They say your first few months living in a foreign country is your “honeymoon period” when everything about the culture—even the stuff that later gets annoying—is new and awesome and fascinating. I’m not sure I’d even broken out of that phase by the time I left on my ill-fated summer vacation, but it’s certainly felt renewed since I’ve been back.
“Ah, there’s that forced friendliness from the convenience store clerks I missed so much!”
“Yes, I’d love to take off my shoes before entering this establishment!”
“Sweet! We’re all going to wait at this red light even though there are no cars coming at all!”
And so on.
There also might have been a bit of a renewed appreciation for me on the part of my students, but it’s hard to tell because they were always so warm and friendly before anyway. But I definitely have noticed that some students who never gave me much love before are now all of a sudden smiling and waving at me every time I see them, so that’s certainly a nice bonus.
The lessons themselves haven’t been much different though. Perhaps the second-graders are a bit more enthusiastic than they were before, but that could easily be because this week all I did was play games with them, and it’s hard to go wrong when games are the only item on the agenda. I did start each lesson with a brief explanation, translated through O-sensei, of why I was stuck in America for so long, complete with a few pictures to illustrate. The pictures of me in my Domino’s uniform and of me in Times Square with Mickey Mouse both had the desired effect.
Next week will be a bit more challenging. The material they gave me to work with wasn’t exactly the most conducive to fun and excitement.
For the first-graders all I’m supposed to do is review verbs in preparation for teaching them third-person form next week (I find it absurd they’re just learning that now), which at least gives me enough lee-way to make a fun game out of it, which I’ve modeled after baseball rules and am really looking forward to trying.
With the second-graders though, I’m supposed to prepare them for an interview test, and the interview will be about giving directions. Last year it was the third-graders who got the directions lesson, and it was one of the least-fun lessons I did. This time I’ll be trying something a bit different, drawing a big map on the board and handing out cards to the students with a direction phrase on it like, “Go straight for two blocks” or “Turn left at the first traffic light” and have them try and guide a little flash-card of Mario to the destination but they can only read the direction they have on their card so I expect he’ll be wandering around rather aimlessly for awhile until luck gets him where he’s going. I can do a pretty good Mario impression so hopefully that’ll make it fun, but then it’s just going to be the tedium of preparing for the interview test.
But the third-grade material is by far the worst. In addition to normal grammar lessons, the textbooks have lessons that are just stories or short texts, usually amusing (or supposed to be amusing) but often something serious about Japanese history. The story I’m supposed to teach this week is about three elephants at the Tokyo Zoo that the zookeepers had to starve to death during WWII so they wouldn’t escape if a bomb took out the fences.
Seriously? I’m trying to make a fun, happy lesson and the material you’re giving me to work with is dead elephants? Ironically, I’ll have a much better chance if the students don’t comprehend the story, but the whole point of the lesson is to get the students to comprehend the story. But I’ve figured out a way to make some games out of it and hopefully the spirit of competition will distract them from thinking about poor Tonky and Wanly desperately doing their tricks in hopes of being fed but getting nary a peanut or drop of water for their effort.
And speaking of competition, yesterday was the annual Chorus Contest, which I wrote about in great detail last year so I don’t have to this year. I definitely enjoyed it a lot more this year, both because I know most of the students a lot better than when I was just starting out last year and because of the second-honeymoon effect. The fact that it was a competition and not just a fun “let’s all sing songs for each other” event didn’t bother me as much this time around. Now I know there’s a Spring Concert, and that’s the just-for-fun one. If it wasn’t a competition, there’s no way some of these boys would exercise the self-discipline to practice their songs and get up on stage to sing them. But every single student got up and sang, even the “bad” students who never come to class or spend the whole time goofing around.
The songs they sang were lovely, particularly those sung by the third-graders who for obvious reasons took the competition most seriously of all. They went after lunch, and the whole time I was getting chills listening to them sing, nearly moved to tears at times as they poured their hearts and souls into it. I felt so lucky to have gotten back in time for this, and I didn’t let a moment go by without appreciating the fact that I was getting to share the experience with them.
Just like last year, when all the classes were done singing they had a few paid musicians to play some music just for fun while the judges made their final decisions backstage, and this year the three-piece band was very lively and fun. The students were clapping along and dancing in their chairs the whole time, waving their hands in the air and just having an absolute blast. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, but I couldn’t block out the awareness that in just a short time no matter what happened, a whole lot of students I really like are going to be emotionally crushed.
And that’s exactly what happened. The results were read, and from each grade there was one runner-up class and one winner. Everyone else was a loser. Yes, you did spend nearly two months practicing and preparing for this event, you did invest way more of your emotions than you probably cared to into the opinions of these two judges, but after all that you get to go home with precisely jack squat and maybe some words of comfort from your homeroom teacher which won’t mean anything because they’re obviously biased in your favor anyway. As I watched the students walk out of the auditorium, most of the them, third-graders in particular, just looked completely devastated, and plenty were crying. Even T-sensei had tears in her eyes when she left, apparently having invested as much emotion into the judge’s opinions as her students.
As for the judges, I have no idea what kind of drugs they must have been smoking before watching the show because their decisions made no sense at all. Last year I hadn’t been listening critically but this year I decided to make it a bit more fun by jotting down notes for each class in the program they handed out, giving each class a score on a scale of 1-10 (which in reality turned out to be a scale of 5-9) and then ranking them within their grade based on who I thought did the best job. The actual judges were music teachers from nearby high schools so I suppose their ears are better trained than mine, but the classes that won were those I ranked the lowest, and I’d been as objective as I could possibly be. The two third-grade classes that won were the two friendliest classes, but they clearly didn’t do nearly as well as those I put at the top, one of which is my least favorite.
What bothered me the most was 3-6, which I gave a 9 out of 10 (the highest score) and ranked at number 1, just ahead of 3-4 which is my least favorite but definitely deserved a 9 as well. I’ll confess there was a bit of bias there, as while every class in the school has students I like, the one with the highest percentage of my favorites is 3-6. They did a spectacular job though, and their lovely song had moved me deeply so I felt perfectly justified in putting them at number one.
On my way out of the building I couldn’t resist going up to their class as they stood around commiserating and showed them what I’d put on my program. Most of them didn’t notice me but one of the girls paid attention to what I was telling her and she started shouting in Japanese “We won! We won!” Confused, the others turned to her and asked her what she was talking about. She pointed to me and said that according to Kyle-sensei, their class was the winner. I showed them my program and pointed out the score and rank I’d given them, and just like that their faces lit up and they started cheering wildly. I’ve never seen such a radical split-second reversal of emotion in my life. It was fucking awesome—there’s just no other way to put it.
I couldn’t really do that with any other groups, so I got out of there and went home immediately after, but that’s definitely going down in one of my favorite school-related memories of all time. I’m sure those students went back to being depressed after I left, but at least when they went home and inevitably brooded over it, they’d be able to think that at least in one (presumably unbiased) onlooker’s opinion, their class had in fact done the best job. It won’t mean as much as the stupid high school music teachers’ opinion, but it’ll mean something.
The chorus contest is one of those school events after which an enkai is obligatory, so I had the pleasure of going to another one of those just a few hours later. Again, there’s not much new to say about these but I particularly enjoyed this one quite a bit thanks to the honeymoon effect, as this is about as genuine Japanese-culture as it gets. Floor pillows, people pouring beer into your tiny glass, all kinds of colorful seafood concoctions—the works.
I’d been told the event started at 6:00 but it turned out to have been 5:45 so I got there a bit late and everyone was already eating and drinking, but that meant I got a warm round of applause when I entered so that was a nice touch. It felt like they were officially welcoming me back into their family.
Over the course of the night I got to speak to a lot of the teachers I never get to talk to, especially now that I’m working exclusively with O-sensei. I told Y-sensei, the homeroom teacher for 3-6, what I told his students about ranking them at number 1, and he seemed almost as appreciative as they were. He said that on Monday he’s going to announce it to the whole class. I did the same for 3-4’s teacher, but I don’t really care what he does with the information.
I did most of my speaking in Japanese, naturally, except when I just couldn’t find the words, but most of the teachers at least seemed able to understand when I expressed myself in English, as I’m pretty good at finding the most basic, simple way of saying things.
I talked to I-sensei for a bit, who told me that the girls were all very excited that I was back, and jokingly asked me where my keys were. I informed him they were right in my pocket.
My only exclusively English conversations were with K-sensei and T-sensei. K-sensei asked me about finding a Japanese girlfriend and I explained to him why it’s difficult. He thinks I should have no trouble at all once I get past the language barrier.
And with T-sensei I commiserated about how terrible it was for the students who worked so hard to get no recognition. She was still in an emotional state, her eyes red with tears the whole time, but she really appreciated when I told her how great her class had done. I exaggerated a little because I’d actually ranked them 5 out of 6, but I saw no harm in that and in telling her to tell her students I thought they were wonderful. They were—I gave them a 7.5—but the other third-grade classes just outshined them. They still did better than 3-1 which got 2nd-place (6th in my book), and I was completely honest in telling her how ridiculous I thought the judge’s decisions were. She said that the principal had told her the same thing, so either he was just saying that to make her feel better or I’m not the only unbiased person who felt that way.
When our time was up I only needed to walk five minutes down the road to get back to my apartment (I wish they’d hold all the enkais at that place) and settled down to look back on what I knew the whole time would be one of the most memorable days of my life. It was fantastic to be able to share so many smiles and pleasant interactions with so many students on the same day, but terribly sad to have to see so many of them emotionally devastated. At least I was able to mitigate some of that devastation.
So with that I feel like my Epic Return is officially complete. The renewed sense of appreciation I have is still going strong, though it’s not like I needed it in the first place. I assume this second honeymoon period will wear off at about the same time the first one does, whenever that may be.