at the mention of change. Sure, I was biased toward my ideas, but some of the members were also biased against them. The part of the camp I was most critical towards was a moment were the students “travel the globe” and learn about other cultures. On the surface it’s not the worst idea, except this year 7.5 of the eight ALTs who can help with preparation are white Americans (myself included), while the remaining Jamaican — upon finding out she’d have to talk about her country’s culture — replied, “Oh, please don’t make me do that.” So the deepest concern is accurate representation. Especially from the current climate of American cultural politics ethnic stereotypes are something to avoid at all cost. When you combine that with a group of people who freely left their country for more than a year and add in the already abstruse diversity of American culture it’s really hard to figure out where to start.

In the end, the duel was worth more than the victory. I learned a lot about forming a compromise, how I could’ve approached my ideas more effectively, and accepting that maybe my ideas weren’t all that anyway. We did end up changing all the games to well rounded activities that focus on spontaneous uses of English in a group dynamic, and gave the student more freedom in creatively forming original ideas for a skit at the end. The cultural aspect remains, but I’ve given into an over-representation of part of my heritage can still be done respectably. I still have doubts about if teenagers from a country who’s 98.5% homogenized ethnicity can really grasp the fact that I’m Irish-Swedish-African-Native-American-and-some-big-unknown, but it helps that my area has a decent minority of Brazilian and Asian immigrants and even a few random ex-pats from Her Majesty’s colonies. If I really wanted to get into I’d point out how even that raises a problem because so often assumptions are made towards any given class of students as being entirely Japanese (like, “Let’s find out about another country’s culture.”), which even further alienates the ethnically mixed Filipino and Thai students in the bunch.

That meeting was the straw. Over the next week I amended the changes being made and my co-American ALT (who’d been gone over the weekends to meet her friends visiting from America) finally snapped me back to reality with a poignant, “Go home, man.” It was a bit of fun taking on the role of a true Japanese salariman, but also deeply disturbing that a significant portion of people live that way. Sure, I don’t really have any responsibilities in my life apart from work, but I certainly have better things to do.


So, with that I’m back. At least for now. I do have a couple of posts just waiting to be updated, and in the next couple of days I’m being visited by a friend from America and taking my first vacation days in order to show him around Kyoto and Osaka. If you’ll remember I foolishly let my camera get stolen which is why lately the posts are lacking in photos, but I’ll make a point of snapping some memories from now on. You still have yet to see my new haircut. Also I moved. Come to think of it, a lot has happened before I started this working streak. Look forward to it.

Graduation

My last couple posts have been looking towards the future, so I feel this will be the culmination of those thoughts. At least its my hope for a while. You see all this time flu stricken and looking forward towards what spring and summer will bring has in a way made me complacent toward the present. Hence the void that will be March. The lessons learned from February had me scared to spend any money this month, though, that also put me discouraged about the future. After sorting out all my bills I’ve become a bit of a hermit. In the spirit of Mac I did host a small night for beer tasting (Okinawan based Orion won the vote), and I haven’t refrained from going out once or twice, but the quest for anything thoughtful was quite subdued.

It all came down to reminiscing and saying goodbye.

I suppose it’s a fair point to say that most of this month was dedicated to work. We had stacks of homework to correct, lesson plans to compile, and even went to a superfluous seminar in the city. It seemed like every day I was saying goodbye to someone, trying to capture that last good memory. Way back in the fall I determined that the second years were my favorite crew, but by the end of the semester I definitely wasn’t ready to have the third years leave. Back when they first entered this school, there wasn’t a foreign person in my position, and then my predecessor didn’t come until a third part into their second year. There was a bit of adversity that remained in their character. The ones who tried still struggled with natural sounding sentences, and the ones who struggled really couldn’t be blamed too much. (With that I’m not trying to make my teachers sound bad because they aren’t. There’s a lot of factors that play into the Japanese system of English education, but the presence of a native speaker correlates to better learning.)

The third years could often surprise you with the amount their honesty. When they gave speeches about what they wanted to do for a career one boy on the track team confessed he wanted to be a hacker in order to take down the Pentagon. During morning conversations I learned more than a few would stay up until 3 o’clock in the morning watching dramas, anime, or Youtubers. It seems they are primed at that age of still captivating the impossible while threaded with immortality. The five guys who still showed up to track practice would be especially hard to miss. By this point they were included in the few people I talked to everyday, and also ranked high on the list of those who understood enough English to talk back.

Thus we fall to the ides of March, as fitting a day as any to have a graduation ceremony.

I biked to school with my suit bundled up over one shoulder. Despite the on-off weather of the changing seasons, the few clouds that started the day would soon scatter as the sun rose. It did feel like a normal day in many ways, and I think some of that has to do with the fact that school won’t be over tomorrow. We still have half a month until spring break, the real end of the school year, but even that only lasts for two weeks. Nonetheless, under it all there was a certain attitude permeating throughout it all.

In standard fashion, the homeroom teachers for the graduating class were dressed in kimono. Apart from the sidelines in Kyoto, it was the first time I’ve seen anyone so formal in Japan. Along with the awe it makes you wonder what time they got to school to get dressed. Maybe they had a party where they each did each other’s hair and make-up, and then wrapped the bow into their gown because I can hardly believe a person would have success doing it alone. This, of course, only applies to the women as men in almost all situations nowadays can get by with just wearing a suit (in which can I’m not too sure who’s luckier — overall badassery aside, you just garner more respect while wearing kimono).

We shuffled into the gym as the doors were let open for parental seating. I was kind of surprised to be recognized by more than one, but grateful I could remember who’s parents or grandparents I was saying hello to. I’ve been stopped before by someone greeting me, usually in the grocery store. One time a Brazilian-Japanese student’s father stopped me surprised with English. He’s Brazilian, but he introduced me to my student’s grandmother who is Japanese. Those moments are special because it helps to remind me that my students actually have an outside life. Throughout any given day it’s easy to gloss over them as only students who I have only to teach English — after all, they’re only teenagers, what more important things could they be doing — but when I figure out their hobbies, their family life, their struggles in other classes or with other students it gives me more reason to care about their future. Not to mention it gives me a subject to bring up when I talk to them that forces a more elaborate answer than a mumble.

As mentioned, I’ve been handling a cold quite ineffectively since Valentine’s Day and during the ceremony was no exception. When the parents were seated, the first and second years filed in and sat down behind rows of empty seats for the third years. Then a small collection of students with string instruments started playing, and everyone stood up and started clapping while the third years strode down the aisle  in individual lines.

Because this was only a junior high school festival, it was hard to become to moved by the event, but compared to American school the formality of it was risen a notch. One of the last memories of my junior high school was meeting on the grounds outside with all the other classes in order to pass around and sign yearbooks. Here they had practiced the days before to prepare for the severity of this ceremony. I was intrigued, but also struggling to swallow a cough as the third years found their places.

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There was some bowing some greetings, and finally as one group they sat down together. My coughing subsided, and the next great struggle was staying awake. I’m actually sure a teacher on the other side of me had already dozed off, and I don’t blame him. If I had to do this each year I think the effect would wear off quick. Not understanding anything doesn’t help much either. Each student’s name was called, they would go up to the stage to get their certificate, and then sit down in a direct fashion. After that there was some more stifled coughing (relieved to hear I wasn’t the only one), and then some speeches. All I remember from graduation is Al Franken came to speak (that being my high school graduation). I can’t tell you what he spoke about. Similarly, the president of an eastern European country spoke at my college graduate (though, I can’t recall which country). What I only took from that was Russia’s technological base was far inferior, and that I was screwed because I hadn’t gone into the field of computer science. So I feel these students will probably look back at these speeches with the same indifference.

When it was all finished and they were dismissed the band started playing and they left the way they came in. A few tears were shed, but I’m not sure if it was sadness or the final frenzies of coughing that caused mine. It was pretty strange as their seats started emptying when they filed out. Collectively, there were plenty of them that made up the parts of the school I liked. It kind of reminded me of my own inevitable departure from this school. I’m equally mortal here so the ceremony reeled in some focus on the whole future at my disposal.

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I had written letters in all out English to a handful of the best students, some of the track team or the ones who always talked with me. I figured they won’t understand everything now, but hopefully if they hang onto it, by the time they leave high school they can look back at it and feel accomplished at how much English they’ve learned. Out in the parking lot everyone was distributing their goodbyes and taking photos. I wonder how long I’ll remember their faces. Some of them will stick with me, but even now when I go for a run or am biking by and see some high-schoolers I’m never too sure that if the students I wave to were every actually mine.

The next couple of days were business as usual. The absence wasn’t as strong, maybe only in the lunch room, and I still had plenty of wrapping up to focus on in the other two years. All the third year classrooms are on the top two floors of the school, so there’s not really a reason to pass by their emptiness. With them gone, though, I was blasted with how many first and second year student’s names I still have to learn. Their faces are easy to pick out, but we hardly ever use names throughout 24 classes, and I’m just getting the knack of reading their name tags. It’ll be a bit of a pain when they mix into new classes and I’ve gotta relearn the patterns over again. Really, I think the old ones will stick with me for a while.

Yamaguchi

Maybe I’ve said this before, but even if I have it bears repeating:

It’s sometimes unbelievable how much a constant running has been throughout my life.

Out of so many other sports, clubs, interests, religions, hobbies, and places I’ve gone in life, it’s the only thing that’s stayed there. It’s responsible for some of my closest friends, my biggest achievements, and quite entirely my college experience.

So ever before coming to Japan I was doing research on what the running scene was like. My expectations for a low interest and slow field were pretty wiped when I found out that there’s a decent crew of fast runners throughout the nation (though mostly central, like America’s heartland of talent). Especially with the Olympics approaching, the government is encouraging and funding even more programs specifically towards younger people to do well in sports. (For example, this 16 year old track star will likely podium for Japan in Tokyo 2020.)

I was pretty happy to be put in Fukui just out of the fact that it’s got some nature to make long runs through. I’ve been holding off talking about my own running experience for the proper post, but I’ll just add that this is the first time in a while I’ve been running without a direct goal.

Even last year, my first seasons out of college running I still looked forward to my alumni races or the season in the fall. Unfortunately here, the season is less year round and more marathon focused. And I am one to swear against any sort of marathon in the foreseeable future (though Tokyo was tempting).

After busting my foot for a month and then working my way back for another, I was pretty set come October (when it finally started getting cold after I left work) to join the track team at school. It let me do something other than crushing my mind against correcting pages for the last hour of work and deleted the excuses I’d later come up with to convince me not to run. I’d been told how great the school’s track team was, and looked forward to running with a team again. Turns out the rumors were pretty true, or I was just really out of shape (and probably a bit of both). After a 3000 meter time trial where the top time was around 9:40 I decided that at least three of them could be faster than me (the equivalent of an American ninth grader). It intrigued me to find out how fast the actual elite were, and I immediately vocalized my interest in going to the national race at the end of the season.

So, the days go by, and the time I enjoy at school grows exponentially simply because I recognize more students and know more about their lives. I’d been thinking about my counterpart back home, Kelson, who’d signed up for his second season of coaching and get why he enjoys it. At the least it keeps me from getting fat, at the most it keeps me young.

And finally it the week of the race, and I’m psyched. I came in to the teacher’s room after practice on a dark December night to see some of my co-workers huddled in the end of a discussion. “So,” one of the teachers says, “it’ll be about 1 mansen yen, is that OK? That’ll cover everything, transportation and hotel.”

I shrugged, not quite expecting it to be that much, but really can you put a price to anything nowadays. “Sure.”

And we’re off. The end of the week there was no practice because over ten kids were going to this race in Yamaguchi, which included all the long distance side of the team and even a couple soccer players. There was a lot of nostalgia on my part, remembering packing up the St. Olaf vans for the rides to Regionals and Nationals. Thus was the feeling that came to me as I got picked up a little after the afternoon on Saturday to make the eight hour ride to the end of honshu Japan.

Now, a long time ago, I wasn’t really considering how long it would take to get to Yamaguchi. When accounting for the less than three hour trips in each direction to get to Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Nagano, I’d always had this skewed image that Japan as an island couldn’t take any time to get to any important point on the map. But whatever, I was committed with a notebook and Clive Cussler novel and ready for the trip.

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As much as I love to go into the menial details, I’ll skip over the drive to wind up the night sitting at the end of a table full of raw meet and drinks. By the time I was at number two, everyone else was telling me it was number three, but the food was delicious so I didn’t care. It was my first time eating this kind of Korean bbq, and I topped off the meal with bibimbop thinking of Stef in San Francisco. One great common thing when getting meals with a group of people in Japan is the evenly split bill at the end of the night. It’s pretty nice for everyone just to take responsibility for the whole, and encourages a pretty good time. It can get a bit awkward if you’re sure someone has been hogging the drinks or food, but then you just deal with it through a bit of moral superior karma. Of course, the 5000 yen bill at the end kind of hurt, but at that point in the month I still had time to live wealthy.

Of course, that wasn’t the end to the night by far, and as we left I quickly got a small glimpse of Japanese social (gender) expectations, as the women of the group headed of in one direction (presumably to the hotel, but I’d have to guess that’s strictly a presumption) while the men stroll in the other direction. I ended up in another bar, somewhat izakaya style, while we brought up another chair to a table and ordered a nomihoudai. It’s times like these, only a few so far I’ve had, that make me feel like I fit in exactly how I should. Even in the presence of two other English teachers, I was shooting out Japanese back at the questions asked to me.

Not too much excitement for the night, but enough contentment for me.

(And I got to sleep in a bed! Always a good time, compared to the futon that I roll out on my floor every night. I hardly feel uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, but sleeping in an actually bed still comes off like a luxury.)

Thus, it came that I woke up within ten minutes of check-out time–luckily before my co-workers messaged me to ask if I was ready to go–as I rushed to put on some athletic clothes and shove the rest of my stuff into my backpack. I scanned the room with the inevitable feeling I was forgetting something, and went to the lobby sheepishly ready to start the day.

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It was beyond impressive to see the extent of how the race was set up. It’s basically in a state park, but the park from what I gleaned is set-up specifically to hold outdoor running events. Now, I know we’ve got shoe companies in America that host these races–this one was sponsored by Mizuno–but even at my college level I never saw such support built in for running teams, let alone for junior high school level. The tents alone were a little over fifty teams, each with a tent the size of my apartment and a decent amount of people there to watch. (Also, take into account that only 6 of the dozen students they brought were racing, but all of them rode the shinkansen and hosted up in a hotel for three nights. Quite frickin’ awesomely unbelieveable.)

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We waited around for a good couple of hours. I took a chance to walk around. It’s weird because back home, I never feel too far out because plenty of my students are mixed race, not to mention a decent amount of my neighbors are Brazilian. Now, at this pretty specific Japanese event, I was quite certain I was not only the only non-Japanese person, but the only dark skinned human over six feet tall. I mean, I certainly have that constant look over your shoulder in America, but here’s it’s a similar feeling for a completely different reason.

Anyway, I ended up running into a couple of my students heading down to the merchandise stall. They helped me in choosing a sweater, and I ended up meeting some of their parents. It was weird because I could hear them talk about me before I turned around to them, and even though I’d never met them, they already clearly knew who I was. Later on, one of the third year’s mothers thanked me so much for joining the team and even a little sister from one of my elementary school visits recognized me with a surprised, “Dillon-sensei?!” We’re talking first graders here that I taught for one hour two weeks ago remembering me by name. It was a crazy realization just to point out how connected I was to the community without even doing anything–or much, at least.

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The boys race went off after the girls, and anxiously I crowded around to saw a mass pile through the first curve of the track hardly distinguishable from one another until they passed beyond the treeline to the 3km trail. Basically over the next hour it was me running back and forth trying to cheer at all the good spots, take times and pictures, and keep warm. The weather started decent, but actually got a bit shady and chilled during the middle. An hour went by, and well, the lead team was dominating and my team, well, was not. We weren’t in last, or too near it, but we definitely weren’t towards the front or, maybe even in a standard deviation of the middle. Oh well, it was inspiring to see everyone try and think about pushing them through the winter to make a better performance for next year.189188

And just like that we were back on the road, literally as the students were bowing in the traditional appreciative thanks my group was shuffling back to our van to make the eight hour return trip. Can’t say it was as much fun as the way up there, but I was satiated on a well spent weekend full of nostalgia and inspiration. As I start to expect snow any time soon I can already say I can’t wait for the spring. I know I’ll keep up running, but really it’s just awful compared to the rest of the year. Luckily I’ve still got a great team to keep me motivated.

Elementary

Look, whatever follows, I’m not saying I don’t like little kids, I’m fine with taking care of them, they’re super cute and imaginative, but I will never again want to educate them, and I hardly think I can manage to believe they’re all anything but demons in disguise.

After meeting with a teacher from one of the two elementary schools I would visit in the coming week, I woke up around 5 o’clock to get a jump start on the day and make sure any final lesson plans I had were taken care of. I’m not exactly sure when we said to meet, some point around 9:45 I’m sure, which would normally mean I get to sleep in a little. Without having car, though, I didn’t want to risk underestimating the amount of time it would take to make the 5km walk to the school. So naturally I left before nine o’clock bag packed with scissors paper and crayons.

Early would underestimate how quickly I got there, and even though punctuality in Japan is stereotyped towards the ten minute beforehand  arrival, this was awkwardly coming in at over thirty minutes. The teacher I’d previously met greeted me at the door and brought me in and showed me to an empty desk in the teacher’s room. I felt pretty proud of myself for figuring out to introduce myself to the vice principal who then in turn showed me to the principal’s office, a stoic man who was a bit more intimidating than my vice principal which is like comparing Jack Nicholson to Robert Deniro.

Then I got to work cutting out the remaining props for my plan. They were to provide me with an oversized version of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear. It’s kind of creepy to see my education finally come full circle where that book was being used back when I was in kindergarten and now I’m teaching it to kindergarteners.

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They weren’t much, but I must say (off the tail of my Batman outfit) that they’re little you can’t do with a couple of crafts from the dollar store. Finally the bell rang, the door to the teacher’s room opened and what can only be described as the most adorable interaction I’ve had thus far in Japan commenced.

Imagine yourself for a moment being six years old again. Probably hard to do, I was even struggling after today, but just think about how little you know about the world, how fun and exciting each experience is, the longing and jealousy to just be older like everyone else. Then, imagine you’re in a homogenized society where virtually everything you see conforms to a single cultural lifestyle (plus or minus a few) so that anything that is ever out of place is magnified disproportionately. OK, so you’ve got that situation, and you’ve got this tall (ginormous by their standards) (handsome) opposite skin color guy who doesn’t speak your language, and you’ve been commanded to fetch him from the teacher’s room and bring him to your classroom. Remember, you’re six so your grasp of anything let alone the language you speak is just barely becoming functional.

Thus I was put, as three kids waddled in through the aisle between the desk wearing their red track suits (gym uniforms) and boshi (caps) practically sucking their thumbs and stopping in front of my desk staring at the ground. The teacher accompanying them flapped her hands and whispered in broken English, “Please come with us.”

They rocked back and forth and then together in a squeaky accordion call repeated, “Please, com-mu, withsu, us.”

And then I stood up, and realized that if I wasn’t careful I would trample them. They barely made it past my knee.

Once we got out in the hall, their territory, they livened up a bit. One girl grabbed onto my pant leg while a boy instantly put his hand between mine. The questions were equally as flurried but I found them easy to answer. Finally a group of students on my level of Japanese. I made it to the classroom without stepping on anyone and my guts still in tact.

I guess now’s as good as anytime to mention that this first class I was teaching was special education. I had been told this beforehand, but really didn’t have much to compare it to apart from my own junior high school’s group of ten students. Really, it was nothing like what I expected. Along with the teacher who came with the students, five other teachers were in the room to greet me with a horseshoe of desks with a dozen students. That was almost one teacher for every two students! Seemed like incredible resources and certainly made the class more fun. I started by asking each student their name, and had them ask me questions. Pretty fun, pretty simple, and almost all of them were involved. Then we went over the characters of the book–going through names and colors. I read through it once, and then had them (attempt) at repeating me and take turns at guessing which character would be on the next page.

I realized about halfway that I had know clue how long the class period would go, and so while I stalled for time at the end I pulled out the always (but hardly) faithful “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I don’t remember it being so simple, and really it’s a terrible song to captivate little kids for any amount of time. Or maybe it’s not, but I just felt like after three times, and then going slow and going fast, no time had passed at all and I was still on the clock for their attention. Luckily just as I stumbled for time, the bell rang, and they all jumped up to carry me back to the teacher’s room.

And that’s where the highlights of the day end.

I mean, not really, at least, at the time I didn’t feel that way.

So, I’m back in the teacher’s room where I started, and the bell rings, and another group of students slink into the teacher’s room and bashfully warm up to me as we walk to the next classroom. Only this time I enter a classroom with one teacher, who doesn’t speak English, and about thirty more of these shrilling minions.

I read somewhere online that kids are just tiny drunk adults, and that’s never been more clear to me before today.

Really, it’s more like their classroom was a rock show and I was Def Leppard. Probably even worse than fans at a Def Leppard concert, maybe Poison is more accurate.

I walked in to a literal rush of screams as the tiny devils leaned over their miniature desks with mouths blaring and eyes squinting together. Once I calmed them down the first time, anything I did or picture I showed would incite the squeals again like the tsunami after an earthquake. It got to the point where I looked down at one girl who was plugging her ears, while the girl behind her screaming full force also plugged her eyes then continued to scream louder. An hour of that happened, and I ran out of time again resorting to playful songs and handshakes. At least this time I took more questions and was able to understand and functionally answer in Japanese.

The time passes eventually, and I wind up with another ten minute break before I have to prep myself to do it all over again. The second time was with third graders and a bit more manageable. I made it through my introduction slideshow with my ears ringing, answered most of their questions successfully, and made it to the end of reading “Teacher, teacher what do you see?” just as the bell rang. So, overall not too bad. But now it was lunch time. And I was so confused.

A couple of students rushed out the classroom to come back donned in the most typical outfit of a white apron jacket and chef hat. The rest of the students either organized a table at the back of class or moved their desks together to form small groups. So, I supposed I had to find my place to sit. One of the boys waved me over to a open desk by the window, so when everyone was being directed to take their turns and get in line at the main prepped table, I decided to go and sit over there. Not exactly a perfect fit when a guy over six feet tall tries to cram into a desk chair made for pint sized devils. My back ended up bucked against the window, and there was little way I would’ve been able to chopstick my food to my mouth sitting parallel to the desk. Instead, I grabbed a chair and sat between the group of desks next to the little brother of one of my first years who is on the track team.

Anyone with experience with kids, puppies, or drunk adults will probably already understand why that was a terrible idea, and it wasn’t long before I looked back at the group of desks I’d left to see the defeated face and bubbling eyes of the boy I just left. Of course, as time goes on those bubbles bubble over his eyelids to be a steady stream of abandonment and betrayal and I was faced with the fact that out of many of the potential stumbles I made that day, the worst came unexpectedly and within the last half hour.

After lunch I tried reassuring the kid that it was not in fact him that made me move, I signed his textbook, I drew him a picture, I played with him at recess. Ever time the essence of a smile would creep up on his lips, though, his eyebrows would furrow and I’d be shut down. Oh well, win some lose some.

I did have one of the best moments of my time living here so far when the lunch bell rang and the students were getting ready to go out to the play ground and one of the students tugged on my hand and ask, “Ani, will you come and play with us?” using the Japanese term for older brother and in the cutest voice you could imagine a little kid using.

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So, they’re not all bad, but definitely not enough to get me to ever want to do it again.



Update: So, as it turns out it’s was only a week later that I had to go to another elementary school. This time it was with fifth and sixth graders so they’re energy was a bit more controlled and they were definitely used to being in the classroom. I made sure to have extra small games and activities in case I ran over time, but it never happened and their English was actually pretty impressive compared to my junior high first years. Most importantly I didn’t make anyone cry, but I did have to assist when during recess a kid got blasted with a soccer ball to the face. Seems like these visits will be a once or twice a semester thing, so I can only hope the next one takes its time…

 

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.

Culture

Once again I find myself coming into school on a Saturday, but after getting a Monday off (and looking forward to another Monday free) it’s really just like having a five day work week. Also, including yesterday, the actual work among the teachers is pretty minimal as once again it’s mostly in the hands of the students to get everything done. Although, instead of finding myself outside working out on a bright sunny day, I found myself inside playing on a rainy humid day.

Yes, in fact, it was the antithesis to sports day. If last week was for the brawn, this would be for the brains. It was: Culture and Arts Day.

Again, I’m astonished, not quite this time at the amount of work the students have put in, but more at the amount of school time devoted to these events. Coming from a country where most public schools have been eliminating Arts and music courses across the board and even argue against recess, it’s relieving to see that at least some of the world’s youth get a chance.

It starts on Friday with about two hours in the morning where each class, of twenty-three total, received two canvases (about 3×5 feet) and in groups painted a mural. At first it seemed like such a short time, but as I wandered among the halls and classrooms checking out the classes, the students were well at recreating a smaller sketch they’d already decided on. I don’t know if there is some larger life symbolism because they made almost exact replicas of their tinier murals, but on a whole it seemed pretty simple work for them.

After that we had an assembly in the gym, where the student organizers took center stage and performed various skits. They even introduced some video where they pulled pranks on various teachers, and it was all interactive and pretty awesome. In the end, they even incorporated the skit with the main act of the day: a performance by a local singer, Seri Kana, who graduated from the school. It was all quite the production and pretty exciting, especially for the students, and it offered a different look at their behavior.

Seri Kana perfomance

The level after that basically continued all day, as lunch was served out of the classrooms pseudo county fair style. All the third year classes were responsible for transforming their classrooms into food-stall-cafe where students could order food via tickets they purchased. Early in the week to save money for the holiday (and overall scrounging) I decided not to buy any tickets and I was kind of regretting the choice now. I still got to share some bites offered from the kids, and it was just an experience to see it all happen on the bottom hallway of our school. I’ve been told these two weeks are the greatest of the year, and I can see why. This whole time I’ve felt like I did back in my summer daycare, some of the fondest nostalgia I can muster, where you’ve got the freedom of summer but the community of school. It’s really a happy feeling.

After that I grouped up with what can now be called my favorite class: a group of second years with a good amount of rowdiness, but enough English effort to make them admirable. Granted I’m not trying to get into favorites so early, I knew eventually it would happen, but it seems less of my favoring them and more them favoring me.

So, after teaming up with them during the talent show, I got dragged around to each classroom on the second floor where the first years were putting on various games and activities for the rest of the day. Imagine each room getting turned into a thirteen year old’s capacity for a Japanese game show using only cardboard and duct tape and your practically there. We had bowling with plastic bottles as pins, basketball shots with newspaper balls, and skee ball with super balls and paper cups (and those are just the easiest to describe).

dancing during the talent show

Altogether I’m not quite sure what this day was about, but maybe it was just a retainer for the amount of lackluster the following day would inhabit.

Not to say that Saturday was all bad. Although, imagine being a parent of a seventh grader (maybe you are), and then going to their school choir concert because after all you’re their parent and you sort of have to because it’s on a Saturday and you know, their cute when they’re up there because they’re terrible singers but they try anyway so you can sort of enjoy it. OK, you got that in your mind? Now imagine that, after you kid gets back from the front of the stage, another group goes up, and then another, and just for good measure imagine that they’re speaking in Swahili, a language that you really don’t understand but can chime in every time someone says Asante sana (but really, that only makes you think ‘squashed banana’ and then as you imagine Zazu singing that to Scar in the Lion King you realize that you’re supposed to be watching some school choir concert that you haven’t been paying attention to for the past half hour).

There was a slight intermission in which the school band set up shop in front of the stage and I with Coral, the other ALT, and several teachers got up and danced to a song that is known for its origins in parody and antics (for good measure, it’s called てぃてぃてぃてれっててれてぃてぃてぃ). We’d stayed until 7:30 the night before trying to learn the dance, and on my part it was a slight–but hilarious and thus successful–failure. Incredibly, once we left Friday night it seemed that we might even be some of the first to leave (that’s even including the students). At first I was eager to do it because I wanted to feel involved with the students, but after it really highlighted my involvement among the teachers. I got to talk with some I hadn’t met before, and really became friendlier with a couple I’d already favored.

dancing on stage during culture festival

Honestly, even with the silly dancing, one of the most amusing parts of the day was to be sitting on the sidelines and watch as the students (who brought their classroom chairs into the gym) slowly drooped their heads and closed their eyes and tried to keep their neck from dropping lest the nearest teacher slowly approach them and make sure their friends knew they were asleep in a bright red blush of embarrassment as they finally snapped back to attention only to repeat the process in another five minutes. It was quite the spectacle in spite of its subtlety.

That night, like last week, once everything was done and cleaned up, we had another work party within walking distance to the school at a Chinese restaurant. I’d consider this one even better, perhaps because the teachers weren’t fatigued from the sun and cheering of Sports day, or maybe just because I’d gotten a little more closer to each of them. Still, this time through a random process, I sat next to my advisor and Coral, which I didn’t mind too much despite wanting to get away for English. It wasn’t long before Coral got up and started commiserating, and my advisor got up in search of more beer. There’s this great, albeit dangerous, tradition in Japan that you don’t fill up your own drinking glass, and thus everyone around must tend to its fullness out of respect. It really helps drive everyone to drink, but also muddles with keeping track of how much you’ve actually had. Eventually I was probably buzzed, but I don’t think I had nearly enough to get tipsy. When it was time to leave, though, I still wanted to rally and enjoy the night. Even though it was closing on close to eleven, I remember getting back so early last time and wanting to go out.

A group of teachers, only one of which, another twenty-three year old guy, was an English teacher, decided to go out to nearby karaoke. (I put that in italics because the conditions of karaoke in Japan are pretty unique and they pronounce it ka (like car)- row (like had a row)-oh-kay.) In the end their were eight of us: the English teacher and me, a now devious duo, two teachers I’d yet to even hear speak (one of which sang metal), two teachers who I’d marked as the best dressed (one of which made me sing Bon Jovi and the other who loved Bill Withers), and the schools two music teachers (both of which trumped any other karaoke performance I’ve ever heard).

I got back to my place a little after one thanks to the graciousness of another English teacher who picked us up. Ready to start my weekend, and procrastinate on planning my Tokyo trip. I went to the bus station today thanks to another ALT and his Portuguese girlfriend who speaks native Japanese fluently, but they had already sold out of bus tickets (presumably because it was a special weekend) so I’m kind of in the zone to wing it. I guess we’ll see.

School

Years ago, when I was twenty and in my prime, I went out on a strange and oft not seen limb and applied to join the Marines. I went through the entire process, but inevitably it was something that I couldn’t commit to. Occasionally, while slumming around in New York, or looking at what I was doing in Northfield some appeal came out of the what could have been. Alas, today I’ve discovered that working for the college admissions, or at some climbing gym, or an officer in the Marines being a liaison for different squads across the world, or as an IT worker tinkering with computers or web design, or even an artist in New York trying to hustle prints and t-shirts, all pales in comparison to how much I’ll enjoy this job.

Honestly, almost from the moment I walked into class today, I’d had the most fun I’ve ever had while working.

It was phenomenal to teach. I worked well with the English teacher, Mr. Sato, and my presentation came off flawlessly with only a little bit of improv, and the worksheet I created for the end used just enough time to keep them busy and allowed me to get to know them. We started with conversation about good points and bad points for the summer. Mine were pretty obvious, coming to Japan and slicing open my foot, but Sato-sensei also injured his leg so it made for good comparisons. After discussing among themselves and responding to us, we moved into my presentation. When I was making it I had a bit of a tough time changing around the sentences to fit their level. For example, sentences like: “Have you visited other countries?” which works well for third years has to become: “Did you go to a different country?” when talking to first years.

Nonetheless, I sparkled through the presentation with these second years, and adding plenty of opportunities for interaction. Mr. Sato even mentioned that when I saw they couldn’t understand I quickly switched my approach so I’ll mark that as first compliment of the year. At the end of class we passed out my worksheet and Mr. Sato had them each line up and ask me a question about my self. I got plenty of the usual, but also a variety of “What’s your favorite…” and “Where do you want to go in Japan?” My favorite part was returning their questions back to them and hearing their answers. Mostly the expressions on their faces were the best, like they were surprised I was interested to know about them. I actually felt guilty about when I missed asking them a question back.

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The rest of the day was spent mostly standing outside in preparation for sports day. It’s pretty incredible to see the amount of discipline and ceremony these barely teenagers can hold. From what I’ve been hearing it’s basically one of the top three most important days of the year (which is why I’m coming into work on Saturday), and from what I can tell they’ve been rehearsing basically the same ritual they’ve been doing since elementary with the addition of brand new dances and cheers for their respective teams. Just when I think Japan efficiency has met its ceiling it keeps going. If anything like this even tried to get established in American schools (let alone public school) not only would the kids be truant, but the uproar it would cause with the parents would be staggering. It seemed all the clubs–be it sports, band, art–heck, the whole school stayed until 6:00 including the teachers, including Coral and me. Anyway, there’s a lot about liberty and expression I miss from America, but the amount of dedication and selflessness make this a great country to live in.