I just returned home from an absurd and sadistic cultural event in Japan known as the Speech Contest. We Americans have our own similarly evil cultural practice known as the Spelling Bee, only this is worse in a lot of ways because the students are judged on their ability to deliver speeches in English—a vastly different and more difficult language than their own—and the results are withheld until the end, whereas when you lose a spelling bee it’s based on the objective fact that you mis-spelled a word, and you know immediately that you’ve lost. This is more comparable to child beauty pageants in its cruelty.
For the last several weeks, ever since I started teaching, I’ve been staying after school to help the students prepare. There were five altogether with varying degrees of skill.
There were two first-grade boys, O- and S-, who were doing a short little comedy sketch called “Time Noodles” together, and they already had the routine memorized and blocked out by the time I started working with them. All I did was throw in a few ideas to make it funnier, and while I attempted to help them improve their pronunciation, it was already pretty good and they’d already done it so many times that their way of saying the words was practically hard-wired into their brains. I saw almost no improvement from them over the weeks, but to be fair there had been little improvement to make.
The second-grade student for our school was a girl named M- who was reading a short piece from “Alice in Wonderland”. This was a ridiculously difficult piece for a Japanese person to read, as they have a hard time with Ls and Rs and this was full of sentences like, “Alice saw a little bottle on a table” and “the rabbit was very surprised and ran away.” M- couldn’t pronounce these words for the life of her when she began, but after a painstaking few weeks in which I had her constantly moving her tongue to the back of her mouth and repeating “white r-r-r-rabbit” again and again and again, she eventually got to the point where she pronounced everything almost perfectly. Out of all my students, she clearly made the most progress.
There are two third-grade competitions: a recitation of some pre-written material they choose, and a speech that the students write themselves (or with help from their ALT, as was the case with mine). The boy doing the speech was Y-, and I’d completely re-written his speech about lessons he’d learned regarding relationships after this year’s 3-11 earthquake. I was afraid I’d made it too advanced for him, and he struggled with it for a long time, but he eventually got to a point where he could really pull it off. Unfortunately for him, he has a natural lisp so there was only so much he could do.
Finally, there was A-, the girl reading a recitation of “The Giving Tree”. She was already doing a fantastic job of it when I started working with her, although she was still getting some Rs and Ls mixed up and there wasn’t much going on by way of gestures. But she was an excellent learner, and I was able to help her take the speech from Good to Incredibly Freakin’ Awesome. Of all of them, I’d always felt like she had the best chance of winning.
Today was Game Day. This is the first time I’ve ever been in any kind of role like the coach of a team, but that’s essentially what I was. I did my best to keep them as relaxed as they possibly could be, “take deep breaths” and to feel as optimistic as they could. The phrase “Yes we can!” has (unfortunately) become my motivational-mantra-by-default ever since I used it for my self-introduction to the school, and if it gets the students fired up—which it undeniably does—I might as well keep using it in spite of the political irony.
I had four lessons in the morning followed by an extremely rushed school-lunch (10-minutes to eat as opposed to the normal 50), after which seven of us took a taxi-van from the junior high school to the school where the contest was being held which I assume was a high-school. It was myself, the five students, and Ms. T- (whom I now know is actually Mrs. T-), the really friendly and helpful teacher who sits next to me in the staff room. All along the way the students were reciting their speeches to themselves for that last bit of practice, over and over again. I must confess that it made me really look forward to the end of it, when I’d never have to hear those speeches again.
When we arrived at the school I immediately spotted Ben with the students from his school, as well as Trey whom I haven’t seen since that first week in Togane, and Ryan, the other Interac ALT whom I met at the so-called “orientation-session” the week before we starting teaching. I managed to say hello and chat a little with all of them. Ryan told me that his experiences at his school were similar to mine in that the teachers didn’t just want us to be “human tape-recorders” as Ian-the-über-nerd had told us, but that we were actually expected to plan and execute full lessons. The only difference for him was that his school is smaller, so he only has an average of 3 lessons a day whereas I have 4 or 5. I don’t mind that at all though, as I enjoy teaching and it makes the day go much faster.
Before going inside to join his team, Trey talked to me about his experience at last year’s competition and how surprised he was at how emotionally-invested in it the kids can get. He warned me that every year half the students end up crying, so I should be prepared for that.
There would be two rooms at a time with readings going on, and Mrs. T- was one of the organizers in Room 2 so she had to abandon us and play the objective role of the woman who says, “And the next student is Soandso from Suchandsuch School who will be reading Thissythis.” So as she left to prepare I was left alone with the kids outside, the sole coach of the team. Before I took us inside for the opening ceremony I had us all stand in a huddle, put our hands together, and shout “Yes we can!” at the top of our lungs. I felt awkward as hell doing that, but they really liked it so that’s all that counts.
The brief opening ceremony was in the main auditorium, which could probably sit about four hundred people but here there were only about a third of that number. There were seventeen schools from the area participating in the competition, each with four or five students. The ALT was with them all so I got to see a lot more foreigners, and there were always one or two JTEs as well.
Unfortunately I had to divide my time between the auditorium and Room 2 as I wanted to see all of my students compete. I remained in the auditorium first to watch the first-graders do their “Time Noodles” routine. They were only the third group to go, and they were far superior to the previous two so I felt pretty good about that. One of the boys, S-, was so nervous that his voice shot up ten degrees during a couple of the lines, and he forgot to do one of the funny extra-things I’d suggested, but other than that their performance went down swimmingly.
Immediately after that I headed over to Room 2 to catch M- do “Alice in Wonderland”. I was far more nervous about her than I’d been with the first-graders, but as I heard the two speeches ahead of her I began to feel better because they were pretty awful. I couldn’t understand how so many of the speech coaches don’t correct their students when they make an L sound instead of R or vice-versa, or the S sound for a TH. Some of the students were barely comprehensible.
My stomach was in knots when it was M-’s turn to go. Her first line was “Alice was tired of sitting by her sister on the bank” and up until the previous day she’d been pronouncing “bank” like “vank”. But as soon as she nailed the B-sound I started to smile, and I kept on smiling as she went through the whole piece and delivered it better than I’d ever heard her do it before. Considering how poor her delivery had been when I started, I’ve never felt more proud in my life. I applauded wildly when she finished and made sure she saw me grinning widely and giving her the double-thumbs-up when she was done.
I caught a few more second-grade speeches and while some had better delivery in terms of dramatic-performance, none had pronunciation as flawless as M-. When I was finally able to talk to her at the break, I showered her with heartfelt praise, completely convinced that she would at least make the Top 5 if she didn’t win her whole competition.
I sat next to A- the whole time, and she was more nervous than any of them. I kept reminding her to breathe deeply and kept telling her that I knew she was going to do great. Now that I’d seen what the competition was like I was more certain of that than ever. A- was our strongest competitor by far and as long as she had no major screw-ups and there were no superstars up against her, I figured she had the best chance of winning the third-grade recitation.
I ducked out for a few more first-grade performances, most of which were barely comprehensible. But I did catch one called “Let’s Go to the Speech Contest!” with two girls doing a little sketch in which one decides not to go to the speech contest and the other disguises herself as the first girl at age-68, telling her how much she regretted not going and thereby convincing her to go. It was a ludicrous piece, but they were the best I’d seen among the first-graders in terms of delivery.
I was able to see the last few second-graders and none of them were better than M- so I felt very optimistic about her chances. During the break I stayed in Room 2 with A-, keeping her calm and positive and joking around to take the edge off. Her parents had shown up and they came over and introduced themselves to me, and I was able to tell them how great their daughter was which they appreciated.
Ryan was sitting nearby and I was able to chat with him as well. It was also his first time at a contest and he was feeling pretty good about it too.
When it came time for the third-graders to take their seats in the front of the room, I gave A- one last “gambatte” and a “yes we can!” She was the fourth student to go, and throughout the first three she’d glance at me and I’d remind her with my body language to breathe. The first three students were so-so at best, then A- took the stage and blew everybody away. I had a huge smile on my face the whole time, and I could see from the judge’s expressions that they were impressed as well. Even Ryan looked at me during the speech with an expression of awe at A-’s ability. She nailed every last word of “The Giving Tree” except one very close to the end (she said “prace” instead of “place”), but she was animated and emotive and practically perfect in every way. I was beaming when she was finished, but she didn’t seem so sure of herself.
I had to skip out then to go back to the auditorium for Y-’s speech, and Ryan came with me because his third-grader would be speaking right after mine, and he told me point-blank how impressed he’d been by A-. When we got inside, a half-Iranian girl was giving a speech about the difficulties of growing up as a non-fully-Japanese person in Japan. She was extremely good, so I knew right away that Y- wouldn’t win. He was up next, and it was a somewhat surreal experience to hear him deliver the words I’d written in front of an audience. He wasn’t perfect, but he was at his best so I was satisfied. The poor kid has a lisp—what can he do? When he finished the speech I breathed a sigh of relief. A lot of the other kids had gotten tripped up or drawn blanks in the middle of their speeches, and they’d left the stage in tears, already certain of their failure. All my kids had gone through their speeches swimmingly, and all had been at their best.
I watched the rest of the third-graders’ speeches, none of which were better than Y- or the Iranian girl, but when the last girl to go got tripped up and lost her place and I saw the Iranian girl smile because her chances of winning had just gone up, I immediately felt an intense loathing. Even though they were competing with my students, I felt nothing but empathy for the girls who blatantly screwed-up. They were all in for an intensely difficult emotional trial, and a bad memory that would leave a mark on them for rest of their lives (I still remember mis-spelling the word “moccasin” at my second-grade spelling bee and it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth).
I managed to get back to Room 2 for the last two third-grade recitations, both of which were less-than-spectacular so I felt great about A-’s chances. The last girl to go did a recitation called “I Have a Dream” about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, and while her pronunciation was atrocious you couldn’t fault her at all on delivery. She got up there and shouted “I HAVE A GREAM!!!” so loudly that I thought my ears would burst. The rest of the speech was thankfully a bit less thunderous…at least until she repeated “I HAVE A GREAM!!!” at the end.
When it was over, I gave A- my praise and asked her how she felt. As wonderfully as she’d performed, she was still all in knots about what the results would be. The poor girl wouldn’t allow herself to relax and feel good about how she’d done. M- was in a similar state, as no matter how many times I told her honestly that she’d done great, she still needed to hear the results.
I caught up with Trey for a moment before leaving. “That was intense,” he said, referring to the Martin Luther King girl, and I laughed in agreement. “Brace yourself,” he told me then. “This is the moment of truth. I hope I don’t have any criers.”
“I won’t have any criers,” I said confidently. “All my kids did great.”
And so we all entered the auditorium. I sat between the three boys and the two girls, directly next to A- as she was struggling not to pass out from anxiety. Mrs. T- had returned to us and was sitting on the other side of the two girls, ready to mark off the winners on her program sheet once they’d been read. Of course they had to prolong the process to obscene proportions, with a couple of preliminary speeches in both English and Japanese about how all the kids had worked hard “but unfortunately there can only be one winner” and that sort of thing. There was only one plaque for each competition, but the Top 5 were awarded with certificates.
When they started reading the results it was all in Japanese, so I couldn’t be sure what was going on but there were sudden outbursts of emotion bursting forth all around me. They read the results of the third-grade speeches first and I’d completely missed it—apparently Y- had not made the Top 5. (I found out a few moments later to my surprise that the half-Iranian girl had only come in 5th) When I finally turned to A- and asked her what was going on she said they were now reading the first-graders, and I glanced at Mrs. T-’s sheet to take a look. Suddenly the boys beside me had an emotional outburst of their own—I checked Mrs. T-’s sheet and saw that they’d won second place! I was happy for them, but I couldn’t feel too proud because they’d done most of the work before I’d gotten there. The first-place winners, incidentally, were the “Let’s Go to the Speech Contest!” girls.
Then came the second-grade winners. I watched as Mrs. T- marked off the fifth-place winner, then the fourth-place winner. Apparently M- would be in the Top 3! Then came the third-place winner and the second-place winner. Here goes…it’s…it’s…not M-. What the mother effing eff of all effs? Are you effing kidding me? Did you not hear her flawlessly pronounce the words “Alice” and “rabbit” again and again and again? Are you really saying that of the seventeen students her nearly-perfect performance wasn’t even among the Top 5? Re-effing-diculous. At least M- didn’t appear too disappointed. She had to know how well she’d done.
Finally, the third-grade recitation results. A- was losing her mind. I took her hand and held it tightly, feeling the appreciation of my support through her fingers. The fifth-place winner wasn’t her. Good. She was way better than fifth. Nor was the fourth-place. Good. Nor was the third-place. Second-place: A- from ___ Junior High School. First-place: someone else—a boy whose performance I hadn’t seen.
Um…okay? How are we supposed to feel about this? She’d won something—she’d done extremely well by all objective standards, coming in second out of seventeen. But she should have been first, so…yeah. When they called her name there was no outburst of emotion, just a quick gasp and then a look like, “Uh…hooray?” At least she could breathe a sigh of relief. The results had come in and they’d affirmed that she was in fact excellent at English-recitation. She could go home proud, if not completely victorious.
All of the winners got to go up on stage and receive their certificates to the applause of the crowd. I remained seated with Y- and M-, both of whom were clearly disappointed but neither of whom appeared too broken up about it.
But once the ceremony was over and we all got outside and stood together, that’s when M-’s tears started coming. Serves me right for not heeding Trey’s warning. I did the best I could to comfort her but there was hardly anything I could do. I just wanted to hug her but that’s SRICTLY FORBIDDEN, so the best I could do was keep telling her how proud I was (which I was), how great her performance had been (which it had) and that she shouldn’t be upset just because the judges were stupid (which they were). At least I got her to smile at that, but it was short-lived. She was crushed and she would go home crushed and there was nothing to be done about it.
Before Trey left he came and shook my hand in friendly congratulations, and before Ryan left he came over to do the same. He also told A- how impressed he was by her and that he was really surprised she hadn’t gotten first-place. A- smiled and thanked him. She seemed happy enough with second-place so if she was disappointed I couldn’t tell, but like the rest of us she had a hard time feeling good when M- was clearly in pain.
As for the others, the first-grade boys were happy with their second-place finish but were probably holding back because of M-, and if Y- was feeling crushed inside he was behaving like a full-grown Japanese man and keeping it well-hidden behind a mask of nonchalance. I was proud as hell of all of them, but unfortunately my opinion matters very little when weighed against that of the judges.
The taxi-ride back to school was a much more subdued affair than the ride over. Half-way through it I busted out my I-phone and played the Blue Man Group version of “White Rabbit” in an effort to get M- to smile and while it worked for half-a-second that was the best I could do. Then I decided to take a gamble and play Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and that ended up paying off nicely. Mrs. T- liked the song and thanked me for playing it, and when I noticed the kids liked it too I started singing and they all smiled and laughed including M-, though she went right back to crying when it was over.
Back at the school we went up to the staff room and declared our results to the principal and vice-principle, and everyone got their congratulations from the various teachers who were of course still there at 5:30 working overtime. Before we went our separate ways I had us all put our hands together in the hallway for one last “team-moment.” Mrs. T- told us we had to whisper because the teachers were working, so I had all of us whisper “We are the champions!” at the top of our whispering-lungs.
I went back in the staff-room and gathered my things. The principal and vice-principle thanked me for the work I’d done and I gave them a Japanese “your welcome.” On my way out the door and off school property I passed by M- one last time, who was standing on the school steps apparently waiting for a ride. She wasn’t crying anymore but her eyes were still red and she was obviously far from over it, so I approached her, took her hand, and told her in as simple English as I could that I was proud of her, that I know how hard she worked and that she should feel good about how she did. She smiled and thanked me, but it’s practically a certainty that she’ll still be crying through the night.
She really was robbed, and I’m not just saying that because of my bias. Her delivery had been nearly flawless, and it had been an incredibly difficult speech. She’d had such a hard time at first and the amount of improvement she’d made in just three short weeks had been astounding. She’d obviously spent hours upon hours struggling with those Rs and Ls and Bs and THs and going through it again and again and again and again when she could have been doing…I don’t know…something that’s actually fun? Instead she worked her ass off, poured her heart and soul into this thing and came out with absolutely shit to show for it. That’s life, I suppose.
Before I go to sleep tonight I’m going to try and find a way to make up some kind of mock-certificate so I can give it to her tomorrow as something solid she can hold on to as a reward—however hollow—for all the work she did. It won’t change the permanent scar of the undeserved feeling of failure that the speech contest will leave on her, but if it even helps just a tiny little bit it’ll be worth it.
In any case, now she’s got a bruise that she’ll hopefully grow from and learn from. Lord knows what kind of lessons a fourteen-year-old Japanese girl is going to take from such an experience, but maybe it’s that you shouldn’t put so much of yourself into something as meaningless as the flawless pronunciation of English words.
At least I’m sure I’ve learned something today. There was a profound lesson for me somewhere in this experience—of that I’m completely certain. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out what it is.