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The Never-Ending Ending

March 16th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

This March is just an endless series of goodbyes, one after another after another. It started with the third-graders, culminating in their graduation ceremony, and because I’m leaving the school is now continuing with the other two grades as well. This week I had my last lessons with all but three of the first and second-grade classes, and I’ll finish the final three on Monday.

It’s been quite an experience. I’ve never had to say goodbye to so many people at once. The only comparable time was high school (I actually knew less people in college, and most of them I continued to see after graduation), and even then it wasn’t as many, and it didn’t really feel like an absolute ending. I’d see my friends in the summer, and there were always reunions to look forward to (though I missed our 10-year reunion by about a month).

I start every class with a few rehearsed Japanese lines: “This will be our last lesson together. In April I will not return to this school. I will go to another school. It was very fun teaching you. I hope today will be fun too.” Reactions vary depending on the collective personality of each class (a fascinating phenomenon). Generally, the first-grade classes have had a much stronger reaction than the jaded second-graders, but there are usually a few cries of “Oh no!” whether genuine or in jest. Only a handful of students seemed really upset by the news, but I at least got the impression from every class that they would be sorry to see me go.

After I finish, O-sensei informs each class that she would be leaving as well, not just to a different school but a different country. This always elicits a major surprise, and occasionally laughter—which I assume has to do with their disbelief that both of us will be leaving them.

Once the opening is finished, I launch right into our final game, a variation of what was probably the most enjoyable game of the year for everyone—the draw/gesture word-guessing game. I call it “Spell, Draw, or Gesture”. I made three decks of word cards, one for each category. I split the class into two teams, and have students line up at the front three at a time. One student chooses whether to spell, draw, or gesture to make their team guess the word for a point. For spelling, the words are in Japanese and they have to spell the English word correctly to get the point. If they don’t know the word, they can pass to the next person but if the same word is passed three times, that’s three strikes and their team loses a point. Once the word has been guessed the student sits down and the next person gets up to stand in the line, making it progress very swiftly. Each team goes for three minutes at a time, and we continue until about five minutes before the end of the period.

Because of the success of my previous word-guessing game, I knew the students would like this one and they all definitely did. The game moves swiftly enough that each students gets two or three turns in the spotlight before the time is up. It’s a nice structure for a final lesson for me personally, as I get to focus on each individual student for a moment or two and appreciate whatever it is about them there is to appreciate.

Once the time is up, O-sensei gives her goodbye speech, followed by me. I don’t give the speech I gave to the third-graders—I’ll give that during the school’s final closing ceremony on the 29th—but I have a different sort of farewell. I had a bunch of extra CDs I made for the third-graders, so first I tell each class about them and say that if any student wants one they can just come ask me, either in the teacher’s room or in the “Kyle-store” after school.

The next part is my favorite. Signing the seniors’ yearbooks had been such a pleasant experience and knowing I was able to give personal messages to nearly all of those kids motivated me to write messages to every other student as well. Last weekend I went to the stationary store and picked up a bunch of notepads with cute designs—things like Mickey or Hello Kitty or other various characters—and set about writing a little note to every student in every class. Most of the notes are some variation of “I hope you enjoyed my lessons. It was fun to teach your class. Good luck in the future!” but for a great deal of students I made it more personal, thanking them for their kindness or enthusiasm and adding compliments or words of encouragement. With about 35 students in each class and 11 classes to get through, this has been quite a time-consuming process, taking longer than a class-period itself to get through one class.

But it’s totally worth it, and I intend to do the same thing every time I leave a school. The students sincerely appreciate the gesture, and it’s really nice to know that all of them have something to remember me by, and particularly that the best students know I believe in them, that I noticed them, that they weren’t just a face in the crowd to me.

I call each student’s name and they stand up to receive the note, then busily go about trying to figure out what it says, either with a dictionary or asking the closest smart student for help translating. I assume most will ask another English teach to translate the next time they get the chance, but even if they don’t understand the words they definitely just appreciate the fact that I took time to write something just for them.

Once all the notes are distributed, I close with a few lines from my speech along with some extra phrases: “You were great students. Thank you for your warmth and enthusiasm. I will really miss you. Enjoy your Spring Vacation. Good luck in second/third grade.” The students stand up for the ceremonial bow to end each lesson, and I exit the room, usually to a chorus of warm goodbyes from appreciative students.

The whole thing has had a massive warming effect on nearly everyone. The second-graders, whom I’ve mentioned several times had cooled off to me this year, seem to rediscover their friendliness after the goodbye. The first-graders, who were always warm to begin with, are now downright beaming. Most of them have come to me asking for the CD, and a few have come bearing notes of their own they wrote for me, either in simple Japanese so I could understand or adorably broken English. One first-grade girl wrote this: “Dear Kyle, We are very enjoyed your lesson! Kyle is popular with junior high school student. Thank your teaching till now!”

But the best experience by far was my last lesson of the day yesterday, with 1-5. That was always my last lesson of the week, which was great because it was the most spirited, warm, and enthusiastic class in the school. I had trouble remembering all the students’ names in each class, but never with 1-5. Each individual student stuck out enough to me that I never had trouble recalling any of their names. It took me twice as long to write my notes to that class because I had something personal to say to just about each and every student. When I announced I’d be leaving, there was the most genuine reaction of sadness from that group, and one girl even appeared to have tears in her eyes.

The game went better than with any other class, with both teams doing an excellent job. In nearly every other class, students would constantly pass the word to the next player, not even wanting to try to understand the word or make the gesture or pictures. But there was only one pass during that entire class. A typical score for a team at the end of the game in other classes was between 20 and 30 points. With 1-5 the final score was 45 to 43. But the most noticeable difference to me was that in every other class, students avoided doing gestures until the very end when they needed fast points, but the 1-5 students did gestures all throughout. The reason is clear enough—students are embarrassed to do gestures in front of the class, so they want to avoid it. But 1-5 was such a great atmosphere that all the students were comfortable enough not to give it a second thought. They were laughing, cheering, and applauding throughout, even giving encouragement to the most awkward kid in the room. It’s a shame they rearrange the students after first-grade, as it’s a tragedy that this group will be broken up.

After I distributed my notes, I gave my farewell lines and added that I’d especially miss this class because they were my number one favorite. When they stood up to take the final bow, the class president thanked me personally on behalf of everyone just like 3-4 had, and I got more shouts of “thank you” from the students.

But that wasn’t the best part. After the bow had taken place, everyone remained standing. The class president and a friend of hers walked to the front of the room and set up the CD player. All of the students moved to the back of the room and arranged themselves in chorus formation. They then proceeded to sing their class’s song for O-sensei and me, just as a special goodbye and thank you from their class.

The period had already ended. This was during the 10-minute break time between periods, and they were using five minutes of that time to sing a song for just the two of us. It might have been the most moving thing I’ve ever experienced. Such an unbelievably beautiful moment. Most beautiful moments are over so quickly that you barely have time to appreciate them, but their song lasted long enough for me to maintain full awareness that this was one of the most beautiful moments of my life and I should soak in every second of it. As I stood there and scanned their faces, the girls putting their heart and soul into their singing and some of the boys playfully goofing around as they sang, I felt the same beautiful sadness that I’d felt at graduation. I hadn’t known these students as long or as well as the third-graders, but an entire school-year is not an insignificant amount of time. Knowing that I’d never stand in front of this class again, that this class itself would soon be broken up and never exist again—that these voices would never sing together again—I almost lost it again. Some of the students seemed to notice when my eyes watered up and they were pointing it out to others, then when a couple of tears finally did fall and I had to wipe them away, everyone noticed and laughed warmly.

When it was over, I told them that was beautiful and thanked them sincerely. They remained in their formation as I left the room, waving and saying goodbye until I was completely out of sight. When I got back to the teacher’s room I thanked their homeroom teacher for cultivating such a wonderful class.

I only wish that had been my last lesson at the school altogether, as it will never get more beautiful than that. My actual last lesson will be with 2-6 on Monday, who are probably the least warm and enthusiastic class in the school, the least likely to give a damn about my leaving. But that’s just how it goes. Nothing can be perfect.

But it can come close. After school, nearly every student from 1-5 and a few from other classes came to the Kyle-store to get the CD, many bearing notes or little presents for me. A few of them asked me to sign the inside rim of their bike helmets, which is just about the most flattering thing imaginable. They’ll have those helmets throughout all of junior high school, so (assuming they don’t endeavor to wash it off for some reason) those students will have a little message from me at the top of their vision every time they ride to and from school.

I’ve learned so much from these students, and I continue to learn all the time. The most significant thing I learned yesterday is that what you see on the outside is not always what’s happening on the inside. Some students seem cold and distant and you think they either don’t like you or don’t give you a second thought, then you hand them a note and all of sudden they’re coming to see you after school and asking you to sign their bike helmet. You get the impression that many of them are sleepwalking through junior high school, just going through the daily routine without ever appreciating the significance of this time in their lives, but when it’s time to say goodbye they’re the most sentimental people ever. It’s amazing.

I don’t know if all kids are like this (it’s hard to tell when you’re one of them), if it’s just Japanese students, or if it’s just this school, but I’d like to find out. One thing I’m absolutely sure of is that I intend to teach kids for the rest of my life. It’s been rewarding beyond my wildest expectations. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else.

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