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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
“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.
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 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.
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.