Archive for March, 2012

The Longest Day

March 30th, 2012 No comments

Some days seem to fly by in an instant, while others seem to stretch on forever with a feeling of great significance. Yesterday, the day the school-year officially ended (after unofficially ending multiple times) was one of those days. I’ve decided to document it in its entirety from my perspective as I experienced it, like I did a couple of years ago with an entry about the Planeo Christmas Party. That means it’s going to be painfully long, but hopefully worth it to my future selves, who have always been the primary audience of this journal.


Man, that was a crazy dream. At least I think it was because I’ve already forgotten it. Crap, it’s getting light outside, what time is it? 6:15. Okay, that gives me another hour before I absolutely have to get up. Maybe I can catch just a little more sleep.

No, it’s too late, my mind is already full of thoughts about today. I’m going to the school’s farewell ceremony in the morning, then to the farewell enkai and karaoke party in the evening, with a whole lot of nothing in between. It will be the last day I see many of the teachers I’ve worked with this past year. I’m so sick of goodbyes, but just one more day full of them and then it will at last be over. Okay, it’s 7:13. Might as well get up.

In the shower I think about what song to put in my head for the day because the cheesy Disney song I have stuck in my head for no apparent reason simply will not do. There was a really great song on the Shapeshifter CD Trey recommended that I was listening to while cycling yesterday—I don’t remember the title but I’ll probably recognize it if I see it. Finished with the shower I go to my computer and find the Shapeshifter mp3s. Ah, here it is. It’s called “The Longest Day”. Yeah, that’ll do.

Damn, this is an excellent song. Now what should I wear? Which of these shirts that I haven’t washed in weeks is the least smelly? I’ll go with the grey one, and the suit that’s just a little too big because it’s more comfortable than the one that’s a little too small (and the one that fits just right has a missing button that I’m clueless as to how to sew back on).

Time to check my e-mail while eating breakfast. A few days ago my grandpa sent me some advice about how the right way to find a girlfriend in Japan is to be introduced through her family and that I might want to bring this up with my colleagues. I explained why this was unlikely to work but said I might have an opportunity to ask some colleagues about it at the enkai. [To spare you some suspense, I ended up forgetting about it completely. My mind just wasn’t on the subject at the time.]

A couple e-mails from Corey indicate that he’s bored and lonely as usual. We have this theory that the universe balances itself out between us, wherein I’m usually up when he’s down and I’m usually down whenever something good happens to him. Something that could be thought of as “good” happened to him recently and I was depressed, but that appears to have ended. I guess that means today could potentially be a good day for me.

The school’s closing ceremony starts at 9:00 but I was told by Kono at Interac when I wrote her to confirm the time that I should go into school at 8:30, the usual time. I find this instruction a bit strange, as I’m technically on spring vacation and I’m going to this ceremony completely voluntarily. But for some reason I’ve got to go in a half-hour early and sit in the teacher’s room even though I’m not getting paid at all.

Whatever, I was going to spend a half-hour studying Japanese anyway. It makes no difference whether I do that here or at school.

I take note of the excellent weather as I walk the short distance to my school. Graduation day was cold and rainy and grey, the perfect complement for my sadness that day. Today is clear and sunny with a not-too-warm but comfortable temperature. I’ll be sure to take advantage of that later.

Man, it’s weird going back in this building when I’m already on vacation. It feels like one of those dreams I always have where I’m back in high school for one last thing because the school-year never officially ended, then you wake up to remember it actually ended years ago. I’ll probably have those dreams about Japanese schools now too.

I enter the teacher’s room and greet the faculty, going about their business in their typically serious and professional manner. Nobody asks me what I’m doing there, and I just quietly set up my computer and proceed to study. The room looks a little different from when I was last here—so many of the desks are completely bare. I guess more teachers are switching schools than I realized.

I really don’t like how they don’t let teachers stay in the same school for long periods of time. Y-sensei is at work clearing out her desk now and it’s already making me sad. I was extremely lucky to have her to work with when I started as an ALT. Some teachers don’t help at all and just leave you out on your own, and some help too much to the point where they almost take over the lesson, but Y-sensei was the perfect classroom partner, always with a perfect sense of whether my explanations to the students were clear enough or if they needed some translation, and she always knew just how to be of help during games and such. It really sucks to see her go.

Okay, I finished studying and it’s 9:00 but the ceremony isn’t starting yet. Maybe it really is at 9:25 like I’d originally thought. Thank you, Interac, for confirming the wrong time. I guess I can kill the remaining time by reviewing old kanji lists.

All right, it’s 9:15. I’ll just go to the gym while the last of the students are filing in. They’ve been slowly trickling in all morning, as they too are on vacation and didn’t have to be in their homerooms in the morning. A bunch of them came in and went to their classrooms anyway though. Japanese students are cool like that.

The gym is a separate building connected to the main building by a hallway/overpass kind of thing which is partially outside. When I get there I notice a large crowd of students standing outside the gym waiting to go in.

Oh my god, are you for real? Is this what I think it is? Yes, I know those faces. It’s the third-graders, absent all this time in a state of post-graduation purgatory and now uniformed-up and ready for one last event of their Junior High School lives. It turns out watching them all walk out the gym doors at the end of the graduation ceremony was not the actual last time I would see them. Nor was the Spring Concert when I got to see a handful of them. Today is really the last day, but I already went through that whole sad-I’ll-never-see-them-again thing two weeks ago. Those emotions have already been purged.

The first- and second-graders are just finishing up filing into the gym and taking their proper places, all the boys on the right and the girls on the left. I stand off to the left, as I’ve noticed the teachers also tend to segregate themselves by gender for these ceremonies as well. The third-graders start to enter the gym and a few of the boys notice me and greet me. Ghosts, I think. You were supposed to be gone forever.

I scan the group of girls looking for A-, the girl from the Speech Contest and one of the only students I regretted not having said a proper goodbye to. Perhaps I’ll have one last chance to rectify that later.

But now, it’s time for the ceremony to begin. Let’s all stand up and sing the school song (unless you’re like me and don’t know it). Now it’s time to bring out the teachers and faculty members who will be departing. There are ten chairs on the stage. Wow, ten of them. And the six part-time teachers who said their goodbyes at the first closing ceremony makes that sixteen colleagues I’ll never see again. Apparently at the end of every school-year you not only lose a third of the students but a third of the staff as well. I’ll be teaching at the same school next school-year but 33% of the people will be brand new.

And just who exactly besides Y-sensei is leaving? What’s this? Oh, no! Y-, the cute secretary, is first in line! Noooo! What are you doing to me, fates? And what’s this? S-sensei, the other third-grade JTE, is also going? Now hold the phone a minute. H-sensei and A-sensei were both part-timers and they’re both leaving too. And now you’re telling me that two of the other three JTEs are also leaving? So of the five JTEs I’ve been working with this year, FOUR of them are going?!

At least T-sensei (‘Mrs. T-’ in previous entries) is staying, and that’s no small blessing. She’s been the most helpful out of all of them, though that’s partly because her desk in the teacher’s room is right next to mine so she’s naturally the first person to turn to when I have a question. But she’s as great of a partner in class as Y-sensei, and she took the lead when it came to the Speech Contest. If she were among the departing teachers I would really be upset, but it looks like I’ll have one more year with her (and only one, because this next year will almost certainly be her last).

Also leaving are a few really nice teachers including the one who sat across from me in the teacher’s room, and a couple of administrators including one of the vice principals, T-sensei (you don’t have to be a teacher to get the sensei title), with whom I had a glass of whiskey at the Christmas enkai. They each get up and give a speech, some longer and more emotional than others. Y-sensei is clearly on the verge of tears and it brings a bit of a lump to my throat. Even some of the male teachers have to pause while speaking to collect their emotions. I’m lucky I’ve only been here a short time, and I just keep thinking about how much more difficult this is going to be next year. But Y-sensei has been at this school for eight years, and she really doesn’t want to leave. I don’t know what you’re doing with this system, Japan, but I hope it’s working for you.

One of the students, I believe it’s the 2nd-grade class president, comes to the stage to give a farewell speech on behalf of the students, then ten more students come out with flowers to present them to the teachers. Then the entire schools sings one last song, the same song they sang while the third-graders left at the end of the graduation ceremony. Now Y-sensei and some of the other teachers are really fighting back tears, and I’m at my most emotional moment as well.

Finally, the girls and boys turn towards each other forming an aisle in the center of the gym for the departing teachers and faculty members to walk down on their final ceremonious exit. Some non-students are standing in the back, high-school kids who’ve returned to their Junior High School to say one last goodbye to their old teachers. That’s pretty touching, and it’s nice to see Y-sensei’s face light up in a smile as she recognizes an old student on her way out.

What follows is some confusion as to what happens next. The ceremony is over and the students are now just standing around and chatting with one another. I’m standing amongst the third-graders but nobody comes up to me. I still can’t get over that I’m seeing all these faces again. The fact that now I’ll really never see them again is drowned out by the fact that I already thought I’d never see them again.

I do finally spot A- but like the rest of the students she doesn’t appear to notice me or care about my presence. It would be nice if at least a few students would come up to say goodbye but I’m not too bothered. I was only their ALT for a short time.

When they’re finally instructed to exit the gym, I watch them go without much emotion. A few teachers follow them out to say some specific goodbyes to specific students, including T-sensei whom I notice for the first time is teary-eyed.

Look, A- is still here. She’s standing just inside the exit doors, looking back at the gym contemplatively. I raise my hand and wave at her. As intended, it catches her eye and she smiles and waves back at me, and gives me a little bow. So that’s that. It was a wordless farewell, but words weren’t needed. Just a moment of conscious contact to acknowledge that this is the end. It wasn’t exactly what I pictured, but I figure I’m going to have to get used to less-than-completely-satisfactory goodbyes. There will be many more of them in my life, including later today.

Can you believe this day is still just getting started? It’s only 10:15 right now!

Now I head back to the teacher’s room where I’ll attempt to figure out what the deal is with today. When I get there Y-sensei is standing by the heater looking forlorn. I give her a sympathetic glance, and she tells me, “I just want to go teach a class right now…” before her voice trails off. I hear that.

But I’ll have plenty of time to say my goodbyes to her later on. Right now I need to call Interac and find out what the heck I’m supposed to be doing. It certainly feels like I’m at work right now, and I was told to come in at 8:30. Is this really not a paid work-day? I call the Chiba office and get in touch with Kono to ask her. She seems just as confused as I am, and tells me she’ll call the school’s staff to find out if they need me to stay there.

Need me to stay? I thought I was here voluntarily and not getting paid. Does Interac realize if they require me to stay at my school any longer it’s technically slave-labor? I mean, I’m all about the Japanese work-ethic and everything, but being told to work for free is a little ridiculous.

As I wait for Kono to call back, T-sensei arrives back in the office and I explain my confusion to her. A vice principal comes to tell her that it’s OK for me to go home, and I thank him but I’m still very confused. Kono calls me back and tells me it’s OK for me to leave, and I try to ask her directly if this is a day I should record on my pay sheet. But the Japanese are not known for their directness. She says, “Starting tomorrow you are on spring vacation.” Okay, but I already was on spring vacation. “So today is not a paid work day?” She says “no” but I can’t shake the feeling she never quite understood what my question was.

Whatever. I came here voluntarily not expecting to get paid anyway, so I won’t record the day on my pay sheet. If that’s a few thousand extra yen I could have earned, it’s no big loss. The important thing is I have the official seal of approval from my employer and my school to go home (even though I didn’t need to be there in the first place).

Before I go I confirm the time and cost of the enkai with T-sensei, who tells me to come back at 4:30 and she’ll take me there.

As I walk out of the building there’s absolutely no sense of “this is it” at all. My school-shoes are still in my locker. I’ll be wearing them again in just a few weeks.

A whole lot of third-graders who’d come for the ceremony are still hanging around outside, having final conversations with fellow students and teachers. I’d already said goodbye to them in my mind (several times over) so I don’t bother going up to anyone. One group of boys approaches me though, led by a bit of a class-clown from 3-4 who calls me down by my last name as I’m leaving and strikes up a conversation to practice what appears to be the only English phrase he remembers: “Do you like Japanese food?” “Yes I do,” I say.

“Oh,” he says. I can tell he wants to go on but can’t think of anything.

“What’s your favorite Japanese food?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he answers. “I am Japanese food.”

His friends and I laugh and we explain what he said in Japanese.

“Are you delicious?” he asks, and we laugh and explain what he said again (though I do tell him that yes, I am in fact delicious.)

When it’s clear there’s no more English left, he says goodbye and “See you next time.”

I say, “No next time.”

“Yes next time!” he asserts defiantly to the laugher of his friends.

“Yes next time?” I ask.

“Yes. Today. Later,” he jokes.

“Ok then, I’ll see you later.”

If that does end up being the last conversation I ever have with one of this year’s third-graders, it was appropriate enough.

I could really go for a run right now. It’s almost 11:00, the sun is still shining and a cool breeze is blowing. When I get home I quickly make a playlist of songs from the Shapeshifter CD and gear up for jogging. With all these students out and about I figure today is more likely than ever that I’ll spot a bunch of them, but I make it through the whole 35-minute jog only spotting two students, which is the average amount. But right at the end, when I get to my street, there’s a group of four fully-uniformed girls walking together, apparently out for a walk after leaving the school premises. I get in front of them, turn around to see who they are, and wave. I always enjoy the second or two before the students realize who I am. I may stand out as a foreigner, but it’s such a radically different appearance between how I look in a suit and when I’m in jogging pants and a T-shirt, all red and sweaty from exercise. When the girls’ expressions change from confusion to surprise and then delight and amusement, I’m satisfied.

I get back in my apartment and cool down, then cook myself a very Japanese lunch of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder. While eating I finish up a recent Rachel Maddow Show podcast and learn some extremely unimportant facts about the new head of the World Bank. I’ve grown very tired of Rachel Maddow and only watch a few of her shows here and there, but it’s the perfect thing to put on during lunch whenever I eat at home so I’ll be watching more of her over the vacation.

It’s 12:30 when I’m finished eating which leaves four gaping hours between now and the party. I’ll start by taking a quick nap, a luxury I don’t get when I eat at school. Luckily the construction workers next door are on their lunch break so it’s nice and peaceful outside.

I get up at 1:00 and then get ready for the next thing, a good old fashioned bicycle-trip to the beach. That can kill anywhere between 2 and 3 hours depending on how long I linger there, so it fits the current bill perfectly. I make another playlist for the trip, now the entire Shapeshifter CD followed by Blue Man Group, the most similar-sounding music I can think of. The weather is getting warmer but I could still use a thin jacket, so I toss one on and head outside.

The bicycle ride down to the beach is just as pleasant as it always is, perhaps a little moreso due to the weather and the fact that the wind isn’t as strong as it tends to get during the winter here. For the first time in months I find myself sweating during the ride and I even have to unzip my jacket.

I’ve found three main ways of getting to the beach, the first being the most direct way down Route 75, the way I always used to take but which has the least pretty scenery so I never do anymore. I’ve long since found longer but more aesthetically pleasing and less car-infested routes to the east and the west of the 75, and I usually take one way down and the other way back. The way to the west is slightly longer (about 50 minutes as opposed to 40) but I’ve been exploring some new options and slowly tweaking my standard route, and today I think I’ve finally perfected it. The east way still needs some work though.

When I get to the beach, it’s as un-crowded as I’d hoped. I love going in the early afternoon on weekdays because there’s almost nobody there. It’s even sparser now because it’s super-duper low tide and there’s practically nothing for surfers to work with.

About a ten-minute walk from the beach parking lot is my new favorite spot I always go whenever it’s not occupied. It’s the mouth of a river lined with concrete walls you can sit on. River mouths are sacred in Shinto, so maybe that’s why this feels like such a peaceful place. Whenever I sit there and watch the waves from the sea come up against the current from the river, it puts me in a very zen-like state-of-mind. That feeling is greatly augmented whenever the sun is shining, as in the afternoon the sun is no longer over the ocean but the sunlight can still be reflected off the river water. And no matter how old I get, there’s just something about sunlight reflecting off water that is absolutely awesome.

So I sit in my favorite spot and soak up some awe for about thirty minutes, giving “The Longest Day” another listen at one point, but my immobility lowers my body-heat and before too long the sea breeze is too cold for my comfort. I guess spring hasn’t quite hit yet.

I take the east route back to Togane, not quite as nice as the west way but more direct and easier to navigate. I try something new at the end, as that first stretch of road coming off the 126 (the main giant road in Togane that everything is on) is not too ideal and I’ve long suspected that a little pathway a bit further south might lead to a better option. I finally try this path today, and as I expected the option is much better aesthetically but way more complex. It leads through an absolutely gorgeous little neighborhood that is so distinctly Japanese I absolutely have to go back and take pictures. But there’s no straight path through it, so you have to make a bunch of turns and just use the sun to maintain your sense of direction. It all seems pretty intuitive going up, but I have a feeling trying to do it in reverse on the way down will be tricky. Still, totally worth it.

It’s 3:45 and I’m back at my apartment. So I’ve got 45 minutes to kill before I have to be back at the school. Maybe I could have a beer and get a head-start? A cold beer would be good right now, no? No, I can wait. Besides, it’s bad form. These Japanese parties are formal affairs—there’s a designated time when everyone is allowed to start drinking, and it’s called the kampai. If I were to drink before the kampai it would feel sacrilegious somehow.

In any case, there’s an e-mail from Corey in my inbox that looks like it’ll take all the remaining time I have. Something of big significance happened in his current situation which has brought about its apparent end. More evidence for our universe-balance theory. We both have days of significance at the same time but his is negative while mine is positive. Yet ironically, the person he’s saying goodbye to is someone he’s much better off without, while the people I’m saying goodbye to will be dearly missed.

The time of the party is approaching and I have to make a decision on what to wear. The safest bet is to put my suit back on, but I’m inclined to just go in slacks and a button-down shirt like I did to the Spring Concert, though this time I’ll tuck the shirt in. The other teachers will probably end up removing their jackets and ties at some point anyway, so why bring the extra baggage? Especially when it’s kind of warm out.

So I head over to the school and arrive in the parking lot just as the 4:30 song begins to play. (A short but loud little song plays at the official end of the school day all over Japan, though the song and exact time of its playing does vary slightly). T-sensei is there along with some other teachers, and I discover that we’ll be taking a bus to the location. It’s the same kind of small bus with about twelve seats that they had for the enkai back in November (my first one), but this time more than three people would be riding it.

One of the other teachers, O-sensei, makes a comment to me and T-sensei translates. “He wants to know if you’re already drunk.” Apparently I look drunk because my face is red. I laugh and explain that I’ve been out in the sun all day. I didn’t get burned but there is a significant tan now. But I should have had that beer before if I’m going to be suspected of drunkenness anyway.

When we get on the bus I comment to T-sensei that she’s the only English teacher staying at the school. She apparently feels just as strange about it. It doesn’t usually work out like that. She knows they’ll be getting two more full-time teachers and two more part-timers, but doesn’t know who they are or which grades they’ll teach. She doesn’t even know which grades she’ll teach. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet, but the Japanese education system is weird.

On the bus ride to the place I think about the replacements. It’s ironic that I was so happy when I got the news that I’d be staying with my school, but most of the people I work with at the school will be different. I really lucked-out in a big way by getting this school, as so many conversations with so many other ALTs has repeatedly made clear to me. Almost everyone has a problem with at least one or more of their JTEs, but I can hardly complain about any of mine. The worst I can say about any of them is that they’re not as helpful as they could be, but all things considered they’ve been wonderful. The likelihood that out of four new teachers, all four of them will be just as good is low. I’m sure I’ll be able to work with anybody, but my biggest fear is that I’ll get someone who just wants to use me to recite textbook passages and prevents me from doing the kind of fun game-oriented lessons I like to do. I would hope in such a situation that the students (assuming it’s second- or third-grade) would rebel and demand the same kind of lessons Kyle-sensei used to teach last year, or at least that T-sensei or another faculty member would kindly explain that I can be far more useful than a human tape-recorder (which is what many ALTs are).

The bus ride is just a short ten-minute trip to another part of Togane, a traditional Japanese somethingorother (don’t know the word but it’s not ‘restaurant’) near the train tracks. As I go inside I can tell this is the most authentically traditional Japanese place I’ve ever been. Tatami mats, shouji doors and all that, as well as full-makeup-and-kimono-clad whathaveyous (don’t know the word but it’s not ‘waitress’) who provide both service and entertainment. The Japanese have been holding events just like this for thousands of years.

The set-up. The entry.

But it’s not too different from the other two enkais, just the most authentic. While those were hotels or restaurants that had party-rooms like this, the entire establishment was for the party-room. There’s a lobby downstairs where you remove your shoes and put on slippers to take upstairs to the foyer of the main party room where you remove the slippers. My feet are apparently too big because I have some trouble keeping the slippers on on my way upstairs, which amuses people.

I’m told where to sit when I get to the party room, luckily right next to T-sensei because I have an idea for next school-year I’m planning to run by her. Maybe now would be a good time while we’re waiting for everyone to file in. Nah, she’s busy reading the little booklet they have with pictures and biographies of all the departing teachers and staff. It’ll be more natural to discuss it during the socializing part of the party. Instead I ask her if it’s normal for so many teachers to be leaving at the end of the year and she said it was. I explain how it’s done in America, and can tell she’s a little jealous. I even talk about the special private school my cousins go to where the teacher sticks with one class of students throughout all twelve years of their education, an idea she thinks sounds wonderful. I ask her why they do it like this in Japan, but she doesn’t know how to explain it.

Seated on the other side of me is the young woman teacher who had that conversation about music with me at the Christmas enkai. She’s one of the second-grade teachers, as is everyone at my table. I realized a few months ago that the teachers’ room is organized by grade, and the desks of those teachers are arranged in a long table with all the other teachers for their grade. As I teach all the grades I’m seated in one of the four most central desks, in the table that happens to be for second-grade teachers so I winded up at the second-grade table for this party. The first-grade table is across the room, and the table for third-grade teachers and administrators is in the right-hand corner. The back table and whole left-hand corner section are apparently the seats of honor for the departing teachers and staff. Seeing this arrangement makes it clearer than ever just what a huge chunk of the school’s staff will be leaving.

My legs are already hurting from sitting Indian-style when the arrival of the guests of honor is announced. Everyone stands up and applauds as all the departing teachers and administrators enter the room and take their places. What follows is about 30 or 40 minutes of speeches, as each of them gets up and says their formal goodbyes to the school.

The secretary's goodbye speech.

I’m not the only one with a camera this time. Another teacher comes out from behind his table to kneel in a good location to take pictures of each of them as they give their speeches. I’m a bit too self-conscious to leave my place so I can’t really get good pictures of the teachers seated against the wall, but when Y-sensei speaks I can’t resist following the other teachers’ lead and coming out to kneel in a good spot for a farewell shot. I remain kneeling respectfully through her whole speech, which is incredibly painful, but as S-sensei is next I wanted a shot of her as well. Y-sensei’s voice is cracking a little during this speech like the one she gave at the school, but I think she’s feeling a little better at this point. She’s already said goodbye to the students and the building. All that remains are colleagues.

Y-sensei S-sensei

S-sensei’s tone is far less emotional, and as soon as I get a picture of her I quit kneeling and head back to my seat for the relatively less-painful Indian-style. When H-sensei speaks a little later, I do the best I can from where I’m at. But when A-sensei speaks I just don’t have a chance. I now get the idea to get a picture with me and all of the English teachers at some point during the party.

A-sensei is the last to speak, and the Japanese serving women have already been preparing the drinks. (I’ll just refer to them as geishas from now because that’s what they looked like. For all I know they were actual geishas.) When the speeches are over a bunch of the faculty gets up to help the geishas distribute beverages, of which there are two basic sorts. A pink non-alcoholic cocktail thing and beer—Ashahi Dry—which happens to be my favorite Japanese beer. Yay…I guess. I miss German beer.

Moment of kampai. The geishas take a bow.

Kampai time. I clink my glass with T-sensei and the teacher next to me and begin drinking. Then I sit back down and get started on the eating as well. Another smorgasbord of bizarre-looking fish-related food items is spread out before me. This weird fish thing is decent. This other weird fish thing isn’t, though it’s probably some kind of delicacy. Ah, here we go: sashimi—an animal I know. A little soy, a little wasabi…good stuff. The geishas come to top off my beer and light the soup-bowl thingy to get it cooking, and I attack this other soup-bowl thingy filled with god only knows what but it sure is weird. There’s what looks like purple slime wrapped in a leaf—I ask T-sensei if you’re supposed to eat the leaf. She laughs and says some people don’t but to give it a try. The other teacher next to me asks how it is. “Interesting,” I say in Japanese. That would be the word. None of this food is delicious, it’s just interesting. It would seem that interesting is much more expensive than delicious.

Speaking of which, do I have that 6,000 yen I’m supposed to be paying for this? The teacher next to T-sensei is collecting and would like it now. Here you go. Another 70 bucks spent on exactly the kind of thing I should be spending my money on. Still, maybe next year we could have our enkai at Mos Burger? Or maybe Denny’s—they could use the business.

So now is the perfect time to run my idea by T-sensei. It’s something I’ve been considering ever since I started this job, but I hadn’t resolved to actually try it until the end of the school-year. Whenever students approach me and try to communicate outside of class, they usually end up learning something that is far more likely to stick in their minds because it’s used in the context of an actual conversation. Conversation practice is the best way to learn things and to get good at speaking another language, but the students almost never get any actual chances to speak and when they do it’s a speaking test and they’re all nervous about it. A chance for informal, casual conversation would be invaluable to students and I’d like to offer that as an optional after-school activity.

My explanation to T-sensei is much more simplistic than all that, but she likes the idea right away. One thing that’s always prevented me from asking before is my doubt that any students would actually want to take advantage of something like that, but T-sensei tells me she hears from many students about how they wish they had more opportunities to practice speaking. My idea is to have a sign-up sheet so students can come on days of their convenience and with whomever they want, probably 1-5 students a day. If nobody signs up, the experiment will be over.

The other reason I haven’t been sure about this is that the students’ English is so bad that carrying on any kind of conversation could be like pulling teeth. But I taught beginners in Germany so I know it can be done, and those lessons were 90 minutes or more. I’m thinking 20 minutes is enough for this. Also, the practice can go both ways. I’ll help them with their English and they can help me with my Japanese. We’ll talk about basic things like hobbies and likes/dislikes, and we’ll do everything in both English and Japanese which will also go a long way to reducing the inherent nervousness anyone has in speaking a language you’re not good at to a native speaker. If I’m messing up so much, it’s okay for them to mess up too.

You get the idea, as does T-sensei. She agrees to help me figure out putting something like that together next year and so it’s resolved.

The party goes on. There’s more eating and drinking, more geishas refilling my tiny beer glass every five minutes, and more casual conversation with colleagues. The teacher to my right, the young woman who speaks a little English, strikes up another chat with me about music like she had at the Christmas party. She says she’s going to a music festival in Chiba the day after tomorrow. There are a couple of punk rock bands like The Offspring and Sum41 that are currently touring Japan. This amuses me and I explain to her how those bands were popular in the 1990s when I was a student and punk was relatively new. I can’t believe that was almost two decades ago and punk is practically classic rock now. Man, I’m getting old.

The chat with this woman—curse me for not knowing her name—goes on for awhile, and it’s good practice for the conversation-practice I hope to have to with students next school-year as we’re doing whatever we can with our small amounts of English and Japanese but still managing to communicate pretty effectively. I can even talk about Germany and explain their whole issues with national pride which she’s curious about, but she unfortunately doesn’t offer me any insight on how the Japanese feel about their role in the war. I just get the feeling it’s even less talked-about than in Germany.

N-sensei comes to sit next to me and chat for awhile like we did at the previous enkai. He brings me a flask of sake and offers to pour me a shot. I gladly accept and drink it down, enjoying its pleasant smoothness. N-sensei explains that it’s 20% alcohol. That’s good because I can tell some of the other teachers are already buzzed and I need to catch up.

I’m worrying that the party will end without my having had a chance to get that picture with all the English teachers, and I’m able to tell N-sensei easily enough what I have in mind. Shashin to zenbu eigo no sensei ga hoshii desu, which directly translated word-for-word is “picture with all English teacher want is”. That’s how they talk. It’s amazing they understand each other at all.

But N-sensei understands me perfectly and endeavors to help me assemble the English teachers for this photograph. T-sensei loves the idea as soon as she hears it. I think she wants to have that picture too. A-sensei agrees and we’re just about to approach the other three when the geishas get up on stage to begin a little performance. Bad timing. “Atto tabun,” A-sensei says: “After maybe”.

Geisha rock band. Feels like Japan.

I go back to my seat and eat a little more of this food that just keeps coming and coming, and watch the performance. I-sensei comes over to me at this point to keep me company because everyone else is off chatting. (You may recall I-sensei from the infamous Lot Key Incident). The redness of his face indicates that he’s clearly been drinking his fair share, and he pours a few more shots of sake for me to help me along.

Time to give the picture thing a second try. We’ve got T and A and H, but S and Y are both engaged in serious conversations with other teachers (isn’t it convenient their names all start with different roman letters?) One of the departing part-time male teachers was full-on crying his eyes out to Y-sensei, the most emotional display I think I’ve ever seen from a Japanese male. That’s the magic of alcohol for you—drink enough and the mask really does come off. I reflexively snap a picture while the other four of us wait and see if maybe we should come back later. One of the other male teachers walks by and looks at the crying teacher and jokes to me that I should take a picture, to which I reply that I already did.

Sensei sadness. Left-to-right: H, K, A

So the picture will have to wait yet again, but in the mean-time I’ll get one with H-sensei and A-sensei, the two first-grade JTEs. A-sensei was only there for the final stretch of the year because the original first-grade JTE mysteriously left the school-year shortly before December. No one offered me an explanation about that so I’ll never know why. In any case, she struck me as a somewhat joyless person, even moreso than most Japanese, so I wasn’t very sad to see her go. A-sensei by contrast is extremely warm and friendly so it sucks that she’s disappearing so quickly.

Now it’s time for the final official event of the enkai, as each of the departing teachers and faculty members stands up once again, not to give a speech this time but to have a speech given about them by a faculty member who knew them best. Some of these speeches are serious, like the one the vice principal gave about the other vice principal T-sensei (whom I’ll now call Ta-sensei to distinguish from JTE T-sensei), while some of the speeches are just poking fun. One of the teachers puts everyone in hysterics. It was clearly a joke-speech from start to finish. I wish I could have understood it.

Vice principals' speech. Speech for Y-sensei.

When that’s over I get up to use the bathroom as the geishas distribute one last food item: ice cream. I return to discover that I didn’t get any ice cream while everyone else did. WTF? Oh well, it’s nothing worth complaining about. I just won’t leave a tip…

Oh wait, it turns out those speeches were not the actual last event. That would be the singing of the school song, and now that half the teachers are half drunk, it’s the most rousing and enthusiastic rendition of the song I’ve ever heard (though that’s still not saying much). I sacrifice some of my camera’s rapidly draining battery life to get a video of it.

Okay, now can we get this picture taken? I also really want to say one last goodbye to Y-sensei, so hopefully I’ll be able to kill two birds. After some brief confusion we finally manage to get T, A, H, S, and Y all together behind the table. The only problem: there’s no one to take the picture. But we call someone over, a teacher I barely know at all, and he agrees to take the picture. T-sensei then hands him her camera to get one for herself, as I notice that the picture he took didn’t come out well at all so I adjust the camera and he does it again. The picture still isn’t great, but I’ll take it.

This year's English crew. 

After that I turn to Y-sensei and start my goodbye. “I will really miss you.”

“I will miss you too,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet another ALT as nice as you.”

“Oh thank you,” I say. “You were such a great help to me in the lessons.”

“I really enjoyed your lessons!”

“Thank you.”

“I hope that one day we will both work at the same school together.”

Chances of that are infinitesimal, but I say, “I hope so.”

A bow and an arigato goziamashita are exchanged, and that’s that. On the scale of goodbyes, that one wasn’t too bad. I’m just glad it’s over with.

Now it’s back outside after retrieving my shoes and bidding goodbye to the geishas. This party is only half-over. The formal half is finished, and now a bunch of people will go to a karaoke bar for just good old-fashioned karaoke fun. I have no idea how many, but this twelve-seat bus is actually full now. There are enough designated drivers (i.e. people who never drink anyway) to give rides to the rest of the people who want to come.

It’s a ten minute drive to the place, which is just a short distance down the road from the school. And look, there’s my apartment. Hello, apartment. I’ll be back soon. Then this endless day can actually end.

But first…karaoke time. This is a different place from where I went the first time, with that crowd of ALTs and Japanese girls after Ben’s Christmas Party. It looks a little bigger, and when I go inside I discover we’ve reserved the biggest room in the place. Ta-sensei leads me in and sits by me in the corner. Like most of the teachers he’s normally very serious, but now he’s buzzed and acting much more human. We talk in Japanese a little as the other teachers and staff file into the room. He compliments me on my Japanese and says he can’t believe I’ve only been here since August. I feel like I should be much better by now, but I appreciate him saying that.

Karaoke room. When half the seats are filled with still more coming, I realize this is not like the other after-parties at the other enkais where only the hardcore drinkers attended. Everyone was coming to this one, and I mean everyone. I don’t think there’s anyone from the formal party who hadn’t come to karaoke. Even all five JTEs are here including Y-sensei. Seeing people one last time whom I’d never thought I’d see again must have been the theme of the day.

What follows is madness on a grand-scale, as I finally discover what all those other ALTs were talking about when they went on about how wild and crazy their colleagues can get at an enkai. Drinks are ordered by show of hands and distributed haphazardly, occasionally with someone getting something they didn’t order but would drink anyway. Several of the song-selection devices are Croon it like you mean it.being passed around and a playlist of songs is growing. When a song begins the microphone is handed off to whomever and they sing to nearly constant clapping along and even woo-wooing when a line is sung particularly skillfully. Yes, actual woo-wooing. It boggles my mind that these are the same people I work with every day.

The vibe hits even those teachers who aren’t drinking, and from their behavior you’d never know they weren’t drunk.

As I look around I can’t help but appreciate that another one of my major goals for Japan has been met: to see them at their most relaxed and enjoyable state. This is every bit the distinctively Japanese cultural experience I’d hoped to have in this country, and it may have taken until the very end of the school-year but it’s finally happening.

Another T-sensei, one of the guys I went out to the bar with after the Christmas enkai, comes up to sit by me and strike up a chat. And what’s this? It’s actually about something I can’t share publicly! Wow, a conversation with a Japanese colleague that’s too risqué to write about—that doesn’t happen very often.

Karaoke fever. Another teacher asks me if I’d like to sing, and I’m not too reluctant about agreeing. I used to think I’d never do karaoke but the mood of the place makes it impossible to resist. The teacher who had been crying earlier is now significantly drunk and dancing like an idiot in the front of the room to everybody’s wild approval. Clearly there’s no chance of embarrassment in this environment.

All the songs so far have been Japanese but he helps me work the selection-device to pick an English song. I’ve actually been pondering what to pick the whole time but it’s hard to decide. It should be something fun and something everyone knows. I know that Japanese people like The Beatles and Queen, so I ultimately decided to go with Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s too bad my camera battery died while attempting to take a video that would adequately capture the atmosphere (the one I got doesn’t do it much justice), because I would have loved to have a video of my performance. The song begins and the clamor is to get Kyle-sensei to the microphone. I’m applauded as soon as I get up to the front, just for deciding to go for it. And it turns out that Bohemian Rhapsody was a perfect choice because they all seem to recognize it. I’m surprised by the sound of my own voice as I sing. It’s actually not that bad. I guess all those times I used to sing this song at the top of my lungs when I had the house to myself in those early high school years paid off. I’m even taking it all the way up to high-register and back down again, confident enough to put some extra flare into it, which always meets with great approval. Of course when it comes to the whole “Galileo Figaro” part I can’t help but lose my place a few times, but that’s incredibly tough to keep up with. Then of course there comes the loud climax, to which I drop to my knees and do the whole head-banging thing as it right and proper for the song, and of course everyone loves it. Huge applause when I’m done. Karaoke accomplished.

After that some other teachers come up to me because they want me to sing more. We get a couple other songs cued up including Hey Jude and We Are The Champions but those songs are not to be. At 11:00 the party promptly ends, with the volume cut and everyone told to file out. I look around at all the unfinished food and beer as my 2,500 yen contribution to this event is taken. I’d say money well spent if not for the fact that so much of it was for wasted food. We must have just ordered the works, because every few minutes waitresses would come and put an entirely new platter of food on our tables, everything from chips and chocolate to ginger-snaps to salad to onion rings and fried chicken. It’s not like we needed any of it after that huge dinner beforehand. Oh well.

Now I guess it’s finally time for the final final this-is-really-actually-the-end-for-real goodbyes so I head outside and mentally prepare. One of the teachers asks me how I’m getting home and I say I can walk—my apartment is just a few blocks away—but they won’t hear of it and the next thing I know I’m in the back of someone’s car driving away without ever saying any goodbyes at all. Oh well.

So it goes. Two minutes later I’m dropped off near my apartment and I head back inside. Holy crap, now it’s over. That had to have been the longest ending ever. Ironic that the end of the ending happened so abruptly.

But it’s only 11:10. The events may be over but the day isn’t. I’d been thinking of having one last beer and listening to music before going to sleep, but I realize I’m quite drunk enough as it is and will stick to water for the rest of the night, which I spend listening to music and contemplating the events of the day.

I could hardly believe this was the same day I got up for the school’s closing ceremony in the morning. Saying my silent goodbye to A- already feels like it happened years ago.

And now I’ve said goodbye to Y-sensei and a whole bunch of other people I like but will never see again. But somehow I’m not nearly as emotional as I was after the graduation-ceremony day. I think I just used up all of my sadness about the passing of time and of people and now there’s none left. Now I’m mostly thinking about what great experiences I had this school-year and how now that I know most of the students and I really know what I’m doing, next school-year promises to be even better (depending of course on the replacements).

Was this really the longest day? No—others have been longer and felt more significant—but this one earned the title. Here’s to many more.


March 25th, 2012 No comments

Going to the Spring Concert yesterday was one of the most correct decisions I’ve ever made. Although I didn’t feel like going at all and I was nervous about once again being the only foreigner in a crowd full of Japanese students and parents, I figured it would at least be far more of a memorable activity than whatever I would have done otherwise. It actually turned out to be a really great experience.

Weirdly enough, I actually met one of my students’ parents hours before I even left. My doorbell rang around 10:00 in the morning and I opened it to find an older, not-fully-Japanese woman standing there holding Jesus pamphlets. She greeted me in Japanese but then immediately switched to shockingly great English and told me that her daughter A- goes to my school. She recognized the name on my door because apparently A- talks about me a lot. A- is (or was) a second-grader who really stands out because of her appearance. She may be partly Japanese but she looks more Indian or Middle-Eastern. In any case, she’s really friendly and apparently her mother is as well.

The mom was going around handing out invitations to some sort of Jesus-festival thingy the Jehovah’s witnesses are holding at the beach early next month. She said she’d understand if I couldn’t come if ALTs aren’t supposed to take part in religious events, and I told her honestly that I don’t know what the rules are. She asked me if I believed in God (not a question you hear very often in Japan) and I told her I believe there’s something more to the universe than what we can see, which was good enough for her. She didn’t want to keep me long so she wished me a nice day and moved on. Although I’d be seeing many dozens more students’ parents that day, she would be the only one I’d communicate with.

It was wet and grey when I got on my bike and made my way up to Togane Hall, remembering the way there from the Chorus Contest. I debated whether to bring my camera, as I was attending this event as a private individual and therefore not subject to Interac policies, but decided against it just to play it safe. I was already going to be drawing much attention by being the only foreigner there, and who knows what ideas some parents might get about the gaijin taking photos of their kids. Although as it turned out, this concern was rather silly.

I biked up the hill to get there and was sweating bullets by the time I arrived, just another thing to draw attention to myself. I didn’t wear my suit but I didn’t want to dress too casual so I wore some khaki slacks and an un-tucked button-down shirt. When I got in to the lobby there, naturally every eye turned towards me and I could almost hear them thinking, “Who’s the gaijin and what is he doing here?” but luckily there was a group of three male students there who gave me a wave when I walked in, thus legitimizing my presence. They were third-graders, recent graduates I’d assumed I’d never see again.

The students in the band were eating lunch together beyond some glass doors leading to the entrances to the main hall. Everyone else had to wait outside the doors until 1:00 when the seating would begin. Shortly before that the students finished their lunch and started filing in to the backstage area, peaking out past the glass to see who was there. A bunch of them spotted me and waved, further legitimizing my presence. It was at this point that I realized two unexpected things—the band is much bigger than I thought it would be, and it was almost all-female. While I’d expected little more than a dozen students, the number was closer to fifty, and all but two of them were girls. Also unexpected but a much welcome surprise was that many of them were third-graders I’d thought I’d never see again.

When it finally came time to go in, I took a seat in the front row of the section just behind the orchestra seats. When M- wrote out the invitation she’d said the time was 1:00 p.m. but that was actually just the seating time. The concert started at 1:30, so there was an entire half-hour of just sitting and waiting.

But while I was sitting and waiting another group of girls came in and spotted me, about ten of them and mostly third-graders including one (yet another “A-”) whom I’d been particularly fond of and had been sad to lose forever at graduation. She’d been one of the students assigned to clean up the teacher’s room during the afternoon cleaning-time for the first half of the school-year, so I saw her every day and she tried to communicate with me more frequently than most students. She was as glad to see me again as I was to see her, and she even came up and asked to take a picture of me.

She and the other students sat in the very front of the orchestra section, where almost nobody else was sitting. For the rest of the half-hour waiting time, occasionally a few of them would look back and wave to me and giggle, especially one second-grader whom I’m fairly certain has a crush on me. At one point A- came back up to me and handed me her camera, asking me to take a video of her during a particular number, as apparently this group of girls wasn’t in the brass band but would be performing in a special piece at the start of the second half. So she left her camera with me and I pondered the irony of not having brought my own.

The second-grade A- whose mother I’d met earlier also came and walked by me, though she was just there to watch and her mother wasn’t present. But I told her in Japanese that I’d met her mother earlier, which caused a few heads to turn my way. Still, none of the other parents attempted to speak to me.

At 1:30 the school principal came to say a few words and then the concert got started. The first half was pretty basic, exactly the kind of thing I expected from a junior high school brass band concert. With Ms. S- conducting, they went through a series of short classical music pieces, none of which I recognized. It wasn’t the London Symphony Orchestra or anything, but they were okay. One student or another would often mess up and you’d hear a spectacularly wrong note here and there, but for the most part they sounded pretty good. Probably better than most American middle-school bands sound, as I imagine these kids are a bit more dedicated.

There was a ten-minute break, and then the second-half started with something completely different. The students had changed out of their school uniforms and into jeans and matching T-shirts, such a radically different appearance than what I’m used to, and the group of ten girls who’d been seated during the first half were now joining the others on stage for a piece called “Joyful Joyful”. It started with a couple of those girls singing solos, and while I think it was an English song I couldn’t really be sure because their pronunciation was severely distorted. I was recording the whole number for A-, and when the first half of the song was finished it became a much faster dance number, with A- as one of the two lead dancers. One of the third-grade boys showed up on stage dressed in a ridiculous costume like a sorcerer and did a rap which also may or may not have been in English.

The rest of the second half was somewhat more traditional but still much faster and more fun than the first half. I couldn’t believe how much work and thought had been put into the show. Students were frequently going off to change into different costumes and do little performances in between and during songs. None of it was comprehensible to me but it was definitely entertaining. They even had a couple of kids in full-on character-suits like those guys at Disney Land, but with Japanese characters from cartoon kids’ shows. At one point the principal even came out in a cheesy samurai costume and sang a little solo. That in itself would have been worth the price of admission (by which I mean time, as the concert was free).

Then things took a turn for the very sad near the end, as Ms. S- took the microphone and while some of the students played some light music in the background, she called all of the departing third-graders to the front of the stage, and they were all given flowers and took a bow one by one. Just like at graduation, there were tears in some of their eyes. So once again I got to contemplate how I’d probably never see these people again, though it was different this time because now I was seeing a bunch of people again that I’d thought two weeks ago I never would. They may not be a part of my school and therefore a part of my active life anymore, they’re still around. I occasionally spot students out and about, and while the odds of my seeing any one particular student again are very slim, the odds are good that I’ll at least see some of them around.

After those goodbyes there was one more piece with instruments, and then all of the students stood in a line in the front of the stage to sing one last song. Moving my eyes from student to student I considered whether this was the last time I’d ever see them or if I’d have another year or two before the final end. At least now I know that next year, for these second-graders, the actual last goodbye won’t be graduation but the Spring Concert.

On my way out of the main hall I was greeted by Mrs. T-, who was there with her two little daughters, one girl of about 3 and another in her arms about 1. It was very strange to see her in the role of mother. I’ve spent the better part of a year working alongside her and I’ve never seen her in that context before.

Just like after concerts and plays in my school-days, all of the students who’d performed were lined up outside the main hall on the way out the door. I was quite happy about that, as this gave me the perfect opportunity to go right down the line and greet all of them personally, as well as say my actual last goodbyes to the third-graders I hadn’t had a chance to at graduation.

A- had come up to me right after the show to get her camera back, and both of us knew this was probably the actual end. She seemed to appreciate that fact as much as I did, as she put out her hand for me to shake before saying goodbye. I said, “It’s nice to see you” and that was that.

But with the exception of a few third-graders, going down the line after the show was a happy experience, as all of the students gave me a warm smile and thanked me for coming. I’ll see most of them again in just a few weeks.

And that was my first Spring Concert in Japan. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but once I got settled in it felt like just another school event. The show itself was surprisingly good, and I got once last chance to see some third-graders again. The chances of my going again next year are about 1000%.


March 23rd, 2012 No comments

This school-year just keeps ending and ending. Today is the last official day on the school-calendar, and the closing ceremony just wrapped up. The students are on their way home, and the teachers are remaining behind to start doing whatever the heck it is they do between school-years, as they’ll be here during the break as well. I’ve got to stay until lunch, and then I can leave and consider my work for this school-year over.

But it just feels like one more ending in a never-ending series of endings that started with the third-graders’ graduation two weeks ago. I’ve even got something school-related tomorrow, though it’s entirely optional on my part. A few weeks ago, M- from the Speech Contest (the one who was robbed of a much-deserved victory) gave me an invitation written out in English to come see the JHS Brass Band perform a concert at the same hall where the Chorus Contest was held. It’s tomorrow at 1:00, and although I’m under no obligation whatsoever I still fully intend to go. She put an effort into making that invitation and I’ve got nothing else to do so I might as well go and make that the last I see of the students this year (at least those who are in the brass band). That’ll be another ending, but still not the very last one.

I found out yesterday that the enkai that took place after graduation was just the first of two year-end enkais, the next of which will be next Thursday. Next Thursday is apparently the actually actual officially official LAST day of the school-year, and there will be another ceremony in the morning that I’m not required to go to but I will. All of the students, even in the midst of their spring break, will be coming back for that one too. Which is really weird, but it’s Japan.

The enkai is after pay-day and located in Togane, and since it’s after pay-day and I won’t need a hotel room, I intend to go to both the formal party and the karaoke afterwards. It’ll be the last time I see the teachers who are switching schools next year, all of whom were featured in today’s closing ceremony, as they took the stage, students handed them flowers, and they each gave a short speech. I thought Ms. Y- would be leaving because of what she told me at the last enkai, but she wasn’t one of the teachers on the stage and I haven’t had a chance to ask her yet if the plans have changed and she’ll be sticking around next year. I sincerely hope so.

But once next Thursday’s enkai is over, the school-year will really finally be over once-and-for-all. Then I can look forward to a nice long break…of about a week and a half.

Yes, I’d assumed that the new school year wouldn’t start until the end of April, but I just found out moments ago from Mrs. T- that it actually starts the second week. That’s not much time between school-years. It’s only about the same duration as winter vacation. Now it feels even less like anything is come to an end. Just a very brief pause before getting started again.

In other news, I hung out with Trey last night. We went out for ramen then hung out at his place and watched a very entertaining History Channel documentary about catching Bin Laden. Trey and his girlfriend and some friends of theirs will be going to Tokyo for clubbing the weekend after next, so I’ll probably join them just for a good dose of night-life, and I’ll invite Stephen if I can so I can see him too.

I’m going to try and hang out with Ryan (the other Togane ALT) during the break because we haven’t seen each other in months and I’m wondering how his school-year went. As for the prospect of more socialization, I don’t think Ben and Fred like me very much so I won’t be bothering them. Jack and Lily are returning from their vacation today or tomorrow, so I’ll probably be seeing them again very soon as well.

The next big Interac training session for new ALTs is this week, and while I was invited by Cedric to participate that apparently fell through. I’m not exactly sure why, but the e-mail I got from my branch office informing me that I wouldn’t be going made it sound like they just had too many participants and there wasn’t enough space for me. I’ve considered e-mailing Cedric to ask him for more details, but he’s obviously going to be occupied all week and I assume I’ll hear from him again at some point. Maybe I’ll be able to go next year.

Baby building. The construction going on next door to me appears to be almost finished, which is excellent. I thought it would be incredibly frustrating to have this going on all these months, but it’s only been three months and after what I went through in Hannover I’ve hardly found this aggravating at all. I’m not exactly sure what the reasons are, but construction workers in Japan are apparently a hundred times more efficient and productive than workers in Germany. I suspect it’s more than just cultural reasons.

And finally, I jumped to conclusions after the Yakuza shooting and said that the Denny’s it took place at would be closed forever. Well, it’s back open for business now, though it never looks too crowded when I walk by. Not that I have much of a basis of comparison because I never made it a point to look inside before, but it’s entirely possible that business is back to normal or that it will get back to normal eventually, so I didn’t lose my chance to eat there after all. But now that now that I can eat there again I still don’t really want to.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Japanese Cats are Stranger

March 13th, 2012 No comments

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this in my journal yet, but there’s a construction project going on in the lot right next to my apartment building, just outside my window. For the first five months after I moved in it was an abandoned gas station, which made for a superbly quiet neighbor. Starting in January, however, all of that changed. The first couple of weeks were all demolition, and in addition to the loudness of the smashing, drilling, and beeping, it also felt like we were getting ten earthquakes a minute. Things at least quieted down a little bit after that as they laid out the foundation for the new building, but since they started building that a couple of weeks ago it’s gone back to constant noise.Next door.

I’d received notification of the project via a piece of paper passed through my mail-slot a couple of weeks before it began, but I hadn’t known what it was until the demolition started and I went back to give it a second look. Because the kanji for “construction” is very simple (工) I was able to tell that’s what it’s about, and because reading dates is easy I was able to discern that the project was supposed to last from January to April. I figured four months isn’t too bad, and knowing that there’s probably just one month left keeps me from losing my mind whenever I’m home. It mostly takes place while I’m at work anyway, though these guys work straight through dusk and I still hear them hammering for awhile even after it’s completely dark. I don’t begrudge them though—they’re working very hard and I want them to finish as soon as possible.

It also helps that I went through a much worse situation in Hannover. Shortly after I changed my apartment there, the building across the street from me underwent some kind of re-touching of the outside, replacing the brick exterior with solid concrete. This doesn’t seem like nearly as large a task as demolishing and constructing an entirely new building, but the project lasted almost 8 months and seemed to consist of nothing but loud and inconsistent drilling with no rhyme or reason to when it took place other than it always seemed to start up when I was attempting to take a nap. I didn’t work straight through the day then like I did now, so those 8 months were excruciating. When I returned home one day to find the scaffolding finally gone and the work complete, it felt like the happiest day of my life. So the current project is much easier to deal with.

Still, it’s a strong motivator to get out of the house for as long as possible on days off. Because Saturday was graduation, we had Monday off school. After jogging and eating lunch, I took my bike out for the standard ride to the beach. I would have gone regardless of the construction, but the construction definitely motivated me to take my time and not get home in a hurry.

Two unusual things happened on my trip. The first was an earthquake, which is certainly nothing unusual in itself but for the fact that I felt it while riding my bike. Earthquakes are much more perceptible on upper floors of buildings than they are directly on the ground, especially when you’re moving. Because tremors happen so frequently I know I must have been riding during a few, but I never knew for certain. Occasionally while riding I’d feel suddenly off-balance but I could always correct it quickly enough and I could never tell whether it was the ground, the wind, or just me naturally losing balance. This time I could feel my tires shifting with the ground, being knocked toward the side of the road. But still it wasn’t much of a big one, as I was able to maintain balance and keep riding through the remaining second of the quake.

The next thing wasn’t just unusual but downright weird. I cycled right by two cats standing on the side of the road and staring at each other. The fact that I rode right by them—two feet away at the most—and they didn’t so much as flinch, peaked my curiosity and I stopped a little bit further down the road to turn and observe them.

It was the strangest cat behavior I’ve ever seen. There was a black cat and a brown cat on some concrete blocks above a concrete gutter on the side of the road which was now filled with water thanks to the recent heavy rainfall. They were virtually immobile, their faces inches apart, staring at each other and softly growling. Every now and then the black cat would growl a little louder and advance slightly close to the brown cat, who was slowly inching away. Maybe it’s the anime I’ve been watching, but the idea popped in my head that these cats were some kind of reincarnated souls of samurai warriors now settling a score, and while the altercation wasn’t physical there was some hidden exchange of powers in the growling.

I also considered it might be some kind of omen, something I was meant to see and ponder like in a Japanese folk-tale. I could just picture a character in such a story describing this scene to his peers in an attempt to discern its meaning. As I was in no hurry, I decided to stay and watch until something happened, as perhaps there was some kind of meaning to be found here.

I watched for a good ten minutes, during which time only two cars and one cyclist came by, but the cats seemed impervious to any outside distraction. The black cat kept slowly advancing and the brown cat kept slowly backing away until they were on a thinner and higher block of concrete, at which point they suddenly pounced at each other with a loud hiss and tumbled together into the freezing cold gutter water. Together they leaped out of the water and onto the road, where they proceeded to stand completely still—like statues—for a solid two minutes. I noticed the black cat was injured, its neck was bleeding slightly, but I don’t know if that injury had been there before. Both cats stood completely still until another car came and shook them out of their stupor. The black cat then started walking away in my direction, until it noticed me and ran off. The brown cat took the spot that the two had been on before, and after waiting one additional minute I’d decided that was probably the end of the drama.

There was probably absolutely no point to that whatsoever, but perhaps it was a sign from the kami that I won’t fully understand until the meaning comes to me in a dream or something.

Anyway, I finished the journey to the beach only to find more strangeness there. A group of soldiers was up on the little look-out tower near the virtually empty parking lot. I have no idea what they were doing, but I didn’t stick around to observe them too long. I just walked some distance to a river-mouth I’ve taken to trekking to recently, as it’s a particularly lovely spot. I spent some time there, soaking in what little sun decided to peak from behind the clouds, then headed back to the parking-lot area where a new group of soldiers was heading up the tower.

There was a couple there with a tiny baby, sticking out quite sorely due to their non-Japanese appearance. The woman looked half-Japanese but the man was clearly a westerner. We couldn’t help but notice each other, and the woman and I involuntarily smiled at each other when we noticed ourselves noticing.

I figured I might as well say hello, and I asked them where they were from—France—and whether they spoke English—they did. I asked them if they had any idea what was going on with the soldiers and they said they had no idea, but lots of strange things happen in Japan.

The couple—Regis and Junko—were there for a month to visit her parents. It was their third time visiting Japan together, but Regis has lived all over Asia as a website designer. He said that Japan was definitely the best Asian country, but South Korea was pretty good too and I could make a lot more money teaching English there, almost double what I do now. It’s not that I’d never considered making Korea my next country of residence, but somehow in the midst of that conversation it felt clearer than ever that this is my next logical move.

They were a really nice couple and we had a nice chat, comparing our impressions of Japan as well as Europe. They actually knew where Hannover was but have never been to Germany because like most French people, Regis doesn’t like Germans. He’d never been to America but Junko had been to New York for a week, and we compared our impressions of that city too. She really liked it, and he wants to go too someday. They encouraged me to travel around Japan more, which I fully intend to do once I get some money saved. That could take a while, but I intend to be here for a while.

As for the soldiers, we could never figure out what they were up to, but our best guess was that it was some kind of survey taking place at the 1-year-later mark of the earthquake and tsunami, the anniversary of which was on Sunday. He remarked about how the Japanese are very strange, and I told him about the cats. “Didn’t you know that Japanese cats are stranger than normal cats?” he asked jokingly. “I didn’t before but I do now,” I told him.

After that pleasant little encounter I headed home, getting back at about five o’clock, which meant just a little over one more hour of construction noise before peace and quiet returned.

Back at school today, I’ve yet to really feel the absence of the third-graders, but I’ll be spending most of my time in the teacher’s room anyway. I have only one lesson today which is already over, and now I don’t have any more until Thursday when I only have two. It’s going to be long week with lots of time to kill, which gives me plenty of time to write detailed descriptions of the behavior of cats.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

The First of How Many?

March 11th, 2012 No comments

A couple of nights ago I was watching one of the last episodes of the anime series Evangelion (which turned out to be quite deep and thought-provoking) when it felt like something suddenly clicked in my brain. I’m watching the show in Japanese with English subtitles, and it was always fun to see which Japanese words I could pick out of the dialog and match to their translation on the bottom of the screen. It was usually just a handful of words here and there. But while watching this episode I noticed myself not just recognizing a few scattered words and phrases but comprehending entire sentences.

I started listening carefully to every line of dialog and pausing to read the subtitles and make sense of why these lines were translated as they are. There would generally be a few words I didn’t know, but I actually found myself understanding the majority of them. Most importantly I was able perceive the grammatical structure of the sentences and how the words and particles work together to generate their translated meaning. The interesting part was seeing how inexact the translation was, as sometimes the literal translations of the words wouldn’t correspond to the English subtitles at all, and the words on the screen were just a similar but-not-quite-identical expression. This was a bit of a rush, as now I was no longer relying exclusively on the subtitles to comprehend the meaning of the dialog, and I had a truer understanding of what these characters were actually saying than most non-Japanese anime fans ever get.

If felt like a bit of a breakthrough language-wise, like I’ve reached the next plateau of my Japanese-comprehension skills. Apparently being surrounded by the language constantly, even if you’re not always paying attention and striving to understand, really does subconsciously open the doors of comprehension.

Unrelated story—on Wednesday morning I stepped into the shower room to shave and quickly noticed that the water was not turning hot. The gas had apparently been switched off. That must have been what the letter I got yesterday that looked like a bill was about (my literacy still has a long way to go). I suffered through a freezing cold shower, then took the letter in to school to show it to Mrs. T- who confirmed that my gas had been shut off and I’d have to pay about 15,000 Yen (nearly $200) to get it turned back on. The gas company apparently doesn’t send bills with bar-codes that can be conveniently paid at convenience stores, so just like with the water bill my illiteracy led to a shut-off. Luckily, in Japan such situations are apparently not much trouble to rectify. The principal let me leave school for awhile to walk to the bank and make the payment, after which Mrs. T- faxed the receipt to the gas company who had my gas switched back on the by time I got home (at which point I’d almost forgotten it had been shut off in the first place).

But the only problem it caused was pretty much draining the rest of my bank account for the month. Whenever I get paid I keep what I think I’ll need for the month in my Japanese account and send the rest to my American bank account because that’s the only way I can pay my credit card bill, which currently has a substantial balance thanks to two recent plane-ticket purchases. Thanks to the unexpected half a years’ worth of gas all-at-once payment, I was down to almost nothing. Luckily I can rely on my parents to deposit money in my account to help me make it to payday, and I can pay them back the next time I see them.

Yesterday was graduation day for the third-graders at school, and afterwards there were two parties for the faculty. The first was a normal enkai like the ones after the Chorus Contest and before Christmas break, and the second was a less formal affair at a karaoke bar. Those who would be doing karaoke would not be driving home that night but staying at the hotel where the enkai was. I was still pretty sad about the third-graders leaving so I didn’t feel like partying at all, but I figured this is the kind of cultural experience I shouldn’t be turning down. However, the cost of the enkai was 7,000 yen (close to $100) and the cost of a bed at the hotel was another 7,000 yen. The price of karaoke would be pretty substantial as well. I was still on the fence in the morning when I stopped at the 7/11 to extract my party-money from the ATM, but I checked the balance of my American account online first and saw that my parents had not yet deposited the emergency money. I could afford the enkai but not the karaoke, so I decided to do that. I could have called my parents and asked for even more money but I figured since I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going anyway I might as well just call it fate.

The graduation ceremony itself was just as sad as I expected. The weather, like it was for the entire week, was cold and rainy, and it was freezing in the gym even with two heat-blasting fans running constantly on each side of the room. This whole March-graduation thing just isn’t natural. The end of the school-year is supposed to be warm and beautiful.

The first- and second-graders filed in first while the parents of the graduates slowly trickled in. When everyone was seated the third-graders entered two-by-two to a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, one of my favorite pieces of classical music. My heart-strings were already being tugged as I watched them enter, but I knew it would be several hours before they would leave.

There were quite a few speeches made, not just by the principal and vice principals but by members of the board of education and PTA (which in Japan is actually called the “PTA”) and I managed to avoid utter boredom by putting my Japanese-comprehension skills to the test and trying to translate as much as I could. Comprehension is not nearly as easy when you’ve got English subtitles already guiding the way, but I was pleased to discover I understood a lot more than I assumed I could. It also helped to know the context of the speeches. There was a lot of talk about the future (mirai), entering a “new world” (atarashi sekai) and whatnot. The word kibishi, which means “strict” popped up in nearly every speech, so I assumed they were explaining the value of their education-style. Of course the most frequently-used word was rei, meaning “bow”, which the students were ordered to do when every new speaker took the podium.

The speakers were seated in an “honored guest” section to the left of and facing the graduates, directly across from the faculty seating section where I stayed most of the time. Parents were seated behind the graduates, followed by first-graders and then second-graders in the back. Everyone was in their school-uniforms—no caps and gowns apparently—but some of the third-grade teachers were dressed in traditional Japanese clothing that looked like what geishas and samurais wear.

After the speeches, the first and second graders sang one of their songs, then the third graders turned around to face their parents and sing one of theirs. They then took the stage and sang one final song before walking two-by-two through the split in the seats to the back of the gym and out the door, their final exit as the first- and second-graders sang a very sad song. I stood by the exit and watched them all go, and this was by far the most emotional moment of the day. Some of the students—mostly the “cool” boys—had smiles on their faces, but many of the students, both girls and boys, had tears in their eyes. A few were outright bawling.

It made me think back to my middle-school graduation and what it felt like once the reality of this absolute ending finally started to hit just before the ceremony. I understood exactly what those kids were going through—once they walked out that door it would be over. Done. Finished. Nothing but memories lodged firmly in the inaccessible past. Damn this universe and its temporal mechanics.

One of the two final students to leave was the girl who had been crying hysterically at the Chorus Contest (the one who won the best conductor award), and as she turned around to face the gym one last time and take the ceremonial final bow it looked like tears actually leaped from her eyes at that instant. It was as appropriate a final image of this group of third-graders as I could have hoped for, I guess.

As for me, my eyes were moist but I never completely lost it. I nearly did when the last girl took that final bow, but I held it together. After that things got kind of hectic as the first-graders left to take their chairs back to their classrooms and the second-graders were instructed to get the auditorium back in order.

A set of parents came up to me, asked me in Japanese if I was “Kyle-sensei” and I said hai. They told me who their daughter was, I made clear that I recognized the name, and they thanked me for giving her that CD. I gave them a nice “your welcome” (dou itashimashite) and that was that. Apparently one girl was so grateful that she expressed it to her parents who were so taken by her gratitude that they felt obliged to express their gratitude to me. That alone makes the entire CD-burning thing worth it.

Only one other set of parents approached me. The parents of A- from the Speech Contest whom I’d met there. They thanked me for helping their daughter win second-place and I thanked them for thanking me. Later I came to wish I had told them how smart and wonderful I think their daughter is, which I could have done in Japanese, but I just didn’t think of it at the time. I’ll probably regret that forever because I’ll probably never see A- again, but so it goes. I’d assumed there’d be more student-parent-teacher mingling after the ceremony and I’d be able to say my most significant goodbyes then, but that was not to be. I’ll know better next time.

I helped the second-graders pack the chairs away, simultaneously thanking my lucky stars that I get to spend another year with them and dreading the gut-wrenching experience it will be when I have to watch them walk two-by-two out the gym doors next year. Because first-grade lessons are not every week and the third-grade lessons tapered off that the end, I’m already more familiar with them than the rest of the school. I don’t think I’ll be able to contain myself during that silent sayonara.

But life goes on, as did the day. I spent the afternoon in the teacher’s room reading old journals and reflecting on all the ways in which life changes and how it stays the same, then went home at 4:15 to put my stuff away. On the way out there was a group of about twelve third-graders hanging outside the gates of the school taking final pictures of their group of friends in front of the school, and they asked me to get in some of their shots. That was nice, and it was to be the last interaction I’ll ever have with that class of students at the school.

I returned to the school at 5:00 to hitch a ride to the hotel where the enkai was at, a hotel near the beach about 35-minutes away.

This was much more of a traditional Japanese-affair than the Christmas enkai, so I’m glad I brought my camera. It looked almost exactly like the enkai after the Chorus Contest with the tatami mats and traditional Japanese cuisine spread out over two long tables. It was easy to see why the cost was so high—this was quality cuisine. And as intimidating as it looked, most of it was rather delicious.

The set-up.

Nihonshoku Not the luckiest fish in the sea.

As usual, the party began with the pouring of drinks and the kampai, then about an hour of just eating, drinking, and mingling. This is when I got the most traction of my newfound Japanese confidence, as I was able to communicate more effectively than ever with my Japanese colleagues in Japanese. Of course, Ms. Y- was seated next to me and there to help if help was needed, but we didn’t need it very often. I was able to discuss things like the differences in climate between Chiba and New York, my impressions of the graduation ceremony (kanashi to samui: “sad and cold”) and even my reasons for not eating beef or pork.

Speech... ...kampai.

Half-way through the party, every third-grade teacher was invited up to give a short speech. They talked too informally and quickly for me to really understand, but one of the teachers broke into tears while speaking and apologized for losing her composure. It was a touching moment, and at least confirmed that even teachers who’ve been doing this for years can still have trouble letting go.

Mingling. Chowing down.

At one point one of the vice principals came up to me and with the help of Ms. Y- ask me what I thought of graduation and how I was finding life in Japan. After I answered him completely in Japanese, he said to Ms. Y- that he “hopes all Americans are like me”. I thanked him sincerely for that. It might just be the nicest compliment I’ve received from a superior since my school-days.

Speaking of which, one of the thoughts that occurred to me yesterday while I had the entire concept of junior high school on the brain is just how outstanding a time of my life that chapter was for me. I started middle-school as a new student in a K-8 school, and my excessive honesty (telling people I’d rather be a girl than a boy) instantly cast me down to the bottom of the social ladder, as unpopular as one could possibly be. But slowly and gradually over the course of three years the other students started accepting me just because of the force of my personality. By the end of my third-year I was on top my whole little world, known to everyone due my starring role in the school play, and chosen Distinguished Student of the Year. When I was called to receive my award in the final assembly I was greeted by wild cheering from the entire school. It was one of the most triumphant times of my life.

It’s no wonder I’m so attached to these kids. This past year has got me seriously thinking about becoming a middle-school teacher in America, or at least an English-speaking country where I’ll be able to really communicate with and thus have more of an impact on the kids. I still want to live in more parts of the globe first, but it’s definitely a life I can envision for myself, now more than ever before. Kind of funny how life works out like that—when you asked me in middle-school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said “middle-school teacher.”


At the end of the enkai we all stood up and sang the school song, which I hummed along to now that I know the melody. I’d like to learn the words though, and I asked Ms. Y- if she could write them down for me to study, which she agreed to. Incidentally, she’s been at this school for 8 years, so she has to be moved to a different one next year. That sucks because I really like her and she’s a great partner in the classroom, so there’s another farewell to look forward to. She was very intrigued when I explained how teachers in America remain at the same school for their entire lives.

The party ended and I was driven home by a teacher who speaks no English whatsoever, but when we got near the school I was able to give him directions to my apartment in Japanese and he dropped me off. As I went inside I knew I was missing an interesting karaoke experience, but it also felt appropriate to be alone with my thoughts.

I was significantly sad, but this afternoon the sun came out and I went for a jog and a bike-ride, just being in the moment.  All moments end and you never get them back, but the fact that you can’t is what makes them beautiful.

Graduation Blues

March 9th, 2012 No comments

The school-year never raced by so quickly when I was a student. Granted I started teaching a third of the way through, but it feels like September was just a few weeks ago. I was just getting familiar with the third-graders but now they’re all about to leave.

In Japan, not only does the school-year end in March but it ends earlier for graduating students than others. The graduation ceremony for the third-graders is tomorrow, but the first- and second-graders still have another two weeks to go. After tomorrow, an entire third of the school’s population will have just disappeared.

This is something I’m going to have to get used to as a teacher. You meet hundreds of kids, get to know some of them to some degree, grow pretty fond of a few, and then they go away and you never see or hear from them again. It almost makes me want to write to some of my middle-school teachers just to be the exception.

My third-grade lessons just kind of petered off and died in the last couple of weeks. The schedule got shifted around due to the year-end exams and a bunch of lessons were cancelled so there were some classes I literally didn’t see for a month and never had a “last lesson” with. Of the few I had, I was usually just doing a game for half the class because the JTEs wanted time for test-preparation. At the beginning of this week I found out that the third-graders would be doing pretty much nothing but graduation-practice all week and there would be no more lessons with them. A double-pity, as not only would I not get the closure of a final lesson in the awareness of it being the final lesson, but the game I spent a great deal of time preparing will just have to be shelved until the end of next year.

But sentimental schmuck that I am, I just had to have my last goodbyes. I thought about writing a little note to each third-grader but there being 204 of them, most of whom I’m still not that familiar with, that would be far too difficult. I went to a 100-yen shop (like a dollar-store) in search of some cheap little present I could buy in bulk and give to all the students with a spoken goodbye, but there was nothing that fit the bill. The only bulk-present that seems to work is a CD like I made the students for Christmas. So I decided to do that again. I picked up another load of blank CDs and spent two days and nights pretty much burning continuously. I went in a different direction with the song-selection this time, as instead of just picking things I’m particularly fond of I went with more happy dance-type music. I realized that the first CD was largely made up of very depressing songs, so I wanted to correct that imbalance a little and give the students something they’re more likely to enjoy.

The problem was finding time to actually distribute the things. I asked Mrs. T- about going at the end of the lunch period on Wednesday through Friday (2 classes each day) and she asked Mrs. S- but they said there wouldn’t be enough time, and with the exception of Thursday they’d all be going home right after lunch anyway. Mrs. S- suggested I just say farewell to all of them at the last assembly Friday morning and give the CDs to their teachers to distribute, but that was so cold and impersonal as to ruin the entire point.

But yesterday I just went ahead and took a bag full of CDs to the third-grade classrooms at the end of the lunch period and handed them out to the students I wanted to give them to and anyone else who wanted them. There wasn’t enough time for an individual goodbye to everyone, but this worked out well enough. The students were very happy and grateful to get another present from their ALT and I at least got to say goodbye to each individual class (or groups of students who were out roaming the hallways). Most students just took the CD with a casual “thank you” but some were positively beaming. In any case, it was enough to make it worth the effort.

On Tuesday I was greatly relieved to get a contract from Interac in the mail specifying a new period of employment from March 2012 to March 2013 with the Togane board of education. It wasn’t certain until that moment that I’d be staying at the same school, but now that contract is signed and delivered back to them the deal is officially sealed. I guess the board of education decided they wanted to keep me around. I never had much doubt that they would, but there was always that annoying uncertainty, especially after hearing from other ALTs that Interac likes to move teachers around just for the sake of moving them around. In fact most other Interac ALTs I know change schools rather frequently, even within the same school-year. I’m having a hard enough time saying goodbye just once.

But I don’t have to bid the first- and second-graders farewell just yet. I’m currently going about my final lessons of the year with each of them. Since the textbook work is pretty much finished, I had free reign to do just about whatever I wanted with the lessons, so naturally I went about making epic textbook-spanning review games. It was nice and easy with the first-graders, as the grammar points for each chapter are almost exclusively questions and answers, such as “Where is the book? / It’s on the desk.” and “Whose pen is this? / It’s Yuki’s.” I printed 20 sheets of questions and 20 sheets of answers and made it a matching game. A student from each team stands up and picks a random number for a question and a random number for an answer and I magnetize those sheets to the board. If there’s no match, they sit down. If they see a match they call it out, I remove those sheets from the board, and that team gets a point. It’s simple enough that it requires barely no explanation, and it just happens to be pretty darn educational if I might say so myself. This is all the English they’ve learned all year, condensed into one little game, and as they search for matches they’re reinforcing everything they know as well as gaining confidence that they actually do understand it.

As for the second-graders, the grammar points were not so straightforward so I had to get a little more creative. I made the same game I prepared for the third-graders and won’t get to play with them, in which four teams compete to win programs from the textbook. The textbook has 8 regular programs (some are just stories and so contain no specific grammar points) and three grammar-points per program. I made 5 questions for each program using the grammar points, and the objective was to win a majority of the 5 possible points to win the program for your team. I magnetize a sheet of paper for each program to the blackboard and hand them to the teams that win them. To spice things up I have a picture of a random character for each program like Mario or Hello Kitty (the one for Program 9 is the favorite).

program1 program7 program9

The questions were sentences modeled on the exact grammar points to which I left two words missing, made two deliberate mistakes, or scrambled the words around. The students would have to write the full, correct sentence on the board in order to win the point. I had some difficulty figuring out the best way to pull this off, but I eventually settled on something I thought would work well and which has. After the team that won the previous point chooses which program they want to go for, I put up a printed sheet of paper with that question on the board and have the four students, one student from each team, come up and tackle it simultaneously. I actually printed two sheets for each question so I could put one on each side and thus not give anyone a proximity-advantage.

The first team to finish writing and to have the correct answer would get the point. Determining which team finishes first can be tricky, so I made little laminated cards for each team (designing the graphic was the most time-consuming but fun part of preparation) and said that the teams should put their magnetized card on the board once they finished writing, at which point they couldn’t go back and fix anything. If I stand at the right angle I can almost always tell which team finishes first. Often, the team to finish first won’t have the totally correct answer, which keeps things exciting. I let them check their textbooks for 30 seconds before coming to the board and writing (which they can begin only after the buzzer rings) but they can’t bring their textbooks with them. However—and I think this was my best idea to date—I let them bring one friend from their team to help them. That way even the less confident students could participate and have a fighting chance at winning. Every team had at least one particularly smart student, though thankfully none were dragged to the board for every single question. The boys in particular were more likely to go on their own, but if they needed help it was available to them.

yellow team sun sparkled floral explosion background rainbow sun

This is clearly my most elaborate game to date (I already regret undertaking to describe it here), and even with all the forethought there were still some kinks to work out (that 30-second preparation-time thing is something I didn’t come up with until the 3rd time). The students are confused at first but they quickly get the hang of it. But the important thing is that they have fun, and they definitely do. The inherent fairness of the game, especially with the bring-a-friend thing, results in each team winning a number of points and gets them cheering. The game has ended with virtually even scores each time so far, and I’ve had to use a tie-breaker to determine the winner. (If no team gets a majority of the five questions so you have a 2 and 2 and 1 situation, I give a spelling word from the program and the first team to write it correctly on the board wins). But the major flaw so far has been time. The periods are already condensed to 45-minutes as opposed to the standard 50, and 8 programs with 5 questions each is just too much. We barely finish half, and sometimes only 1 or 2 programs actually get finished and the winner must be determined by points alone. So yesterday I slashed two questions from each program and from now on there will only be three, which I suspect will work much better.

Naturally, this being the final lesson I figured I might as well do the same thing I did with the Christmas lesson and give CDs away as presents. I’m burning up plenty of CDs so I might as well. Only this time I’m not just giving them to the winning team but to any students who clearly exert an effort (and any student who comes up to me after class and asks for one).

That should be the last overly-detailed description of classroom activities for a very long time.

As I mentioned, the graduation ceremony is tomorrow. There was a rehearsal yesterday so I got to see how the whole thing will go down, and it’s not all that different from graduation ceremonies in America. It’s extremely formal of course, but so are ceremonies in America. The uniforms greatly augment the atmosphere of formality, but it’s still basically the same routine of songs, speeches, and the distribution of awards and diplomas.

But I would definitely venture to say that they take this a lot more seriously in Japan. They work the students hard to prepare, and I’ve been shocked by how often they get yelled at and chastised for things like not standing and bowing in perfect synchronization. They’re in the gym every day practicing their songs, and yesterday they even held every single second-grader after school for additional practice. The singing sounds perfectly lovely to me but apparently it doesn’t meet the faculty’s standards. When they don’t sing loudly or enthusiastically enough, they make them do it again. The students were supposed to go home at 3:30 yesterday but they got held until about 3:50.

I’ve been in a substantially melancholy mood all week, complemented by (and partly due to) the weather, which has been non-stop clouds and rain since Monday. Yesterday’s graduation rehearsal was particularly sad, what with watching all of the third-graders walk on stage to receive their fake-diploma from the principal and take their final bow. Junior high school is probably the greatest time of transition in a person’s life. They come in as children and leave as young adults. But for three years, this building and the people in it constitute their entire world. As of tomorrow, they are exiled from that world never to return. Another chapter of life irreversibly transformed into memory.

It makes me reflect on my own life and how many chapters I’ve left behind. Five schools from kindergarten to college, two years in California, three in Germany. There are things I miss about all of them. But time flows in only one direction, and when something is gone it’s gone forever. To beings with an awareness of time, it may just be the greatest tragedy of the universe.

But I don’t want to overstate things too much. I may be sad but it’s a comfortable sadness. This is a normal part of life. You’re supposed to feel sad at times like these.

I’ll just be relieved when the graduation ceremony tomorrow is over. Then all the goodbye-related stress will be over and there will be no more goodbyes to say. At least not until next year when the current second-graders have their graduation, and that’s going to be far worse than this. By then I’ll have spent nearly two years with these students. I’m already terribly fond of a whole bunch of them, and watching them disappear into memory is definitely going to hurt. At least with my students in Germany I could still keep in touch with them (and I have). But that won’t be the case with any of these kids. I honestly don’t know how other teachers manage to handle it, except that it’s something they get used to after awhile (and most are probably not nearly as wishy-washy sensitive as I am).

Interestingly, the teachers in Japanese schools are also just here temporarily. I found out today that teachers here don’t usually stay at the same school for more than 7 or 8 years. I don’t know why, but the government likes to move them around (sort of like Interac does with their ALTs). Even within the school, they don’t teach the same grade from year to year. As for the students, they mix up the classes after first-grade, but they remain with the same group in their second and third year. Mrs. T- couldn’t explain why they do it like that, but she told me it was normal. She said she’ll probably stay at this school next year but she doesn’t know what grades or classes she’ll teach.

Tomorrow evening there will be another party for the teachers, this one at a hotel near the beach. After the initial party some teachers will be going out for karaoke, and regardless of my mood I intend to join them and probably sleep at the hotel. I’m not really looking forward to it as I’m in no mood for a party, but it’s a worthwhile experience that I can’t pass up. I’ll just be glad when it’s over and the rest of the school-year unceremoniously fades away.

There are a few more random non-school related things to mention, but this post is already far longer than I’d intended (as usual) so I’ll save them for next time, once the saddest week of the year is finally over.

On the Brink of War with Iran

March 6th, 2012 No comments


While the day-to-day sideshow of the presidential primary and other sensational stories keep us distracted, the most important thing happening in the world today is scarcely getting any attention at all. The U.S. headlines remain dominated by stories of clownish candidates and their gaffes, birth-control controversies, pedophile football-coaches, celebrity deaths, and so on. In a sane country, every newspaper would be screaming the same question on Page One: “Will there be war with Iran?”

It might not feel like it, but we are practically on the brink of a conflict that could conceivably escalate into World War III. Something akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis is taking place behind the scenes of the great global power struggle and the agents involved are taking care to keep it as quiet as possible. Those interested in starting this war know that their situation becomes more complicated if the masses start paying attention, so the least we can do is make our awareness known.

Everybody ought to be gravely worried about this, but unfortunately people take most of their cues from news anchors and commentators, and none of them are projecting what I feel is an appropriate amount of concern. I will explain why I’m worried in the hopes that it will encourage others to express these concerns as well. This is not fear-mongering, as this is rational fear. Rational fear is what prevented nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and it’s the only thing that can stop us from a potentially disastrous war in the Middle East.

Regardless of your political persuasion, you can not deny that there are powerful organized interests who benefit financially from war. Military contractors such as those listed here have seen their budgets inflate wildly thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that those wars are dying down, could anyone honestly believe that these companies are prepared to see all of that extra revenue suddenly dissolve into thin air? The people who run these companies have all the incentive in the world to seek a justification for another war. It’s not that they’re evil—they’ve probably convinced themselves that Iran does pose a genuine threat and a war now is preferable to a war later. With billions of dollars on the line, you can will yourself into believing just about anything.

If we acknowledge that there are powerful interests who are actively trying to bring about war, the question then becomes what could stand in their way. The most obvious answer is public pressure, and after a decade of Afghanistan and Iraq the public is sick of war. The most recent CNN/ORC poll shows that regarding Iran 60% of Americans favor a diplomatic approach and only 17% would favor military force.

Compare that to the numbers in the lead-up to the Iraq war. In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans were far more supportive of military action, and virtually no effort was made to protest or lobby the government against it. Effort was expended to sell the American public on the idea of preemptive war in Iraq, and after a long period of widespread journalistic malfeasance (of which the most egregious offenses are recounted here) the war was launched with barely a word of public outcry.

Because that debacle is still fresh in the collective memory, the military contractors are barely even bothering with public opinion this time. That’s not to say they aren’t trying: just watch the major news-channels and notice that among the few stories in which Iran is mentioned, it’s almost always referred to as an imminent threat. Glen Greenwald wrote a piece last week drawing attention to how retired generals such as Barry McCaffrey have been posing as objective military analysts while at the same time participating in a Pentagon propaganda program. Greenwald reports that McCaffrey has been briefing NBC executives on the situation with Iran, basically telling them that war will almost certainly break out within 90 days and it will be Iran’s doing. The message they want planted in American minds is not that a war with Iran is desirable—they know they’ll never be able to accomplish that—but that it may be necessary.

Even if the majority of Americans are against the war, they can still safely launch one as long as the people believe they had no choice.

That means we must be prepared to be dragged into a war we don’t want, and there are two very easy ways this can be accomplished. First is to goad the Iranians into attacking one of our ships in the Persian Gulf in the hopes of provoking another Gulf of Tonkin incident (thankfully, Iran doesn’t seem anxious to take the bait). The second is to have Israel launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and wait for Iran’s retaliation. I’m particularly worried about this second possibility, as Benjamin Netanyahu is about as hawkish as they come and he has a history of acting without U.S. approval.

Luckily for us, the last thing the Obama administration wants in the run-up to the re-election is to start an unpopular war with Iran, and this week he’s no doubt pressuring Netanyahu not to strike. I have a long history of criticizing the president, but one solid reason to vote for him in 2012 is that he—whether out of genuine moral conviction or pure political calculation—will resist starting another war, whereas Romney, Santorum, or Gingrich would do everything they could to facilitate one.

Yet if Netanyahu acts unilaterally by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities and inviting a counter-attack by Iran, President Obama will have no choice but to honor the alliance with Israel and commit the U.S. military to the fight. Just consider what would happen if he refused and withheld military support from Israel. The right-wing, which has already been lambasting the president for being weak on Israel and soft on the Muslim world for three years, would come down full-force and Obama would be accused of nothing less than allowing a Second Holocaust. He’d be damned among conservatives for avoiding the war and he’d be damned among progressives for joining it (not to mention damned among everyone for the effect on gas prices), so his best hope is that it does not become an issue. But Netanyahu is no friend of Obama and neither are the military contractors. Handing him a political nightmare in an election year is just another incentive to start the war now.

And this is the point I want to conclude on: why now? Even if you believe that Iran is not a rational actor and would launch a suicidal nuclear attack on Israel if they had the capability, there is absolutely no credible person on the planet who says they have that capability now. Even the war-mongering General McCaffrey puts forward a figure of 36 months as the period of time it will take for Iran to develop nuclear weapons, though he inexplicably insists they intend to escalate towards war within 90 days. Even if you were a religious nut, why on earth would you start a war with your mortal enemy several years before you are capable of seriously harming them? An attack now would invite a counter-attack from the United States military that would destroy the Iranian government before they could even bruise Israel. The leaders of Iran might be crazy (and I don’t believe they are) but they’re definitely not that stupid. They rigged an election in 2009, and that requires at least two brain cells to accomplish.

The reasons why this war might start in 2012 are numerous. The withdrawal of our last combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 is one. The benefits of starting this conflict during an election year are another. But perhaps the most sinister is the fact that the year happens to be 2012. It’s no secret that many people with their hands on the levers of power in the world are fundamentalist Christians. Many see a nuclear conflict in the Middle East involving Israel as the spark that will bring about Armageddon, and what better year to get that started than the year the Mayan calendar ends and people are already anticipating an apocalypse? Prophecies have a tendency of fulfilling themselves, especially when very powerful people who believe the prophecies find themselves in a position to bring them to fruition.

A war with Iran will not be like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is far more powerful and capable of putting up a fight. Dozens of catastrophic scenarios are possible if we strike. Other Muslim nations, their perceptions of a Holy War being waged against them reinforced by an unprovoked U.S.-Israeli assault on a fellow Muslim country might very well get involved. Pakistan, with whom our relations these past years have been tenuous at best, might cut all diplomatic ties with us and join the fight on Iran’s side and offer their nuclear support. Iran might already have other weapons of mass destruction such as chemical or biological in their arsenal as an insurance policy for war just waiting to be unleashed. Whatever happens, millions of innocent people will die or have their lives tragically altered forever. All so a few mega-wealthy corporations can maintain their profits.

I’m not sure we can stop this. Writing to our representatives and marching in the streets will probably not be enough to block this juggernaut, but we have to be aware of what’s going on. If we can’t prevent it, at least we can be prepared for it.