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Circumnavigation

August 4th, 2013 No comments

I’m back in the country where I spent three of the last five years of my life. It feels like it’s finally the start of my vacation, but it also feels a bit like coming home.

My last week in Japan before the flight was somewhat eventful. On Saturday I attempted to have a karaoke party with a bunch of friends but nobody could make it, so it ended up just being me, Kim, and Enam going out for drinks, with Ben joining us for a little while. I haven’t seen him since the rice planting, but he’s finished his work for JET and is on his way back to the states, so it was nice of him to come say goodbye. And on Thursday, the last night before my flight, Stephen came into town and a few of us went out for an early dinner of okonomiyaki and then took the train down to onjuku beach to join a bunch of other ALTs to watch the annual fireworks festival they have there. That was a lot of fun, and the perfect way to spend my last night in Japan before vacation.

Friday and Saturday were epic. It started like any other day. I got up, went jogging, had breakfast, went to work (speech contest stuff), but when that was over the focus shifted to the daunting objective of moving my physical body halfway around the globe to Germany. I finished packing, cleaned my apartment, emptied the refrigerator and unplugged everything, checked and re-checked and checked again to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, then headed off on the long long 9-leg journey.

Leg 1 was the standard walk from my apartment to the Togane train station. Leg 2 was Togane to Chiba. Leg 3 was Chiba to Narita Airport.

When I got there it was 3 out of 9 legs finished. It was like I was a third of the way there already!

Of course, Leg 4 was a considerable distance farther than Narita from Chiba. That was the 10-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, which took off at 10:30 p.m. in Japan and landed at 3:30 a.m. in the UAE. I flew all the way over China and India and landed for the first time on the soil of a Middle Eastern country, but it was dark the whole time so I couldn’t see anything other than the occasional lights from cities.

The layover in Abu Dhabi was six hours total, with the next plane not taking off until 9:30. My first experience in a Muslim country wasn’t exactly an awesome one. It was mostly just like any other airport, only with most of the amenities tucked into “lounges” you had to pay the equivalent of 45 euros to enter. They sounded nice—unlimited drinks, internet, showers, and whatnot—but I wasn’t going to drop 45 euros on that. Other than that, the only major difference between this airport and any other was that there were a lot more men in madrassas and women in burkas walking around.

Although I will say that the airline of Abu Dhabi—Etihad Airways—was definitely the best airline I’ve ever taken. Between all the on-demand entertainment, power outlets in every seat, meal menus even for coach passengers, and excellent service, it rose to number one in my ranks right away.

Leg 5 was not Etihad airways but Berlin Air. I felt like I was in Germany already from the moment I boarded the plane, as while the Narita-Abu Dhabi flight had been a wide mixture of cultures with just about half-Japanese, there were no Japanese on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Düsseldorf and I’d say I good 80% of the passengers were German. The flight attendants were German, and while their service was perfectly adequate it just couldn’t compare to the friendliness and enthusiasm of the previous flight’s mostly Japanese crew. Customer service is one cultural area in which Germany and Japan could not be farther apart.

Although that flight was only 7 hours, it felt longer than the previous flight because at that point I was already quite sick of travelling and just wanted the journey to be over. At least it was daytime and I could look out the window. We flew over Iraq, so that was cool, although there was nothing to see but sand and small cities.

But that flight was notable for one very significant landmark in my life. The farthest east I ever went in Europe was Prague. When this flight flew past Prague on its way to Germany, I’d officially crossed every line of longitude on the globe. It took about four years and there was all kinds of hopping back and forth in between, but now I have officially circumnavigated the planet! That was always one of my lifelong goals—to join the club that Magellan started.

It felt great when the plane touched the ground and I knew the flying was over, but unfortunately the travelling was far from over. I’d accidentally bought a train ticket from the Düsseldorf main station as opposed to the airport station, so once I’d gone through customs (which took all of ten seconds) and got my luggage, I had to wait on line at the airport train station to change my ticket. Some of the legs would be altered and I’d arrive an hour later than planned, but there were still 4 legs left to go.

Leg 6 was a short hop from the Düsseldorf airport to Duisberg. After the stress of the ticket situation, I calmed down quite significantly once I was on that regional train. The reality of being back in Germany finally sunk in, as it felt like just a few weeks ago that riding this exact kind of train was routine.

After a 30-minute wait in Duisberg, the longest rail-leg of the journey began. Leg 7 was a 2-hour ride from Duisberg to Bremen on an InterCity train, the kind I used to take every week from Hannover to Helmstedt. Although I was beyond sick and tired of travelling at that point and just couldn’t wait for it to be over, Leg 7 turned out to be the most pleasant leg of the trip. It was a beautiful day and as the train raced through the countryside all kinds of pleasant memories about all the great times I had in this country kept coming back to me. I’m about to acquire 3 more weeks of such memories.

Leg 8 was the final solo-leg of the journey, so the last one that felt like a leg at all. It was on a packed regional train full of crying kids and people with body odor, but luckily the trip from Bremen to the town of Delmenhorst where Oliver and Lena live was only about 15 minutes. As soon as the LED-screen read “Nächste: Delmenhorst” I felt a wave of relief wash over me. It had been a long way since Togane, but I was finally coming to my destination.

I got a bit worried when I didn’t see Oliver at the station. I’d turned on my iPhone’s data roaming momentarily when I knew I’d be late to send him a Facebook message informing him, but I had no way of knowing if he got it until I turned the data roaming back on and saw he confirmed the message. So where was he?

I waited out in front of the station for a few minutes, hoping he was just running behind and would drive up any minute, but soon enough he emerged from the station, I dropped my things, and we had a nice warm embrace, two great friends overjoyed to see each other after two years apart.

Leg 9 barely felt like part of the journey at all. I chatted with Oliver as he made the five-minute drive to the house where he and Lena now live. But when he pulled into the driveway and parked the car, it definitely felt fantastic that it was over. The entire journey from start to finish had taken a total of 32 hours.

I’d already been awake for 41 hours at that point, having only dozed off a few times here and there on the flight, but I was up for at least another 6 hanging out with Oliver and Lena and the dog Buutsch. It was wonderful to be back with them again, and although it had been two years and they’re living in a different place now, it might as well have only been two weeks.

They filled me in on what they’re doing now and I told them what I’m up to as well as all sorts of things about Japanese culture. Later we took the dog for a walk. After that I went to sleep, my epic 47-hour day finally over.

I slept really well and woke up today at 7:30 as though there were no jet-lag at all. Today is Sunday and we’re just going to relax, make a little tour of Delmenhorst, drink lots of delicious beer and eat lots of delicious food. It should be a pretty excellent day.

As for the week, Oliver and Lena have to work so it’ll just be me and the dog for most of the day, but that’s no problem at all for me. Next weekend Amanda will be coming over so I’m really looking forward to that. Things are likely to get a bit crazy. And the following week Oliver was able to take off from work so we’ll do a few fun things like camp out at the East See and drive to Hannover with a couple of bikes to spend the day doing my old bicycle tour there, which I’m also really looking forward to. After that it’s off to Ichenheim for a week of Ichenheim enjoyment, and then back to Japan.

When I passed through immigration at Narita airport this time, the woman checked my alien registration card and told me I have to be back before September or my visa will expire. Well, I’ll be back on August 27th, so that works for me. I’m not even thinking about the return trip now, but after what happened last year it’s quite nice to be completely secure in knowing that when the vacation is over, I can go back.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

Work-cation

July 25th, 2013 No comments

It felt like summer vacation for approximately two days, and now it just feels like a new species of work. I’m not complaining—I like work—it’s just that the feeling is even less “vacationey” than I expected. I’ve set up meetings with the Speech Contest students every weekday before my Germany trip, about an hour of practice per meeting. Since there are four of them—two individual third-graders, an individual second-grader, and a pair of first-graders who do a skit together—that makes up to 4 hours a day depending on whether they can all come. With an hour of lunch that makes 5 hours, which is not much less than the 8 I was spending before summer vacation started. I come in a little later, leave a little earlier, and don’t have to plan lessons, but other than that things feel the same. This is not quite a vacation—I should come up with a different word for it.

DSCF2929I did spend the first day of Summer Vacation doing something interesting though. I was planning to join Lily and Jack for her birthday dinner in Tokyo at night, but I went earlier in the day and went up the Tokyo Sky Tree to check out the view and take copious amounts of pictures, only a few of which I’ll post here. I’ve been to many “high points” of cities: the World Trade Center (when it existed), the Eiffel Tower, the London Eye, the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the one in Rome with the really long name, and a bunch in various German cities, so this was nothing new for me, and to put it bluntly Tokyo is not a particularly aesthetic city so it wasn’t the fantastically amazing experience that many of the others were. The two best views are the Eiffel Tower for the aesthetics of the city, and Rome because of all the awesome landmarks.

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Not to diminish the awesomeness, though. It’s still pretty incredible to be looking out over this giant city from half a kilometer in the sky, nothing but urban jungle stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. My most profound thought was just how many people were in my field of vision at any given time—albeit most concealed by buildings—and how strange it feels to think of specific people, to call to mind those who mean something to me at a vantage point from which all people appear insignificant.

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Once that thought occurred to me I entered something of a zen-like state and remained up there for hours. I would have left much sooner if not for the fact that when I’d felt I’d soaked it in enough the sun was on its way down and I figured if I just waited a bit longer I’d get to see the city at night, so I watched the sunset over the urban sea and got a few pictures of early evening Tokyo (almost not of which came out well) before heading down and all the way across town to Shibuya for dinner.

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Dinner was quite pleasant, with Jack, Lily, Stephen, Lily’s French friends, and a few various others including people I met at the picnic on Spring vacation. Unfortunately I had to rush out in order to catch the last bus back to Togane, but it was a good time and totally worth going.

Finally, the last event since my last entry was my first enkai with the faculty of K-chu, which was last night. It was noticeably smaller than all my other enkai experiences, but the basic format was the same: lots of people topping off your drink as you’re served course after course of odd-looking fish cuisine. There was a pause half-way through as the coach of each sports team (plus the band) gave a speech about their club, and that was different from Togane Chu. Because there are less students here there are less sports. If they asked every coach at Togane to speak it would take up the whole enkai.

More interestingly, it might have just been where I was sitting but there seemed to have been a lot more drinking at this affair than those at Togane Chu. Except for the administrators, everyone is seated according to a random number drawing, and I happened to be seated right along with the administrators, right next to the Vice Principal who until that night was the most intimidating guy at any school I’ve been to. In school he keeps busy constantly, and when I have to go up and get my stamps on my pay sheet for Interac he treats me like a nuisance so I’m always afraid to go up to him, constantly waiting for what appears to be a break in his activity. He also occasionally loses his temper and explodes at a student, shouting and ranting for minutes on end about god knows what grievance the poor kid committed. But last night he was pounding down the alcohol and behaving so jolly and merry it was like a different person altogether. He insisted on sharing a bottle of sake with everyone around him and he made a point of carrying out a conversation with me to the best of his English and my Japanese ability, telling me he’d never had an ALT even capable of conversation before. He actually told me I’m too serious in the teacher’s room and should be more friendly. Irony.

The main event was followed by karaoke, this time at the smallest karaoke place I’ve ever been to, a restaurant of just two small rooms, each with a karaoke machine that can’t be going on at the same time because there’s no sound separation and everyone outside our back room could hear the singing going on inside. Of the original [relatively] small group, only about half came to karaoke so this was indeed much smaller than that times at Togane, and while the karaoke queue was always full at those events, here there were rarely more than two songs cued up and occasionally there was nothing being sung at all. I was asked to sing near the very beginning, even had a specific song requested by the second-grade teacher: “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith, a song I don’t even like but heard often enough when it was popular in America to sing it pretty well. That was received very well by the staff. For my next song I took a stab at “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga and only did an adequate job but still got good applause. Finally, I screwed up by trying to impress them by singing the German “99 Luftballoons” and while I’ve done that successfully before, I was terrible that night and none of them knew the song anyway so the applause at the end was clearly forced. Oh well, not like anyone’s gonna hold it against me.

It was weird to come in this morning and see just about everyone from last night back at their jobs, but that’s the Japanese way.

Someone asked me if I had a hangover this morning. No, it had only appeared that I’d been drinking excessively last night, when in reality I’d been pacing myself so steadily I even had one last beer after getting home, and woke up this morning feeling fine. That’s the American way.

Reading Practice

June 26th, 2013 No comments

I was confronted with a bit of absurdness in the Japanese education system this past week. It started when W-sensei asked me to do a lesson for the first-graders just reviewing how to read the words from the first few chapters of the textbook in preparation for the upcoming exams. She’s been discouraged by the relatively few students who still can’t read English letters, and is holding back the rest of the students on their account.

I repeated a game I played a few weeks earlier to some success, in which I’d divide the class into two teams, put five words up on the blackboard (printed in large font and held up by magnets) and have one student at a time from each team compete to see who could touch the word I read first. Once I’d gone through all the important words from the first chapters of the book, I’d have them come up and try to read the words themselves, giving a chance to the other team if they couldn’t.

Most of the students were perfectly adept at this game, but there were a few who really struggled. Some students would just pick words at random during the listening portion, and make wild guesses based on the first letter of the word in the reading portion (like the word would be ‘and’ and they’d say ‘apple’). Some were really trying to sound the word out but just didn’t have the hang of it yet. And one girl just didn’t get it at all. She’d come to the board each time during the listening portion but not even try to touch the words I called, and during the reading portion she’d stand up and come to the front but just stood staring at the word in painful silence. I could see on her face that she was trying to work out the pronunciation in her mind and at times it looked like she was just about to give the answer, but she was too unsure of herself to try. All I could do was gently encourage her but eventually I’d have to give up and let the other student answer, and she’d go sit down looking crushed. But she never broke down and cried, and she continued to dutifully stand up and subject herself to the embarrassment every time it was her turn, and at least managed to successfully read the word ‘seven’ at the very end.

Afterwards I thought a lot about that game and the students who had trouble with it, and decided to see if I could offer to stay after school and help any students who might want extra practice with phonics and reading. The upcoming English exam is almost certainly a lost cause for them, but if they don’t learn to read now they’re doomed to fail every subsequent English test in the future. I in turn would feel like a failure as a teacher, even though I only get 50 minutes a week with them and there’s only so much I can do in that time, especially when I have to keep moving forward for the sake of the other students.

I told W-sensei my idea on Thursday, and she reacted with her typical skepticism that such a thing could be arranged, but she said she’d ask about it. I didn’t get the sense that she was going to make it a priority, but once I left it must have quickly dawned on her that having students who still can’t read at this point reflects poorly on her, so she should take any chance she gets to help them out. In less than a minute she approached S-sensei with my idea.

To me it seemed like the most obviously doable thing in the world, but apparently that’s just my background in American education. Students who need extra help with a particular subject can stay after school and get that help from teachers who are willing to help them. Such a thing is entirely ordinary in American schools, but apparently not in Japan. In Japan, club activities come first—or at least they’re a higher priority than English. S-sensei explained to me that all of the students have to go to their club after school. Apparently they can’t even stay an extra 20 minutes for study and be a little late to their club.

As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, it gets even more absurd. This week—the week of exams—all club activities are cancelled. The idea is that students should go directly home after school and study. There’s no guarantee that they will study, but it gives them more time to study if they choose to use it. So if students who have trouble reading want to study that, it would make perfect sense for them to have a chance to study reading with a native English speaker who can actually help them learn to pronounce the letters—something a textbook can’t do. But apparently this isn’t possible either. The rule is that the students go home directly after school, so that’s what they must do. Even though the whole reason for that is to give them a chance to study, they can’t study at the school.

The only thing that could be done was to use my “Kyle Shop” time for extra reading practice. Instead of having whichever students from a particular grade come and shop or play a game, we’d make Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday a “special lesson” for first-graders and W-sensei would send the students with the lowest reading scores to me during that 20-minute after-lunch break period.

So what in a rational world would have been a chance for students who really wanted to learn to read to come after school for as long as they wanted over the course of as much time as they needed ended up turning instead into three 20-minute after-lunch phonics cram-sessions for students forced to show up.

I tried to do the best I could under the circumstances. The after-lunch break-time is pretty hectic and disorganized, so students would trickle in at varying times. I’d never know how many would be coming altogether or when they’d show up. I’d start by practicing letter sounds with three students, then half-way through two more would come in and I’d go back and review from the beginning, then three more would come in when I was near the end and so on. It was between six and ten students each day, with only four students coming all three.

I had laminated cut-outs of every letter in lowercase, and I’d start by going over short vowel sounds, then sounds of letters with just one sound, letters with two or more sounds, then combination sounds, and finally how putting an ‘e’ at the end of a word changes the vowel to a long sound. I had to race through all that in less than 10 minutes. Then for 5 minutes I’d play a quick “game” in which I’d call out a simple word like ‘cat’ or ‘name’ and have the students try and find the correct letters to arrange the word, hopefully remembering the rules I’d just taught them. They’d almost never get it on the first try but with a few hints they’d always get it eventually. Finally, for the last few minutes I’d hold up the words I used in the reading game in the classroom and have the students try to read them, helping them sound it out if they couldn’t. They could get the easy words quickly enough but anything over 3 letters remained a challenge, especially when there were combination sounds or an ‘e’ at the end. Some things just need more time and practice to really sink in.

I found a website where you can point your mouse over letters and letter-combinations and hear the sounds they make, so I printed the URL and gave it to all the students. I also found a website that converts roman-letter words to Japanese katakana, always distorting the pronunciation but the best way I could think of to allow them to check if they could read a word. I made a list of all the words from the beginning of the textbook in one column and their katakana version on the right, so the students could fold it and check each word if they were serious about studying on their own.

Other than provide them those tools for self-study, I figured the most valuable thing I could actually do for them would just be to give them some encouragement. I wish I’d had O-sensei to help me figure out how to express what I wanted to say in Japanese, but I did the best I could with my limited vocabulary. Half-way through our second “lesson”, I paused and talked to the kids about how I’m actually a slow learner too, poking fun at myself for having lived here nearly two years and still not being able to speak Japanese without constantly making mistakes (which I’m certain I was doing as I talked to them) or understanding what people were saying when they talk to me. I told them how difficult it was for me to learn hiragana and katakana, that I had to sit and practice many times a day, but I eventually got it and if I could do it they could too. I’m not sure that sunk in but some of them seemed to appreciate it.

Before the third day I remembered a few things O-sensei had taught me to say when I was saying personal farewells to Togane Chu students. Near the end of that lesson I told the kids that I wished them success, and “If you believe in yourself, I know you can succeed.” They responded kindly.

At least one girl, a really sweet girl who loves my lessons in spite of her difficulty learning, definitely appreciated what I was doing. She came every day determined to learn, and always left with a sincere “thank you”. Most of the boys, unfortunately, were clearly only there because they’d been told to come and hardly put forth any effort, though at least two of them did try.

As for the girl who’d had the most difficulty with my reading game, I addressed her in particular at the end of our last lesson. I told her I know that she’s capable of reading English, and she quickly disagreed and said it was “muri” (impossible). I reiterated that it is possible, that I could see it in her eyes. I don’t know if her smile at that comment was one of amusement or appreciation, but it felt like a positive response. I even told her (to the best of my limited ability) that I saw how difficult my game in class had been for her but that I respected how she kept coming to the front and trying every time. I don’t know if my words had any effect at all, but they were sincere. I know a dumb student when I see one and she isn’t dumb—she just thinks she’s not smart enough to read English. If that’s a result of her never getting encouragement from parents or other teachers, then maybe my little bit of encouragement might go a long way.

Unfortunately I doubt it, but that’s just one of the biggest downsides of my current teaching-role. As the Assistant Language Teacher my opinion is not as valuable as that of a real teacher, my time with the students is not long enough to make a significant impression, and due to the language barrier I’m not really able to reach them on a truly meaningful level.

One day I’ll hopefully be able to make a real difference in students’ lives, but I’ve got a ways to go before I get there. At least this experience serves as something of an appetizer of what that might actually feel like. It must be a feeling that’s really worth living for.

Working the Fields

May 20th, 2013 No comments

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I’ve neglected to write about a couple of social events I’ve partaken in recently, only because there was nothing particularly remarkable to say about them. Two weekends ago I went to a picnic in a lovely park in Tokyo to visit Jack and Lily and a bunch of their friends. A couple of days later I went back to Tokyo to celebrate Stephen’s birthday at a restaurant in Harajuku. Both were pleasant experiences, but neither begged to for full blog documentation.

The social event of this past Saturday, by contrast, was of a culturally interesting enough nature to warrant a full post. Fred, whose company I greatly enjoy but rarely ever see, has gotten involved with a local organic farm company which—among many other things—gets groups of people together to teach them old-school methods of farming. As it’s rice-planting season, they’re currently having groups of people—Japanese and foreigners alike—come and plant rice by hand, the way the Japanese did it for thousands of years before they built machines to do the work. Groups plant rice for a couple of hours, then after a short interval of time to let everyone get a bath or a shower, they have a party in the evening.

I have to confess that I wasn’t looking forward to this at all. It was just one of those experiences I felt obliged to have simply by virtue of it being a rare opportunity. Though the experience probably wouldn’t be fun, it was an experience that very few people nowadays will ever have. Trudging through the mud and doing back-breaking labor in the fields for no pay doesn’t exactly strike me as the most pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but I figured I’d just push myself into it. At least the party afterwards was guaranteed to be a good time.

I met up with Fred, his girlfriend Chihiro, another rarely-seen Togane ALT named Kate, and a guy named Ryan I haven’t seen since last year’s hanami, at the Togane train station at 12:30 and we proceeded to walk the 5 km to the farm. We couldn’t have hoped for a more beautiful day, and the walk was quite pleasant as we all got caught up with what each of us has been up to. Fred will be here for one more year, then he’s going to go back to America to get his masters in forestry and start a career in that field. Ben, whom I haven’t seen since the Christmas party, would join us later, but I found out this is currently his last year living here and he’ll be going back to America in July (the JET program is now officially done in Togane, probably thanks to the fine job Interac ALTs like Kim and I have been doing for less cost to the schools).

We got to the farm’s “headquarters” (nothing more than an ordinary Japanese house) forty minutes early and just hung out until everyone else arrived and we were ready to begin. Fred and Kate had done this last year and said there had been about 60 people, whereas today there were only about 25. That would mean more rice-planting for everyone! Hooray!

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We walked down towards the rice fields, most of which had already been seeded, and stopped to pick up the rice plants themselves along the way. Apparently they let the plants grow a little before putting them into the flooded paddies. Hey, I learned something already!

When we reached our designated section of field, little squares of rice plants were distributed to each of us, and we lined up at the edge of the paddy. A grid had been imprinted into the mud earlier by a big wooden mesh cylinder, and our job was to tear off 3-5 stalks of the rice plants—roots and all—and press them about 2 centimeters deep into every intersection in the grid. We were each responsible for three rows, and once finished we would help finish whatever was left.

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I rolled up my jeans and stepped bravely into the mud. It was an interesting sensation to say the least, but nothing unpleasant and I got used to it very quickly. The hard part was the constant bending down to plant the rice. Once you got the hang of tearing off the stalks, you picked up the pace considerably and ended up hunched over at a 90-degree angle for pretty much the whole time.

The depth of the water varied throughout the field, with the mud above the surface at some points, and sometimes practically thigh deep. You had to be careful whenever you removed your feet from the mud to step forward, or you could easily fall over—which a few people did. Due to the lack-of-ease-of-mobility, whenever you ran out of grass you would shout “nai” (none left) to the farmers and they’d toss you a fresh batch, often missing and splashing you with muddy water.

When Fred had finished his lines I took my camera out from its dangerous location in my pocket and tossed it to him, which thankfully he caught and was able to get some good shots of me in the midst of my labor.

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It probably took me about forty minutes altogether to cross the paddy, but by the time I was done the last remaining sections were all well-covered, so I assumed my work for the day was done. That wasn’t so bad.

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Of course, unbeknownst to me there was a whole other section of field we had to do. Once the first part was done we headed up the hill to that one, a much longer and narrower field DSCF2917than before. This time we were planting black rice, which should only be planted 2 stalks at a time, making the tearing-off part of the job slightly more challenging. For some reason the water in this particular field was more bug-infested than the other, riddled with spiders darting to and fro across the surface. I braved my arachnophobia and made it through, this time tackling four rows at a time to make it go faster. I traversed the field three times before I was done, and while my back was pretty sore by that point I couldn’t deny the strong sense of accomplishment.

The whole ordeal hadn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared—only about an hour and a half of actual labor altogether. I’ve never been one to enjoy getting my hands dirty, but it didn’t come without a small sense of pride at having done it. I spend most of my time sitting in a faculty room at my computer. Doing actual manual labor was a nice change of pace, though it’s certainly not something I’d want to do every day.  There’s another event in the fall when we harvest the rice, and while Fred says that’s more difficult I’ll probably try that too.

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We headed back up the hill, stopping somewhere along the way to wash off the mud, and when we got back to the house the farmers were giving rides to a nearby bath-house. This was an authentic Japanese everybody-take-your-clothes-off-in-front-of-each-other bath-house, so I waited in the lobby while the others went in. I’d already done my Japanese-culture thing for the day—getting naked in front of a bunch of people I barely know is one of those cultural experiences I’m perfectly content to deprive myself of.

The party was as enjoyable as expected. Ben brought his iPod and some speakers and provided us with music. The farmers provided us with meat to grill, delicious fresh vegetables grown right on the farm, and beer. The whole thing cost us 2000 yen apiece, worth the price even though I couldn’t eat most of the meat.

As usually happens at these sorts of things, the foreigners mingled with the foreigners and Japanese with the Japanese until all of us had consumed enough alcohol to start mingling with each other, each doing our best to communicate using as much of the other language as possible, and managing to do so surprisingly well in spite of the difficulty.

When the food was gone and the hardcore partiers were migrating inside, most of us decided to head home so as to avoid getting completely wasted. I walked back to Togane with Fred, Ben, and Ryan, sipping our last beers along the way. It was nice to hang out with those guys again, and hopefully I’ll get to see Ben at least one more time before he heads back to the states.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a Saturday in Japan.

Elementary Debut

April 12th, 2013 No comments

I finally resumed teaching today. After nearly a month since my last lesson, it felt great to be back in front of a classroom full of kids. To make things even more interesting, these were the youngest kids I’ve ever taught.

My very first lesson of the new school-year was at H-sho, a self-introduction to a group of 35 fifth-graders, making them all about 10-years-old. This is of course significantly younger than I’m used to, and while they’re only two years behind first-year junior high school students, the difference was rather striking.

In elementary school, the homeroom teacher stays with the class for most of the day and teaches most of the subjects, so there were no teachers in the teacher’s room when I arrived. It was just me, the secretary, and the principal, with whom I had a brief exchange in Japanese before spending first period in near total solitude. One of the 6th-grade teachers came in during the break between periods to inform me that I should wait there until some students from 5-1 come to retrieve me for my first lesson.

A minute or so into second-period, two students—a boy and a girl—came to the teacher’s room to ask if I was there. I could hardly believe they were 5th-graders. Are they still that small at that age? Apparently so.

They led me to the classroom and I stepped inside, the eyes of thirty-five cute little kids upon me. The homeroom teacher, a man who looks about my age, introduced me, and the rest of the 45-minute period was all mine.

Having done this so many times before significantly reduced my nervousness to the point where I barely felt any at all. I knew my introduction-lesson goes over well with junior high school students, particularly the younger ones, so I figured if anything the elementary kids would like it even more. The only issue was their almost complete lack of experience with the English language. Fifth-grade is when they start learning English, so I was going to need to use a significant deal of Japanese if they were to understand me at all. The homeroom teachers might be able to help a little bit, but it’s not like they’re JTEs who are trained to teach English.

Despite my lack of nerves, I pretended to be really nervous and to blank on what I wanted to say. I made some funny faces, pounded my head as though trying to remember, then pretended I suddenly recalled the proper greeting is “hello!” This got a good deal of laughter and put me at ease right away. The students repeated the greeting, and then I asked, “How are you?” to see if the students even knew that much. Most of them just repeated “How are you?” so I guess they don’t even know that yet.

Then I said, “I’m going to introduce myself in English. After, we will play a memory challenge game.” No comprehension whatsoever. Of course I made sure I knew how to say this in Japanese beforehand, so I said it in Japanese and they understood.

I proceeded to launch into the same routine as my previous self-introduction lessons, seeing if they remembered the basic facts about me from the opening ceremony: my name, my age, and where I’m from. At least one student always does. I continued to talk about the places I’ve lived and my favorite hobbies and whatnot, with pictures and/or gestures for everything. Still, for many things I found I had to use Japanese or the students just weren’t going to understand, particularly when I opened up the floor for questions. I have no idea how some ALTs are sent to elementary schools fresh-off-the-plane. I can’t imagine attempting to teach elementary school students without knowing a significant amount of Japanese.

The Q&A session was easily the biggest difference between the elementary and junior high school classes. In junior high it’s always like pulling teeth to elicit questions. If you’re lucky you might get more than five, but sometimes it’s just two or three. The fifth-graders wouldn’t stop asking questions, all kinds of things like favorite foods, favorite animals, where I’d travelled in Tokyo, what do I think of Japanese-style clothing, what subjects do I like besides English, how many people are in my family, and on and on and on. I was worried there wouldn’t even be enough time for the memory-challenge game, so I stopped them at fifteen-minutes before the end and broke them into their six lunch groups.

This part always seems to go the same no matter what the age group. I explain that a team gets one point for everything they remember from my introduction. My name is a point, America is a point, sushi is a point, and so on. The first team has a hard time but I give them lots of time, only doing the five-second countdown when they’re clearly out of ideas. Each team (generally) does better than the last until the final team is shouting out answers so quickly I barely have time to mark the points on the board. In this way it gets more exciting as time goes on, and the last team almost always wins.

That game ended with just two minutes to spare in the period, so the homeroom teacher ended the lesson there and I left the class feeling awesome. If that wasn’t the most engaged, enthusiastic group of kids I’ve ever had, they certainly came close. I think I’m going to like this elementary school thing.

There’s only one fifth-grade class, but the sixth-graders are split into two homerooms of about twenty students each, so the next two classes were the smallest I’ve ever taught (not counting Germany). I was surprised to find them significantly less enthusiastic than the fifth-graders at first, but they still got really into it by the end. It was harder to elicit questions with them, but my trustee sad-Obama picture always comes in handy for that.

One question that inevitably gets asked in every Q&A session is whether or not I have a girlfriend. I used to just answer “no” but discovered last year it’s much funnier to say yes and throw out some absurdly high number. I told them I have 152 girlfriends and wrote that number on the board, which always generated uproarious laughter. In the recall-game, teams would remember that exact number.

6-1 is taught by another guy about my age, and 6-2 by a middle-aged woman. For both of those classes, the game ended with about 8-minutes to spare. To fill the remaining time I put all of my flashcards up on the board and had a student from each row come to the front. I’d say something in English like, “I’m from America” or “I like sushi” and the first student to touch the corresponding flashcard would get a point for their row. They’d go twice, then the next student would take their place. This is nice and simple, exciting, and perfect to fill up just a few minutes of time.

When 6-1 was over, a bunch of students followed me out into the hallway to ask me to sign their textbook. Some students even asked me for some of the pictures I’d used in my lesson, and I promised to bring them next week. One boy was particularly adamant that I bring him an Obama picture of his own.

The final part of the day was also a brand new experience, eating lunch with the students. It was 5-1 this week, and it will rotate each week. I wasn’t sure if I should wait in the teacher’s room to be brought there, so I went to the room first and was mobbed by the fifth-graders coming up to ask me more questions and teach me their names. When the homeroom teacher saw me he said I should go wait in the teacher’s room, but by the time I got there a girl was already waiting to escort me.

My lunch is prepared in the teacher’s room, then carried by whichever student is escorting me to the room. I felt bad because this poor girl was so nervous and walking so slowly so she wouldn’t spill the lunch tray, but I thought it might be rude to tell her I could carry it myself.

When we got to the room, the students were lining up to get their lunch-trays filled by fellow students. One would pour the soup, one scoop out the vegetables, one provide the dessert, and so on. My tray was placed at the table that had apparently won the game of janken (rock-paper-scissors) earlier, and I was offered a seat straddling two desks at the end of it.

Once every last student had their trays filled, a group of five kids stood in the front of the room and one girl read a little speech to formally commence their lunch-consumption. I couldn’t believe how formal this was, but found it quite fascinating. This was the first time I’d ever eaten lunch in a classroom, so I suppose that’s how it’s done all the way from elementary to high school. Such a gigantic difference from America where you line up in the cafeteria, go to your table, and dig in as soon as you sit down.

I must confess it felt rather awkward. This particular table was mostly shy students. One girl asked me a few questions as we ate, but most of the meal was in near silence, the students barely even talking to each other. I’d intended to try and learn all their names once the meal was finished, but there wasn’t enough time. I’ll know to try earlier next time.

Also of note was what gets done with extra food. If there are extra desserts, students play janken to determine who gets them. Also, if anyone doesn’t want something they can offer it up to janken winners as well. As the main dish today was a ham-sandwich, I couldn’t eat it. I put it back in the tray with the empty sandwich wrappers, and when it was discovered there un-eaten, janken ensued.

I was just starting to learn the names of the kids at my table when it was announced that lunch-time was over and the desks were put back in rows. I bid goodbye to the students and left, feeling like I need to put more thought into my lunch-time routine, almost as if it’s another lesson. It didn’t feel right to just be sitting there awkwardly after all the excitement I’d generated earlier. If the students are too shy to talk to me, I need to think of things I can ask them myself. As they don’t speak English, this is actually a wonderful opportunity for me to practice my Japanese.

There was practically nobody in the teacher’s room again when I got back, so I had to call Interac to figure out if I could just leave or if I needed to tell someone. After some back-and-forth calling between me, them, and the school, it was finally determined that I can leave immediately after school-lunch every Friday.

A five-minute bike ride later and I was back at K-chu for another long afternoon of nothing. I’ll finally get to do my first introductions here tomorrow, then hopefully these students will start warming up to me.

The elementary-school kids warmed up with astonishing rapidity, and I can’t wait to see them again next week. I also can’t wait to meet the M-sho students on Wednesday, as I’m curious to compare the two elementary schools. It’s great to be able to compare different schools, as it gives me much more insight into the Japanese education system as a whole. After this year I’ll have experienced two junior high schools and two elementary schools, and all of them seem like pretty great schools to experience. I miss Togane Chu dearly, but after this morning I’m more certain than ever that switching assignments was the right move.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

The Absence of Friends and Cherry-Blossoms

April 8th, 2013 No comments

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It’s the first official day of the new school year, and just like the last official days of last school year, I have nothing to do. All week is orientation up until Saturday when I have my first lessons. Since those are just self-introductions and I’ve done that before, most of the work is already done. I’m going to prepare a little something extra I haven’t tried yet, but that won’t take long at all.

It used to take me 5 minutes to get from my apartment to work. To K-chu it takes 25, which isn’t too bad except for the annoyance of trekking up hills. But I’ll be biking it until I somehow get a driver’s license (which apparently requires a miracle), so I might as well get used to it. Luckily it was cold enough this morning that the sweat was minimal. When I got to the teacher’s room, I was immediately asked to give my self-introduction to the faculty, so I went through that again and delivered it without a hitch to polite applause at the end.

The teacher in charge of the ALT here is an S-sensei (not to be confused with Principal S-sensei), and a few minutes after I sat down she asked me if Interac had told me to come in today, because there were no classes and she wouldn’t have time to talk to me. It would have been nice if I’d known I didn’t have to come, but so it goes. It was determined that I should stay until lunch time and then, since I didn’t bring any lunch with me, I could go home. I assumed there’d be an opening ceremony today but it turns out that was last week, though there will be a “welcome ceremony” tomorrow (not sure about the distinction) in which I and all of the new teachers will be introduced to the students, though I won’t have to give a speech.

It’s only about an hour into my first day here, so my first impressions aren’t worth much, but I’m glad S-sensei seems nice and the rest of the faculty was welcoming enough. I’m liking the somewhat cozier atmosphere of this smaller teacher’s room, and the view out the window from my desk is much more aesthetically pleasing than before—evergreen trees as opposed to other wings of the building. Since this is where I’ll be spending most of my time over the course of the next year, that’s no small thing.

I’ve yet to actually see any students, and it’s entirely possible this whole day will go by without encountering even one, but at least tomorrow I’ll get my first look at them and they at me. Hopefully they’ll be just as friendly as at Togane Chu, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t be.

Now let me back-track and tell the sad story of this past weekend, which was supposed to be full of pleasant scenery and social interaction. It’s cherry-blossom season which means hanami festivals, and there were two this weekend. The first was in the nearby town of Toke, organized by Fred. I’d thought it was going to be an actual festival like the one in Togane, but it was just a get-together of a bunch of ALTs and their friends in a very big and beautiful park there.

The event was from 11:00 to 16:00, but I was just finishing up my routine Saturday chores and errands at noon. I texted Kim and Enam to find out if they were going and Kim said it was still pretty early for them but they might go later. So I hopped a train and was in Toke by 12:30, then proceeded to make the long walk from the station to the park.

The weather report said it wouldn’t rain until the evening, but when I was about half-way to the park some drops were already beginning to fall. Luckily they sell umbrellas at every convenience store, and there are convenience stores on just about every block, so I was able to pick one up and have it ready to go when the rain really started falling five minutes later. Now I was just worried everyone else would pack up and leave before I got there. Kim sent me a text asking me about the weather, and when I replied to inform her it was raining I knew that would probably mean she and Enam weren’t coming.

I found the park but couldn’t find an entrance. Everything was fenced off, and I ended up walking half the perimeter before getting in. Now all I had to do was find the group of foreigners somewhere in this giant park. The iPhone made this [theoretically] a much less impossible task, as I could not only check the Facebook event page for the exact location and use the GPS tracking to guide me to that spot, but I could also text-message the people I assumed would be going to the event.

Well, my number for Fred wasn’t working, and neither Ben nor Atsushi returned my text, so I simply posted “Is there anybody here???” on the Facebook event page and hoped someone would respond as I made my way all around the park looking for them. How hard could it be to find a group of Americans drinking in a park? You’d think you’d be able to hear them a kilometer in every direction.

But everywhere I looked, there was no sign of them, even at the exact spot the event page said they’d be. Ten minutes after posting my “where is everybody?” message on Facebook, Fred posted to inform us that because the rain came early, they were heading out. Hah!

Of course not five minutes later, the rain stopped and didn’t pick up again until the evening, but by then it was too late. I’d come all the way to Toke and walked for about an hour and a half, and I never even made it to the event.

Well, I came here to drink sake in a park with other people, dammit, and at least I can still fulfill half my goals. I found an empty pavilion, poured myself a cup, put on some music with my iPhone, and enjoyed my own private little hanami-of-one for awhile. I drank two cups of sake in the pavilion and ate some of the food I’d brought, then migrated over to a very nice lake for another half a cup before journeying back to the station and to Togane. Disappointments aside, it was actually a rather pleasant little outing.

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The next day was the big Togane hanami event, and as last year’s had been so awesome I’d really been looking forward to this year’s as well. When I finally heard back from Ben and Atsushi the previous night, I learned they wouldn’t be coming so I didn’t know who’d be there, but at least I figured Kim and Enam would accompany me.

I wanted to get there as early as possible because I didn’t want to miss anyone. With all of the ALTs and Josai students in the area, there were bound to be a group of them somewhere. On top of that, I knew a whole bunch of my old Togane Chu students would be coming and going all day and this would be my last chance to see them for a very long time.

Kim and I exchanged some texts around 11:30. I said I want to head up there at about 1:00 and she said this was too early. I asked her what time she had in mind, but got no response. Even by 1:30 she hadn’t written back yet so I just sent her a text to say I was heading there now and would hopefully meet her and Enam there later.

Unfortunately, the weather on Sunday was almost as unpleasant as Saturday, though for a different reason. The skies were clear and the sun was shining, but the wind was a total bitch. Gusts of wind were raging to the point where they could almost knock you off your feet, and serve as a significant deterrent to bicycling there.

I spotted Zach on my way up, walking alongside someone who appeared to be his new Japanese girlfriend (lucky him). We stopped and chatted for a moment, and he expressed some sympathy at their having left Toke the previous day just as I was arriving. I asked him if he’d be coming back to the Togane event but he said they were just leaving. He said it was “pretty crowded” so I could probably find someone I knew.

It didn’t look “pretty crowded” when I got there. Compared to last year, it was all but dead. The wind was definitely a major factor, but I think the main reason so few people had come was the near complete lack of actual cherry-blossoms. The weather this spring has been atrocious, with rain and wind pounding at the trees multiple times a week, stripping the cherry-blossoms from the trees weeks earlier than last year. They’re almost all gone now. Last year the lake had been surrounded by magnificent pink—this year it’s all light-green.

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I walked the perimeter of the lake and found no fellow foreigners. I did run into a couple of Togane Chu students who graduated this past year and had a nice chat with them about what they were up to now, but the length of any such conversation is always limited by the limits of my Japanese.

Eventually I just decided to sit on a bench and read my book for awhile, hopefully until Kim and Enam arrived. As I was reading an old Japanese guy came up to me and proceeded to attempt to engage me in friendly conversation. Usually they only approach you to practice their English, but this guy spoke only Japanese. I did my best, but it was the most awkward-pause-filled conversation of all time. After about ten minutes—most of which was in complete silence—he got up and shook my hand to leave.

I texted Stacy to see if she or any Josai students were planning on coming, but she was sick and didn’t even know the event was happening. Kim still hadn’t returned my text from hours earlier. Yet another hanami of one—only this time I wasn’t drinking because the next day was the first day of school and I didn’t want to make the same mistake as last year (going in hungover) especially when it’s a brand new school.

I finally decided to just go home and come back after dinner. There were supposed to be fireworks at 7:00, so hopefully that would draw in more of a crowd.

As I was cooking dinner, I got a text from Kim saying she and Enam were at the lake but nobody else was there. I replied to tell her I’d gone and come back but would be returning there later for the fireworks. A short time later I heard her and Enam returning to her flat, but she never replied to my text.

I got back to the lake around 6:15 and there were indeed more people there but still no fellow English-speakers. I walked around the lake a few times and bumped into about a dozen more students so that was nice, but still far from genuine social interaction.  When 7:00 came around it was clear the fireworks had been cancelled (probably due to the wind), so I just went home.

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The whole thing was a gentle reminder of something I already know: I have zero friends in this country.

It doesn’t really bother me though. I’m well-aware of how overly-introverted I am and that it prevents me from easily connecting with other people. I only made two real friends throughout my entire three years in Germany. I made zero friends in Santa Barbara. In four years of college I came away with only two lasting friendships, and again only two from high school.

I thought I’d made a friend in Trey last year, but that’s in some doubt. The schools I’m teaching at now are actually the schools he taught at when he was here, and I sent him a message last weekend to ask him about the schools but haven’t received any kind of reply yet. The only other person I came close to connecting with was Stephen, but I think I might have opened up to him too much on New Years’ Eve and spoiled that too.

But as I said, I don’t really care. I’ve got six good, true friends in the world and that seems like enough to me. I’m not sure most “normal” people even have that many real friends, it’s just that theirs usually aren’t scattered across the globe like mine are. All that matters is that I’m not lonely, and while I felt a little of that this weekend, it happens rarely. I get enough human warmth and interaction from students and colleagues to keep me going.

Half-way through writing this entry, I had more social interaction than I had over the entire spring break. One of the JTEs I’ll be working with, W-sensei, came to talk with me about our first lessons this Saturday, and afterwards she wanted to practice her English because it was rusty after a year and a half of maternity-leave, so we got into a very interesting discussion about early childhood education in Japan.

I actually knew nothing about it before, but found it quite fascinating. In Japan, parents have a choice between sending their children to nursery school or kindergarten. Nursery schools take kids as young as 1, but when a child turns 3 they can enter kindergarten until their first-year of elementary school. Parents want their children in kindergarten because those are actual schools where they actually learn things, whereas nursery schools are basically just day-care centers. The bizarre thing is that kindergartens finish at 2:00 p.m., far too early for any woman with a professional job to pick the child up. Mothers are forced to choose between becoming housewives or continuing their careers at the expense of their child’s early education.

I remembered how K-sensei at the enkai had said K-chu students were very good because it’s in a rich area, and that makes more sense now. First of all, parents with more money can afford babysitters to pick their children up from kindergarten so they don’t have to give up their careers. Kindergarten is also more expensive than nursery school, about 400 to 600 US dollars a month. There are less-expensive public kindergartens, but there’s usually a waiting-list and single-parents are given priority, so it’s very hard for a two-parent household to get into them.

W-sensei has put her 18-month-old daughter in a private nursery school (it goes from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. —unbelievable!), and will have to decide next year whether to continue teaching, or give it up so she can send her daughter to kindergarten.

I find this rather amazing, as Japanese society in general seems designed to look out for the general welfare of everybody. Why not have kindergartens that offer day-care until 6:00?

So that was an interesting conversation. W-sensei is struggling with her English but is really determined to improve. This is good luck for me, as I love to have control over lessons and it appears she’s going to rely heavily on my help this year. Not only will be I doing a self-introduction lesson on Saturday, but I’ll be returning to the same class again in the afternoon to teach the alphabet.

I now have a much clearer picture of how this year is going to go at K-chu. There are two classes in each grade, and only two JTEs. W-sensei teaches both 1st-grade classes and a 2nd-grade class, while S-sensei teaches the other 2nd-grade class and both 3rd-grade classes. S-sensei also teaches Japanese (she has two teaching degrees) so she’ll be very busy this year. I didn’t have much of a chance to speak with her today, but I assume she’ll also be happy to let me do as much of the lesson-planning as possible.

It also appears as though I might be meeting with some classes more than once a week, though that’s yet to be determined. It would be very cool if it’s the case, but we’ll see.

And that gets the journal not just up-to-date, but up-to-the-hour. The weekend was a bit of a let-down, but the start of the week has been quite promising. Interesting how my life-situation in Japan is now so Japanese-like: Outside of my job I have no life to speak of. My job is my life.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

Expanding Horizons

April 3rd, 2013 No comments

The long month of endless goodbyes is finally over, and the month of abundant hellos has begun. I introduced myself to all three of my new schools yesterday, and thereby quadrupled the number of Japanese schools I’ve ever set foot in.

A woman named Takahashi from the Interac Chiba office picked me up at 9:30 yesterday morning and drove me to the schools. The first school was an elementary school about 10 km away. This school is the reason I really need a car—it’s practically over a mountain. It’ll probably take me about 45 minutes to bike there, and I’ll be drenched in sweat by the end.

The Japanese word for elementary school is shogakkou (‘sho’ [小] meaning ‘small’ and ‘gakkou’ [学校] meaning ‘school’), so I’ll refer to this one as “M-sho”. M-sho is extremely tiny, with only about 20 students per grade. That means it’ll not only be the smallest school I’ve taught at, but the smallest classroom size as well. It should be interesting.

When we arrived, Takahashi-san was more nervous than I was. I’d only done this once before but at this point I’m fairly confident in my ability to make a good impression on people. I was more curious than anything else—this being only the second Japanese school I’d ever been to.

We were greeted by the principal and vice principal when we arrived and taken to the meeting room. Takahashi-san made her formal greeting, then I was asked to come to the teacher’s room and introduce myself to the faculty—only about fifteen people. Takahashi-san had asked me to prepare a self-introduction, but she hadn’t expected me to memorize an entire miniature speech in Japanese.

“People of M-sho, konnichiwa. I’m Kyle. I’m from New York state, America. I’m 29 years old. From 2008 to 2011 I taught adults in Germany. I came to Japan in August of 2011. Until now, I’ve been working at Togane Chugakkou. I love teaching kids. I’m looking forward to working with the faculty of M-sho. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

After my epic mega-speech at Togane Chu’s closing ceremony, this was a piece of cake for me, but it was enough to serve the purpose. The faculty gave me a round of applause and complimented me on my Japanese. The principal told Takahashi-san he was very impressed, and the vice principal gave me a “good job!” in English.

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Takahashi-san and the two top administrators went over a bunch of details of the contract. They asked me if I wanted to order school lunch, and they said they’d like me to eat lunch with the students on days when I’m there—something I’d never been asked to do at Togane Chu but which I’m rather looking forward to.

A little cultural tid-bit: coffee was poured for me and Takahashi-san, and the principal kept gesturing to it with a “douzo” (a word for offering something). I don’t drink coffee because caffeine doesn’t agree with me at all, but I remembered from all the way back in Narita training that you’re not supposed to drink the first time you’re offered something anyway. Japanese people typically wait until the second or third time it’s offered. I was able to hold out until about the fifth time, at which point I figured I might now be appearing ungrateful so I took a symbolic sip.

On the way out, I asked Takahashi-san to find out if there was somewhere I could change into my suit when I arrive, as if I do end up having to bike there I’m going to be sweating like a pig by the time I arrive. She explained my concern and they told me I can have a locker.

When we left, the entire faculty came out of the teacher’s room to see us off. It seems like that’s going to be a really warm and friendly work environment.

I’ll only be working there Wednesday mornings, and the other elementary school on Friday mornings. My main school will be K-chu, the junior high school, which was our next stop.

Our appointment there was for 11:00 but we arrived at 10:40. It’s Japanese custom to be early, but apparently it’s also bad form to be too early, so we sat in the car for fifteen minutes and had a nice chat. Takahashi-san is incredibly nice, and I found her nervousness rather charming. When we noticed someone up in the teacher’s room looking into the car, she took out her bag and pretended to be sorting through things, lest she give them the impression we were just sitting there.

When the time came, we headed up the stairs to the main entrance of the building. K-chu is a much newer school than Togane Chu, and looks almost like a nice hotel from the outside, with balconies outside every classroom. The inside looks much more clean and modern as well.

The first person to greet us when we arrived was S-sensei, my old vice principal. I joked with him that it was “long time no see”, and he brought us into his office. It felt very strange to be in this unfamiliar building but have that very familiar face there the whole time. I could almost imagine the rest of the old Togane Chu faculty just beyond the door as well.

This time, there was no introduction in front of everyone. Only two women came to the room to go over details with Takahashi-san, and she asked me to give my speech to them. S-sensei said, “again?” and told them how I’d also made speeches in Japanese at Togane Chu’s closing ceremony and enkai, so it was no surprise to him that I had yet another one.

I’m not exactly sure whether the women were JTEs or just faculty members. One of them, I was later told, is the teacher in charge of the ALT so I assume she’s an English teacher, but she didn’t speak any English to me so I’m not sure. It’s entirely possible she’s an English teacher who doesn’t speak English—those are apparently quite common in Japan, and the fact that Togane Chu’s English teachers all spoke great English might have been a rare case. Certainly when it comes to the elementary schools I shouldn’t expect anyone to speak English, so that will be interesting, but hopefully at least one person at my main school will speak enough to help me out when I’ve got questions. (Though if not, being forced to speak a lot more Japanese is actually a good thing).

The one question I had at this meeting was regarding my after-school activities: playing games with students and running the “Kyle-store”. I’d told Takahashi-san about it before and she explained it to the teachers there. I’d brought some Kyle-dollars to show them, and my self-made deck of cards. Luckily, S-sensei was already well familiar with the idea and it was agreed I’d be able to do this “when circumstances allow”.

Once that meeting was over they brought us into the teacher’s room where I got my first look at where I’ll be spending most of my time over the course of the next year. It looks just like the teacher’s room at Togane Chu but half the size and more modern. My desk is in the back corner facing the window, and looks like a nice spot. The teacher across and one seat to the left of me is the head English teacher. I met him and exchanged the standard Japanese greetings, but he didn’t speak English to me either. He’s the only person I met yesterday that I know for sure I’ll be doing lessons with, and he seemed like a nice, good-humored guy.

After that, we had just one more school to visit. This elementary school, H-sho, is only a five-minute drive from K-chu and it’s where I’ll be spending my Friday mornings. The faculty waved to us from the teacher’s room as we were entering, and we were greeted very warmly at the door by the “headmaster” (not sure if that’s the same thing as a “principal”) and the teacher in charge of the ALT. They spoke a few words of English but they’re clearly far from fluent.

We were taken to the teacher’s room and seated in some comfortable chairs there. When Takahashi-san told them I had a speech prepared, they actually stood us up and interrupted everyone in the midst of their work, telling them the new ALT would like to introduce himself. I went through the speech again, this time in front of an audience of about 25. The reception was overwhelmingly positive this time as well, and I was complimented heartily by the headmaster.

The rest of the little meeting went just like the others, and I found out I’ll be eating lunch with students here too. The headmaster said they have the best school lunch in Japan, and while I’ve heard every school makes the same boast, they said at their school it’s actually a lunch menu you can choose from, which sounds awesome. I won’t have to pick around the beef and pork at this school!

But the most excellent surprise of the day came when one of the teachers came up to introduce herself to me and told me who she was. K-sensei is the mother of one of my students from Togane Chu.], but not just any student—my favorite student! I could hardly believe it. Of all 600 students (800 if you count last year’s graduates), I’ll actually be working with the mother of the one I liked the most!

She and the two men we’d had the meeting with saw us to the exit and wished us a good day. I’ve been invited to that school’s opening ceremony for new teachers on Friday, which I fully intend to go to even though it’s outside the contract.

I only might not be able to attend if I pass the driving test tomorrow and have to get a car on Friday, though I can probably do both things in one day. (But it’s far more likely I’ll fail the test again anyway.)

So now I’ve seen the schools I’ll be working at this year, and I’m extremely pleased that they all seem so pleasant. Ironically, the one school where I received the least warm greeting is the school I’ll be spending most of my time, but we’ll see how it goes once I’ve given my self-introduction to the whole school.

In any case, I know I made a very good impression on everyone I had a chance to, which was the main purpose of the day. But I think the person I made the best impression on overall was Takahashi-san. She was extremely grateful to me for memorizing that speech, as it made her and Interac look good as well. She found it wonderful that I actually like to stay after school and communicate with students, as most ALTs just want to go home right away. And when we were getting close to my apartment I pulled down my window to call a Togane Chu student passing by on her bike by name, and Takahashi-san found out I’d learned all 600 of my student’s names. Before she dropped me off she told me I should be a real full-time teacher, not an ALT.

I’ve been imagining going back to America and teaching there at some point, but who knows? Maybe I’ll just stay in Japan and become a real teacher here. I doubt it, but it definitely does have a place on my list of possible futures.

The Last Goodbyes

March 30th, 2013 No 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.

The End Approaches

March 24th, 2013 No comments

Friday was my last actual paid work day at my school, so I suppose I technically don’t work there anymore. But it didn’t feel like the last day because in reality, it wasn’t. It was the last day for the students, but the teachers remain for another week before changing jobs within the school or transferring to their new schools. There was a closing ceremony on Friday, but the real, actual, final closing ceremony won’t be until this Friday, the 29th. Attending that is optional for me, but I wouldn’t dream of missing it.

Friday was, however, the last day for O-sensei, my teaching partner for every class for the last two semesters. Her husband is being transferred to Korea, so she’ll be moving there with him and just be a housewife for awhile until she’s comfortable enough with the language to get some kind of job. It’s a pity because she made a great teacher, but I suppose she never intended to make a career out of it.

Departing part-time teachers give farewell speeches at the first closing ceremony while full-timers go at the second, so O-sensei one of three teachers who gave a speech on Friday. One of others was being offered a position as a full-time teacher, so he had to give a farewell speech in spite of the fact that he’d already found out—though he was supposed to keep it secret—that his new job would be at the same school. The students are in for a pleasant surprise when they see him again in April.

I hadn’t stayed the whole day after the closing ceremony last year, so I hadn’t known how the whole teacher-transfer process goes down. At the end of the day of the closing ceremony, there’s a meeting in the teacher’s room in which the principal formally announces which teachers and faculty members will be transferring and where to, and he also reads the names and ages of the people who’ll be replacing them. Apparently it’s supposed to be kept secret until that moment, and even then they’re not supposed to tell anyone until the formal announcements are made in the newspaper the following week.

Why the need for secrecy, I have no earthly idea. O-sensei couldn’t explain it either. That’s just how it works in Japan.

Apparently, I was also supposed to keep my own impending transfer a secret. When I e-mailed Interac to ask them which specific schools I’d be going to, they wrote back telling me I should only be saying that I might transfer to another school, not that I definitely would. Oops. Too late. But that’s a mistake I couldn’t possibly regret any less, as I wouldn’t have had all those wonderful goodbyes from students if I hadn’t told them I’d be leaving.

But the whole secrecy thing complicates things in terms of my own role at the school’s final closing ceremony. I’ve been hoping to be able to give my farewell speech—to which I’ve added a few extra paragraphs and continue to practice every day—in front of the whole school like the other departing full-timers. But Interac hasn’t told my school’s administrators about the transfer yet, and I learned from T-sensei yesterday that the school actually received a letter telling them I would stay there. This confuses me greatly, and I called Interac to find out what the deal was but the woman who handles placement wasn’t there and she never called me back, so I have to wait until Monday to clear things up. She did write in her e-mail that they let the schools know about their shuffling of ALTs at the “end of March” and the 29th is the last weekday of March so I’m fairly confident they’ll know by the closing ceremony, but I’m not technically supposed to be a part of the closing ceremony unless they have the official word that I’m leaving. T-sensei said that I could still give my speech, but it would just be its own extra part of the assembly. I wouldn’t be in the formal goodbye part where all the departing teachers are handed flowers by students, make their speeches one by one, and formally exit the gym. I’d probably also be excluded from the farewell-speech giving portion of the enkai, for which I’ve also prepared a speech.

It’s a little annoying, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be told the news next week and everything will be ready for Friday. It would be extremely weird for Interac to withhold news about who the school’s ALT for the next school-year will be until it actually is the next school year.

Interac is even keeping the schools I’ll be going to secret from me, though I have a pretty strong clue as to which junior high school I’m going to. It came about in a bit of an odd way. A year ago, the mother of one of my students found my apartment while doing her Jehovah’s witness knocking-on-doors thing, and ever since then she’s been showing up at my door every couple of months or so to talk to me about Jesus and make me read Bible passages. I’m too polite to ask her to stop, so she keeps coming. The last couple of times she came, she brought with her a Jamaican girl who is also a Jehovah’s witness and also an Interac ALT. The first time, once we got through the Bible stuff she asked me if I’d be transferring and at that point I didn’t know. She said she already knew she’d be transferring and I should contact Interac and ask them, which is what prompted me to do that at the beginning of the month. The second time she came I said I would be transferring but I didn’t know where to, that it would be in Togane but they were making me get a car. She said that meant I’d probably be taking over her schools, as she needed a car to get to them. They’re in Togane, but way up in the hills so it’s not really feasible to walk or bike to them. As far as I know, there’s only one junior high school up in the hills, and since she was their ALT and she’s transferring, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this is in fact where I’ll be transferring to.

At the meeting on Monday, I listened to where the other departing teachers are being transferred to, but none of them were going to that school. However, one of the vice principals—the really nice guy who once told me he wishes all Americans were like me—is going become the principal of that school, which needless to say is awesome news. No stress about making a good impression on that principal—I’ve already had two years to do so!

But we’ll see. If I fail the driver’s test tomorrow, there’s some chance Interac won’t offer me that position. They said they’d pay for a cab until I get the license, but I’ve long since learned not to always trust the information Interac gives me. For all I know, what they told my school was true and they won’t end up transferring me at all—leaving me with a substantial amount of egg on my face when I go back in April and face all those students I shared heartfelt farewells with.

In any case, I should know by Friday. Though the school-year is technically over for me, I pretty much consider this to be a work-week. Monday is the driver’s test and that’ll take up the whole day. Tuesday is the day of the Spring Concert, so I’ll be seeing a whole bunch of teachers and students that day. Wednesday and Thursday are free but I’m toying with the idea of going in anyway just for the hell of it. And Friday is the closing ceremony and farewell enkai. So it’s over but it’s not over.

The only absolute final goodbye I’ve said so far is to O-sensei, who will not be working next week and not attending the closing ceremony. She was given a very fond farewell by the faculty when she left at the end of the day, and I was asked to pose in a picture with her as she left. We exchanged a few words of mutual appreciation for each others’ help, and I gave her a note I’d written to further express my appreciation. I’d written messages to all the students, so it was only right to write one for her as well. She helped me tremendously throughout the school year both with lessons and basic life-in-Japan stuff. I was extraordinarily lucky to be partnered with her, but now that’s over.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have taught at that school, but that’s over too and it’s time to move on. One week to go.

The Never-Ending Ending

March 16th, 2013 No 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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