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The Last Goodbyes

March 30th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

The primary purpose of this journal has always been the preservation of memory for my future self, and some days just beg for detailed preservation from beginning to end. Last year’s final day of the school-year was one of those days, and this year was even more so. As such I’ll once again try to capture the entire day as I experienced it, though the entry that appears on the blog will be edited for names and things having to do with specific students.

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Wow, that was crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been able to rewind a dream before. If only I could do that in real life.

It’s 4:30 now but I know I don’t have the slightest chance of being able to get back to sleep. I couldn’t even fall asleep until 12:30, but I’m pleased that at least I got four hours. That should be more than enough to keep me going on a day like today, when the emotional energy will drown out any fatigue.

As I expected, thoughts of what’s to come today keep me awake until the sun rises and it’s time to get up. I’ll get out of bed a little early this morning to give myself extra time to run through my speeches one last time before going into the school.

I’ve got three speeches prepared. The first is to be delivered in front of the whole school at the closing ceremony. The first half is the speech I gave in Japanese to the third-grade classes in our last lesson, and the second half is extra stuff I added about how I feel about my time at the school. Because it’s for the largest audience it’s the one I’m most nervous about, but I’ve got the first half down solid and have had two weeks to get the second half almost equally solid.

The second speech isn’t so much of a speech as it is a series of nice things to tell individual students in Japanese as I say goodbye. Things like, “I was lucky to have known you” and “If you believe in yourself, I know you can always succeed.”

The third speech is one I’ve been planning to give at the farewell enkai, as it’s tradition that all departing teachers give speeches, and I wrote one about how my time at the school has made me realize I want to be a teacher for the rest of my life. I decided not to overburden myself by memorizing that one, but I still had to practice it over and over again to get my mouth used to verbalizing complicated Japanese expressions. Because it’s in Japanese characters, the paper would only prompt me as to what to say next—I’d still need the words firmly in my head, as I couldn’t very well expect it to sound even remotely sincere if read syllable by syllable.

For the past two weeks I’ve been practicing these speeches over and over again from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, before and after everything else I do during the day. I want them to be so firmly in my head that I can rattle them off without even thinking about it, my mouth so used to verbalizing these phrases that it can say them on autopilot. I can’t wait until they’re over and I can cease this tedious exercise.

So one more time I run through the student speech, the enkai speech, the student speech again, then the ceremony speech, and find myself getting a little choked up near the end of it. I’ve been practicing this for weeks and today is finally the day I’m going to be giving it. This is the last day I’ll ever stand in front of those students. I wonder if I’m going to break into tears when the moment actually comes.

When I’m satisfied that I’m ready as I’ll ever be, I get my things together and make that final walk to work. My school—Togane Chugakkou (‘chu’ (中) means middle and ‘gakkou’ (学校) means school.)—is literally across the street from my apartment, so I’m still going to see that building every day, but this is the last time I’ll ever go inside for work.

I enter the teacher’s room and greet everyone with the standard “ohayou gozaimasu” for the last time. T-sensei is there, and she immediately approaches me to explain how this is going to go down. Because I’m not technically one of the actual full-time teachers at the school, the school will be separating my farewell speech from the others. I and one of the teacher’s aides will give our farewells first, then leave the gym as the rest of the teachers take the stage.

She tells me I’ll be going first, followed by the teacher’s aide. I ask her if this is set in stone, or if it’s okay if I go second. I’m going to be extremely nervous and I’d like to have a moment to mentally prepare on the stage as she gives her speech, rather than just be thrust on stage and dive right into it. She says she can check with the Kyoto-sensei (vice principal), and I accompany her as she begs his pardon and explains my request. He and the other vice principal get a laugh out of it, and say that it’s fine—I can go second.

The ceremony doesn’t begin until 9:30 and it’s only 8:30 now. I’d thought it started at 9:00 so I haven’t brought my computer or anything to pass the time. I sit at my next and run through the speeches in my mind again, but after five minutes A-sensei approaches me and tells me something I don’t understand until another teacher helps clarify that I’ve been invited to the principal’s room to wait with the other departing teachers before the ceremony begins.

So rather than sit at my desk doing nothing for an hour, I’ll be sitting in the principal’s room on a comfortable couch with the other departing faculty members doing nothing for an hour. Plenty of time to run through the speeches in my mind yet again.

The time is approaching. My stomach is in knots. I take deep breaths and try to calm myself down. I remind myself that the worst that can happen is I get tripped up or lose my place for a moment, and that it doesn’t matter if I do. This isn’t a Speech Contest. The people listening to the speech already know me and like me. Reminding myself that the audience is on my side really helps.

I go out to use the bathroom at 9:15, and when I come back some of the teachers are in the hall looking out the window trying to identify some of the students who are arriving now—a group of boys and a group of girls who appear to be among the previous year’s graduates. That’s cool—not only will I get to see this year’s graduates again, but some of last year’s as well.

Before I know it the Kyoto-sensei tells me and the teacher’s aide it’s time to go. He escorts us to the balcony above the gym and tells us to wait a moment until the initial greeting is over. When it’s time, he walks us down the stairs and across the gym. The first and second graders are in the front in standard formation: girls on the left, boys on the right. Behind them, sitting in the back, are my dearly-missed third-graders who are seated somewhat informally arranged only by class, from 3-1 on the right to 3-6 on the left. Wow, it feels even better to see them again than I’d imagined. Some of the students from 3-1 smile and wave to me as I pass. I return the gesture, letting it help me ease my nerves.

There’s a line of students on the far right, there to present flowers to departing teachers, and a few of them smile at me when I pass by as well.

We’re escorted onto the stage and take our seats to the left of the podium—to the right from our perspective. I scan the faces in front of me and feel my anxiety decrease rather than increase. The crowd is nothing but familiar faces. I’ve stood in front of all of them hundreds of times already. The only difference now is that they’re all there at the same time.

I was hoping the teacher’s aide’s speech would last a nice long time, but it’s over in less than a minute. I guess having only been there a year and not having actually taught the students, I shouldn’t have expected her to have all that much to say.

So now it’s time. I walk up to the podium and adjust the mike. I begin with the three words I’ve started almost every class with since the beginning, knowing this would be the last time: “Good morning, everyone.” After a moment’s hesitation, the students echo the greeting. I say, “OK, now I will speak Japanese,” and launch into it.

(In Japanese) “Togane Chugakkou is the first school I ever taught at as an ALT. For that, I think I’m very lucky. You were wonderful students. I’m grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm. I will miss you very much.”

Now I look to the back of the room for a little joke-section I added: “Especially you graduates! What are you doing back here!? I already said goodbye to you, now I have to do it again! I think you just came here to see me cry.”

This doesn’t get as much of a reaction as I’d been hoping for, but there is some audible chuckling.

“Everyone, I’ve been to many different places and met many people from all over the world. My advice to you is to meet as many people from different countries as you can and talk to them. What you learn in school is important, but what you learn from other people can be priceless. I’ve learned so much from you. If you’ve learned even a little from me, I’d be happy.”

This is much different than giving the speech to an individual classroom. Then I’d been able to read each student’s reaction to my words. Now I’m just staring into a sea of faces that all look expressionless. It’s impossible to tell whether I’m reaching anyone, but I press on.

“Never forget this time. Junior high school is over before you know it, but the people around you now will always be a part of you. If I’m a part of that too, it’s a privilege.”

I haven’t messed up so far, even on the parts I’ve added or altered, so now I’m ready for the second half.

“From now on, all of you are a part of me. I remember my first day at this school. For my self-introduction, I stood in front of all of you. I’d never been more nervous in my life. At the end of my speech, I held up a picture of President Obama and said ‘Yes we can!’ Many students gave me a ‘Yes we can!’ back. Not many, but enough. Everyone, shall we try it one more time? Yes we can!”

This is the part I’m most curious about. On my first day only about 20% of the students had repeated “Yes we can” and I wanted to see how it would go now. About half of them repeat it this time. I say it again and it sounds closer to 70%. I say it one more time, now really enthusiastically. It sounds like 70% again, and not particularly enthusiastic. So that’s the result of that experiment.

I continue, now reaching the most emotional part of my speech. I try to make sure I’m not just saying the words but really feeling them too.

“At that time, I knew I would enjoy teaching here. And that has really been the case. These two years have been the happiest of my life. I will probably teach at many different schools, but Togane Chugakkou will always have a special place in my heart. Students and faculty, you have been an inspiration to me.”

I’m projecting emotion with my voice, but I know I’m not really feeling the weight of this moment to its full significance. The nerves, the indiscernibility of the students’ faces, and simple relief that I haven’t messed up at all are overshadowing the reality of the fact that this really is the end. I do my best to maintain full awareness of that reality as I deliver the closing lines.

“From now on, whatever challenges you face, gambatte kudasai. I wish you all success and happiness. Goodbye. Thank you very much.”

[“gambatte kudasai” is an expression with no good translation. It’s just an encouragement to try hard and give it your best.]

I take my bow as the students applaud. The applause doesn’t sound particularly louder or more enthusiastic than typical school-assembly applause. I wasn’t expecting a standing ovation or anything, but now I’m uncertain as to whether the speech had been received well at all. I breathe a heavy sigh as I take my seat, trying to scan the crowd again for some indication, but from this vantage point it still just looks like a sea of expressionless faces.

Now the two of us stand up and a couple of students emerge from back-stage with bouquets of flowers. A first-grade boy hands one bouquet to the teacher’s aide, and a first-grade girl hands one to me. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever been given flowers by anyone.

We take our flowers and walk off the stage. As I pass by that line of students again I finally get a closer look at some faces, and am comforted as some of them nod and smile at me even more warmly than before. Some of them had already heard the first half, but some had never heard me speak that much Japanese before ever. None of them had ever heard the second half, but now regardless what they thought of it, all of them know how I feel about their school. That was the whole point—if they knew how much I appreciated it, they might appreciate it more. Their school might just be one of a hundred thousand Japanese schools, but at least to one American it’s something very special.

I thought we had to leave the gym, but the teacher’s aide stops when we’re halfway to the back so I stop too. I guess we can watch the other teachers make their speeches after all.

The ten of them file in and take their seats on the stage. The Kyoto-sensei says a few short words, then one of the second-grade girls—the one from 2-6 who nearly cried at my final lesson—gives a speech on behalf of the students thanking each of them individually. This is the first point in the day (it would not be the last) that I feel like I’m being excluded.

I’m glad they let me give my speech, but it bothers me to have to be separated from the “real” teachers. I know that my job title is Assistant Language Teacher, but I’m every bit as much of a teacher as they are, at least insofar as planning and executing lessons. I’m not begrudging them—I understand they outrank me because they went to school for it and they have their certificate—I’m just saying it makes me feel like less than them. Trey expressed the same sort of feeling to me last year, describing an experience at a school ceremony where they introduced all the teachers and made him stand at the very end of the line. No matter what you do or how hard you work, he said, you’ll always be beneath them because you’re not Japanese.

As each teacher makes his or her speech I begin to feel more trepidation about my own. Had my speech not been appropriate for a Japanese closing ceremony? Did I talk about my feelings too much? Was it too long? Most of these teachers aren’t speaking for as long as I did. Also, they’re not leaning into the podium to talk into the mike like I did, and their voices are carrying just fine. Had my voice been too loud? Did I look silly?

I try to push these nagging thoughts out of my mind and tell myself it’s fine. With over 600 people in the audience, I’m sure at least some of them appreciated my message, took my words to heart. Even if I only reached one of them, it was still worth it.

When all of the speeches are over, they stand up and the students sing them what I assume is the standard bon voyage song for Japanese schools because they’ve sung it at every assembly since the send-off. I didn’t get a song, but whatever. So it goes. At least I’ll always have that moment with 1-5, and that was a million times more special than this. This is just standard closing ceremony procedure. 1-5 had given me a song of their own collective volition because they appreciated me.

Again, I push the negative thoughts aside and try to focus on the weight of the moment. It is, after all, the last assembly at Togane Chu I’ll ever be at, the last time I’ll ever stand in this gym, and most significantly the last time I’ll ever hear these particular voices sing together. I get slightly choked up at this last thought, but the reality just isn’t hitting me.

I’m more focused on what’s about to come next. There are some graduates I didn’t get to say a proper farewell to on the day of graduation, and since this will be my last chance I’m counting on being able to catch them on their way out.

The window of opportunity for this will be short. The graduates will leave the gym right after the ceremony and while most will certainly hang around for a short while, many will simply leave school property immediately and I can’t be sure whether the important ones will be among them.

When the final song is over, the students are told to stand up and make an aisle. Another song is played on the piano as the teachers exit the stage and walk down this aisle of students to cheers of thank yous and good lucks. Another experience I’ve been denied, but now I’m on a mission.

I walk out of the gym for the last time with only a trace of acknowledgement of that fact. I quickly head to the teacher’s room and deposit my flowers on my desk, make as fast a trip to the restroom as possible, head downstairs, change into my outside shoes, and walk on out towards the gym doors.

I get there before anybody has left. Luckily, everything happens as planned. I get to say the things I wanted to say to the students I’d wanted to say them too.

Now my plan is to head back to the teacher’s room until homeroom is over and the other two grades begin leaving, then head outside to say my goodbyes to the underclasses. As soon as I get into the teacher’s room, I’m escorted back to the principal’s room where I take my seat on the couch and resume doing nothing. Nobody says anything about my speech this morning, but they hadn’t been in the gym at the time so it’s possible they didn’t hear it.

After just a few minutes, the halls starts filling with noise and I see through the window that the students are leaving. I turn to To-sensei, one of the JTEs who’s leaving, and ask her if it would be okay to go outside and say goodbye. She translates my question to the vice principal (S-sensei, the one who’ll be the principal at my next school) and he just says, “ii yo” which means “that’s fine”. I thank him and head right back outside.

Some students are already on their way off school property by the time I get out there, but the vast majority are still in the process of leaving. There’s a large group of girls from the school band standing just outside the exits, and I approach them and say hello. They’re all holding DVDs, which I’m told when I ask about them is a DVD of the Spring Concert. I say “hoshi!” (I want one!) but they say it costs money. I ask the girl holding the bag of them how much and go in for my wallet. But she says she doesn’t know, and then there’s some discussion among them and I figure I’ll just have to be content without a DVD. Kind of a shame, because in addition to the enormous sentimental value it would have, it was also just a damn fine concert. I couldn’t believe how great the band had sounded this year.

Students start riding by on their bicycles and I’m able to get warm goodbye after warm goodbye in all kinds of various forms: ‘see you’, ‘goodbye’, ‘see you again’, ‘bye bye’, ‘sayounara’, ‘ja ne’. Some students appear to appreciate that this is really goodbye, though for most it’s just like any other goodbye we’ve exchanged. I’m not really feeling the weight of it either, as not only do I know I’ll continue to keep seeing a bunch of them out and about, but I fully intend to come back and visit for Sports Day if it doesn’t conflict with my other schools (and maybe even if it does).

At one point a girl from the band—a former Team C regular—calls my name and hands me a DVD. “Present for you.” I’m overjoyed! I thank them and say in Japanese, “I’ll treasure it forever” which they get a huge kick out of. Soon enough, they get on their bikes and cycle away too.

When I get back to the teacher’s room, everyone who’d been in the principal’s room is back so I just find T-sensei to confirm what’s happening later. She’s in the conference room with her baby—always very strange to see her in the mother-role—and I tell her I’m going home now and ask her what time I should come back to be given a ride to the enkai.

She says it starts at 5:00 so I should be here by 4:30—maybe earlier, like 4:15. I say 4:15 then, and then I ask her if I’ll be giving a speech at the enkai because I had one prepared. Before this morning I’d just assumed that of course I would, but after having been excluded from the main part of the ceremony I was no longer certain. T-sensei asks the Kyoto-sensei and he says no, I will not be giving a speech. Well okay then. I guess I can relax now—my speechifying is done for the day.

I pass by Y-sensei on the way out. He was in charge of the school band this year, and I thought they were extraordinary. I was going to compliment him in my speech, but since I won’t be giving it I just tell him now in Japanese: “The brass band this year was great. The spring concert was wonderful!” He gives me a sincere thank you and I move on.

I gather my things, pick up my flowers, and prepare to leave the teacher’s room for what is probably the last time ever. I might come back inside when I return at 4:15, but I might not. As I’m about to leave I turn and give the standard formal goodbye one last time: “otsukare sama deshita” and while it’s usually only a handful who say it back, today it’s just about everyone.

I’m through the doors and down the stairs, still unsure if this is my last time in this building but not really feeling like it is. I intend to come back inside later. But when I take my outside shoes from their locker I don’t put my school shoes back inside. For the first time in a year and a half, they’re coming home with me.

As I make the short journey home I think about the enkai speech. My immediate reaction had been simple relief—that’s one less speech to worry about. But now it’s starting to bother me. Every departing teacher at last year’s enkai gave a speech, even the part-timers. Half of the teachers leaving this year have been at the school for less time than I have, only one year. Being asked to speak at the enkai is an honor, so not being asked feels like dishonor. Not to mention all those hours wasted preparing for it, not just on my part but on O-sensei’s part for doing the translation.

I resolve to ask to speak anyway—they might let me give the speech if they know I’ve prepared one. But it’s entirely possible that they don’t want me to speak—that my speech this morning had not been well-received by them, they found it too long and sentimental, and the last thing anyone would want would be to give the gaijin more access to the microphone. I’ll ask T-sensei to be honest with me. If that speech had in fact been inappropriate for Japan, I’d best know about it so I can avoid whatever mistakes I made next time.

It’s 11:00 a.m. when I get home. I open up the bouquet of flowers and put them in the vase I bought yesterday—the first time I’ve ever purchased such an article. Now there are flowers in my apartment—another first.

I devote the next hour to jogging. It’s nice to have one part of this day that’s completely routine—this is not the last time I’ll be doing this by a long shot.

After the jog and a very small lunch, I feel like going for a bike ride, so I go the route that takes one hour, and I’m back at my place at 3:30, just enough time to practice my speech a couple of times and listen to a few sentimental songs.

At 4:15 I take the final final walk across the street to Togane Chu, and step onto school property for the last time as that school’s ALT. I’m heading towards the building when one of the teachers pulls up in her car and offers me a ride. Well, I guess I won’t be going in the building again after all. I have in fact seen the last of that teacher’s room.

The teacher who gives me a ride is really nice, and not shy at all about talking to me. Because of my speech that morning, she probably has the impression that my Japanese is better than it actually is, but I hold my own pretty well. Knowing what kinds of questions to expect goes a long way. I tell her where I’ll be going to school next year, about needing the driver’s license and failing the test the first time. When we get near the place she tells me that my speech at the closing ceremony had been wonderful. She says it made her cry. Wow, well that’s quite a vote of encouragement. If I’d reached her, there’s no doubt I must have reached some students.

When I get inside I quickly realize it’s the same place that last year’s farewell enkai had been, though the tables are arranged somewhat differently. There are two sets of smaller tables in the front for the ten departing teachers and one for a part-time teacher who’d made her farewell speech at last week’s closing ceremony. I of course will be sitting at one of the back tables, but at least in the seat closest to the seats of honor.

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K-sensei is there helping to set up the room, and he hands me a bag of presents from the first-grade teachers which I’ll open later. Well, at least this is a nice gesture. He also compliments me on my speech, saying he was impressed that I used such complicated Japanese phrases. I thanked him and told him I was afraid it was too long, but he said it didn’t matter. Speeches can be as long as you want. This further eases my concerns.

When T-sensei arrives, I tell her that because I’d been expecting to speak at this event I’d written a speech for it and O-sensei had translated it. I hand her the paper with the speech and ask if she thinks it would be OK to give this kind of speech at this event. Her eyes appear to moisten, but she doesn’t know what to say. The tradition is only for the school’s teachers to give a speech. I ask her to be honest with me about my speech from the morning, that I’m worried it was too long and not really appropriate for a closing ceremony. She doesn’t say otherwise, but she says that it was very unusual and some of the teachers who will be leaving didn’t think I should have been given a chance to speak at all. She explains that before me, this school only hired ALTs from the JET program, and their contracts are from September to July so they were never among the departing teachers at the end of the school-year. I tell her that if the tradition is only for the real teachers to give speeches, I understand. She can sense my disappointment, and very carefully suggests that after the speeches are over and the kampai is made, there’s a period where everyone just eats and talks and maybe they’d let me give my speech then. I thank her and take my seat, not at all hopeful about the prospects.

I sit there in silence for a good twenty minutes, feeling as much like an outsider as ever. I think about my speech from this morning and all that talk about my feelings of fondness for this school, which now seems rather ironic. I suppose it’s merely my time here, my love of teaching and the warmth of the students that I loved. When I come to think of it, the faculty in general—though there were exceptions—never really made me feel like a part of the team.

At 5:00, we all stand up and applaud as the honored guests arrive. I like most of these teachers a lot—I wonder which of them were saying I shouldn’t have been allowed to speak at the closing ceremony. I can’t imagine any of them saying that.

The principal, who is sitting directly across from me, makes a short speech, and then the ten departing teachers take the stage one by one to give their speeches. The teacher’s aide from the morning isn’t here, so I don’t know if she would have been included if she’d been here, but I’m guessing she would because the part-timer is.

I listen respectfully to each one of them, then it’s time for the kampai, which is good because I could really use a drink at this point.

K-sensei is the first to come pour me a drink and talk. He asks me what school I’ll be going to next and I tell him the one I expect even though I’m not 100% sure. He says that’s a very small school, just over a hundred students, but it’s in the rich part of town so it’s mostly very good students. I’m not sure why this is—do rich people have smarter children? Maybe they just expect more from them. In any case, I do like the sound of it. He also tells me the name of the new ALT for Togane Chu—Lola something. I was hoping it would be someone I know, but it’s not. He’s not sure if she’s brand new or transferring in from somewhere else.

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I’m already feeling a little better, and as various teachers come up to me to refill my drink and exchange a few words, it slowly chips away at my forlornness. Most of them compliment me on my speech from the morning, asking what I’d done to prepare. They all ask me what school I’ll be going to, and I tell them what I expect it will be. They tell me S-sensei will be the principal there and I say I know and I’m very happy about that.

In terms of making me feel welcome, S-sensei always did. He always greeted me with a smile and would compliment me on occasion for my hard work. He even mentioned me in his speech at the Christmas enkai, saying he’d missed me during my visa-related absence.

Conversely, the principal of the school never said two words to me. Even at this enkai, when we’re seated across from each other the entire time, he doesn’t say a thing. He might just be one of those educators who thinks ALTs in general are unnecessary and a waste of money. Perhaps it was actually he who said he didn’t think I should speak at the closing ceremony, and T-sensei had just told me it was a teacher out of deference to the principal.

But as teacher after teacher comes up to me and talks, the chip on my shoulder over being excluded breaks down and I remember that I actually do really like [most of] these people and I’m going to miss seeing them every day. The mood-warming effects of the alcohol aren’t hurting either.

At one point I head to the back-room for a cigarette and the Kyoto-sensei is there. I hadn’t planned on this, but when I hear them talking about the upcoming speeches I figure “what the hell?” and tell him in Japanese that I’d written a speech for this enkai and had been practicing it for a week. I ask him to take a look at it and tell me if he thinks it’s okay for me to give it if there’s time. He takes the paper and starts reading, his face breaking into a smile immediately at the opening joke. This appears to be going well. He scans the rest of the paper then hands it back to me, saying “OK, you will go last.”

Splendid. Sometimes you just have to have the will. I could have just sat sulking all night but I went for it and now it would appear I’ll get that moment I’d been hoping for. The downside though is that now I’ve got to go back to being nervous about messing up again. The alcohol helps with that, but it also might increase my chances of messing up.

Vice Principal S-sensei acknowledges me as he heads to the restroom. Word has gotten to him that I’ll probably be transferring to the same school as him. He says he’ll see me next week when I come to introduce myself to the faculty, and I tell him I’m looking forward to it.

The next teacher to come up and pour me a drink is O-sensei, the teacher who taught 3-4 and who I’d accidentally insulted at the Chorus Contest enkai and later corrected my mistake through T-sensei at the graduation enkai. He’s the same age as me, and I always thought he didn’t like me. But we proceed to have what is actually the most pleasant of all my conversations of the night. He’s among the departing teachers, one whom I thought might have had a problem with my speaking in the morning, but now I’m all but certain it couldn’t have been him. After asking me about what schools I’m going to he asks me if it’s difficult to say goodbye to Togane Chu. I tell him it is, and that I’d talked about it in my speech in the morning. He and the other departing teachers hadn’t heard it, but he says that some of his students had told him it was really good. That’s great to hear. I repeat the lines about this being the first school I ever taught at and that it will always have a special place in my heart. He says he feels the same way about his first school, but he loves this school too because he’s been here for five years and taught the same group of students for the last two: 2-4 which became 3-4. I tell him again how amazing their improvement had been from last year to this and he thanks me again. I say there were a lot of great students in that class, and proceed to rattle off some names starting with K-. He laughs and tells me yes, he was the number one student! S-. I hit the mark again, she was number two. M- (from the speech contest). Three in a row—Yes, yes, she’s a very smart, wonderful student. We pause for a moment, each remembering our time with that class, then he takes his leave with a gambatte kudasai.

That might have been the most real conversation I’ve ever had in Japanese.

The next thing I know it’s time for the second set of speeches. This time, each faculty member who’s leaving is given a speech by a faculty member who’s staying, sometimes very sincere and emotional but often filled with fun-poking humor. The departing teacher is then given a moment to respond, and the next two teachers take the stage.

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When the last of the ten are finished, everyone thinks they’re about to get back to eating, but no. They hand me the microphone, and it’s announced that Kyle-sensei has a short speech he’d like to give in Japanese.

My head’s a little swimming from the beer, but I manage to flawlessly deliver the opening line I memorized: “Everyone, I’m sorry. I used up all my Japanese at the closing ceremony.” Much to my delight, this is greeted with uproarious laughter. (Roberto Benigni, I owe you one.)

“However, there are still a few things I want to say.” I remove the speech from my coat pocket and say, “Please forgive me for reading this one.”

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The adrenaline is pumping and I stumble over a few phrases, but I manage to get through it all well enough.

“I became an English teacher because I wanted to experience life in many different countries. Teaching was just a means to an end. I came to Japan because I was interested in the culture, but this job has been the best part of my life here. Teaching kids is more wonderful than I ever imagined. One day I will return to America, and I don’t know what kind of teacher I want to be, but I now know that I always want to be a teacher.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had. Togane Chugakkou is the best place I’ve ever worked. When I was stuck in America because of my expired visa…” I trip over the next words but it doesn’t matter because the mention of my visa has everyone laughing loudly again, “…I missed Japan, but I missed Togane Chugakkou more. Teachers and faculty, thank you for everything.”

I put down the paper and they applaud, perhaps thinking I’m finished but I’m not. This is just the part where I thank a few teachers individually. This I do in English, but in simple enough language that I know most of them will understand.

DSCF2821“O-sensei, M-sensei,” they each say “hai” as I call their names, “thank you for your work on the undokai [Sports Day], it was one of the best days of the year.” Applause.

“Y-sensei, the brass band this year was wonderful.” More applause. “And you taught 3-6 all year and didn’t go crazy! You have my respect.” As 3-6 is the most notoriously loud, wild, and unruly class in the school, this generates the most uproarious laughter.

“To-sensei, K-sensei,” (the other two JTEs), “we only worked together for a short time, but I really enjoyed our lessons together. You’re both great teachers.”

“Finally, T-sensei.” She looks tearful as she acknowledges me. “You were with me since the beginning. You helped me adjust to the school and to life in Japan. I’ll always be grateful to you.” Applause. “I probably asked you a million questions last year but you were always very patient and kind. Thank you. I’ll miss you.”

Back to Japanese now. “Everyone,” I unfold the speech and deliver the final words. “Your hard work and professionalism were an inspiration to me. I am very sad to leave, but I’m looking forward to experiencing life at other schools. I hope they are as wonderful as Togane Chugakko. For these two years, thank you very much.”

I bow, they applaud, I step down from the stage. Mission accomplished. I’d done what I came here to do. My worries had been unfounded—the speech could not have been more well-received.

As we approach the end of the formal party, many teachers come up to tell me it was a great speech. The principal across from me still doesn’t say anything, but I’m beyond caring. I’m just glad I was able to let them all know that even though I may not be a “real” teacher, I fully intend to be one.

Before I know it, we’re standing in a circle to sing the school song one last time. That was the first Japanese text I memorized, but this time no one is surprised to see me singing along with it perfectly.

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The ceremonial end-of-party clap is made, then the teachers stand in two lines and make an arch with their arms, which the departing teachers pass under one by one. After getting that picture I stand back and just clap for them as they go, but one of the teachers tells me I should be the last one through the “Japanese arch”. Well, I’ll be damned. I’m being included!

I grab my bag of presents and head through the arch with a full heart. K-sensei grabs me and kisses my cheek in an exaggerated, joking-fashion. Everyone laughs and I give him a friendly pat on the back before proceeding through the arch, out the door, down the stairs, and out of the building.

When T-sensei comes outside I ask her if she’s going to the after-party and she is. I say that in case I don’t get to talk to her there, I want to ask her to e-mail me when she knows when Togane Chu’s undokai this year will be. She says they put posters up in stores around town, but she’ll e-mail me because it would be great if I came to visit.

H-sensei is the first to offer me a ride to the karaoke after-party, so I ride in his passenger’s seat as M-sensei (one of the two in charge of the undokai) rides in the back. He compliments me on the notes I wrote to the students, which he says were “very clear”. I’m not sure if he means my penmanship or that the English was simple enough for the meaning to be clear, but I thank him for the compliment.

The karaoke place this time is a very conspicuous bright-orange building I pass by on my jogging route and always assumed was a cheap motel. Turns out it’s actually cheap karaoke instead. I’m seated between T-sensei and one of the young departing teachers. She asks me what song I want to sing and I decide to stick with something I already know plays well with a Japanese audience: “Hey Jude”. I thought there were a lot more songs cued up before that one, but it turns out there’d only been one. So I’m going second, and though my voice is a little rusty I get through it okay, making sure to replace the name “Jude” with “Togane Chu” half-way through the song, and get a bunch of people singing, “Na na na na Togane Chu” at the end.

Nothing particularly noteworthy happens during this phase. It’s just good old fashioned fun, the teachers at their utmost loose and wild, clapping to the music and woo-wooing and all that good stuff. The departing vice principal S-sensei always refuses to sing, but after a couple of hours they finally get him to give in and he’s of course tremendously well-received just for doing it.

When they hand me the song-selection device again I again go with one I’ve done before—the same song I did at last year’s farewell enkai karaoke: “Bohemian Rhapsody”. That middle section is tough but I pull it off better this time, and of course my head-banging generates plenty of laughter and woo-woos.

A bit later, I ask T-sensei what other English bands are popular in Japan, and she suggests Oasis. I find Oasis on the device and ask her what song she thinks would be the best to do, and she picks “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. Hmmm…somewhat of a theme for the day, isn’t it? I somehow manage to sing this one really well—perhaps more beer actually does improve the vocal chords—and everyone is really into it and applauding throughout.

After that I know the party is approaching its end. The weight of the reality that had been failing to hit me all day is now bearing down on me, and as I look around the room at all these people having this fun and awesome time together, my eyes start to well up with tears. I’m not drunk because I’ve been pacing myself very consciously, but at this point I’ve definitely had enough to soften me up emotionally to the point where the presence of others is no longer enough to prevent me from crying.

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This is really the end now. A year and a half—it felt more like two years but still went by in a flash—and it’s all over now. The last song will be sung any minute, then we’re all going to leave and this group of colleagues will never work together again. I’ll officially no longer be a part of my first and most special school.

The moment comes. The music stops, the lights come up. T-sensei offers to drive me home, and I gladly accept. My eyes must be completely red. I’m sniffling all over the place. At least everyone knows why this is difficult for me thanks to my speeches, so I’m not embarrassed—just profoundly sad.

A handful of teachers make another “Japanese arch” with their arms and all of the departing teachers including me go through again.

Goodbyes are exchanged in the parking lot and the next thing I know I’m in T-sensei’s passenger seat with O-sensei in the back. I’m glad it’s him because he’s in an emotional state as well.

We arrive at my building. T-sensei stops the car. It’s time to go. “Thank you so much for everything,” I tell her again. “You really helped me a lot.”

Her eyes are moist as she says, “Thank you. You really helped me.” She tells me she’ll e-mail me when she knows when Sports Day will be—and I say that would be great because I really want to come back and visit.

O-sensei extends his hand to me and we exchange goodbyes with mutual respect and empathy. I give T-sensei one last goodbye and step out of the car. She pulls away.

As I make my way to my door, there’s Togane Chugakko in full view. I’ve seen it every single day since I’ve lived here. Now for the first time ever, it’s not my school anymore. By the time I get inside, I’m practically bawling.

I unfold my bed and sit down on it. I might as well open this bag of presents. There are some nicely-wrapped gifts including memo-pads and some kind of special soap-product, but the best gift is just wrapped up in newspaper.

Oh my god, is this what I think it is? Yes, it is. Since my first day at the school, the super-friendly janitor H-san has always poured my green tea they serve with school-lunch in a special ceramic cup and handed it to me personally. This took on a great deal of sentimental value to the point where the last time I drank from it I was sad to let it go. They’d given me the cup.

Now I can’t stop crying.

I put on some more music and drink several glasses of water, just letting the emotions run their course before finally getting into bed and falling asleep.

I learned more today than almost any other day of my life.

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