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Unremarkable Return

August 29th, 2013 No comments

Compared to last year’s experience, returning to Japan after my summer holiday this year was as dull as it gets, just another routine return home from vacation. It’s been great to start seeing students again, but there’s none of that “oh my god you’re actually back!” wonderfulness I got thanks to my prolonged absence. I’m sure most of them didn’t even know I’d been gone.

The 30-hour journey from Ichenheim to Togane went as smoothly as possible, with just some slight anxiety at the beginning when my first train ran a half-hour behind. I didn’t get to the airport until one hour before departure, but this turned out to be plenty of time anyway. It might have even made it better, as I barely had to wait on line to check-in and pretty much flew by security. I got lucky on the 6-hour flight to Abu Dhabi when the woman sitting next to me got up and never returned to her seat, apparently having found a better one somewhere else. Maybe I smelled bad? If so, good. The layover in Abu Dhabi was only an hour and a half and most of that consisted of getting off the one plane and on to the other, as the airport doesn’t have enough terminals for the planes to connect to and everyone has to be shuttled to and from the planes. I was amused by how extremely lax the security line was—the United Arab Emirates is clearly not too worried about terrorist attacks. Finally, I got lucky again on the 10-hour flight to Narita as nobody was seated next to me at all. I actually managed to sleep for awhile too—maybe a whole 20 minutes of unconsciousness (a new flight record for me!)

It was only 4 p.m. when I got back to Togane, giving me plenty of time to unpack, go for a run, and head to the supermarket to re-stock my refrigerator before settling in for the night.

I stayed up as late as I could—9 p.m.—thinking I’d probably crash for at least 12 hours, but the jet-lag had other plans. I woke up at 2 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another five hours. It was early evening in Germany, the time my body got used to being the most awake. I only slept for one more hour after that, new construction projects going on outside my apartment making further sleep impossible. I went for another run, did some more shopping, had lunch, then went back to K-chu at 1 p.m. for two hours of Speech Contest practice.

The jet-lag kept me up for most of last night as well, and I was hurting this morning as I came in at 10:00 a.m.—3 a.m. by my body’s reckoning.

The Speech Contest students did improve while I was away, but I’ve been disappointed by how relatively not-far they’ve come in three weeks. One kid doesn’t even have his whole speech memorized yet. It’s a long speech, okay, but he’s had five weeks and there’s only three more to go. Others are still making the same mistakes they were when I left. I guess it just means I’ve still got plenty of work cut out for me. At least the best student is still performing wonderfully—she’s pretty much ready for the contest already and would probably win if it were held tomorrow.

Next week the semester begins, but it won’t be back to normal. K-chu’s Sports Week is next week, so I’ve got a whole lot of boredom to look forward to as the students prepare for it. At least I’ll have the elementary schools to keep me busy. I’ll use as time preparing those lessons as I can.

All in all, it feels as great to be back as I expected. Just no “second honeymoon” this time. I was gone three weeks but it already feels like I never left.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Summer Semi-Vacation

July 20th, 2013 No comments

Yesterday was the last day of the first semester, and normal classes don’t resume until September. But it’s not quite completely summer vacation yet, as I still have to go in on many days to help the Speech Contest students practice. On August 3rd I’ll head to Germany, and that’s when the REAL summer vacation will begin.

Before my last lesson with each class, I decided to prepare a little speech to say goodbye for awhile. I wanted to say some of the kinds of things I said in my farewell speech to the Togane students, but to let them know now instead of waiting until the very end. It went like this:

The first part of the year is over. I enjoyed it. If you enjoyed it too, I’d be glad. Our time together has been short, but I feel like I know each of you a little bit. I really like you. Thank you for your warmth and enthusiasm. For the next six weeks or so, I’ll miss you. I’ll think about you every day. Have a great summer vacation. Till September. Goodbye.

The first class I gave the speech to happened to be 5-1 at H-sho, my favorite class. They gave me a big round of applause when I finished the speech, the warmest reception it was to get. 6-1 applauded too, but naturally it was less enthusiastic. Although after the following class a couple of girls from 6-1 found me in the hall and gave me a paper crane they’d made as part of the lesson but later decorated and wrote a nice message on later. It’s the first “present” I’ve received from any students this year. I had lunch with 6-2, so I waited for the end of the lunch period before giving my speech to them. The student who likes me the most in that class is a very childish but sweet kid named Daisuke. He’s cried whenever I eat with their class and he doesn’t win the janken tournament to get me to sit at his table, but I was finally sitting across from him that day. He gave me a picture of a train with the words “thank you very very much” in katakana written on the back. The second present of the year.

By the time I said goodbye to the M-sho classes I already had the speech pretty much down pat. I’m not sure how much those kids appreciated it. The 5-1 teacher prompted them to clap at the end and they were pretty warm when I saw them in the hallway later, but I think that as a class they’ll always be shy and quiet. 6-1 didn’t clap, but I had a much more pleasant surprise when a whole bunch of students came up to me afterwards to ask me to sign their textbooks. So apparently it did have some effect.

The first classes I gave the speech to at K-chu were the third-graders. Strangely, the normally less-friendly 3-2 clapped while the more-friendly 3-1 did not, but I didn’t mean the speech so much for them as I’m bizarrely un-fond of this year’s 3rd-graders, especially when compared to last year’s Togane 3rd-graders who were my favorite class of all time.

Neither 1st-grade class clapped, but I made sure to look at all the students I particularly meant it for and most of them were appreciating it.

As for 2-1, they’re my second-favorite of all my classes after 5-1 and naturally I got the second-best reaction from them, applause and all. It didn’t hurt either that I managed to make my last lesson with them a Mario Kart game. I’d done that game with almost every class at Togane and with the 3rd-graders at K-chu, but I’m convinced that this was the best it’s ever gone. I don’t know if that’s in spite of or because of the fact that W-sensei wasn’t there. I had a little help from a young teacher who had a free period, but she’s not an English teacher so I had to explain the entire complex game myself. But somehow I did it, and thanks to them being an excellent group they played the game perfectly. One group finished the race, another got to the second-to-last row, but the other four groups were right there keeping up with them, making for maximum excitement.

That class was the only class where I had any kind of say in who got picked for the Speech Contest. S-sensei picked the two 3rd-graders, a boy and a girl, and W-sensei picked two boys to do the 1st-grade skit. Only one 2nd-grader can be chosen, and while W-sensei had try-outs in one of her lessons without me, apparently the two best were girls who’d gone the previous year and she wanted to give other students a chance. There were two other girls who’d done well, H- and R-, and she had them both do an audition for me.  They’re both great students and I like both of them a lot, so I didn’t want to have to choose. I ended up not choosing and just going with the homeroom teacher’s preference of H-, but I feel like I made a choice by not choosing.  R-’s audition had been slightly better but I couldn’t bring myself to not choose H-, who’s one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever known.  She’s very shy and timid but I think doing well at the Speech Contest would really help boost her confidence.  As for R-, if I have any say at all in the matter she will definitely be picked next year.

I didn’t technically have to go to any schools on Friday— it could have been the first full day of my summer vacation—but I guess I’m becoming more Japanese because I ended up going to two of them. A few days earlier I’d asked Interac to see if I could attend the H-sho closing ceremony. I just wanted one last chance to see those kids and wave goodbye before the long summer holiday. I specifically said in my e-mail that I didn’t want to give a speech, but when the H-sho administrators found out I wanted to come, they were very gratified and wanted me to give a speech to the whole school. I guess no one had told them I’d already given my speech to the individual classes the previous week.

I found this out just as I was getting ready to leave K-chu yesterday afternoon, but since I couldn’t give the same exact speech again for the whole school (what would the kids who’d already heard it think?) I of course had to write a new speech. Luckily I was able to draw most of the material from previously given speeches and include a line about being “grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm” I’d forgotten to put into the original pre-summer vacation speech for H-sho. I just had to write a few extra lines, get Saito-sensei to check and correct them, then spend the rest of the night and all the next morning practicing. I’ve done this enough times by now to find that I’m getting pretty good at it.

When I got to H-sho on Friday morning, I was greeted warmly by the principal and vice principal who both thought it was wonderful that I’d volunteered to come to their closing ceremony of my own volition and give a speech. The vice principal checked my speech before the ceremony and said it was good. The ceremony began very early—just 8:20, so we headed towards the gym very shortly after I arrived.

It was a very short ceremony with just the school song, a speech by the vice principal, the principal, and the 6-1 teacher, and the last speech was mine. I was handed a microphone and for the first time since opening day I stood before the entire H-sho student body.

The first thing I did was unplanned. “Ohayou gozaimasu,” I said. They returned the greeting. “Good morning,” I said. They returned that greeting too, and I said, “oh sugoi!” which elicited a lot of nice smiles and chuckles. Then I got to it.

“The first part of the year is over. I’ve really enjoyed teaching at [H-sho]. I think this is a great school. You’re wonderful students. I’m grateful for your warmth and enthusiasm. Until now I’ve only met the 5th- and 6th-graders. From September, I want to meet all the students, so I’ll eat lunch with every class. I’m looking forward to that. 5th- and 6th-graders, I’ll miss you very much. Everyone, have a wonderfully fun summer vacation. Goodbye. See you!”

Everything but the “See you!” was in Japanese, of course, and I got a lot of nice “see you”s back from the crowd as well as applause.

I stood by the exit as the kids were walking out, and of the kids who I haven’t been teaching more than half of them gave me some kind of greeting on their way out. They all smiled when I returned their greeting, apparently psyched to just have any kind of interaction with the English teacher. So that was quite nice, well worth the effort of memorizing yet another speech.

The principal approached me then and thanked me for my speech and all my work in the first semester. He said something I didn’t quite understand but got the gist of, that the first- through fourth-graders were very excited by my speech, maybe he meant about the part where I said I’d start having school lunch with them.

After that it was off to K-chu to take care of more unnecessary business there.  I was surprised to see students filing into the gym just as I got there. Apparently their closing ceremony happened an hour later than H-sho’s. So even though I didn’t have to go to any closing ceremonies, I ended up going to two. It was interesting to be at one right after the other, the increase in formality from elementary to junior-high rather striking.

After the ceremony each class had a slightly different schedule, so I hung around and waited for different opportunities to go into homerooms and give each Speech Contest student a CD I’d made the previous night of me reading their speeches, so they’ll be better prepared when we start practicing next week.

That was the last thing I did before leaving, and when I got home my semi-summer vacation had officially begun. I’ll be going to Tokyo tomorrow to celebrate Lily’s birthday, and next weekend I’m having a karaoke party with some friends. The following week, it’s off to Germany!

And one final thing of pretty big significance to mention is that I finally applied for a teaching certification program this week and got accepted the very next day. It’s the fastest, cheapest program there is but once I finish it I’ll be certified to teach in the state of Florida. That’s pretty useless as I have no desire to live in Florida but it will be incredibly useful to get jobs at International Schools which is what I want to do after the ALT thing. When I go back to the states I’ll probably need to do some additional work to get certified in the state I do choose to live in, but by then I’ll have been earning a much better salary for awhile and will be much better able to afford it.

So in both the short and long term, the future is looking pretty bright.

Epic Return, part 2

October 22nd, 2012 No comments

I’m back at school for my first full day since before summer break, enjoying all this down-time I have in which to do things like write blog entries. I’ll just pick up right where I left off in the last entry.

I’d been a little worried about the weather when I landed in Thursday and the rain continued non-stop throughout the night, but by the time I went for my jog that morning it had already cleared up and has been sunny and beautiful ever since. I was very glad about that on Friday as it meant everyone would be in a slightly better mood than otherwise.

I knew that when I went in I should probably say something formally to the school administrators, so I composed a little speech in my head and practiced it a few dozen times before going in. I kept it simple enough to do in Japanese, and it basically went like this: “Hello, everyone. For my absence, I deeply apologize. I look forward to working here again.”

I was finished with my jogging and grocery shopping with about an hour to spare before going in, so I used the time to take a little cat-nap while practicing my speech every couple of minutes. Before I knew it 2:00 was upon me, so I put on a suit and tie for the first time in months and proceeded to make my way to the school.

I didn’t want to arrive during the hectic period between classes so I timed it so I’d arrive just as the final period of the day was starting. I didn’t expect to see any students on the way in, but there were some in the window of the second-floor music room looking out as I approached, and they were the first to spot me and wave hello. I could already feel my spirits lifting, and they were high enough already.

The hallways were empty as I entered the building, slipped into my school-shoes, and walked upstairs to the teacher’s room. When I entered there were a handful of teachers there who were quite unaware that I’d be coming, and they all greeted me with surprise and friendly hellos. Two of the three main administrators were missing, so the only one there was the guy who just started this year. I walked up to him and delivered my speech flawlessly, he thanked me and we gave each other the formal yoroshiku onegaishimasu and that was that.

I then awkwardly walked back to my desk, which was of course covered with Heath’s stuff. I’d been expecting O-sensei to be there, the one I’ll be working with from now on, but she was apparently in a lesson with the special needs students at the time. One of the other teachers offered to take me down to say hello to her, but on our way downstairs Heath was coming upstairs. We decided I could just talk to him until O-sensei was ready, so we went back to the teacher’s room and finally got to know each other a little bit.

He explained the kind of stuff he’s been doing while they were gone, which apparently consisted almost exclusively of textbook work with a few scattered game days here and there. I told him the whole story of how I ended up in the visa situation in the first place, and regarding Interac’s part in it he said he wasn’t surprised. He’s only been working for them for a few years out of the 17 he’s been here, but he’s known people who’ve worked for them since they first started and has heard plenty of stories. No further comment there.

I was definitely glad to get a chance to talk to him and get a sense of the guy. He’s definitely a good guy and I’m no longer thinking of him as some kind of threat. He told me all about the speech contest, how all the students did well but M- was the only one who won something. He said Y- gave a great speech (the one I wrote for her) but she leaned on the podium the whole time so that might have cost her some points. As for the first-graders, he said they were robbed, that they did fantastic but all the prizes went to others, some of whom clearly didn’t deserve them.

I asked him how he’d compare this school to other schools he’s worked at and he said his favorite was a much smaller school of just 150 students because there was more of an intimacy that could develop between the students and teachers than where there are 600, but he said he had a great time here as well and the students are very friendly.

He speaks fluent Japanese but he did his best to keep that secret from the students. I was kind of happy to hear that, as now the little bit of Japanese I know can still manage to impress them.

As we were talking, a few scattered students would come and go into the teacher’s room and they were all surprised and happy to see me, which of course felt wonderful. More started coming when student cleaning time began, and I told Heath I was tempted to go out and say hello to everyone, to which he said he understood completely and to go for it.

The next fifteen minutes were absolute bliss wrapped in joy and smothered in ecstasy, as I wandered the halls and watched all my student’s faces light up with surprise and happiness to see me. Naturally, some were more enthusiastic than others but the ones I like the most tended to be the ones most delighted by my sudden reappearance. I pretty much stuck to the third-grade hallway, but stuck my head in a few first-grade classrooms as well once cleaning time was coming to an end. The second-graders haven’t been especially warm to me so far this year, so I didn’t bother going through that hallways and used most of my time to chat with the third-grade students who wanted to come chat with me.

Suffice it to say, any worries I had about my absence causing my students to cool off towards me went right out the window. My absence actually seemed to have quite the opposite effect, as it would seem to have made their hearts grow fonder of me just as mine did of them. In fact, I was so overwhelmed with joy by the time I was finished that it almost seemed to me that the entire nearly two-month-long wait had been worth it. If I’d just come back to work on the first day of school as planned, I would certainly not have been treated to such an incredibly warm greeting.

On a bit of a funny note, many of the students told me I look like I lost weight. I wanted to say, “That can’t be true, do you have any idea what my diet was like in America? I must have consumed more cheese in those two and a half months than the whole year I spent in Japan.” I took the compliment anyway, but I suspect I only look thinner by comparison with my sumo-wrestling replacement.

He was packing his stuff up to go when I got back to the teacher’s room, explaining that they’d told him since I was now here he no longer needed to stay. Once O-sensei had seen him off, she came back to discuss next week’s lessons with me. It’s not a normal week because the students have their Chorus Contest on Friday, which is why I’m not teaching every class and I’m doing games instead of textbook lessons. Whatever the reason, it’s fine by me.

I sat at my desk with my computer out, planning the games for next week just like old times and appreciating every minute of it. I wasn’t getting paid for the day but I couldn’t care less about that. I was going to stay until after school time and then go walk around some more, which is exactly what I did and got more super-warm welcomes from some of the sports teams practicing, one of which even gave me a thunderous round of applause.

I left in some of the best spirits I’ve ever been in my life, and totally pumped for starting lessons again on Monday. Unfortunately it’s only going to be two classes and they’re both second-graders, so it won’t be as awesome as it could be, but I’m sure they’re going to like my games and it’s going to be awesome in any case.

On Saturday I spent most of the day getting my remaining affairs in order, and in the evening I had my reunion party. Kim and Enam showed up with three of their friends, two of whom I’d met before at the hanami and one of which was the Japanese girlfriend of one of the two. Stacy came a few moments later, and for awhile we just hung out at my place and chatted. The last person to come was Atsushi, a Japanese guy who speaks decent English and whom I’ve met on several occasions before, so I was glad he came as well.

Because there were eight of us and I’d only reserved a table for five at Dohtonbori, the okonomiyaki place I really like, we had to change dinner plans because on Saturday night there was not enough room to squeeze the extras in. We ended up going out for ramen at the place right next door that just recently opened.

Atsushi had to go after that, but the rest of us went back to my place for another drink before heading out to a relatively inexpensive karaoke bar which is right across the street but I’d never noticed before. Togane apparently has a ridiculous amount of karaoke bars, but still not a single normal bar.

With the exception of Stacy who doesn’t drink the rest of us proceeded to get quite drunk and sing all kinds of songs as loudly and belligerently as we could. I’d never do karaoke in America but in Japan you get your own private room so you’re only embarrassing yourself in front of your own friends, which makes it a hell of a lot of fun.

Once our time was up we stumbled into a convenience store to buy some snacks, which we proceeded to devour back at my place before everyone else went home and I crashed on my bed to wake up the following morning with the obligatory-yet-completely-expected hangover. At least the party served its purpose though, as I was up late enough and woke up late enough to feel like I’m pretty much over the jet-lag. I did have to struggle to stay awake until 10:00 last night though, but I made it and although I woke up at 5:30 this morning it wasn’t too inconvenient, as I wanted to go jogging at 6:30 since it’s now that time of year where it’s getting dark as soon as school ends so I’ve got to go in the mornings now.

But aside from the early sunset it still feels like summer here. In America the leaves were already brown, many trees already bare, and the weather cold enough to keep the windows closed and maybe even fire up the heat at night, but the climate here is noticeably warmer. All the leaves are still on the trees and you can still be comfortable in a T-shirt during the day, so that’s nice.

And now I’m back at school and about to start teaching again in a little less than an hour.

It’s several hours later, so I’ve already had my first lessons. The first one went better than I expected with more enthusiasm from the students than I usually expect from the second-graders, but the second was much quieter and less into it. Still, it felt great to be up in front of that classroom again, and the games went over quite nicely. It should be much better tomorrow when I’ve got some of my favorite classes in the school.

The teachers are having a meeting this afternoon so all of the students are leaving an hour early, which means no Team C today but hopefully tomorrow. I’m looking forward to that as much as anything else, though it’s been so long I can’t be sure anyone at all is going to show up.

In any case, I’m back, it feels great, and (knock on wood) it looks as though there’s nothing but good things on the horizon.

Good News, Bad News, No News

September 29th, 2012 No comments

Since the first time I lived abroad, I’d have a recurring dream in which I’d be back home in America and suddenly realize I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d be struck with anxiety thinking, “This isn’t right—I should be in Germany [or Japan]. What am I doing here? I’ve got to get back.” That dream came true this year, and recently I’ve been having the inverse of that dream, in which I’m back in Japan and suddenly realize I can’t remember the return journey. I either realize it’s a dream or decide not to question it and just go with it. When I woke up from the former dreams I’d experience relief. With the latter, huge disappointment. I’ve been suffering from some kind of reverse-homesickness, and it seems to be getting worse all the time.

The thing is, nobody seems to get it. Why would I want to be back in Japan so badly? Do I have a girlfriend there? No? So what’s the big deal? You can eat sushi here too.

I tell them I have friends over there and a nice place of my own, but when I try to explain that it’s my job I miss most of all, they really don’t get it. To almost everyone I talk to here, a job is just a job, a way to earn money, a means to an end but by no means and end in itself. I can’t adequately explain the difference between coming home from a shift at Domino’s pizza and only feeling good because you’re finally out of there, and coming home from a day at school and feeling good because the day was actually worthwhile. With a few exceptions, these days are utterly devoid of any quality that makes life actually worth living, and I’ve slipped straight back into the depression I used to feel when I lived here and had nothing to live for in the past.

One of those exceptions was last Sunday. I had the day off (the first after 11 straight days of working) and went hiking in a nearby state park with my mom and dad, stopping at a brew-pub on the way back for some beer and nachos before returning home to watch the football game on TV. The weather was perfect and it was a fine day overall, but those days are few and far between.

Any “friends” I used to have in high school have long since moved away, as have most of the people I hung out with in college. Mike in Brooklyn is the only one left that I have any desire to see, but it takes an hour to drive to Long Island and an hour from there to get through the traffic to his neighborhood and find a place to park. The earliest I can ever get off work is about 7:30, which means it would be 9:30 by the time I got there. That’s not too bad, but when I planned to do that Thursday night, orders kept coming in and I didn’t get out until 9:30, making the trip out to Brooklyn decidedly not worth it. I’ve got this Sunday off too though, so I’ll at least get to have another fun day out there tomorrow.

I previously wrote that this is no longer a vacation but a life, but that’s not really accurate. This is barely any kind of life at all.

With regards to my actual life—the one I don’t currently have access to—this week can be characterized by good news followed by bad news followed by no news. The first good news came on Monday. Interac informed me that they received the completed documents from immigration and expected final Certificate of Eligibility approval the following day, Tuesday, at which point they would update me again. That was great to hear, as it meant the CoE would be on its way and set to arrive the following week, and after the 4-day visa processing I’d be set to fly back the week after. I decided to make Friday the 5th of October my last day, and use the rest of the 3-day weekend to pay some final visits to family members with my parents, including Sue and Lance on Long Island, my grandparents up in Red Hook, and maybe even Billy at college in Delaware.

There was nothing from Interac the next morning, but another bit of good news came my way quite unexpectedly from Heath, the ALT who’s been replacing me at my school but who made it clear in so few words that he has no interest in keeping in touch with me. Before deciding to leave him alone and just accept my disconnectedness from the school, I’d made it a point to at least let him know my feelings about missing the Speech Contest, to tell him what happened with M- last year and to impress upon him how much I was determined to help her win this time and how bad I felt that I couldn’t. I’d hoped to at least let her know through him how sorry I was, and to hopefully motivate him to coach her as best he could.

His message was, “Just wanted to let you know your girlfriend M- got 4th place this year so no tears this time!”

The news itself was indeed fantastic, although the delivery felt like a bit of a stupid juvenile jab. My “girlfriend”? What are we, five-years-old? “Ha ha, you care about a girl’s feelings! You loooooooooooove her!” Yeah? I suppose I have cooties too.

But regardless of that, I can now rest easy knowing that M- achieved her goal which she so richly deserved. She worked so hard last year and came away with nothing. Over the rest of the year she focused hard on her speaking and pronunciation abilities and came back the following year to deliver a speech that landed her an actual prize. I wish I could have been there to share the moment with her, but I couldn’t be happier that she got it.

The next day I got a message from Kim, my neighbor, who’d also been at the Speech Contest. She told me about M- winning and congratulated me, though I told her I couldn’t accept her congratulations because I hadn’t been there and she’d done it all on her own. But she also told me she met Heath and talked to him, and this is where the bad news comes in. She said he’s a really up-beat guy, he’s been living and teaching in Japan for 17 years, he’s a champion sumo wrestler, and he’s well known by the JTEs in our area. She wrote “your kids are in good hands.”

That was the worst possible thing she could have said to me. I don’t want my kids to be in good hands. Capable hands, sure, but not expert 17-years-experience hot-shot celebrity ALT sumo-wrestler hands. For whatever reason he seems to have nothing but disdain for me, but I imagine the kids must love him and the JTEs must be quite impressed by him. When I go back, I’ll no longer seem like as good of a teacher to any of them. A significant portion of the students will no doubt prefer him to me and be disappointed when I return, and the teachers will have to readjust to working with an inexperienced, non-Japanese speaking teaching partner. For all I know, after seeing him do his expert lessons they’ll realize just how amateurish mine were and stop letting me have so much control over the planning.

I hope I’m just being needlessly paranoid, but when the only thing I’ve got going for me in my life is my job, it’s hard not to constantly worry about all the ways in which that might end up spoiled by this situation. It took me 27 years to find myself in a life situation in which I could truly call myself happy, and wouldn’t it be just so poetically appropriate if the thing that provided that happiness gets tainted and torn to shreds after just one extremely brief lightning-fast year?

And it’s all because of paperwork! Forms and stamps and files that nobody ever checks. Because I didn’t get a fucking stamp I was supposed to get before going on vacation, I’m forced to exchange a month and a half or more of a life worth living with this empty bullshit existence, and return to a fundamentally altered situation. The more I actually think about the underlying reality of the situation—that everything would be perfectly fine if not for the paperwork procedures of people with absolutely no connection to my life whatsoever—the more absurd it seems.

The worst part is, there’s still no end in sight. At the beginning of the week it looked like next Friday was the light at the end of the tunnel, but I heard nothing from Interac the whole rest of the week. I just sat tight until Thursday which they said is the day I’d usually hear from them, but got no update then either. I would have sent an e-mail asking what the deal is, but I did that last Thursday when I also got no update and it make no difference. They’re going to update me whenever they damn well please and all I can do is wait and grind my teeth.

And that bit of no news is how the week ended and where things stand right now. For all I know, I will get the Certificate of Eligibility in the mail this week as planned and be ready to fly back the week after. Or there might have been some kind of problem and they had to start the whole process over from the beginning in which case I’ll be stuck here until December. Maybe Heath and my school have decided they’re happy together and want to make his teaching there a permanent arrangement, so Interac no longer has need of me and are just figuring out how to release me from my contract. WHO KNOWS???

In any case, I took back my two weeks’ notice from Domino’s and told them to just keep scheduling me until further notice, so there will be no visits to family members next weekend. I’m still going to try and do that before I leave though, because if there’s one thing my mind couldn’t possibly be more made up about it’s that I’m not coming back to America again next year. I need to stay in Japan, pay off all the debt I still have from this year’s travelling expenses and when I can finally afford to travel again, actually see more of Japan.

There will come a day when I find myself back in this situation, stuck in America where I don’t belong and desperate to get back to my actual life. But then I’m going to wake up, I’m going to be in Japan, and I’m going to breathe and enormous sigh of relief that this time it was just one of those dreams.

Missed Flight

August 29th, 2012 No comments

Today was the day I was supposed to fly back to Japan. If all had gone according to plan, I would have been sitting in the airport terminal right now. Instead, I’m getting ready to go work the closing shift at Domino’s pizza tonight.

At least I don’t have to feel too cut off from my job. T-sensei sent me an e-mail a couple of days ago with her rough-draft translation of Y-’s speech for the Speech Contest, and I just spent the last three hours re-writing it and making a voice recording for her to practice. That felt good to do, but I’m still hoping against hope to be back in time for the contest.

I also got a reply to an e-mail I sent Heath, the guy who’ll be subbing for me, two days ago. I sent him a three paragraph explanation of why I wanted to contact him, and he wrote me back with a one sentence “good luck” e-mail that wasn’t too encouraging. He’s apparently been teaching for 17 years, so he clearly doesn’t feel the need to ask me any questions about the assignment. I’m still debating whether to open up to him about my concern that he’ll be such a rock-star at the school the students and teachers will be disappointed when I get back. I doubt it’ll make any actual difference—he’ll just do whatever he was going to do with as much or as little effort as he was going to put into it anyway. I just have to wait and see what kind of reaction I get when I finally do return.

But assuming they like me enough to genuinely miss me, there’s a decent chance my welcome upon returning will be even warmer than if the situation never happened. I know I’ll appreciate them more, so maybe it’ll go both ways.

And that’s the main silver lining I’m trying to focus on. If I’d have gone back to Japan as scheduled, I would have had to deal with the incredible hassle of a 14-hour flight, 14-hour stopover in Beijing, 4-hour flight to an airport I’ve never been to, and whatever kind of frustrating train-navigation adventure back to Togane. Now, no matter what the hassle is, I’ll just feel grateful to be going back to Japan at all. Every step of the way will just be bringing me closer back to a life I thought for a moment I might have lost. My return won’t just be the completion of a scheduled event, but a significantly meaningful experience.

Working for Domino’s again is already proving to be an eye-opener. Doing the same job I used to do as a kid, but now I have an infinitely more fulfilling job to go back to. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it—the job still has its charms—but the whole thing now just feels like a purgatory I’ve got to get through before returning to heaven. This fresh reminder of what “work” used to mean will only serve to greatly enhance my appreciation of what “work” is now.

So maybe I’ll look back on this in a month or two and be glad it happened. I’m definitely learning more valuable life lessons than I would have otherwise. I’ll get more specific about those once it becomes clearer what they are exactly.

School’s “Out” for Summer

July 20th, 2012 No comments

It’s the last day of school before summer vacation. There are no classes today—just a closing ceremony which finished a few minutes ago. I’ve still got to stay until the end of the work day though, but at least I’ll have something to do in the afternoon because (supposedly) we’ll be having our first Speech Contest meeting. I’ll probably be asked to come in every day next week for Speech Contest practice as well, so it doesn’t really feel like the last day of school—just the last day I’ll have to kill time in the teacher’s room. Even for the students in sports and clubs it’s hardly an ending—they’ll still be coming to school to practice over the summer break.

I’m a bit sad because this will be the longest period of time I’ll be going without teaching since I started this job, but it’ll be good to have a break from this life for awhile and return to my America-life for a month. I’ll be bringing with me all the fresh new perspective I’ve picked up here, and this life will still be waiting for me when I get back.

My lessons this week were sparse, but for the most part I was just asked by the teachers to give the students a fun lesson and play any kind of games I wanted. So needless to say they were a lot of fun and the students enjoyed them, so it was nice to end on a high note. For the English “Phrase of the Week” I taught the students “I’ll miss you” and “I missed you”. I’d say “Goodbye, I’ll miss you” and they’d say it back to me, then I’d walk out of the classroom for a few seconds and come back in and say, “Hello! I missed you,” which they’d repeat back. Then I’d do it again two more times, each time putting more fake emotion into it, pretty much fake-crying by the end of it. The students got a kick out of it and I hope it helped them to remember. At the end of the lesson, I said “Goodbye, I’ll miss you” one last time and they said it back to me. Even though it was kind of prompted, it still felt nice.

In social news, I had dinner with Kim and Enam last night in Kim’s apartment, and tonight I’m going to Lily’s birthday party, which will actually be at a bowling alley in Chiba. I haven’t been bowling in god knows how long, but I’m looking forward to seeing her and Jack, as well as a few other people who are probably coming like Stacy and Stephen from Interac whom I haven’t seen since our last visit to Tokyo. I hung out with Trey again on Monday night and I assume we’ll manage to get together at least one more time before I leave, because after that we might very well never see each other again. Such is this kind of life.

Lots of goodbyes going on. At least this time most of them are temporary.

Stuff of Lately

July 9th, 2012 No comments

Nothing especially noteworthy has happened in awhile, but it’s been a long time since my last entry so I might as well just write down a few things about how things have been going lately.

Summer is pretty much in full force now, with temperatures approaching the 30s (that’s like the 80s for you Fahrenheit-minded people out there) and nasty humidity. During some classes I end up sweating so much it soaks through my shirt. Luckily the teacher’s room here is air-conditioned, a benefit not all ALTs get to enjoy (although it’s not on today for some reason). I’ve only used my air-conditioning at home once so far, though my fan has been eating up plenty of juice. Without it things would be pretty unbearable.

The 4th of July of course passed with no fanfare. To celebrate I went with Jack and Lily and a few other Josai students to a sushi restaurant. We could have easily eaten American food at one of the many family restaurants around here but I guess they were going for irony. When I got home Trey called me, apparently suffering from America-withdrawal, wondering where his hot dogs and Budweiser and fireworks were. I of course couldn’t be less phased. I haven’t been in the states for the 4th of July in four years.

This is the last five-day school week before Summer Vacation. Next week is just a four-day week from Tuesday to Friday, and then classes don’t resume again until September. I’ll be asked to come into work though, as preparations for this year’s dreaded Speech Contest are beginning and I’ll be expected to coach the competing students during the break. Unfortunately for them, I’ll be gone for most of the break so they won’t get as much of a chance to practice with their ALT as some of the other students will, but I didn’t come in until September last year either and there seemed to be plenty of time to tweak their performances. Besides, over-rehearsing can be just as bad as under-rehearsing.

As for the students who’ll be participating, we held “auditions” for the second- and third-graders last week and auditions for the first-graders will be tomorrow. I put “auditions” in quotes because almost nobody came. Speech Contest teams consist of two first-graders who do a dialog, one second-grader, and two third-graders one of whom does a recitation and the other a speech they write themselves. Only two second-graders came—the same two boys who worked together and came in 2nd-place last year—and three third-graders, so we only had to cut two people. The low turn-out doesn’t surprise me at all. There’s nothing fun about the Speech Contest—I’m surprised anyone does it at all. If it didn’t look good on a high school application I’m sure nobody would.

Of the two second graders, I was surprised when the one whom I thought was the weaker of the two last year gave a much better reading than the other, so there was no discussion at all among the English teachers in selecting him. That’s “S-” for future reference.

One of the three girls was M-, the one who was robbed of a victory last year but who apparently wants to subject herself to that torture again. I’ve got mixed feelings about that, as while I admire her perseverance I really hate to think of how terrible it will be for her if she loses again. It’s one thing to try extremely hard and lose once, but to come back again and try harder and still lose…I’ll just have to do everything I can to keep that from happening. She’ll be pronouncing those “R”s and “L”s like it’s second-nature. If she’s the one who writes the speech I’ll make sure it’s the best damn speech those judges have ever heard. Unfortunately, I have no control over the other competitors, and if there are five better ones out there she’s out of luck.

The other two girls were Y- and M-, the latter being quite possible the sweetest girl in the entire the school but whose pronunciation wasn’t quite as good as Y-. Y- is a very intelligent, athletic girl who I was surprised to see at the audition because I’d assumed she was devoted to the track-and-field team, but I guess she wants this on her high school application. She’s very serious and not particularly friendly, but I have a lot of respect for her and think she’ll do well. She gave a speech at the graduation ceremony back in March so she’s got some public speaking experience, and from what I heard it was a pretty good speech too. It was a long discussion over whether to include Y- or M- and while I agreed that Y- had given the better audition I refused to say which person I’d cut and left it up to the others to make the final call. I feel bad for M- but in the end I think it’s better for her. She’s a sensitive type and I could easily imagine her crying if she loses, while Y- seems strong and confident and I can’t picture her crying over anything, let alone a Speech Contest. So M- is spared months of torturous English-recitation practice and a potential crushing defeat—not the worst deal ever.

As for the first-graders, I was hoping R- from Team C would want to do it but she’s too busy with other things. She’s joined other club activities and doesn’t come every day anymore, but she still makes it once or twice a week. When I asked her if she wanted to do it she said she couldn’t but knew that a couple of boys from her class were planning to audition. I’m not too familiar with the speaking ability of those boys, but there are two first-grade girls whose English and pronunciation skills are clearly head-over-heels above everyone else and who I think could easily win if they choose to do it. On Friday I had an opportunity to ask both of them about it and neither one was sure but they both said they’d think about it. But they both seemed honored to be asked. We’ll see what happens after school tomorrow.

As for after-school, the “explosion” of Team C has settled substantially and the mad rush of students coming to spend their Kyle-dollars has disappeared, much to my relief. I usually get just two or three students now and the group varies but there are some who come more often than others. There’s a pair of second-grade girls who sometimes come but it’s mostly first-graders. There’ve only been two days in the entire school-year where third-graders came, but I should have expected that, as they’re now the leaders in their respective clubs and fully devoted to them.

There haven’t been as many Team C days recently because the schedule has been strange due to exams and sometimes the students go home early and all after-school activities are cancelled. There was also that Speech Contest audition day, and last Thursday and Friday I was asked to help some third-grade students prepare for an interview test administered by some organization that I guess gives them a credential for their high school applications if they pass. Of the six I helped, I felt that two would easily pass, four were a toss-up, and two unfortunately didn’t really stand a chance. I did the best I could though, giving them as many tips and tricks for responding to English questions even when they couldn’t fully understand them.

As for actual teaching of actual lessons, that’s been going as well as always. I’m currently doing a particularly fun lesson for second-graders on “must”, for which I came up with a bunch of commands and students draw them from a cup and they must do whatever the command is—things like “You must give every student a high-five” or “You must not laugh for one minute.” I give a Kyle-dollar to everyone who does it, so I get a few boys volunteering and then I’ve got to pick students randomly, which I do with a random-number generating iPhone app. It’s exciting and entertaining for the students—especially when someone is forced to sing—but not necessarily for the unfortunate students whose number gets called by the iPhone. Most of the commands are easy and non-embarrassing and there’s only been one time where a girl who was told she must sing the school song all but begged me to let her choose another one. I couldn’t really oblige or it would defeat the whole purpose of teaching “must” so I had another student come and join her. Of course they only had to sing the first line, and I sang with them as well, so it wasn’t so bad for them. I hope she forgives me.

On Friday, K-sensei was too busy to come to his first-grade lessons and they were just going to cancel them and have their home-room teachers do something with them instead, but I told their homeroom teachers I could teach them myself and they let me go ahead with it. So I got to teach completely on my own for those two periods, only the second and third time I’ve had that opportunity, though when I did it last year one of the senior teachers remained to keep his eye on me. This time there was nobody there to watch me so I was truly on my own, but it went really well both times. The students seemed to behave even better than when the JTE is there, and pay extra attention because they couldn’t expect a Japanese translation if I said something they didn’t understand. The lesson was on “how many?” which was simple enough to not have to explain too much, but I did have to explain the game I’d planned. I had just enough Japanese to do that successfully, so it all worked out.

And that’s everything of note recently. I’m flying back to the states two weeks from Friday and I’m really looking forward to it, but I’ll be enjoying the weeks in the mean-time. I start to miss this job when there’s a three-day weekend—I’m really going to miss it when I’m gone for a whole month.

More School Stuff

October 1st, 2011 No comments

It’s officially been one month since I started teaching, and I think it’s safe to say I’ve settled in to the job quite nicely. I wouldn’t say that every single moment is a joy, but for the most part I’m still really enjoying it. Oddly enough, I almost prefer weekdays to weekends now because on school-days I’m surrounded by people and constantly occupied with things to do. On weekends it’s back to my isolation, and while I certainly enjoy my evenings the days are filled with menial tasks like going shopping, doing laundry, and updating my blog. I know I could call people and try to do something fun, but that usually requires money and I’m running out. I’ve got to stay on a strict budget of under 10,000 Yen per week for the next four weeks, and that’s not so easy when groceries can cost up to 7,000 Yen and random bills keep dropping out of the sky. At least the beach is free, and I’ve managed to get there at least once a week.

There are a few things I want to write about this past week, starting with a quick follow-up about the kids from the speech contest. I did end up making a certificate for M- (I quickly discovered there are a billion and a half websites for such things) and I made one for Y- as well. I went in early Thursday morning to print them out and try to give them out during the 30-minute reading period the students have between 8:00 and 8:30. I knew which class M- was in so I found her right away and gave her the certificate, saying “This is for all the hard work you did. You deserve something for your hard work.” She smiled politely and thanked me, but I couldn’t judge whether it meant anything at all to her. I couldn’t find Y- but I spotted him in the hallway after first period and asked him how he was doing. He seemed pretty depressed but said he was okay. I asked him which class he was in and when I found out it was a class I had a lesson with that day, I took the certificate with me and gave it to him after the lesson. He smiled politely and thanked me too, but that was the end of it.

I didn’t see A- again until yesterday, and when I asked her how she felt about coming in second she confirmed what I’d suspected—she was pleased that she’d placed so high but also disappointed that she hadn’t come in first. She’d wanted to go on and compete in the regional championships. For her sake I’m almost glad she’s not going to because the competition there would no doubt be much harder and if she ended up not placing at all a sensitive girl like her would be devastated. Although on a personal note, it would have been nice to continue working with her until that competition, as she’s such a sweet girl and I already miss seeing her every day.

One of the JTE’s, Ms. Y-, saw me give the certificate to M- on Thursday morning and she told me that she’d spoken to her and M- told her that she wanted to try again at next year’s speech contest. I couldn’t believe that, and I still have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand—good for her. Instead of just accepting defeat she’s motivated to come back and try again next year. On the other hand—so much for learning the lesson of not putting your heart and soul into something as pointless as a speech contest. She hadn’t even volunteered to go to the contest this year—Mrs. T- had to talk her into it—and if she was that upset about losing this time around it’s going to be ten times worse if she loses again next time when she’s had an entire year building up to it. But assuming Interac doesn’t change my contract at the end of the year, I’ll be her coach again next time and I’ll just have to do everything in my power to make sure she doesn’t lose. At least I know she’s got what it takes.

And one final note regarding her—yesterday was the day of Student Council elections, and she was running for one of the second-grade offices. There was a big assembly during fifth period which I attended just to see what it was like, and it was almost exactly like it was in my American schools only with a lot more bowing. All of the candidates from all of the grades were up on stage—about ten altogether, and each of them gave a speech about why they’d be the best person for whichever job they were running for. They each also had a friend to give a speech in support of them, and Y- and A- were among those speaking in support of their third-grade friends. One of the first-graders, S-, was also running, which meant 4 out of 5 of the speech contest students were on the stage. It was strange to hear them give speeches in Japanese after hearing them recite English for so many weeks, and naturally it was pretty much all incomprehensible to me. I understood the words for “school” and “students” but that was about it. In any case, I really hope M- won her election. Two failures in one week would just be far too cruel a blow for fate to deliver to her.

As for me, I’ve been in a comfortable state of ‘so-so’ all week, neither significantly happy nor depressed. The lessons this week weren’t nearly as fun as the ones I had last week when I had that great relay game for the students to play. I also had first-grade lessons, which I don’t have every week for some reason, but all the first-grade JTEs wanted me to do was administer the “Listening Check” at the end of the chapter they’d been teaching. This was the kind of “human tape-recorder” work Ian had warned us about at the “orientation” in Chiba: I would read a bunch of dialogs that the students had to answer comprehension questions about, and then check the students’ answers. To make matters worse, they split the classes in two so I had to do this for 20 minutes in one room and then go and do the same exact thing for 20 minutes in the other room. Six first-grade classes meant I had to do this twelve times, and when you consider that I had to read each dialog twice it meant I had to read them all twenty-four times. I pretty much had them memorized by the end.

Luckily, there were ways of doing this that prevented me from losing my mind. The most obvious thing was to read some of the dialogs in various silly voices, though not too silly because it was a listening check and perfect pronunciation on my part was essential. I did that from the very beginning, but when I went to check the students’ answers nobody wanted to raise their hand. So I’d say, “How many said Ben is from America?” and they’d all raise their hand. Then “How many said he’s from Canada?” and none of them would. “You’re right—he’s from America.” Boring—capital B. When I went into it for the second time, I had a sudden flash of inspiration and I split the class into three teams and told them that after each question I’d say, “Three…two…one…go!” and the first person to raise their hand with the right answer after I said “go!” would get a point for their team. It was un-frickin-believable how well that worked. In just about every group, I had nearly every single kid raising their hand after every question. They usually all shot up so fast that I was able to just pick whoever I wanted, trying to get all of them in at least once, and to make sure all the teams remained pretty even until the end. I’d usually give the win to the most enthusiastic team.

At the beginning of one of those classes, one of the boys was being disruptive and rude, clearly not interested in English class at all. But as soon as the competition started, he got completely into it, listening intently to every dialog so as to make sure he had the right answer, and shooting his hand up in the air as fast as possible every time I asked a question. Whenever I called on him he’d enthusiastically say “Yes!” before answering, and when I made sure to call on him for the game-winning point at the end it was almost like I made his whole day. That felt really good.

For the second-grade lesson I had to teach, “X gave Y a Z” so I had a warm-up in which I gave “presents” to students who could answer easy questions like “How’s the weather today?” and “What day is it?” I just had little pieces of paper with pictures of things like a CD, a watch, and a box of chocolates on them, and near the end I threw in a helicopter, and elephant, and a mansion to keep things interesting. After that it was the JTE’s job to teach the grammar point by using, “Kyle-sensei gave Yuko a CD” or what-have-you as examples, then we’d launch into the activity. But for one of the lessons once I’d finished the warm-up the JTE had mysteriously disappeared and I was left there on my own to fend for myself. I found out later that one of the students from her homeroom had been acting up so she’d been called out to give him a stern talking-to which lasted about ten minutes (this is the only form of discipline available to Japanese teachers, as there’s no such thing as detention or suspension here), so during that time I had to think on my feet.

Luckily, Interac provides its ALTs with books full of lesson-plans for nearly everything, and while I usually pick-and-choose what to use I was able to fall back on one of the ideas from this lesson I’d discarded. I drew a big circle on the board and had all the students take out a piece of paper and copy my drawing. Then I wrote すずきさん (Suzuki-san) underneath and asked the students “What should we give Suzuki-san?” I took suggestions from the students like nose and mouth and asked “What kind of nose?” (a small one) and “What kind of mouth?” (a big smiling one) and I’d draw it up and the students would laugh and copy. We continued in this fashion until we had a complete and very silly-looking face drawn. When the JTE came back she obviously had no idea what I was doing, but I quickly let her in on it by telling the students, “Look, we gave Suzuki-san a mouth, we gave him two big ears” and so on, and she was able to explain the grammar point by launching off of that. I’d discarded that idea because it’s a pretty ineffective way to teach the give/gave thing, but ironically it was the most fun I had with the second-graders all week.

Between that and the speech contest, that pretty much covers everything notable from the week. It’s going to be pretty dull until I get paid, so unless I have another crazy dream this is the kind of thing I’ll be posting. It’s also been over a month since I’ve written any political posts so I’m feeling kind of obligated to get back to that, but my heart’s not really in that right now so we’ll see.

September was quite a month. October’s going to have to have a few surprises in store if it has any chance of measuring up.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

The Contest

September 28th, 2011 No comments

I just returned home from an absurd and sadistic cultural event in Japan known as the Speech Contest. We Americans have our own similarly evil cultural practice known as the Spelling Bee, only this is worse in a lot of ways because the students are judged on their ability to deliver speeches in English—a vastly different and more difficult language than their own—and the results are withheld until the end, whereas when you lose a spelling bee it’s based on the objective fact that you mis-spelled a word, and you know immediately that you’ve lost. This is more comparable to child beauty pageants in its cruelty.

For the last several weeks, ever since I started teaching, I’ve been staying after school to help the students prepare. There were five altogether with varying degrees of skill.

There were two first-grade boys, O- and S-, who were doing a short little comedy sketch called “Time Noodles” together, and they already had the routine memorized and blocked out by the time I started working with them. All I did was throw in a few ideas to make it funnier, and while I attempted to help them improve their pronunciation, it was already pretty good and they’d already done it so many times that their way of saying the words was practically hard-wired into their brains. I saw almost no improvement from them over the weeks, but to be fair there had been little improvement to make.

The second-grade student for our school was a girl named M- who was reading a short piece from “Alice in Wonderland”. This was a ridiculously difficult piece for a Japanese person to read, as they have a hard time with Ls and Rs and this was full of sentences like, “Alice saw a little bottle on a table” and “the rabbit was very surprised and ran away.” M- couldn’t pronounce these words for the life of her when she began, but after a painstaking few weeks in which I had her constantly moving her tongue to the back of her mouth and repeating “white r-r-r-rabbit” again and again and again, she eventually got to the point where she pronounced everything almost perfectly. Out of all my students, she clearly made the most progress.

There are two third-grade competitions: a recitation of some pre-written material they choose, and a speech that the students write themselves (or with help from their ALT, as was the case with mine). The boy doing the speech was Y-, and I’d completely re-written his speech about lessons he’d learned regarding relationships after this year’s 3-11 earthquake. I was afraid I’d made it too advanced for him, and he struggled with it for a long time, but he eventually got to a point where he could really pull it off. Unfortunately for him, he has a natural lisp so there was only so much he could do.

Finally, there was A-, the girl reading a recitation of “The Giving Tree”. She was already doing a fantastic job of it when I started working with her, although she was still getting some Rs and Ls mixed up and there wasn’t much going on by way of gestures. But she was an excellent learner, and I was able to help her take the speech from Good to Incredibly Freakin’ Awesome. Of all of them, I’d always felt like she had the best chance of winning.

Today was Game Day. This is the first time I’ve ever been in any kind of role like the coach of a team, but that’s essentially what I was. I did my best to keep them as relaxed as they possibly could be, “take deep breaths” and to feel as optimistic as they could. The phrase “Yes we can!” has (unfortunately) become my motivational-mantra-by-default ever since I used it for my self-introduction to the school, and if it gets the students fired up—which it undeniably does—I might as well keep using it in spite of the political irony.

I had four lessons in the morning followed by an extremely rushed school-lunch (10-minutes to eat as opposed to the normal 50), after which seven of us took a taxi-van from the junior high school to the school where the contest was being held which I assume was a high-school. It was myself, the five students, and Ms. T- (whom I now know is actually Mrs. T-), the really friendly and helpful teacher who sits next to me in the staff room. All along the way the students were reciting their speeches to themselves for that last bit of practice, over and over again. I must confess that it made me really look forward to the end of it, when I’d never have to hear those speeches again.

When we arrived at the school I immediately spotted Ben with the students from his school, as well as Trey whom I haven’t seen since that first week in Togane, and Ryan, the other Interac ALT whom I met at the so-called “orientation-session” the week before we starting teaching. I managed to say hello and chat a little with all of them. Ryan told me that his experiences at his school were similar to mine in that the teachers didn’t just want us to be “human tape-recorders” as Ian-the-über-nerd had told us, but that we were actually expected to plan and execute full lessons. The only difference for him was that his school is smaller, so he only has an average of 3 lessons a day whereas I have 4 or 5. I don’t mind that at all though, as I enjoy teaching and it makes the day go much faster.

Before going inside to join his team, Trey talked to me about his experience at last year’s competition and how surprised he was at how emotionally-invested in it the kids can get. He warned me that every year half the students end up crying, so I should be prepared for that.

There would be two rooms at a time with readings going on, and Mrs. T- was one of the organizers in Room 2 so she had to abandon us and play the objective role of the woman who says, “And the next student is Soandso from Suchandsuch School who will be reading Thissythis.” So as she left to prepare I was left alone with the kids outside, the sole coach of the team. Before I took us inside for the opening ceremony I had us all stand in a huddle, put our hands together, and shout “Yes we can!” at the top of our lungs. I felt awkward as hell doing that, but they really liked it so that’s all that counts.

The brief opening ceremony was in the main auditorium, which could probably sit about four hundred people but here there were only about a third of that number. There were seventeen schools from the area participating in the competition, each with four or five students. The ALT was with them all so I got to see a lot more foreigners, and there were always one or two JTEs as well.

Unfortunately I had to divide my time between the auditorium and Room 2 as I wanted to see all of my students compete. I remained in the auditorium first to watch the first-graders do their “Time Noodles” routine. They were only the third group to go, and they were far superior to the previous two so I felt pretty good about that. One of the boys, S-, was so nervous that his voice shot up ten degrees during a couple of the lines, and he forgot to do one of the funny extra-things I’d suggested, but other than that their performance went down swimmingly.

Immediately after that I headed over to Room 2 to catch M- do “Alice in Wonderland”. I was far more nervous about her than I’d been with the first-graders, but as I heard the two speeches ahead of her I began to feel better because they were pretty awful. I couldn’t understand how so many of the speech coaches don’t correct their students when they make an L sound instead of R or vice-versa, or the S sound for a TH. Some of the students were barely comprehensible.

My stomach was in knots when it was M-’s turn to go. Her first line was “Alice was tired of sitting by her sister on the bank” and up until the previous day she’d been pronouncing “bank” like “vank”. But as soon as she nailed the B-sound I started to smile, and I kept on smiling as she went through the whole piece and delivered it better than I’d ever heard her do it before. Considering how poor her delivery had been when I started, I’ve never felt more proud in my life. I applauded wildly when she finished and made sure she saw me grinning widely and giving her the double-thumbs-up when she was done.

I caught a few more second-grade speeches and while some had better delivery in terms of dramatic-performance, none had pronunciation as flawless as M-. When I was finally able to talk to her at the break, I showered her with heartfelt praise, completely convinced that she would at least make the Top 5 if she didn’t win her whole competition.

I sat next to A- the whole time, and she was more nervous than any of them. I kept reminding her to breathe deeply and kept telling her that I knew she was going to do great. Now that I’d seen what the competition was like I was more certain of that than ever. A- was our strongest competitor by far and as long as she had no major screw-ups and there were no superstars up against her, I figured she had the best chance of winning the third-grade recitation.

I ducked out for a few more first-grade performances, most of which were barely comprehensible. But I did catch one called “Let’s Go to the Speech Contest!” with two girls doing a little sketch in which one decides not to go to the speech contest and the other disguises herself as the first girl at age-68, telling her how much she regretted not going and thereby convincing her to go. It was a ludicrous piece, but they were the best I’d seen among the first-graders in terms of delivery.

I was able to see the last few second-graders and none of them were better than M- so I felt very optimistic about her chances. During the break I stayed in Room 2 with A-, keeping her calm and positive and joking around to take the edge off. Her parents had shown up and they came over and introduced themselves to me, and I was able to tell them how great their daughter was which they appreciated.

Ryan was sitting nearby and I was able to chat with him as well. It was also his first time at a contest and he was feeling pretty good about it too.

When it came time for the third-graders to take their seats in the front of the room, I gave A- one last “gambatte” and a “yes we can!” She was the fourth student to go, and throughout the first three she’d glance at me and I’d remind her with my body language to breathe. The first three students were so-so at best, then A- took the stage and blew everybody away. I had a huge smile on my face the whole time, and I could see from the judge’s expressions that they were impressed as well. Even Ryan looked at me during the speech with an expression of awe at A-’s ability. She nailed every last word of “The Giving Tree” except one very close to the end (she said “prace” instead of “place”), but she was animated and emotive and practically perfect in every way. I was beaming when she was finished, but she didn’t seem so sure of herself.

I had to skip out then to go back to the auditorium for Y-’s speech, and Ryan came with me because his third-grader would be speaking right after mine, and he told me point-blank how impressed he’d been by A-. When we got inside, a half-Iranian girl was giving a speech about the difficulties of growing up as a non-fully-Japanese person in Japan. She was extremely good, so I knew right away that Y- wouldn’t win. He was up next, and it was a somewhat surreal experience to hear him deliver the words I’d written in front of an audience. He wasn’t perfect, but he was at his best so I was satisfied. The poor kid has a lisp—what can he do? When he finished the speech I breathed a sigh of relief. A lot of the other kids had gotten tripped up or drawn blanks in the middle of their speeches, and they’d left the stage in tears, already certain of their failure. All my kids had gone through their speeches swimmingly, and all had been at their best.

I watched the rest of the third-graders’ speeches, none of which were better than Y- or the Iranian girl, but when the last girl to go got tripped up and lost her place and I saw the Iranian girl smile because her chances of winning had just gone up, I immediately felt an intense loathing. Even though they were competing with my students, I felt nothing but empathy for the girls who blatantly screwed-up. They were all in for an intensely difficult emotional trial, and a bad memory that would leave a mark on them for rest of their lives (I still remember mis-spelling the word “moccasin” at my second-grade spelling bee and it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth).

I managed to get back to Room 2 for the last two third-grade recitations, both of which were less-than-spectacular so I felt great about A-’s chances. The last girl to go did a recitation called “I Have a Dream” about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, and while her pronunciation was atrocious you couldn’t fault her at all on delivery. She got up there and shouted “I HAVE A GREAM!!!” so loudly that I thought my ears would burst. The rest of the speech was thankfully a bit less thunderous…at least until she repeated “I HAVE A GREAM!!!” at the end.

When it was over, I gave A- my praise and asked her how she felt. As wonderfully as she’d performed, she was still all in knots about what the results would be. The poor girl wouldn’t allow herself to relax and feel good about how she’d done. M- was in a similar state, as no matter how many times I told her honestly that she’d done great, she still needed to hear the results.

I caught up with Trey for a moment before leaving. “That was intense,” he said, referring to the Martin Luther King girl, and I laughed in agreement. “Brace yourself,” he told me then. “This is the moment of truth. I hope I don’t have any criers.”

“I won’t have any criers,” I said confidently. “All my kids did great.”

And so we all entered the auditorium. I sat between the three boys and the two girls, directly next to A- as she was struggling not to pass out from anxiety. Mrs. T- had returned to us and was sitting on the other side of the two girls, ready to mark off the winners on her program sheet once they’d been read. Of course they had to prolong the process to obscene proportions, with a couple of preliminary speeches in both English and Japanese about how all the kids had worked hard “but unfortunately there can only be one winner” and that sort of thing. There was only one plaque for each competition, but the Top 5 were awarded with certificates.

When they started reading the results it was all in Japanese, so I couldn’t be sure what was going on but there were sudden outbursts of emotion bursting forth all around me. They read the results of the third-grade speeches first and I’d completely missed it—apparently Y- had not made the Top 5. (I found out a few moments later to my surprise that the half-Iranian girl had only come in 5th) When I finally turned to A- and asked her what was going on she said they were now reading the first-graders, and I glanced at Mrs. T-’s sheet to take a look. Suddenly the boys beside me had an emotional outburst of their own—I checked Mrs. T-’s sheet and saw that they’d won second place! I was happy for them, but I couldn’t feel too proud because they’d done most of the work before I’d gotten there. The first-place winners, incidentally, were the “Let’s Go to the Speech Contest!” girls.

Then came the second-grade winners. I watched as Mrs. T- marked off the fifth-place winner, then the fourth-place winner. Apparently M- would be in the Top 3! Then came the third-place winner and the second-place winner. Here goes…it’s…it’s…not M-. What the mother effing eff of all effs? Are you effing kidding me? Did you not hear her flawlessly pronounce the words “Alice” and “rabbit” again and again and again? Are you really saying that of the seventeen students her nearly-perfect performance wasn’t even among the Top 5? Re-effing-diculous. At least M- didn’t appear too disappointed. She had to know how well she’d done.

Finally, the third-grade recitation results. A- was losing her mind. I took her hand and held it tightly, feeling the appreciation of my support through her fingers. The fifth-place winner wasn’t her. Good. She was way better than fifth. Nor was the fourth-place. Good. Nor was the third-place. Second-place: A- from ___ Junior High School. First-place: someone else—a boy whose performance I hadn’t seen.

Um…okay? How are we supposed to feel about this? She’d won something—she’d done extremely well by all objective standards, coming in second out of seventeen. But she should have been first, so…yeah. When they called her name there was no outburst of emotion, just a quick gasp and then a look like, “Uh…hooray?” At least she could breathe a sigh of relief. The results had come in and they’d affirmed that she was in fact excellent at English-recitation. She could go home proud, if not completely victorious.

All of the winners got to go up on stage and receive their certificates to the applause of the crowd. I remained seated with Y- and M-, both of whom were clearly disappointed but neither of whom appeared too broken up about it.

But once the ceremony was over and we all got outside and stood together, that’s when M-’s tears started coming. Serves me right for not heeding Trey’s warning. I did the best I could to comfort her but there was hardly anything I could do. I just wanted to hug her but that’s SRICTLY FORBIDDEN, so the best I could do was keep telling her how proud I was (which I was), how great her performance had been (which it had) and that she shouldn’t be upset just because the judges were stupid (which they were). At least I got her to smile at that, but it was short-lived. She was crushed and she would go home crushed and there was nothing to be done about it.

Before Trey left he came and shook my hand in friendly congratulations, and before Ryan left he came over to do the same. He also told A- how impressed he was by her and that he was really surprised she hadn’t gotten first-place. A- smiled and thanked him. She seemed happy enough with second-place so if she was disappointed I couldn’t tell, but like the rest of us she had a hard time feeling good when M- was clearly in pain.

As for the others, the first-grade boys were happy with their second-place finish but were probably holding back because of M-, and if Y- was feeling crushed inside he was behaving like a full-grown Japanese man and keeping it well-hidden behind a mask of nonchalance. I was proud as hell of all of them, but unfortunately my opinion matters very little when weighed against that of the judges.

The taxi-ride back to school was a much more subdued affair than the ride over. Half-way through it I busted out my I-phone and played the Blue Man Group version of “White Rabbit” in an effort to get M- to smile and while it worked for half-a-second that was the best I could do. Then I decided to take a gamble and play Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and that ended up paying off nicely. Mrs. T- liked the song and thanked me for playing it, and when I noticed the kids liked it too I started singing and they all smiled and laughed including M-, though she went right back to crying when it was over.

Back at the school we went up to the staff room and declared our results to the principal and vice-principle, and everyone got their congratulations from the various teachers who were of course still there at 5:30 working overtime. Before we went our separate ways I had us all put our hands together in the hallway for one last “team-moment.” Mrs. T- told us we had to whisper because the teachers were working, so I had all of us whisper “We are the champions!” at the top of our whispering-lungs.

I went back in the staff-room and gathered my things. The principal and vice-principle thanked me for the work I’d done and I gave them a Japanese “your welcome.” On my way out the door and off school property I passed by M- one last time, who was standing on the school steps apparently waiting for a ride. She wasn’t crying anymore but her eyes were still red and she was obviously far from over it, so I approached her, took her hand, and told her in as simple English as I could that I was proud of her, that I know how hard she worked and that she should feel good about how she did. She smiled and thanked me, but it’s practically a certainty that she’ll still be crying through the night.

She really was robbed, and I’m not just saying that because of my bias. Her delivery had been nearly flawless, and it had been an incredibly difficult speech. She’d had such a hard time at first and the amount of improvement she’d made in just three short weeks had been astounding. She’d obviously spent hours upon hours struggling with those Rs and Ls and Bs and THs and going through it again and again and again and again when she could have been doing…I don’t know…something that’s actually fun? Instead she worked her ass off, poured her heart and soul into this thing and came out with absolutely shit to show for it. That’s life, I suppose.

Before I go to sleep tonight I’m going to try and find a way to make up some kind of mock-certificate so I can give it to her tomorrow as something solid she can hold on to as a reward—however hollow—for all the work she did. It won’t change the permanent scar of the undeserved feeling of failure that the speech contest will leave on her, but if it even helps just a tiny little bit it’ll be worth it.

In any case, now she’s got a bruise that she’ll hopefully grow from and learn from. Lord knows what kind of lessons a fourteen-year-old Japanese girl is going to take from such an experience, but maybe it’s that you shouldn’t put so much of yourself into something as meaningless as the flawless pronunciation of English words.

At least I’m sure I’ve learned something today. There was a profound lesson for me somewhere in this experience—of that I’m completely certain. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out what it is.