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.

DSC06981

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.

DSC06938

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.

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.

 

—————

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.