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Sports Day: K-chu

September 10th, 2013 No comments

Saturday was the third Japanese Sports Day I’ve gone to, the first being last year at Togane Chu and the second also being at Togane Chu when I visited their Sports Day earlier this year. Although this school is much much smaller than Togane (only 1/6th the student population) it was pretty much the same basic things. The students were divided into a red team and white team, but unlike at Togane they were even divided up within their own homerooms. Some competitions pitted homerooms against each other and awards were given to the classes that won those events, but the main competition was between the red and white team.

Most of the events were identical or similar to the Togane events. There were bizarre relay races, classes jumping rope in synch, and of course the obligatory “mukade” race where classes race against each other with their feet all tied together. Before the lunch break all the girls did a dance, but rather than human-pyramid building like at Togane the boys had synchronized vaulting along with the girls’ dance.

The thing most unique to this particular Sports Day were the elementary school events. Most of the 5th and 6th-graders from H-sho a handful of 6th-graders from M-sho (presumably those of them who’ll be attending K-chu next year) showed up and competed in a couple of events against each other. They did a tug-of war and a relay with current H-sho / M-sho students, former H-sho / M-sho students, and parents. So for about an hour, I got to see students from all three of my schools all together at once. It was almost certainly the only time that’ll ever happen, and it was pretty cool. (Incidentally, H-sho was victorious in both events.)

One difference between the K-chu and Togane Chu Sports Day that was not cool was my complete and utter exclusion from the entire event. At least at Togane Chu I got to participate in two events, but I was left out of everything. I wasn’t even assigned to the red or white team, but that allowed me carry out an idea I had to twist my headband so it was red on the left and white on the right, which led to some confusion and amusement of some students.

The best thing about the day was getting to take pictures. I won’t post any here, but because it’s such a small school I was easily able to get one or several pictures of every last student to remember them by.

There was an enkai in the evening which I attended, but it turned out to be the least enjoyable enkai I’ve yet been to. It was at a Chinese restaurant so unlike other events drinks were ordered and delivered pre-poured, which meant teachers weren’t going around pouring drinks for everyone and that meant far fewer teachers coming up to interact with me. By “far fewer” I basically mean zero, as the only teachers I spoke to all night were the ones to the left and the right of me. I’d already been harboring feelings of resentment at being left out of Sports Day, and that just augmented those feelings but I know it’s no big deal. At least it wasn’t all bad—the woman to the right of me had been a teacher at H-sho a few years ago and knew all the current 6th-graders and most of the other students as well, so we were able to chat at length comparing our impressions of some of those students.

She informed me that H-sho has its Sports Day on the 28th of this month, so I’ll get to see my first elementary school Sports Day then. Hopefully M-sho won’t have theirs on the same day, but if they do I’ll drive over there and check theirs out for awhile, though I’ll spend the bulk of the day with H-sho, which remains my current favorite school.

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.

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.

—–

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.

Farewell

March 9th, 2013 No comments

This year’s graduation was, as I expected, a tremendously more emotional experience for me than last year’s. Last year I’d just been getting to know the third-graders, so while I was sad to see them go, the feeling wasn’t overwhelming. I’d only been teaching them for a few months, and towards the end I stopped having classes with them altogether. They never grew attached to me, and with just a handful of exceptions I didn’t have time to develop much fondness for them.

This year, it’s a completely different situation. I’ve been with these kids for a year and a half, watched them grow and change in just that short amount of time with the rapid pace kids at their age grow. I had more lessons with them last year than either of the other grades, and this year the lessons didn’t taper off at the end like last year—I taught them every week right up until the end, gave them great lesson after great lesson (this year I’ve been much better at it than I was when I started), and said a fond, heartfelt farewell during my last moments with each of their classes. These kids meant a great deal to me, and it turned out I meant something to them as well.

Thursday was graduation rehearsal day, the last day in which the senior class stays the entire day. During their last normal homeroom, yearbooks are handed out, and most of them stay in school for several hours afterwards to pass them around and get all their friends to sign. Last year, only four or five students came up to me and asked me to sign. This year, it was more than half of them. I sat outside in the courtyard and as the students left the school, they would come up to me and ask me for some words. I happily obliged, glad for the opportunity to leave a personal message specifically for each one of them. I was out there for two hours, but those were the nicest two hours of my entire teaching career.

They left after third period yesterday so I didn’t see any of them, but today was the day of the ceremony.

Everything was exactly the same as last year. The first and second graders arrive first as parents slowly file in and sit between the underclasses and the chairs for the seniors. They practice their songs a couple of times, then everything gets quiet as the seniors line up outside. They enter two-by-two to Pachelbel’s Canon in D and take their seats. I’m sitting on the same side of the gym as they enter but all the way on the other side, in the chairs for the teachers. As I watch them enter I can already feel a lump forming in my throat, but I know there are a good three hours to go.

After the singing of the national anthem, they get right down to the business of handing out diplomas. As each student steps up to receive their diploma, I try and pull up some memories I have of him or her. This was much different than last year. This time I know all their full names before they’re called, and I have tons of pleasant memories of nearly all of them. About half-way through, my emotions start catching up with me, as I notice it’s starting to hit some other teachers as well. Their homeroom teachers are seated right in front of me, and these normally very composed professionals are sniffling and fighting back tears. I find myself doing the same in spite of myself. I knew it was going to be hard but I had no idea how hard it was going to hit me.

Once all the students have their diplomas, the boring part begins and my emotions are mercifully allowed to subside. The principal gets up and gives the longest speech in the history of speeches, and when he’s finished there are even more ridiculously long speeches from various members of the Board of Education and PTA.

But when that’s done and the underclasses stand up to sing their song for the seniors, the emotions come right back again. More sniffles and tear-wiping from the teachers around me. The end is approaching now.

One of the underclassmen, whom I know best from his being in the Speech Contest both as a first-grader (when I was there) and a second-grader (when I wasn’t), moves to the front of the room to give a speech to the seniors on behalf of all of the underclasses. Then the principal takes the stage, and one of the seniors steps up to deliver a speech to him (and by extension the entire faculty) on behalf of the graduating class. It’s Y-, who was also in the Speech Contest this year that I very regrettably missed. As she approaches the end of her speech, her voice starts to crack and she struggles to finish speaking through her tears. I can’t help but get massively choked up again as well.

Now it’s really almost over. One of the faculty members says a few words to the parents on behalf of the faculty, then the third-graders stand up and turn around to sing their first of two songs. I do my best to keep it together, but holding back the tears is completely futile.

Finally, the graduates stand up and take their places on the risers in front of the stage for the final final song. One of them, a boy named K- from 3-4 who is just an absolutely all-around great kid, will be conducting. Before he begins, he says a personal thank you to all of the third grade teachers on behalf of the third-graders, and he generates a little bit of laughter when he realizes he doesn’t know some of their first names.

At this point I’ve stood up and moved back to where I can get a good view of the students, and let the emotion take its toll as the departing students stand up there as one class, all of them together for the very last time.

When they finish, the third-grade teachers head to the exit so they can watch the students as they leave, and I go over to join them. As they walk two-by-two out of the gym for that final exit as junior high school students, half of them in tears, I don’t even bother trying to wipe away my own. All of the third grade teachers are crying uncontrollably now.

As they leave, some students have smiles on their faces, and some laugh when they see their teachers crying, but it’s obvious that most of them are finally being hit with the reality that a precious time in their lives is finally at an end. One of the boys is sobbing uncontrollably. Most of them don’t even look up at the teachers, the sight of us in tears probably too much for them. The last two students to leave, one of them K-, turn around and take the final bow, the heaviness of that one final ceremonious action apparently overwhelming them as they both seem to erupt in tears at that instant. Then they turn around and head up the stairs, and it’s over.

All the teachers I was standing with leave as well, and I’m halfway to following them back to the main part of the building before I realize I’ve made a mistake. It was only the third-grade teachers heading back in, while the rest of the faculty remained in the gym. I quickly head back down the stairs but find myself caught in the slightly embarrassing situation of standing there while the school administrators and special guests (Board of Ed, PTA) make their own ceremonious exit.

I head back in the gym and re-take my seat as the first-graders exit and the second-graders are given their instructions for putting the gym back in order. Like last year, I try and help with the folding up of chairs, but the students have it under control and I’m pretty useless. I head back up to the teacher’s room and take my seat, wondering what happens next.

I open my lap-top and start the standard Japanese-flashcard program practice but I’m so distracted I keep messing up. When O-sensei comes I ask her what’s going on and she explains it. Last year when the ceremony was over I just stayed in the teacher’s room the whole time, but this year I wanted to be able to go say personal goodbyes to students before they left. O-sensei explained that the underclasses were leaving now, and the third-graders were all having their final final homeroom session, after which they’d leave and a bunch of teachers would go outside to say goodbyes.

At first I assume I’ll just wait until that happens, but then I hear piano music in the hallway and I go to check it out. It’s T-sensei’s class, 3-5, standing in one of the little piano areas and performing their song from the Chorus Contest for their parents, who are all taking pictures and videos. A few of them spot me and wave, and I feel the emotions start rising again.

But my crying for the day is done. As I watch them sing, I hear someone speaking English down the hallway, and I turn my head to see Heath, my temporary placement, talking to O-sensei. He’s come to say his own goodbyes as well. I can’t help but feel irrationally miffed about this—I’m their ALT goddammit, not you—but I know it’s ridiculous to feel that way. He only spent a month and a half with them, but that’s probably enough to make someone want to show up at their graduation. I might have done the same thing.

When their song is finished, Heath says hello to them and they respond with their typical warmth. Then all of us, T-sensei, me, Heath, and the head third-grade teacher, are invited to join them in the piano area as some formal goodbyes are said. A boy says farewell on behalf of all the boys and a girl says farewell on behalf of the girls, then the head third-grade teacher says a few words, and I’m asked to say a few words as well. I’m caught off guard, so I just recite a couple of lines from my speech before T-sensei tells me English is OK. I joke, “You understand English? Wow!” And I give them a few words about what a great class they were and how I really enjoyed teaching them and I’d miss them all very much.

When that’s over, Heath slips away towards the third-grade hallway, and I give him a bit of a head-start before following. I might as well check out the final homeroom sessions as well. I poke my head into each classroom to see what’s going on. The students’ parents are all there, either in the classrooms or standing outside, as the teachers give their final farewell speeches. One class is sitting in darkness just watching a video, so I don’t disturb them but a couple of students notice me and wave as I pass, tears in their eyes.

3-2 is in the middle of the school song when I get there, and after a moment’s hesitation I pop in and sing the second verse along with them, impressing not only the students (who probably never realized I knew the song) but their parents as well.

When I pop my head into 3-1, a couple of students shout at me to sign their yearbooks after, as they’d missed me on Thursday. They catch me heading back down the hall towards 3-6, and I give them both very nice messages.

Now I hear piano music again, and recognize immediately that it’s 3-6 singing their Chorus Contest song, the one I’d told them was the best and should have won. I get there as quickly as possible and I get happy waves from the students as they see me, glad I could be there for this moment. When they finish, all the girls want their picture taken with me so I stay and happily oblige them. Before they turn and head back to their classroom I give them all one last fond farewell, and one of them says, “Thank you for everything” before they turn and walk away.

I glance out the window and notice some students are already leaving school property, so I quickly head downstairs, slip into my outside shoes, and head out. For the next thirty minutes or so I walk around the courtyard catching almost every student I’d hoped to catch and say goodbye to on the way out. It was inevitable that I’d miss a few, but I’m very lucky to be able to say one last personal goodbye to the students I care about most.

But before I know it, the head third-grade teacher tells me it’s time to get back inside for lunch, and after a few more quick goodbyes I re-enter the building. That was that.

Our bento lunches are already distributed when I get back, and a few ceremonious words from the head third-grade teacher are said before the “itadakimasu” (the word you’re always supposed to say before eating). It’s 1:30 at this point, about an hour and a half after the normal lunch time, so I’m extremely hungry. Otherwise I don’t know how I’d be able to force myself to eat in such an emotional state. It feels very weird to chow down when all kinds of sad and beautiful images from the morning are floating through my mind, the ever-present awareness that all those kids are now officially no longer students at this school.

The afternoon has been pretty uneventful except for a series of smaller graduation ceremonies for some of the students who didn’t come to the main ceremony. I find this rather interesting. Many students either rarely came to school at all or never come to class, but they’re still required by law to graduate. Those who don’t want to join the main group for graduation are given a small ceremony in the music room, where the principal hands each of them their diploma. It lasts less than 10 minutes, but is just as formal as the main ceremony. I went to the first two, but after that decided to just stay in the teacher’s room and finish studying Japanese, as well as write this entry so I don’t have to tomorrow.

At 4:30 we’ll all be heading to the location of the enkai, which I expect will include more emotional speeches from the third-grade teachers, just as there had been last year. If anything particularly interesting happens, I’ll write about it, but for now I’ll just let this serve as my graduation entry.

Words can’t adequately capture what this day has felt like. I’ve never actually gone through this before (as I said, last year’s doesn’t even compare), so I don’t know if I’m really done with the tears or if it’s all going to hit me again like a ton of bricks when I get home tonight. I suspect it will.

The sadness may be overwhelming, but it’s a sadness wrapped in joy. Between the farewell speech I was able to give on our last lesson, the yearbooks I was able to sign on Thursday, and today’s personal goodbyes as they left the building, I’m not only completely satisfied with how it ended, but certain that my feelings of fondness for them are reciprocated—that I mean as much to them as they do to me.

The most important lines from my speech are lines I take tremendous comfort in knowing I got to say to them. They’re the lines I hope they’ll always take with them, as I will:

“Never forget this time. Your lives are about to change in so many ways, but the people around you now will always be a part of you. If I’m even a small part, I consider it a privilege.”

Farewell, class of Heisei 25. It’s been a privilege.

***UPDATE***

Just a few quick words about last night’s enkai. I don’t know if it’s because of the teachers or the students, but this year’s speeches from the third-grade teachers were far more emotional overall than last year. Last year only one of the third-grade homeroom teachers broke out in tears during her speech, but this year 5 out of 6 of them were at least a little choked up, and three of them had to really struggle to make it through their speech, constantly stopping to apologize and wipe away their tears.

The one who had the hardest time of it was O-sensei, who taught 3-4. He would deliver a few lines, then just stop completely, his eyes shut, pausing endlessly as though trying to remember what he wanted to say next but more likely just trying to keep himself from erupting in a fit of uncontrolled sobbing. I found the reaction of some of the other teachers curious, as they were laughing and poking fun at him. He took it with good humor though, even laughing at himself a bit along with them, so I figure it’s just that they know him and know he’s not the kind of guy to take it the wrong way. One of the last teachers to speak was another O-sensei, not a homeroom teacher but one who taught all the third-grade classes, and while he cried throughout his entire speech no one laughed at him.

T-sensei was the one to speak after the O-sensei who taught 3-4, and I was able to understand at the beginning of her speech she talked about how difficult that same class had been last year as 2-4, complimenting O-sensei on his ability to get that class in line. I’d tried to tell him the same thing back at the Chorus Contest enkai but I’d messed up and said the word for “this year” instead of “last year” making it sound like I was telling him his class was very unruly this year. When the speeches were done I asked T-sensei to help me correct my mistake, and tell him I’m also grateful for how he managed to turn that class around.

I was able to tell a few others teachers about how I won’t be coming back next year, which they were sad to hear. Apparently they don’t find out until almost the very end of the school-year whether they’ll be returning, which I find fascinating. Apparently it’s not just Interac that puts teacher placement off until the last minute—the Board of Education does too. The teachers seem to have an idea of what’s going to happen, but none of them know for sure.

As for the students who graduated yesterday, it’s not completely over yet. Yesterday was just the main goodbye—not the final goodbye. I confirmed last night that they do indeed come back for the final closing ceremony a week after regular classes end. Part of me wishes they wouldn’t—it was hard enough saying goodbye the first time. Doing it again, on what will also be my very last final day at the school—I don’t even want to think about it.

And as for the rest of the students, I have most of my final lessons with them this week, so the sadness is just going to continue. But I intend to write messages for all of them (since they don’t get yearbooks) and memorize a few more speeches, so my goodbye to them will hopefully be just as satisfying as it was for the graduating class.

It’s quite a month. I don’t want it to end, but I can’t wait until it’s over.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

The World Goes On

December 22nd, 2012 No comments

If those silly fools who believed the propaganda about the Mayan prophecy had been correct, the world would have ended yesterday. Maybe what the Mayans had actually predicted was the end of the Japanese public schools’ fall semester.

The last school-day of 2012 was an eventful one for me, starting with the closing ceremony in the school gym. It was exactly the same as last year, basically just the singing of the school song followed by an extremely long speech from the principal (all I got is that he was talking about the future), but this time I stayed after the first and second-graders left and the third-graders remained behind for what was apparently a briefing on their upcoming high school entrance exams. They were split up into groups according to which type of high school they intended to apply to, then the head of the third-grade teachers gave them all an extremely serious speech about the importance of these tests. I only picked up a few phrases here and there but the tone was unbelievably harsh with lots of shouting. It sounded like his goal was to drill home just how incredibly important these tests are, and that if they failed they would amount to nothing more than human garbage who would probably be doing Japanese society a favor by killing themselves. I suppose high school entrance exams aren’t stressful enough so he felt it was his duty to add to the pressure.

Once that was over I was able to leave early because Interac had scheduled that afternoon for me to come to Chiba and take my mandatory annual health check, which was precisely as fun as it sounds. I went to the Chiba branch office for the first time since returning to Japan, so I got to meet the people I was dealing with on the phone during my time stuck in America and put faces to the names and voices.

For the health check I was escorted by a very nice woman who’s new there to a hospital literally across the street from their building, and go through a tedious ordeal of waiting, getting some sort of test done, waiting some more, getting another test done, and so on. I had to do the standard things like height, weight, and blood pressure, as well as an eye-test and chest x-ray, and I had to pee in a cup and hand it to a nurse which is always awkward. Oddly enough, they didn’t do a hearing test or blood test like they had at the health check during orientation last year, but I didn’t complain when it was over and they finally let me go.

The last part of the day was the only enjoyable part, as it was the year-end enkai for my school. It was just about the same type of deal as nearly all of the others I’ve gone to, but that’s not a bad thing at all. Because of the health check I had to fast all day, so I was more than ready to dig into all the crazy Japanese cuisine laid out for us, which seemed to taste more delicious than ever this time.

I got to talk to T-sensei for awhile about how things have been going since I’ve been back, which was nice because we never talk at school now that we’re not teaching together anymore. I asked her a bit about the whole high school entrance exam thing and she explained what I’d seen after the ceremony. She also informed me that it’s not exactly the case that students only get one shot at the exams and if they fail that’s it. If they want to get into a public high school they only have one chance, but they can still take an entrance test for private schools, assuming a private school isn’t their first choice anyway. But if they fail twice, that is the end for them. They become the convenience store clerks and fast food cashiers of the world.

Once everyone had a few drinks in them more people made the attempt at communicating with me, and I found my ability to communicate has improved a bit since last year but isn’t nearly where I’d like it to be. It’s still extremely hard to understand them, as they’re not used to speaking to foreigners and don’t think to only use the simplest words and phrases expressed in the simplest ways. But if they knew a little English they put it to their best use. One of the young teachers spoke to me almost exclusively in poor broken English while I responded in poor broken Japanese, and somehow we managed to communicate quite a bit.

That teacher was the subject of the most fun the night, as he apparently had a new girlfriend he was texting with throughout and the other teachers were teasing him about it or occasionally even peaking at her texts and reading them aloud to everyone. At one point someone took the phone and passed it around to everyone. One teacher asked him what he wanted his reply to be so he could type it in and send it. It embarrassed him but he took it as jovially as can be expected. It’s always fun and interesting to see these serious professionals behaving like the students they teach.

After the initial party was karaoke, just as wild and fun as usual only this time I made sure not to get embarrassingly drunk. I drank just enough to work up the nerve to sing “99 Luftballoons” in German, which everyone got a kick out of. Later I sang John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas” which went without reaction until the end, when I got a nice warm applause and “Happy Christmas”es from a few people including the Vice Principal whom I once thought had a permanent stick up his ass but who is actually just as friendly when he loosens up as the last one, and also happens to have the best singing voice out of all of us. I joined him for what was my only cigarette of the night and he asked me about my month-and-a-half absence which I did my best to explain in Japanese. I still find it perplexing how no one at the school seemed to know what the problem had been when I got back. I guess Interac didn’t bother explaining but just sent my replacement and said, “Here, use this guy for now.”

I felt a little sad when the night was over and we all went outside and went our separate ways. The place was a five-minute walk from my apartment (it was the same place I went with Kim and Enam and everyone on my return-to-Japan party) so just minutes after I was in this warm and friendly social situation I was back alone at home, knowing that this is pretty much all there’s going to be for the next two weeks. Of course loneliness doesn’t bother me much these days, but there’s always this weird thing about it being Christmas and having no one to share it with. Everyone I know around here is going somewhere, and I can’t afford to so I’ll just have to make due alone.

But it won’t be so bad. I’ve got plenty of ways to pass the time, and I recently figured out where the closest movie theater is so today I’m going to see The Hobbit and I might see Les Miserables next week. I think I’ll head into Tokyo on New Years’ Eve and find a celebration to join, but other than that I’ve got no other plans. And when all is said and done, I can’t forget how badly I wanted to get back here when I was in America and couldn’t. I may not be with who I want to be, but I’m right where I want to be.

Second Honeymoon

October 27th, 2012 No comments

They say your first few months living in a foreign country is your “honeymoon period” when everything about the culture—even the stuff that later gets annoying—is new and awesome and fascinating. I’m not sure I’d even broken out of that phase by the time I left on my ill-fated summer vacation, but it’s certainly felt renewed since I’ve been back.

“Ah, there’s that forced friendliness from the convenience store clerks I missed so much!”

“Yes, I’d love to take off my shoes before entering this establishment!”

“Sweet! We’re all going to wait at this red light even though there are no cars coming at all!”

“Earthquake! Wahoo!!!”

And so on.

There also might have been a bit of a renewed appreciation for me on the part of my students, but it’s hard to tell because they were always so warm and friendly before anyway. But I definitely have noticed that some students who never gave me much love before are now all of a sudden smiling and waving at me every time I see them, so that’s certainly a nice bonus.

The lessons themselves haven’t been much different though. Perhaps the second-graders are a bit more enthusiastic than they were before, but that could easily be because this week all I did was play games with them, and it’s hard to go wrong when games are the only item on the agenda. I did start each lesson with a brief explanation, translated through O-sensei, of why I was stuck in America for so long, complete with a few pictures to illustrate. The pictures of me in my Domino’s uniform and of me in Times Square with Mickey Mouse both had the desired effect.

Next week will be a bit more challenging. The material they gave me to work with wasn’t exactly the most conducive to fun and excitement.

For the first-graders all I’m supposed to do is review verbs in preparation for teaching them third-person form next week (I find it absurd they’re just learning that now), which at least gives me enough lee-way to make a fun game out of it, which I’ve modeled after baseball rules and am really looking forward to trying.

With the second-graders though, I’m supposed to prepare them for an interview test, and the interview will be about giving directions. Last year it was the third-graders who got the directions lesson, and it was one of the least-fun lessons I did. This time I’ll be trying something a bit different, drawing a big map on the board and handing out cards to the students with a direction phrase on it like, “Go straight for two blocks” or “Turn left at the first traffic light” and have them try and guide a little flash-card of Mario to the destination but they can only read the direction they have on their card so I expect he’ll be wandering around rather aimlessly for awhile until luck gets him where he’s going. I can do a pretty good Mario impression so hopefully that’ll make it fun, but then it’s just going to be the tedium of preparing for the interview test.

But the third-grade material is by far the worst. In addition to normal grammar lessons, the textbooks have lessons that are just stories or short texts, usually amusing (or supposed to be amusing) but often something serious about Japanese history. The story I’m supposed to teach this week is about three elephants at the Tokyo Zoo that the zookeepers had to starve to death during WWII so they wouldn’t escape if a bomb took out the fences.

Seriously? I’m trying to make a fun, happy lesson and the material you’re giving me to work with is dead elephants? Ironically, I’ll have a much better chance if the students don’t comprehend the story, but the whole point of the lesson is to get the students to comprehend the story. But I’ve figured out a way to make some games out of it and hopefully the spirit of competition will distract them from thinking about poor Tonky and Wanly desperately doing their tricks in hopes of being fed but getting nary a peanut or drop of water for their effort.

And speaking of competition, yesterday was the annual Chorus Contest, which I wrote about in great detail last year so I don’t have to this year. I definitely enjoyed it a lot more this year, both because I know most of the students a lot better than when I was just starting out last year and because of the second-honeymoon effect. The fact that it was a competition and not just a fun “let’s all sing songs for each other” event didn’t bother me as much this time around. Now I know there’s a Spring Concert, and that’s the just-for-fun one. If it wasn’t a competition, there’s no way some of these boys would exercise the self-discipline to practice their songs and get up on stage to sing them. But every single student got up and sang, even the “bad” students who never come to class or spend the whole time goofing around.

The songs they sang were lovely, particularly those sung by the third-graders who for obvious reasons took the competition most seriously of all. They went after lunch, and the whole time I was getting chills listening to them sing, nearly moved to tears at times as they poured their hearts and souls into it. I felt so lucky to have gotten back in time for this, and I didn’t let a moment go by without appreciating the fact that I was getting to share the experience with them.

Just like last year, when all the classes were done singing they had a few paid musicians to play some music just for fun while the judges made their final decisions backstage, and this year the three-piece band was very lively and fun. The students were clapping along and dancing in their chairs the whole time, waving their hands in the air and just having an absolute blast. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, but I couldn’t block out the awareness that in just a short time no matter what happened, a whole lot of students I really like are going to be emotionally crushed.

And that’s exactly what happened. The results were read, and from each grade there was one runner-up class and one winner. Everyone else was a loser. Yes, you did spend nearly two months practicing and preparing for this event, you did invest way more of your emotions than you probably cared to into the opinions of these two judges, but after all that you get to go home with precisely jack squat and maybe some words of comfort from your homeroom teacher which won’t mean anything because they’re obviously biased in your favor anyway. As I watched the students walk out of the auditorium, most of the them, third-graders in particular, just looked completely devastated, and plenty were crying. Even T-sensei had tears in her eyes when she left, apparently having invested as much emotion into the judge’s opinions as her students.

As for the judges, I have no idea what kind of drugs they must have been smoking before watching the show because their decisions made no sense at all. Last year I hadn’t been listening critically but this year I decided to make it a bit more fun by jotting down notes for each class in the program they handed out, giving each class a score on a scale of 1-10 (which in reality turned out to be a scale of 5-9) and then ranking them within their grade based on who I thought did the best job. The actual judges were music teachers from nearby high schools so I suppose their ears are better trained than mine, but the classes that won were those I ranked the lowest, and I’d been as objective as I could possibly be. The two third-grade classes that won were the two friendliest classes, but they clearly didn’t do nearly as well as those I put at the top, one of which is my least favorite.

What bothered me the most was 3-6, which I gave a 9 out of 10 (the highest score) and ranked at number 1, just ahead of 3-4 which is my least favorite but definitely deserved a 9 as well. I’ll confess there was a bit of bias there, as while every class in the school has students I like, the one with the highest percentage of my favorites is 3-6. They did a spectacular job though, and their lovely song had moved me deeply so I felt perfectly justified in putting them at number one.

On my way out of the building I couldn’t resist going up to their class as they stood around commiserating and showed them what I’d put on my program. Most of them didn’t notice me but one of the girls paid attention to what I was telling her and she started shouting in Japanese “We won! We won!” Confused, the others turned to her and asked her what she was talking about. She pointed to me and said that according to Kyle-sensei, their class was the winner. I showed them my program and pointed out the score and rank I’d given them, and just like that their faces lit up and they started cheering wildly. I’ve never seen such a radical split-second reversal of emotion in my life. It was fucking awesome—there’s just no other way to put it.

I couldn’t really do that with any other groups, so I got out of there and went home immediately after, but that’s definitely going down in one of my favorite school-related memories of all time. I’m sure those students went back to being depressed after I left, but at least when they went home and inevitably brooded over it, they’d be able to think that at least in one (presumably unbiased) onlooker’s opinion, their class had in fact done the best job. It won’t mean as much as the stupid high school music teachers’ opinion, but it’ll mean something.

The chorus contest is one of those school events after which an enkai is obligatory, so I had the pleasure of going to another one of those just a few hours later. Again, there’s not much new to say about these but I particularly enjoyed this one quite a bit thanks to the honeymoon effect, as this is about as genuine Japanese-culture as it gets. Floor pillows, people pouring beer into your tiny glass, all kinds of colorful seafood concoctions—the works.

I’d been told the event started at 6:00 but it turned out to have been 5:45 so I got there a bit late and everyone was already eating and drinking, but that meant I got a warm round of applause when I entered so that was a nice touch. It felt like they were officially welcoming me back into their family.

Over the course of the night I got to speak to a lot of the teachers I never get to talk to, especially now that I’m working exclusively with O-sensei. I told Y-sensei, the homeroom teacher for 3-6, what I told his students about ranking them at number 1, and he seemed almost as appreciative as they were. He said that on Monday he’s going to announce it to the whole class. I did the same for 3-4’s teacher, but I don’t really care what he does with the information.

I did most of my speaking in Japanese, naturally, except when I just couldn’t find the words, but most of the teachers at least seemed able to understand when I expressed myself in English, as I’m pretty good at finding the most basic, simple way of saying things.

I talked to I-sensei for a bit, who told me that the girls were all very excited that I was back, and jokingly asked me where my keys were. I informed him they were right in my pocket.

My only exclusively English conversations were with K-sensei and T-sensei. K-sensei asked me about finding a Japanese girlfriend and I explained to him why it’s difficult. He thinks I should have no trouble at all once I get past the language barrier.

And with T-sensei I commiserated about how terrible it was for the students who worked so hard to get no recognition. She was still in an emotional state, her eyes red with tears the whole time, but she really appreciated when I told her how great her class had done. I exaggerated a little because I’d actually ranked them 5 out of 6, but I saw no harm in that and in telling her to tell her students I thought they were wonderful. They were—I gave them a 7.5—but the other third-grade classes just outshined them. They still did better than 3-1 which got 2nd-place (6th in my book), and I was completely honest in telling her how ridiculous I thought the judge’s decisions were. She said that the principal had told her the same thing, so either he was just saying that to make her feel better or I’m not the only unbiased person who felt that way.

When our time was up I only needed to walk five minutes down the road to get back to my apartment (I wish they’d hold all the enkais at that place) and settled down to look back on what I knew the whole time would be one of the most memorable days of my life. It was fantastic to be able to share so many smiles and pleasant interactions with so many students on the same day, but terribly sad to have to see so many of them emotionally devastated. At least I was able to mitigate some of that devastation.

So with that I feel like my Epic Return is officially complete. The renewed sense of appreciation I have is still going strong, though it’s not like I needed it in the first place. I assume this second honeymoon period will wear off at about the same time the first one does, whenever that may be.

Cross-Polar Transit

July 28th, 2012 No comments

My last night in Japan before coming home to America for a month was spent in an appropriately Japanese way. It just happened to be the night of the summer vacation enkai, the last teacher drinking party before the long holiday (during which I assume most teachers will be going in every day anyway). I’m used to these events by now, so it wasn’t nearly as special or interesting as my first couple were, but I still find these to be worthwhile experiences.

It took place at a fancy hotel and tennis club not far from the Togane Culture Hall (venue for the Chorus Contest and Spring Concert), a kind of place where weddings are held. The meal was 5,000 yen per person, and consisted of about five small portions of very fancy, very traditional Japanese cuisine (mostly bizarre seafood concoctions). A few speeches were made by the principal and head teachers about the school-year so far, as well as an impromptu speech by one of the new teachers from each grade.

I was also called upon to put the teachers to a kind of trivia quiz with a twist—the twist being all the questions and answers were in English—and it was slightly embarrassing because no one had told me about it beforehand and I was just kind of thrust up to the microphone and told to go ahead. The teacher who put it together, the young one who has hard time speaking English, apparently spent all her time translating the questions into perfect English and no time thinking about how the quiz was actually supposed to work in terms of who competed and how they were supposed to answer, so we had to figure that out and explain it to everyone on the spot. There were some excruciating moments, like when I asked a question on Japan’s voting age (it’s 20, by the way) and none of the teachers knew the meaning of the word “vote”. I don’t know it in Japanese either, so I couldn’t help them. Eventually one of them asked an English teacher and got it. But for the most part it went smoothly enough, with easy questions like “What’s the highest mountain in Japan?”

Almost everybody drove to this place (I rode my bike) so almost nobody was drinking, making this a far less loose affair than usual, and there was no karaoke after-party this time either. But even if there had been I wouldn’t have gone, as I had to get up at 4:00 a.m. the next morning to begin my painfully long and excruciating travel ordeal.

It started with a 5:00 a.m. train from Togane to Chiba with a transfer in Oami. The Oami to Chiba train-ride at that time of morning is apparently quite crowded so I didn’t get a seat, but just to add to the anxiety there was a spider moving about and spinning a web right over my head, often dangling down just a foot or two away from me and igniting my arachnophobia. But the train was too crowded for me to move, so I just had to put up with it for thirty minutes. I only had three minutes in Chiba to change trains, but I was able to get to the Narita Airport Express easily enough and arrive at the correct terminal with plenty of time to spare.

Going through immigration this time was a bit different than last time, as this time I’d checked with Interac beforehand to ask what I needed to do to get the proper re-entry permit. They told me that the rules are actually changing and I wouldn’t need a re-entry permit this time, but the guy at the immigration counter was giving me a hard time anyway. I still had that stamp from back in April which expires on August 15th, do when I told him I’d be back on the 31st he was confused. I told him that my employer told me the rules were changing and I didn’t need a permit anymore, and although he did let me through he took my Alien Registration Card and punched a hole through it, saying it’s no longer valid and I’d have to get a new one when I return. I wrote to Interac this morning just to be sure I also don’t need to apply for a new visa before coming back either.

As opposed to the April flight which was just a nice straight shot with United Airlines from Narita to Newark, this time I was flying Air China because it was about a thousand dollars less than any other airline. But it meant I first had to fly four hours in the wrong direction, from Tokyo to Beijing, and transfer flights there. I only had an hour between the landing of one plane and the departure of the next, so I was a bit worried I wouldn’t make it, and when the line at the transfer desk was taking forever and you had to go through a security checkpoint after that, my stress level rose. But I made it to the right gate with about five minutes to spare, and felt much more at ease once I got on the plane that was actually taking me to New York.

The flight itself, however, was rather painful. It was about 14 hours, and unlike United Airlines it had no amenities whatsoever. For their long international flights, United now has little TV screens for each seat, equipped with hundreds of on-demand movies and TV shows for your entertainment. They’ve also got electrical outlets in the seats, which is what made my last cross-Pacific flights a piece of cake to endure because it allowed me to play addictive, time-consuming computer strategy games. The Air China plane was super-old and had no such things. There were no electrical outlets so I’d only be able to get an hour or two of gaming in at best (I didn’t even bother), and there were only three screen in the whole cabin—two small ones to each side too far away from me to see, and one bigger projection-screen which was so feint as to be barely visible. Not that I would have been interested in the entertainment anyway, as it was just Chinese movies with Japanese subtitles. So for fourteen hours I just cycled between listening to an album on my iPhone and reading a few chapters from A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. the “Game of Thrones” book series), with one two hour podcast-listening session on my laptop, which drained half the battery. I’m thinking of buying a couple of spare batteries for the return journey to make the more bearable.

But at least I got a few awesome firsts out of the journey. I had a window seat for both flights, so I got to see Korea for the first time on the first flight, and although I never left the airport I can now technically say I’ve been in China. On the flight to New York I got to see a bit of Russia from the window, the really vast sea of nothingness part of it that I believe is known as the “steppe”. (Coincidentally, the podcast I listened to was part of a history series, the most recent of which just happened to be about Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Army, straight from the steppe I was flying over).

But coolest of all was seeing the polar ice-cap. As Beijing is practically on the same line of longitude as New York, we flew almost directly over the North Pole. The sun never actually set during the flight—just dipped down near the horizon and swung back over from west to eat. I’d never seen the actual arctic ice-cap before and it looked pretty cool, like some alien landscape on an ice-moon like Europa. The ice was all cracked up too, which makes me wonder if that’s how it always is or if it’s like that now due to global warming. In any case, given my window direction and our flight path, there’s a chance I actually laid eyes on the actual North Pole.

Whenever we passed it, we went from flying almost due north to almost due south in an instant, and the second half of the flight took us into New York. They switched the lights off after both meals—one early on and one at the half-way point, and both times I managed to doze off slightly but of course it wasn’t nearly enough to ward off jet-lag.

After that eternity of flying was over, we finally landed in what I’d thought was Newark airport because I hadn’t checked the flight info the previous day closely enough. When we landed the cabin crew announced “Welcome to John F. Kennedy airport”, and I immediately hoped my dad had checked the flight info carefully before coming to pick me up, as I’d told him Newark in the e-mail I’d sent the night before.

I got through immigration easily enough—the guy didn’t say a single word to me as he just took and stamped my passport, then waited nervously for a good twenty minutes at baggage claim, uncertain that my luggage had been as lucky in making the tight one-hour Beijing transfer as I had. But my bag did appear and I breathed a sigh of relief, and when I got through customs and spotted my dad waiting for me, the relief was now complete. I’d made it. All that remained was getting back home to New Jersey.

Unfortunately, even that proved to be a bit of a hassle. A drawbridge on the Belt Parkway had been stuck when my dad drove out there, so he tried to take a different highway back to avoid the bridge but by now this was extremely clogged as well. We ended up getting off the highway altogether and driving through the streets of Brooklyn, though we somehow get turned around and were going the wrong direction. I had to use his iPhone to navigate us back to the Belt Parkway, and we lost an hour total in the process.

A long, traffic-congested drive later, we were finally back in Clinton, and we stopped at a bar for dinner, some cold beer and delicious pizza. The meal and the atmosphere it was in—a redneck bar filled with rednecks and redneck families—could not have been a larger juxtaposition from the fancy Japanese cuisine formal dinner of the night before.

When we got back home, my dad had been invited over to visit some neighbors he hasn’t seen in awhile, and although I was ready to pass out at any time I figured I’d join him for the hell of it. (My mom is vacationing in Jamaica right now and won’t be back until late tonight). So I went over and found myself drinking beer on a typical back-porch of a typical American home with a bunch of typical American families. It felt like diving in head-first.

It also happened to be the night of the Olympic opening ceremony, so I ended up watching that as well once it started raining and we went inside. There was another family visiting so it was a pretty decent crowd, with two couples, a single mom, three high-school girls whom I haven’t seen since they were middle-schoolers, and two middle-school boys whom I haven’t seen since they were elementary-schoolers. It was a pleasant enough time, going back and forth between answering questions about Japan and cracking jokes about the Olympic ceremony.

At 10:30 my brother came home from work, so my dad and I headed back home and watched the rest of the ceremony with him. It was midnight when it ended, which meant that with the exception of a few very brief dozings, I’d been awake for 33 hours straight.

So if I consider the last 48 hours total, it was quite the eclectic series of experiences. A fancy dinner with my Japanese colleagues, my first time in China, my first glimpse of the polar ice-caps, a journey through the back-streets of Brooklyn, pizza and beer at a redneck bar, and watching the Olympics with American neighbors—quite the mish-mash of events indeed.

The upcoming month promises to be full of fun and interesting experiences. Let the summer of 2012 begin!

Sports Day: The Final First

June 5th, 2012 No comments

This past Saturday was one of the biggest days of any Japanese school-year: the “Undokai” (literally “exercise meeting”) which is usually referred to as “Field Day” or “Sports Day” in English. Every school has their own particular ways of doing it, but the basic idea is the same: all of the students and most of the teachers and staff are involved in various athletic competitions usually revolving around a track. There are the basic 100-200 meter races, a handful of relay-races, and a quite a few weird and wacky races to make it more fun. There are some familiar events like tug-of-war, and many distinctively Japanese events like teams holding up bamboo poles and trying to knock the other team’s pole down first.

As I sit down to write this I realize just how tedious a task attempting to describe it all in detail would be. I suppose just an account of the highlights and my thoughts surrounding the whole thing will suffice.

Fortunately, I don’t need to record it all in words because Sports Day is the one day of the school-year that Interac policy allows its teachers to take pictures at school, and I took advantage of that to an extreme degree, snapping well over two hundred photos and capturing about a dozen videos. When it comes to the third-graders these will be the only visual record I’ll have to remember them by, and if I get moved to a different school next year the same will go for the other students as well.

Of course, there are still strict rules regarding students’ privacy, so it’s obviously forbidden to post any pictures on a public website. I would have refrained from doing so anyway just out of my own common sense, but it’s nice to have them for myself. If you want to see them you’ll just have to remember to ask me to show them to you the next time you see me in person. Having looked through them all on Sunday I can easily say that these are my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. I mean, it’s nice to have shots of me in front of the Colosseum or the Golden Temple and that sort of thing, but most of my tourist-photos are of things you can see online anyway. These are pictures unique to my life, pictures of my wonderful students having a wonderful time on one of the most memorable days of their childhood. In addition to all the crazy pictures of them involved in crazy athletic events, I’ve also got a whole bunch in which they’re just smiling for my camera and flashing the obligatory V-for-victory sign. Priceless.

Not that I’m going to do anything about it, but I just can’t help but point out how allowing teachers to take pictures of students one day out of the year kind of negates the entire point of banning us from doing it the other 364. If the concern is that some teachers are going to misuse images of their students (and may those who do so burn in Hell for all eternity), opening up that door even for one day means that the door is open period, and you might as well just let photos be taken but maintain the ban on putting them online. I’m just resentful of all the pressure I felt to get at least one shot of pretty much every single student all in one day. If I couldn’t get one on Saturday, there’d be no other chance and their faces would be doomed to the inevitable memory-hazification like last year’s third-graders.

Luckily, a handful of last year’s third-graders came to the event, and I was able to get some pictures with them as well. They were some of my favorite students too, so that was really nice, and I also enjoyed practicing my much-improved Japanese on them. My vocabulary may not have advanced particularly far in the last three months, but my confidence in my ability to communicate has gone through what I feel are some pretty big breakthroughs.

All in all it was an excellent day that I enjoyed thoroughly, though it came after one of the most boring weeks I’ve ever had to endure at school. The entire week was preparation for the event, so there were no lessons and because I wasn’t involved in the Sports Day planning I had literally nothing to do until Friday when I finally had this week’s lessons to plan. I would just wander around the field watching the students practice, occasionally getting some interaction but mostly being ignored because the students were all wrapped up in whatever they were doing. Occasionally I’d come inside and do whatever kind of busy-work I could come up with to occupy myself, which wasn’t much. The days stretched on forever and I somehow felt more exhausted going home after doing nothing than I typically do after a full day of teaching.

The monotony of practice was broken a little on Thursday when the entire morning consisted of a full dress-rehearsal of the entire event, so I got to see what Sports Day itself was going to look like and to know which events would take place when. I was supposed to take part in the first racing-event, but because nobody had given me clear instructions I ended up not being in the right place for it. Luckily, before the actual event, several students and teachers came up to explain to me over and over again what I was supposed to do, and while it didn’t actually fully click until I was actually doing it, I at least managed to pull it off on Saturday.

By Friday, the day designated for working out the kinks of the dress-rehearsal, even the students were sick and tired of it. I barely got a nod of acknowledgment for any of them that day, they were so zombified.

But when Saturday morning finally rolled around it was a completely different story. The students were excited that the big day was finally here, and as they made their way to the field in advance of the opening ceremony I got more greetings than I sometimes get in a whole week. They were totally loose and outgoing and friendly throughout the whole day, which is more than half of what made it so enjoyable.

The other half had to do with the events themselves, most of which were interesting and funny if not downright hilarious. The race I was a part of was a 200-meter dash for the third-grade girls with a twist. They’d run about 50 meters and pick up a card which had been left in their lane. The card would have an object and the name of a teacher. They’d have to grab the object from a blue tarp half-way through the race (things like softballs, plastic bags, baseball gloves, and other assorted randomness) and take the hand of one of the teachers to race the rest of the way. I was on one of the cards for the first race and one of the cards for the fifth (there were about fifteen altogether). The first girl was too slow in finding the right object so we came in last. The second girl did okay and got to me fourth, but I ran so fast with her that we surpassed the pair in front of us and placed third.

The only other thing I was involved in (and believe me, I would have loved to have been involved in much more) was the PTA-relay after lunch. A team of teachers and staff (including the vice principal who went first and the principal who went last) went up against five teams of PTA members in a race to kick a soccer ball around a cone 40-meters away, and back to pass the ball to the next person. I was so pumped up at that point that while the vice-principle took his time and dribbled the ball like a real soccer player, I just launched it down the field and sprinted after it to wild cheers from students. I brought our team from about fourth place to second place in one wild dash, having kicked the ball only three times throughout. Other teachers did well too, and by the time the principal was on his way back for the final stretch, we were so far ahead that he paused to do some tricks with the soccer ball, which of course the students loved. I was happy to have at least one first-place victory of the day.

As for the students, the entire school was divided between two teams, one sporting red head-bands and one wearing white. Half the classes from each grade were red and the other half were white, and each event gave each class more chances to rack up points for their entire school-wide team.

Before the lunch-break there were two heavily-practiced events not worth any points at all, which I found out were the first time this school has over done them. All the girls got together for one massive coordinated dance-session to a Japanese pop song called “Rising Sun” by EXILE, which was fun to watch but naturally got old after the eighteenth time. The boys had the difficult (and somewhat dangerous) task of making different formations with their bodies, culminating in five human pyramids, the center one being a giant pyramid of every single third-grade boy in the school. Watching them practice that got boring fast enough as well, but on the day of the event it was pretty impressive for the crowd, and was the source of some top-notch photos.

The second-most-insane event (the first being just too hard to even attempt to describe) was also the most heavily practiced. It was called a “Mukade” or “centipede-run”. Every single class divided up between boys and girls and tied their legs together around the ankles. In a long line with their legs tied together and hands on each other’s shoulders they’d have to run in perfect synchronization for about 300 meters around the track against all the other classes in their grade. This is not only challenging but potentially quite painful, as any break in synchronization would result in the entire team collapsing like dominoes. They practiced this over and over and over again, trying to work out the perfect leg-stroke length and timing. Most teams even stayed after school to practice more. Every team must have collapsed six dozen times over the course of the week, but on the day of the race half the teams had it down perfectly. Of the half that did collapse during the races, they only did once or twice and all made it past the finishing line with a respectable time. (Incidentally, the only major injury of the week took place during tug-of-war practice on Thursday—there were no injuries on Saturday). By pure coincidence, it turned out that classes on the red team tended to do much better at this than those on the white team.

There was some issue regarding which team I was on, as the event-organizers had forgotten to assign me one. On the second day of practice a group of students came up to me and asked me which team I was on, two from the white team and one from the red. I told them I didn’t know, and each girl was imploring me to be on their team, but I couldn’t choose in front of them because it would hurt at least one of their feelings. They went up to O-sensei, one of the main guys in charge of the event, and asked him what team I was on. He asked me which team I preferred but I told him I couldn’t choose, so he wrote down the colors and covered them with his hands. I pointed to his left hand, which put me on the red team, but a few minutes later when I was back at the teacher’s room, M-sensei, the other main guy in charge, told me he’d decided I was on the white team, leaving it up to me again. I ultimately went with the white team because it seemed that most of my favorite students were on that team, although there were of course many many dozens of exceptions and I wished I didn’t have to pick a team at all.

It turned out that the white team ended up barely beating the red team on rehearsal day, but the red team won a decisive victory on the day of the event itself (thanks in large part to their dominance in the mukade-run). When the results were announced, the red team went wild and the white team was pretty silent, but thankfully none of them seemed too upset by it and they were good sports in applauding their opponents’ victory. After the closing ceremony when I was helping the students take everything down and pack everything up, no one seemed to care who had won and they were all just happy at having had a good time. Some of the third-grade girls were periodically breaking into tears (this being their final Junior High School Sports Day and having to confront the harsh realities of linear-time) which had me choking up a little, but a few minutes later they’d be smiling and laughing again so it wasn’t nearly as somber as it could have been. There was a lot more crying at the Speech Contest and Chorus Contest.

Once everything was cleaned up and all the parents had gone home, the students went back to their homerooms for the final twenty minutes of the school-day and I went home to shower and change before coming back and riding with T-sensei to the post-Sports-Day enkai. There’s no need to go into details about that as it was pretty much the same as all the other enkais I’ve described, the major difference being this time PTA members were invited as well. Only about six of them came though, and most sat at the same table. Once I got buzzed enough I felt inclined to go up and introduce myself to them and ask each of them who their kids were. They invited me to join them at their table and asked me a bunch of questions about myself, and I impressed both them and myself by being able to explain all kinds of things in Japanese that I never thought I’d have been able to explain, like my entire employment history since college. When I said goodbye to them I think I heard one of them comment how he’d never known an ALT to speak so much Japanese before.

There was a karaoke after-party this time too, and I got off to a good start by singing “Hey Jude” but replacing “Jude” with the abbreviated name of our school (which happens to rhyme nicely). I also managed to have a nice conversation with the new vice-principal who is a really serious and intimidating guy most of the time, more than any other administrator I’ve known so far, and while I’ve always gotten the feeling he doesn’t like me I thought I made a decent impression.

Unfortunately, I may have screwed things up a little by getting too drunk. It’s really hard when you’re drinking out of a tiny glass that everyone keeps refilling when it’s barely even half-empty. There’s no way to keep track of how much beer you’re actually drinking, and by the time you go too far it’s too late. I know it’s Japanese culture to not hold anything from an enkai against anyone but I can’t help but feel a little embarrassed by how sloppy I think I was. Hopefully I’m just being overly concerned.

The last thing I did was get up on the microphone when the party was ending and implore everyone to sing the school song. They’ve done that at all the other enkais and one of the ways I kept myself busy this week was to memorize the damn thing, which was no easy task let me tell you. K-sensei helped me understand the meaning of the lyrics but it’s still very hard to memorize an entire two-verse song in a foreign language in a matter of a couple of days. I went through it in my head literally hundreds of times, but a good 80% of the time I’d space out on one line or another. Without a firm grasp of the meanings of the individual lines, it’s hard to remember that “minori yuta kana” comes after “tou shio ni” or that “chikara wo awase” comes after “mann yo ni”.

But I kept at it and was able to sing along for the most part during the rehearsal and at the closing ceremony, but nobody noticed or gave me any credit for it, so I was dying to show off at the enkai and this just happened to be the first time we didn’t sing it. But I got them to sing it and I actually sang through the microphone, and while I still ended up tripping over a few lines I did it pretty well over all and was told so afterwards. Of course then I had to go and sing it through half the car-ride back to my place with the principal sitting next to me, and while I don’t think he was bothered by it at all it’s still kind of embarrassing.

But when all is said and done, it was a pretty great day overall. Whatever minor regrets I might have about this or that don’t amount to very much in the end, and the pictures alone are worth more to me that I can say.

There is a touch of sadness though, that this is the last big school event in Japan I’ll get to experience for the first time. From now on every Speech Contest, Chorus Contest, Graduation Ceremony, Spring Concert, and Sports Day will be something I’ve already been through. Of course there’s no avoiding that—it’s pretty much the nature of everything you do in life—but it’s still worth noting.

In any case, the beauty of the way I’ve chosen to live my life is that eventually I will move to another country and everything will be fresh and new again. It’s just that right now I love my life-situation so much I don’t even want to think about it changing.

The Longest Day

March 30th, 2012 No comments

Some days seem to fly by in an instant, while others seem to stretch on forever with a feeling of great significance. Yesterday, the day the school-year officially ended (after unofficially ending multiple times) was one of those days. I’ve decided to document it in its entirety from my perspective as I experienced it, like I did a couple of years ago with an entry about the Planeo Christmas Party. That means it’s going to be painfully long, but hopefully worth it to my future selves, who have always been the primary audience of this journal.

———-

Man, that was a crazy dream. At least I think it was because I’ve already forgotten it. Crap, it’s getting light outside, what time is it? 6:15. Okay, that gives me another hour before I absolutely have to get up. Maybe I can catch just a little more sleep.

No, it’s too late, my mind is already full of thoughts about today. I’m going to the school’s farewell ceremony in the morning, then to the farewell enkai and karaoke party in the evening, with a whole lot of nothing in between. It will be the last day I see many of the teachers I’ve worked with this past year. I’m so sick of goodbyes, but just one more day full of them and then it will at last be over. Okay, it’s 7:13. Might as well get up.

In the shower I think about what song to put in my head for the day because the cheesy Disney song I have stuck in my head for no apparent reason simply will not do. There was a really great song on the Shapeshifter CD Trey recommended that I was listening to while cycling yesterday—I don’t remember the title but I’ll probably recognize it if I see it. Finished with the shower I go to my computer and find the Shapeshifter mp3s. Ah, here it is. It’s called “The Longest Day”. Yeah, that’ll do.

Damn, this is an excellent song. Now what should I wear? Which of these shirts that I haven’t washed in weeks is the least smelly? I’ll go with the grey one, and the suit that’s just a little too big because it’s more comfortable than the one that’s a little too small (and the one that fits just right has a missing button that I’m clueless as to how to sew back on).

Time to check my e-mail while eating breakfast. A few days ago my grandpa sent me some advice about how the right way to find a girlfriend in Japan is to be introduced through her family and that I might want to bring this up with my colleagues. I explained why this was unlikely to work but said I might have an opportunity to ask some colleagues about it at the enkai. [To spare you some suspense, I ended up forgetting about it completely. My mind just wasn’t on the subject at the time.]

A couple e-mails from Corey indicate that he’s bored and lonely as usual. We have this theory that the universe balances itself out between us, wherein I’m usually up when he’s down and I’m usually down whenever something good happens to him. Something that could be thought of as “good” happened to him recently and I was depressed, but that appears to have ended. I guess that means today could potentially be a good day for me.

The school’s closing ceremony starts at 9:00 but I was told by Kono at Interac when I wrote her to confirm the time that I should go into school at 8:30, the usual time. I find this instruction a bit strange, as I’m technically on spring vacation and I’m going to this ceremony completely voluntarily. But for some reason I’ve got to go in a half-hour early and sit in the teacher’s room even though I’m not getting paid at all.

Whatever, I was going to spend a half-hour studying Japanese anyway. It makes no difference whether I do that here or at school.

I take note of the excellent weather as I walk the short distance to my school. Graduation day was cold and rainy and grey, the perfect complement for my sadness that day. Today is clear and sunny with a not-too-warm but comfortable temperature. I’ll be sure to take advantage of that later.

Man, it’s weird going back in this building when I’m already on vacation. It feels like one of those dreams I always have where I’m back in high school for one last thing because the school-year never officially ended, then you wake up to remember it actually ended years ago. I’ll probably have those dreams about Japanese schools now too.

I enter the teacher’s room and greet the faculty, going about their business in their typically serious and professional manner. Nobody asks me what I’m doing there, and I just quietly set up my computer and proceed to study. The room looks a little different from when I was last here—so many of the desks are completely bare. I guess more teachers are switching schools than I realized.

I really don’t like how they don’t let teachers stay in the same school for long periods of time. Y-sensei is at work clearing out her desk now and it’s already making me sad. I was extremely lucky to have her to work with when I started as an ALT. Some teachers don’t help at all and just leave you out on your own, and some help too much to the point where they almost take over the lesson, but Y-sensei was the perfect classroom partner, always with a perfect sense of whether my explanations to the students were clear enough or if they needed some translation, and she always knew just how to be of help during games and such. It really sucks to see her go.

Okay, I finished studying and it’s 9:00 but the ceremony isn’t starting yet. Maybe it really is at 9:25 like I’d originally thought. Thank you, Interac, for confirming the wrong time. I guess I can kill the remaining time by reviewing old kanji lists.

All right, it’s 9:15. I’ll just go to the gym while the last of the students are filing in. They’ve been slowly trickling in all morning, as they too are on vacation and didn’t have to be in their homerooms in the morning. A bunch of them came in and went to their classrooms anyway though. Japanese students are cool like that.

The gym is a separate building connected to the main building by a hallway/overpass kind of thing which is partially outside. When I get there I notice a large crowd of students standing outside the gym waiting to go in.

Oh my god, are you for real? Is this what I think it is? Yes, I know those faces. It’s the third-graders, absent all this time in a state of post-graduation purgatory and now uniformed-up and ready for one last event of their Junior High School lives. It turns out watching them all walk out the gym doors at the end of the graduation ceremony was not the actual last time I would see them. Nor was the Spring Concert when I got to see a handful of them. Today is really the last day, but I already went through that whole sad-I’ll-never-see-them-again thing two weeks ago. Those emotions have already been purged.

The first- and second-graders are just finishing up filing into the gym and taking their proper places, all the boys on the right and the girls on the left. I stand off to the left, as I’ve noticed the teachers also tend to segregate themselves by gender for these ceremonies as well. The third-graders start to enter the gym and a few of the boys notice me and greet me. Ghosts, I think. You were supposed to be gone forever.

I scan the group of girls looking for A-, the girl from the Speech Contest and one of the only students I regretted not having said a proper goodbye to. Perhaps I’ll have one last chance to rectify that later.

But now, it’s time for the ceremony to begin. Let’s all stand up and sing the school song (unless you’re like me and don’t know it). Now it’s time to bring out the teachers and faculty members who will be departing. There are ten chairs on the stage. Wow, ten of them. And the six part-time teachers who said their goodbyes at the first closing ceremony makes that sixteen colleagues I’ll never see again. Apparently at the end of every school-year you not only lose a third of the students but a third of the staff as well. I’ll be teaching at the same school next school-year but 33% of the people will be brand new.

And just who exactly besides Y-sensei is leaving? What’s this? Oh, no! Y-, the cute secretary, is first in line! Noooo! What are you doing to me, fates? And what’s this? S-sensei, the other third-grade JTE, is also going? Now hold the phone a minute. H-sensei and A-sensei were both part-timers and they’re both leaving too. And now you’re telling me that two of the other three JTEs are also leaving? So of the five JTEs I’ve been working with this year, FOUR of them are going?!

At least T-sensei (‘Mrs. T-’ in previous entries) is staying, and that’s no small blessing. She’s been the most helpful out of all of them, though that’s partly because her desk in the teacher’s room is right next to mine so she’s naturally the first person to turn to when I have a question. But she’s as great of a partner in class as Y-sensei, and she took the lead when it came to the Speech Contest. If she were among the departing teachers I would really be upset, but it looks like I’ll have one more year with her (and only one, because this next year will almost certainly be her last).

Also leaving are a few really nice teachers including the one who sat across from me in the teacher’s room, and a couple of administrators including one of the vice principals, T-sensei (you don’t have to be a teacher to get the sensei title), with whom I had a glass of whiskey at the Christmas enkai. They each get up and give a speech, some longer and more emotional than others. Y-sensei is clearly on the verge of tears and it brings a bit of a lump to my throat. Even some of the male teachers have to pause while speaking to collect their emotions. I’m lucky I’ve only been here a short time, and I just keep thinking about how much more difficult this is going to be next year. But Y-sensei has been at this school for eight years, and she really doesn’t want to leave. I don’t know what you’re doing with this system, Japan, but I hope it’s working for you.

One of the students, I believe it’s the 2nd-grade class president, comes to the stage to give a farewell speech on behalf of the students, then ten more students come out with flowers to present them to the teachers. Then the entire schools sings one last song, the same song they sang while the third-graders left at the end of the graduation ceremony. Now Y-sensei and some of the other teachers are really fighting back tears, and I’m at my most emotional moment as well.

Finally, the girls and boys turn towards each other forming an aisle in the center of the gym for the departing teachers and faculty members to walk down on their final ceremonious exit. Some non-students are standing in the back, high-school kids who’ve returned to their Junior High School to say one last goodbye to their old teachers. That’s pretty touching, and it’s nice to see Y-sensei’s face light up in a smile as she recognizes an old student on her way out.

What follows is some confusion as to what happens next. The ceremony is over and the students are now just standing around and chatting with one another. I’m standing amongst the third-graders but nobody comes up to me. I still can’t get over that I’m seeing all these faces again. The fact that now I’ll really never see them again is drowned out by the fact that I already thought I’d never see them again.

I do finally spot A- but like the rest of the students she doesn’t appear to notice me or care about my presence. It would be nice if at least a few students would come up to say goodbye but I’m not too bothered. I was only their ALT for a short time.

When they’re finally instructed to exit the gym, I watch them go without much emotion. A few teachers follow them out to say some specific goodbyes to specific students, including T-sensei whom I notice for the first time is teary-eyed.

Look, A- is still here. She’s standing just inside the exit doors, looking back at the gym contemplatively. I raise my hand and wave at her. As intended, it catches her eye and she smiles and waves back at me, and gives me a little bow. So that’s that. It was a wordless farewell, but words weren’t needed. Just a moment of conscious contact to acknowledge that this is the end. It wasn’t exactly what I pictured, but I figure I’m going to have to get used to less-than-completely-satisfactory goodbyes. There will be many more of them in my life, including later today.

Can you believe this day is still just getting started? It’s only 10:15 right now!

Now I head back to the teacher’s room where I’ll attempt to figure out what the deal is with today. When I get there Y-sensei is standing by the heater looking forlorn. I give her a sympathetic glance, and she tells me, “I just want to go teach a class right now…” before her voice trails off. I hear that.

But I’ll have plenty of time to say my goodbyes to her later on. Right now I need to call Interac and find out what the heck I’m supposed to be doing. It certainly feels like I’m at work right now, and I was told to come in at 8:30. Is this really not a paid work-day? I call the Chiba office and get in touch with Kono to ask her. She seems just as confused as I am, and tells me she’ll call the school’s staff to find out if they need me to stay there.

Need me to stay? I thought I was here voluntarily and not getting paid. Does Interac realize if they require me to stay at my school any longer it’s technically slave-labor? I mean, I’m all about the Japanese work-ethic and everything, but being told to work for free is a little ridiculous.

As I wait for Kono to call back, T-sensei arrives back in the office and I explain my confusion to her. A vice principal comes to tell her that it’s OK for me to go home, and I thank him but I’m still very confused. Kono calls me back and tells me it’s OK for me to leave, and I try to ask her directly if this is a day I should record on my pay sheet. But the Japanese are not known for their directness. She says, “Starting tomorrow you are on spring vacation.” Okay, but I already was on spring vacation. “So today is not a paid work day?” She says “no” but I can’t shake the feeling she never quite understood what my question was.

Whatever. I came here voluntarily not expecting to get paid anyway, so I won’t record the day on my pay sheet. If that’s a few thousand extra yen I could have earned, it’s no big loss. The important thing is I have the official seal of approval from my employer and my school to go home (even though I didn’t need to be there in the first place).

Before I go I confirm the time and cost of the enkai with T-sensei, who tells me to come back at 4:30 and she’ll take me there.

As I walk out of the building there’s absolutely no sense of “this is it” at all. My school-shoes are still in my locker. I’ll be wearing them again in just a few weeks.

A whole lot of third-graders who’d come for the ceremony are still hanging around outside, having final conversations with fellow students and teachers. I’d already said goodbye to them in my mind (several times over) so I don’t bother going up to anyone. One group of boys approaches me though, led by a bit of a class-clown from 3-4 who calls me down by my last name as I’m leaving and strikes up a conversation to practice what appears to be the only English phrase he remembers: “Do you like Japanese food?” “Yes I do,” I say.

“Oh,” he says. I can tell he wants to go on but can’t think of anything.

“What’s your favorite Japanese food?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he answers. “I am Japanese food.”

His friends and I laugh and we explain what he said in Japanese.

“Are you delicious?” he asks, and we laugh and explain what he said again (though I do tell him that yes, I am in fact delicious.)

When it’s clear there’s no more English left, he says goodbye and “See you next time.”

I say, “No next time.”

“Yes next time!” he asserts defiantly to the laugher of his friends.

“Yes next time?” I ask.

“Yes. Today. Later,” he jokes.

“Ok then, I’ll see you later.”

If that does end up being the last conversation I ever have with one of this year’s third-graders, it was appropriate enough.

I could really go for a run right now. It’s almost 11:00, the sun is still shining and a cool breeze is blowing. When I get home I quickly make a playlist of songs from the Shapeshifter CD and gear up for jogging. With all these students out and about I figure today is more likely than ever that I’ll spot a bunch of them, but I make it through the whole 35-minute jog only spotting two students, which is the average amount. But right at the end, when I get to my street, there’s a group of four fully-uniformed girls walking together, apparently out for a walk after leaving the school premises. I get in front of them, turn around to see who they are, and wave. I always enjoy the second or two before the students realize who I am. I may stand out as a foreigner, but it’s such a radically different appearance between how I look in a suit and when I’m in jogging pants and a T-shirt, all red and sweaty from exercise. When the girls’ expressions change from confusion to surprise and then delight and amusement, I’m satisfied.

I get back in my apartment and cool down, then cook myself a very Japanese lunch of Campbell’s New England Clam Chowder. While eating I finish up a recent Rachel Maddow Show podcast and learn some extremely unimportant facts about the new head of the World Bank. I’ve grown very tired of Rachel Maddow and only watch a few of her shows here and there, but it’s the perfect thing to put on during lunch whenever I eat at home so I’ll be watching more of her over the vacation.

It’s 12:30 when I’m finished eating which leaves four gaping hours between now and the party. I’ll start by taking a quick nap, a luxury I don’t get when I eat at school. Luckily the construction workers next door are on their lunch break so it’s nice and peaceful outside.

I get up at 1:00 and then get ready for the next thing, a good old fashioned bicycle-trip to the beach. That can kill anywhere between 2 and 3 hours depending on how long I linger there, so it fits the current bill perfectly. I make another playlist for the trip, now the entire Shapeshifter CD followed by Blue Man Group, the most similar-sounding music I can think of. The weather is getting warmer but I could still use a thin jacket, so I toss one on and head outside.

The bicycle ride down to the beach is just as pleasant as it always is, perhaps a little moreso due to the weather and the fact that the wind isn’t as strong as it tends to get during the winter here. For the first time in months I find myself sweating during the ride and I even have to unzip my jacket.

I’ve found three main ways of getting to the beach, the first being the most direct way down Route 75, the way I always used to take but which has the least pretty scenery so I never do anymore. I’ve long since found longer but more aesthetically pleasing and less car-infested routes to the east and the west of the 75, and I usually take one way down and the other way back. The way to the west is slightly longer (about 50 minutes as opposed to 40) but I’ve been exploring some new options and slowly tweaking my standard route, and today I think I’ve finally perfected it. The east way still needs some work though.

When I get to the beach, it’s as un-crowded as I’d hoped. I love going in the early afternoon on weekdays because there’s almost nobody there. It’s even sparser now because it’s super-duper low tide and there’s practically nothing for surfers to work with.

About a ten-minute walk from the beach parking lot is my new favorite spot I always go whenever it’s not occupied. It’s the mouth of a river lined with concrete walls you can sit on. River mouths are sacred in Shinto, so maybe that’s why this feels like such a peaceful place. Whenever I sit there and watch the waves from the sea come up against the current from the river, it puts me in a very zen-like state-of-mind. That feeling is greatly augmented whenever the sun is shining, as in the afternoon the sun is no longer over the ocean but the sunlight can still be reflected off the river water. And no matter how old I get, there’s just something about sunlight reflecting off water that is absolutely awesome.

So I sit in my favorite spot and soak up some awe for about thirty minutes, giving “The Longest Day” another listen at one point, but my immobility lowers my body-heat and before too long the sea breeze is too cold for my comfort. I guess spring hasn’t quite hit yet.

I take the east route back to Togane, not quite as nice as the west way but more direct and easier to navigate. I try something new at the end, as that first stretch of road coming off the 126 (the main giant road in Togane that everything is on) is not too ideal and I’ve long suspected that a little pathway a bit further south might lead to a better option. I finally try this path today, and as I expected the option is much better aesthetically but way more complex. It leads through an absolutely gorgeous little neighborhood that is so distinctly Japanese I absolutely have to go back and take pictures. But there’s no straight path through it, so you have to make a bunch of turns and just use the sun to maintain your sense of direction. It all seems pretty intuitive going up, but I have a feeling trying to do it in reverse on the way down will be tricky. Still, totally worth it.

It’s 3:45 and I’m back at my apartment. So I’ve got 45 minutes to kill before I have to be back at the school. Maybe I could have a beer and get a head-start? A cold beer would be good right now, no? No, I can wait. Besides, it’s bad form. These Japanese parties are formal affairs—there’s a designated time when everyone is allowed to start drinking, and it’s called the kampai. If I were to drink before the kampai it would feel sacrilegious somehow.

In any case, there’s an e-mail from Corey in my inbox that looks like it’ll take all the remaining time I have. Something of big significance happened in his current situation which has brought about its apparent end. More evidence for our universe-balance theory. We both have days of significance at the same time but his is negative while mine is positive. Yet ironically, the person he’s saying goodbye to is someone he’s much better off without, while the people I’m saying goodbye to will be dearly missed.

The time of the party is approaching and I have to make a decision on what to wear. The safest bet is to put my suit back on, but I’m inclined to just go in slacks and a button-down shirt like I did to the Spring Concert, though this time I’ll tuck the shirt in. The other teachers will probably end up removing their jackets and ties at some point anyway, so why bring the extra baggage? Especially when it’s kind of warm out.

So I head over to the school and arrive in the parking lot just as the 4:30 song begins to play. (A short but loud little song plays at the official end of the school day all over Japan, though the song and exact time of its playing does vary slightly). T-sensei is there along with some other teachers, and I discover that we’ll be taking a bus to the location. It’s the same kind of small bus with about twelve seats that they had for the enkai back in November (my first one), but this time more than three people would be riding it.

One of the other teachers, O-sensei, makes a comment to me and T-sensei translates. “He wants to know if you’re already drunk.” Apparently I look drunk because my face is red. I laugh and explain that I’ve been out in the sun all day. I didn’t get burned but there is a significant tan now. But I should have had that beer before if I’m going to be suspected of drunkenness anyway.

When we get on the bus I comment to T-sensei that she’s the only English teacher staying at the school. She apparently feels just as strange about it. It doesn’t usually work out like that. She knows they’ll be getting two more full-time teachers and two more part-timers, but doesn’t know who they are or which grades they’ll teach. She doesn’t even know which grades she’ll teach. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this yet, but the Japanese education system is weird.

On the bus ride to the place I think about the replacements. It’s ironic that I was so happy when I got the news that I’d be staying with my school, but most of the people I work with at the school will be different. I really lucked-out in a big way by getting this school, as so many conversations with so many other ALTs has repeatedly made clear to me. Almost everyone has a problem with at least one or more of their JTEs, but I can hardly complain about any of mine. The worst I can say about any of them is that they’re not as helpful as they could be, but all things considered they’ve been wonderful. The likelihood that out of four new teachers, all four of them will be just as good is low. I’m sure I’ll be able to work with anybody, but my biggest fear is that I’ll get someone who just wants to use me to recite textbook passages and prevents me from doing the kind of fun game-oriented lessons I like to do. I would hope in such a situation that the students (assuming it’s second- or third-grade) would rebel and demand the same kind of lessons Kyle-sensei used to teach last year, or at least that T-sensei or another faculty member would kindly explain that I can be far more useful than a human tape-recorder (which is what many ALTs are).

The bus ride is just a short ten-minute trip to another part of Togane, a traditional Japanese somethingorother (don’t know the word but it’s not ‘restaurant’) near the train tracks. As I go inside I can tell this is the most authentically traditional Japanese place I’ve ever been. Tatami mats, shouji doors and all that, as well as full-makeup-and-kimono-clad whathaveyous (don’t know the word but it’s not ‘waitress’) who provide both service and entertainment. The Japanese have been holding events just like this for thousands of years.

The set-up. The entry.

But it’s not too different from the other two enkais, just the most authentic. While those were hotels or restaurants that had party-rooms like this, the entire establishment was for the party-room. There’s a lobby downstairs where you remove your shoes and put on slippers to take upstairs to the foyer of the main party room where you remove the slippers. My feet are apparently too big because I have some trouble keeping the slippers on on my way upstairs, which amuses people.

I’m told where to sit when I get to the party room, luckily right next to T-sensei because I have an idea for next school-year I’m planning to run by her. Maybe now would be a good time while we’re waiting for everyone to file in. Nah, she’s busy reading the little booklet they have with pictures and biographies of all the departing teachers and staff. It’ll be more natural to discuss it during the socializing part of the party. Instead I ask her if it’s normal for so many teachers to be leaving at the end of the year and she said it was. I explain how it’s done in America, and can tell she’s a little jealous. I even talk about the special private school my cousins go to where the teacher sticks with one class of students throughout all twelve years of their education, an idea she thinks sounds wonderful. I ask her why they do it like this in Japan, but she doesn’t know how to explain it.

Seated on the other side of me is the young woman teacher who had that conversation about music with me at the Christmas enkai. She’s one of the second-grade teachers, as is everyone at my table. I realized a few months ago that the teachers’ room is organized by grade, and the desks of those teachers are arranged in a long table with all the other teachers for their grade. As I teach all the grades I’m seated in one of the four most central desks, in the table that happens to be for second-grade teachers so I winded up at the second-grade table for this party. The first-grade table is across the room, and the table for third-grade teachers and administrators is in the right-hand corner. The back table and whole left-hand corner section are apparently the seats of honor for the departing teachers and staff. Seeing this arrangement makes it clearer than ever just what a huge chunk of the school’s staff will be leaving.

My legs are already hurting from sitting Indian-style when the arrival of the guests of honor is announced. Everyone stands up and applauds as all the departing teachers and administrators enter the room and take their places. What follows is about 30 or 40 minutes of speeches, as each of them gets up and says their formal goodbyes to the school.

The secretary's goodbye speech.

I’m not the only one with a camera this time. Another teacher comes out from behind his table to kneel in a good location to take pictures of each of them as they give their speeches. I’m a bit too self-conscious to leave my place so I can’t really get good pictures of the teachers seated against the wall, but when Y-sensei speaks I can’t resist following the other teachers’ lead and coming out to kneel in a good spot for a farewell shot. I remain kneeling respectfully through her whole speech, which is incredibly painful, but as S-sensei is next I wanted a shot of her as well. Y-sensei’s voice is cracking a little during this speech like the one she gave at the school, but I think she’s feeling a little better at this point. She’s already said goodbye to the students and the building. All that remains are colleagues.

Y-sensei S-sensei

S-sensei’s tone is far less emotional, and as soon as I get a picture of her I quit kneeling and head back to my seat for the relatively less-painful Indian-style. When H-sensei speaks a little later, I do the best I can from where I’m at. But when A-sensei speaks I just don’t have a chance. I now get the idea to get a picture with me and all of the English teachers at some point during the party.

A-sensei is the last to speak, and the Japanese serving women have already been preparing the drinks. (I’ll just refer to them as geishas from now because that’s what they looked like. For all I know they were actual geishas.) When the speeches are over a bunch of the faculty gets up to help the geishas distribute beverages, of which there are two basic sorts. A pink non-alcoholic cocktail thing and beer—Ashahi Dry—which happens to be my favorite Japanese beer. Yay…I guess. I miss German beer.

Moment of kampai. The geishas take a bow.

Kampai time. I clink my glass with T-sensei and the teacher next to me and begin drinking. Then I sit back down and get started on the eating as well. Another smorgasbord of bizarre-looking fish-related food items is spread out before me. This weird fish thing is decent. This other weird fish thing isn’t, though it’s probably some kind of delicacy. Ah, here we go: sashimi—an animal I know. A little soy, a little wasabi…good stuff. The geishas come to top off my beer and light the soup-bowl thingy to get it cooking, and I attack this other soup-bowl thingy filled with god only knows what but it sure is weird. There’s what looks like purple slime wrapped in a leaf—I ask T-sensei if you’re supposed to eat the leaf. She laughs and says some people don’t but to give it a try. The other teacher next to me asks how it is. “Interesting,” I say in Japanese. That would be the word. None of this food is delicious, it’s just interesting. It would seem that interesting is much more expensive than delicious.

Speaking of which, do I have that 6,000 yen I’m supposed to be paying for this? The teacher next to T-sensei is collecting and would like it now. Here you go. Another 70 bucks spent on exactly the kind of thing I should be spending my money on. Still, maybe next year we could have our enkai at Mos Burger? Or maybe Denny’s—they could use the business.

So now is the perfect time to run my idea by T-sensei. It’s something I’ve been considering ever since I started this job, but I hadn’t resolved to actually try it until the end of the school-year. Whenever students approach me and try to communicate outside of class, they usually end up learning something that is far more likely to stick in their minds because it’s used in the context of an actual conversation. Conversation practice is the best way to learn things and to get good at speaking another language, but the students almost never get any actual chances to speak and when they do it’s a speaking test and they’re all nervous about it. A chance for informal, casual conversation would be invaluable to students and I’d like to offer that as an optional after-school activity.

My explanation to T-sensei is much more simplistic than all that, but she likes the idea right away. One thing that’s always prevented me from asking before is my doubt that any students would actually want to take advantage of something like that, but T-sensei tells me she hears from many students about how they wish they had more opportunities to practice speaking. My idea is to have a sign-up sheet so students can come on days of their convenience and with whomever they want, probably 1-5 students a day. If nobody signs up, the experiment will be over.

The other reason I haven’t been sure about this is that the students’ English is so bad that carrying on any kind of conversation could be like pulling teeth. But I taught beginners in Germany so I know it can be done, and those lessons were 90 minutes or more. I’m thinking 20 minutes is enough for this. Also, the practice can go both ways. I’ll help them with their English and they can help me with my Japanese. We’ll talk about basic things like hobbies and likes/dislikes, and we’ll do everything in both English and Japanese which will also go a long way to reducing the inherent nervousness anyone has in speaking a language you’re not good at to a native speaker. If I’m messing up so much, it’s okay for them to mess up too.

You get the idea, as does T-sensei. She agrees to help me figure out putting something like that together next year and so it’s resolved.

The party goes on. There’s more eating and drinking, more geishas refilling my tiny beer glass every five minutes, and more casual conversation with colleagues. The teacher to my right, the young woman who speaks a little English, strikes up another chat with me about music like she had at the Christmas party. She says she’s going to a music festival in Chiba the day after tomorrow. There are a couple of punk rock bands like The Offspring and Sum41 that are currently touring Japan. This amuses me and I explain to her how those bands were popular in the 1990s when I was a student and punk was relatively new. I can’t believe that was almost two decades ago and punk is practically classic rock now. Man, I’m getting old.

The chat with this woman—curse me for not knowing her name—goes on for awhile, and it’s good practice for the conversation-practice I hope to have to with students next school-year as we’re doing whatever we can with our small amounts of English and Japanese but still managing to communicate pretty effectively. I can even talk about Germany and explain their whole issues with national pride which she’s curious about, but she unfortunately doesn’t offer me any insight on how the Japanese feel about their role in the war. I just get the feeling it’s even less talked-about than in Germany.

N-sensei comes to sit next to me and chat for awhile like we did at the previous enkai. He brings me a flask of sake and offers to pour me a shot. I gladly accept and drink it down, enjoying its pleasant smoothness. N-sensei explains that it’s 20% alcohol. That’s good because I can tell some of the other teachers are already buzzed and I need to catch up.

I’m worrying that the party will end without my having had a chance to get that picture with all the English teachers, and I’m able to tell N-sensei easily enough what I have in mind. Shashin to zenbu eigo no sensei ga hoshii desu, which directly translated word-for-word is “picture with all English teacher want is”. That’s how they talk. It’s amazing they understand each other at all.

But N-sensei understands me perfectly and endeavors to help me assemble the English teachers for this photograph. T-sensei loves the idea as soon as she hears it. I think she wants to have that picture too. A-sensei agrees and we’re just about to approach the other three when the geishas get up on stage to begin a little performance. Bad timing. “Atto tabun,” A-sensei says: “After maybe”.

Geisha rock band. Feels like Japan.

I go back to my seat and eat a little more of this food that just keeps coming and coming, and watch the performance. I-sensei comes over to me at this point to keep me company because everyone else is off chatting. (You may recall I-sensei from the infamous Lot Key Incident). The redness of his face indicates that he’s clearly been drinking his fair share, and he pours a few more shots of sake for me to help me along.

Time to give the picture thing a second try. We’ve got T and A and H, but S and Y are both engaged in serious conversations with other teachers (isn’t it convenient their names all start with different roman letters?) One of the departing part-time male teachers was full-on crying his eyes out to Y-sensei, the most emotional display I think I’ve ever seen from a Japanese male. That’s the magic of alcohol for you—drink enough and the mask really does come off. I reflexively snap a picture while the other four of us wait and see if maybe we should come back later. One of the other male teachers walks by and looks at the crying teacher and jokes to me that I should take a picture, to which I reply that I already did.

Sensei sadness. Left-to-right: H, K, A

So the picture will have to wait yet again, but in the mean-time I’ll get one with H-sensei and A-sensei, the two first-grade JTEs. A-sensei was only there for the final stretch of the year because the original first-grade JTE mysteriously left the school-year shortly before December. No one offered me an explanation about that so I’ll never know why. In any case, she struck me as a somewhat joyless person, even moreso than most Japanese, so I wasn’t very sad to see her go. A-sensei by contrast is extremely warm and friendly so it sucks that she’s disappearing so quickly.

Now it’s time for the final official event of the enkai, as each of the departing teachers and faculty members stands up once again, not to give a speech this time but to have a speech given about them by a faculty member who knew them best. Some of these speeches are serious, like the one the vice principal gave about the other vice principal T-sensei (whom I’ll now call Ta-sensei to distinguish from JTE T-sensei), while some of the speeches are just poking fun. One of the teachers puts everyone in hysterics. It was clearly a joke-speech from start to finish. I wish I could have understood it.

Vice principals' speech. Speech for Y-sensei.

When that’s over I get up to use the bathroom as the geishas distribute one last food item: ice cream. I return to discover that I didn’t get any ice cream while everyone else did. WTF? Oh well, it’s nothing worth complaining about. I just won’t leave a tip…

Oh wait, it turns out those speeches were not the actual last event. That would be the singing of the school song, and now that half the teachers are half drunk, it’s the most rousing and enthusiastic rendition of the song I’ve ever heard (though that’s still not saying much). I sacrifice some of my camera’s rapidly draining battery life to get a video of it.

Okay, now can we get this picture taken? I also really want to say one last goodbye to Y-sensei, so hopefully I’ll be able to kill two birds. After some brief confusion we finally manage to get T, A, H, S, and Y all together behind the table. The only problem: there’s no one to take the picture. But we call someone over, a teacher I barely know at all, and he agrees to take the picture. T-sensei then hands him her camera to get one for herself, as I notice that the picture he took didn’t come out well at all so I adjust the camera and he does it again. The picture still isn’t great, but I’ll take it.

This year's English crew. 

After that I turn to Y-sensei and start my goodbye. “I will really miss you.”

“I will miss you too,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet another ALT as nice as you.”

“Oh thank you,” I say. “You were such a great help to me in the lessons.”

“I really enjoyed your lessons!”

“Thank you.”

“I hope that one day we will both work at the same school together.”

Chances of that are infinitesimal, but I say, “I hope so.”

A bow and an arigato goziamashita are exchanged, and that’s that. On the scale of goodbyes, that one wasn’t too bad. I’m just glad it’s over with.

Now it’s back outside after retrieving my shoes and bidding goodbye to the geishas. This party is only half-over. The formal half is finished, and now a bunch of people will go to a karaoke bar for just good old-fashioned karaoke fun. I have no idea how many, but this twelve-seat bus is actually full now. There are enough designated drivers (i.e. people who never drink anyway) to give rides to the rest of the people who want to come.

It’s a ten minute drive to the place, which is just a short distance down the road from the school. And look, there’s my apartment. Hello, apartment. I’ll be back soon. Then this endless day can actually end.

But first…karaoke time. This is a different place from where I went the first time, with that crowd of ALTs and Japanese girls after Ben’s Christmas Party. It looks a little bigger, and when I go inside I discover we’ve reserved the biggest room in the place. Ta-sensei leads me in and sits by me in the corner. Like most of the teachers he’s normally very serious, but now he’s buzzed and acting much more human. We talk in Japanese a little as the other teachers and staff file into the room. He compliments me on my Japanese and says he can’t believe I’ve only been here since August. I feel like I should be much better by now, but I appreciate him saying that.

Karaoke room. When half the seats are filled with still more coming, I realize this is not like the other after-parties at the other enkais where only the hardcore drinkers attended. Everyone was coming to this one, and I mean everyone. I don’t think there’s anyone from the formal party who hadn’t come to karaoke. Even all five JTEs are here including Y-sensei. Seeing people one last time whom I’d never thought I’d see again must have been the theme of the day.

What follows is madness on a grand-scale, as I finally discover what all those other ALTs were talking about when they went on about how wild and crazy their colleagues can get at an enkai. Drinks are ordered by show of hands and distributed haphazardly, occasionally with someone getting something they didn’t order but would drink anyway. Several of the song-selection devices are Croon it like you mean it.being passed around and a playlist of songs is growing. When a song begins the microphone is handed off to whomever and they sing to nearly constant clapping along and even woo-wooing when a line is sung particularly skillfully. Yes, actual woo-wooing. It boggles my mind that these are the same people I work with every day.

The vibe hits even those teachers who aren’t drinking, and from their behavior you’d never know they weren’t drunk.

As I look around I can’t help but appreciate that another one of my major goals for Japan has been met: to see them at their most relaxed and enjoyable state. This is every bit the distinctively Japanese cultural experience I’d hoped to have in this country, and it may have taken until the very end of the school-year but it’s finally happening.

Another T-sensei, one of the guys I went out to the bar with after the Christmas enkai, comes up to sit by me and strike up a chat. And what’s this? It’s actually about something I can’t share publicly! Wow, a conversation with a Japanese colleague that’s too risqué to write about—that doesn’t happen very often.

Karaoke fever. Another teacher asks me if I’d like to sing, and I’m not too reluctant about agreeing. I used to think I’d never do karaoke but the mood of the place makes it impossible to resist. The teacher who had been crying earlier is now significantly drunk and dancing like an idiot in the front of the room to everybody’s wild approval. Clearly there’s no chance of embarrassment in this environment.

All the songs so far have been Japanese but he helps me work the selection-device to pick an English song. I’ve actually been pondering what to pick the whole time but it’s hard to decide. It should be something fun and something everyone knows. I know that Japanese people like The Beatles and Queen, so I ultimately decided to go with Bohemian Rhapsody.

It’s too bad my camera battery died while attempting to take a video that would adequately capture the atmosphere (the one I got doesn’t do it much justice), because I would have loved to have a video of my performance. The song begins and the clamor is to get Kyle-sensei to the microphone. I’m applauded as soon as I get up to the front, just for deciding to go for it. And it turns out that Bohemian Rhapsody was a perfect choice because they all seem to recognize it. I’m surprised by the sound of my own voice as I sing. It’s actually not that bad. I guess all those times I used to sing this song at the top of my lungs when I had the house to myself in those early high school years paid off. I’m even taking it all the way up to high-register and back down again, confident enough to put some extra flare into it, which always meets with great approval. Of course when it comes to the whole “Galileo Figaro” part I can’t help but lose my place a few times, but that’s incredibly tough to keep up with. Then of course there comes the loud climax, to which I drop to my knees and do the whole head-banging thing as it right and proper for the song, and of course everyone loves it. Huge applause when I’m done. Karaoke accomplished.

After that some other teachers come up to me because they want me to sing more. We get a couple other songs cued up including Hey Jude and We Are The Champions but those songs are not to be. At 11:00 the party promptly ends, with the volume cut and everyone told to file out. I look around at all the unfinished food and beer as my 2,500 yen contribution to this event is taken. I’d say money well spent if not for the fact that so much of it was for wasted food. We must have just ordered the works, because every few minutes waitresses would come and put an entirely new platter of food on our tables, everything from chips and chocolate to ginger-snaps to salad to onion rings and fried chicken. It’s not like we needed any of it after that huge dinner beforehand. Oh well.

Now I guess it’s finally time for the final final this-is-really-actually-the-end-for-real goodbyes so I head outside and mentally prepare. One of the teachers asks me how I’m getting home and I say I can walk—my apartment is just a few blocks away—but they won’t hear of it and the next thing I know I’m in the back of someone’s car driving away without ever saying any goodbyes at all. Oh well.

So it goes. Two minutes later I’m dropped off near my apartment and I head back inside. Holy crap, now it’s over. That had to have been the longest ending ever. Ironic that the end of the ending happened so abruptly.

But it’s only 11:10. The events may be over but the day isn’t. I’d been thinking of having one last beer and listening to music before going to sleep, but I realize I’m quite drunk enough as it is and will stick to water for the rest of the night, which I spend listening to music and contemplating the events of the day.

I could hardly believe this was the same day I got up for the school’s closing ceremony in the morning. Saying my silent goodbye to A- already feels like it happened years ago.

And now I’ve said goodbye to Y-sensei and a whole bunch of other people I like but will never see again. But somehow I’m not nearly as emotional as I was after the graduation-ceremony day. I think I just used up all of my sadness about the passing of time and of people and now there’s none left. Now I’m mostly thinking about what great experiences I had this school-year and how now that I know most of the students and I really know what I’m doing, next school-year promises to be even better (depending of course on the replacements).

Was this really the longest day? No—others have been longer and felt more significant—but this one earned the title. Here’s to many more.

The First of How Many?

March 11th, 2012 No comments

A couple of nights ago I was watching one of the last episodes of the anime series Evangelion (which turned out to be quite deep and thought-provoking) when it felt like something suddenly clicked in my brain. I’m watching the show in Japanese with English subtitles, and it was always fun to see which Japanese words I could pick out of the dialog and match to their translation on the bottom of the screen. It was usually just a handful of words here and there. But while watching this episode I noticed myself not just recognizing a few scattered words and phrases but comprehending entire sentences.

I started listening carefully to every line of dialog and pausing to read the subtitles and make sense of why these lines were translated as they are. There would generally be a few words I didn’t know, but I actually found myself understanding the majority of them. Most importantly I was able perceive the grammatical structure of the sentences and how the words and particles work together to generate their translated meaning. The interesting part was seeing how inexact the translation was, as sometimes the literal translations of the words wouldn’t correspond to the English subtitles at all, and the words on the screen were just a similar but-not-quite-identical expression. This was a bit of a rush, as now I was no longer relying exclusively on the subtitles to comprehend the meaning of the dialog, and I had a truer understanding of what these characters were actually saying than most non-Japanese anime fans ever get.

If felt like a bit of a breakthrough language-wise, like I’ve reached the next plateau of my Japanese-comprehension skills. Apparently being surrounded by the language constantly, even if you’re not always paying attention and striving to understand, really does subconsciously open the doors of comprehension.

Unrelated story—on Wednesday morning I stepped into the shower room to shave and quickly noticed that the water was not turning hot. The gas had apparently been switched off. That must have been what the letter I got yesterday that looked like a bill was about (my literacy still has a long way to go). I suffered through a freezing cold shower, then took the letter in to school to show it to Mrs. T- who confirmed that my gas had been shut off and I’d have to pay about 15,000 Yen (nearly $200) to get it turned back on. The gas company apparently doesn’t send bills with bar-codes that can be conveniently paid at convenience stores, so just like with the water bill my illiteracy led to a shut-off. Luckily, in Japan such situations are apparently not much trouble to rectify. The principal let me leave school for awhile to walk to the bank and make the payment, after which Mrs. T- faxed the receipt to the gas company who had my gas switched back on the by time I got home (at which point I’d almost forgotten it had been shut off in the first place).

But the only problem it caused was pretty much draining the rest of my bank account for the month. Whenever I get paid I keep what I think I’ll need for the month in my Japanese account and send the rest to my American bank account because that’s the only way I can pay my credit card bill, which currently has a substantial balance thanks to two recent plane-ticket purchases. Thanks to the unexpected half a years’ worth of gas all-at-once payment, I was down to almost nothing. Luckily I can rely on my parents to deposit money in my account to help me make it to payday, and I can pay them back the next time I see them.

Yesterday was graduation day for the third-graders at school, and afterwards there were two parties for the faculty. The first was a normal enkai like the ones after the Chorus Contest and before Christmas break, and the second was a less formal affair at a karaoke bar. Those who would be doing karaoke would not be driving home that night but staying at the hotel where the enkai was. I was still pretty sad about the third-graders leaving so I didn’t feel like partying at all, but I figured this is the kind of cultural experience I shouldn’t be turning down. However, the cost of the enkai was 7,000 yen (close to $100) and the cost of a bed at the hotel was another 7,000 yen. The price of karaoke would be pretty substantial as well. I was still on the fence in the morning when I stopped at the 7/11 to extract my party-money from the ATM, but I checked the balance of my American account online first and saw that my parents had not yet deposited the emergency money. I could afford the enkai but not the karaoke, so I decided to do that. I could have called my parents and asked for even more money but I figured since I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going anyway I might as well just call it fate.

The graduation ceremony itself was just as sad as I expected. The weather, like it was for the entire week, was cold and rainy, and it was freezing in the gym even with two heat-blasting fans running constantly on each side of the room. This whole March-graduation thing just isn’t natural. The end of the school-year is supposed to be warm and beautiful.

The first- and second-graders filed in first while the parents of the graduates slowly trickled in. When everyone was seated the third-graders entered two-by-two to a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, one of my favorite pieces of classical music. My heart-strings were already being tugged as I watched them enter, but I knew it would be several hours before they would leave.

There were quite a few speeches made, not just by the principal and vice principals but by members of the board of education and PTA (which in Japan is actually called the “PTA”) and I managed to avoid utter boredom by putting my Japanese-comprehension skills to the test and trying to translate as much as I could. Comprehension is not nearly as easy when you’ve got English subtitles already guiding the way, but I was pleased to discover I understood a lot more than I assumed I could. It also helped to know the context of the speeches. There was a lot of talk about the future (mirai), entering a “new world” (atarashi sekai) and whatnot. The word kibishi, which means “strict” popped up in nearly every speech, so I assumed they were explaining the value of their education-style. Of course the most frequently-used word was rei, meaning “bow”, which the students were ordered to do when every new speaker took the podium.

The speakers were seated in an “honored guest” section to the left of and facing the graduates, directly across from the faculty seating section where I stayed most of the time. Parents were seated behind the graduates, followed by first-graders and then second-graders in the back. Everyone was in their school-uniforms—no caps and gowns apparently—but some of the third-grade teachers were dressed in traditional Japanese clothing that looked like what geishas and samurais wear.

After the speeches, the first and second graders sang one of their songs, then the third graders turned around to face their parents and sing one of theirs. They then took the stage and sang one final song before walking two-by-two through the split in the seats to the back of the gym and out the door, their final exit as the first- and second-graders sang a very sad song. I stood by the exit and watched them all go, and this was by far the most emotional moment of the day. Some of the students—mostly the “cool” boys—had smiles on their faces, but many of the students, both girls and boys, had tears in their eyes. A few were outright bawling.

It made me think back to my middle-school graduation and what it felt like once the reality of this absolute ending finally started to hit just before the ceremony. I understood exactly what those kids were going through—once they walked out that door it would be over. Done. Finished. Nothing but memories lodged firmly in the inaccessible past. Damn this universe and its temporal mechanics.

One of the two final students to leave was the girl who had been crying hysterically at the Chorus Contest (the one who won the best conductor award), and as she turned around to face the gym one last time and take the ceremonial final bow it looked like tears actually leaped from her eyes at that instant. It was as appropriate a final image of this group of third-graders as I could have hoped for, I guess.

As for me, my eyes were moist but I never completely lost it. I nearly did when the last girl took that final bow, but I held it together. After that things got kind of hectic as the first-graders left to take their chairs back to their classrooms and the second-graders were instructed to get the auditorium back in order.

A set of parents came up to me, asked me in Japanese if I was “Kyle-sensei” and I said hai. They told me who their daughter was, I made clear that I recognized the name, and they thanked me for giving her that CD. I gave them a nice “your welcome” (dou itashimashite) and that was that. Apparently one girl was so grateful that she expressed it to her parents who were so taken by her gratitude that they felt obliged to express their gratitude to me. That alone makes the entire CD-burning thing worth it.

Only one other set of parents approached me. The parents of A- from the Speech Contest whom I’d met there. They thanked me for helping their daughter win second-place and I thanked them for thanking me. Later I came to wish I had told them how smart and wonderful I think their daughter is, which I could have done in Japanese, but I just didn’t think of it at the time. I’ll probably regret that forever because I’ll probably never see A- again, but so it goes. I’d assumed there’d be more student-parent-teacher mingling after the ceremony and I’d be able to say my most significant goodbyes then, but that was not to be. I’ll know better next time.

I helped the second-graders pack the chairs away, simultaneously thanking my lucky stars that I get to spend another year with them and dreading the gut-wrenching experience it will be when I have to watch them walk two-by-two out the gym doors next year. Because first-grade lessons are not every week and the third-grade lessons tapered off that the end, I’m already more familiar with them than the rest of the school. I don’t think I’ll be able to contain myself during that silent sayonara.

But life goes on, as did the day. I spent the afternoon in the teacher’s room reading old journals and reflecting on all the ways in which life changes and how it stays the same, then went home at 4:15 to put my stuff away. On the way out there was a group of about twelve third-graders hanging outside the gates of the school taking final pictures of their group of friends in front of the school, and they asked me to get in some of their shots. That was nice, and it was to be the last interaction I’ll ever have with that class of students at the school.

I returned to the school at 5:00 to hitch a ride to the hotel where the enkai was at, a hotel near the beach about 35-minutes away.

This was much more of a traditional Japanese-affair than the Christmas enkai, so I’m glad I brought my camera. It looked almost exactly like the enkai after the Chorus Contest with the tatami mats and traditional Japanese cuisine spread out over two long tables. It was easy to see why the cost was so high—this was quality cuisine. And as intimidating as it looked, most of it was rather delicious.

The set-up.

Nihonshoku Not the luckiest fish in the sea.

As usual, the party began with the pouring of drinks and the kampai, then about an hour of just eating, drinking, and mingling. This is when I got the most traction of my newfound Japanese confidence, as I was able to communicate more effectively than ever with my Japanese colleagues in Japanese. Of course, Ms. Y- was seated next to me and there to help if help was needed, but we didn’t need it very often. I was able to discuss things like the differences in climate between Chiba and New York, my impressions of the graduation ceremony (kanashi to samui: “sad and cold”) and even my reasons for not eating beef or pork.

Speech... ...kampai.

Half-way through the party, every third-grade teacher was invited up to give a short speech. They talked too informally and quickly for me to really understand, but one of the teachers broke into tears while speaking and apologized for losing her composure. It was a touching moment, and at least confirmed that even teachers who’ve been doing this for years can still have trouble letting go.

Mingling. Chowing down.

At one point one of the vice principals came up to me and with the help of Ms. Y- ask me what I thought of graduation and how I was finding life in Japan. After I answered him completely in Japanese, he said to Ms. Y- that he “hopes all Americans are like me”. I thanked him sincerely for that. It might just be the nicest compliment I’ve received from a superior since my school-days.

Speaking of which, one of the thoughts that occurred to me yesterday while I had the entire concept of junior high school on the brain is just how outstanding a time of my life that chapter was for me. I started middle-school as a new student in a K-8 school, and my excessive honesty (telling people I’d rather be a girl than a boy) instantly cast me down to the bottom of the social ladder, as unpopular as one could possibly be. But slowly and gradually over the course of three years the other students started accepting me just because of the force of my personality. By the end of my third-year I was on top my whole little world, known to everyone due my starring role in the school play, and chosen Distinguished Student of the Year. When I was called to receive my award in the final assembly I was greeted by wild cheering from the entire school. It was one of the most triumphant times of my life.

It’s no wonder I’m so attached to these kids. This past year has got me seriously thinking about becoming a middle-school teacher in America, or at least an English-speaking country where I’ll be able to really communicate with and thus have more of an impact on the kids. I still want to live in more parts of the globe first, but it’s definitely a life I can envision for myself, now more than ever before. Kind of funny how life works out like that—when you asked me in middle-school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said “middle-school teacher.”

Closing.

At the end of the enkai we all stood up and sang the school song, which I hummed along to now that I know the melody. I’d like to learn the words though, and I asked Ms. Y- if she could write them down for me to study, which she agreed to. Incidentally, she’s been at this school for 8 years, so she has to be moved to a different one next year. That sucks because I really like her and she’s a great partner in the classroom, so there’s another farewell to look forward to. She was very intrigued when I explained how teachers in America remain at the same school for their entire lives.

The party ended and I was driven home by a teacher who speaks no English whatsoever, but when we got near the school I was able to give him directions to my apartment in Japanese and he dropped me off. As I went inside I knew I was missing an interesting karaoke experience, but it also felt appropriate to be alone with my thoughts.

I was significantly sad, but this afternoon the sun came out and I went for a jog and a bike-ride, just being in the moment.  All moments end and you never get them back, but the fact that you can’t is what makes them beautiful.