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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.

Reading Practice

June 26th, 2013 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Day

June 19th, 2013 No comments

My schedule at K-chu is even more sparse than usual this week due to exams. I had no lessons at all on Tuesday, so I was told I could come in if I want to or stay home. Let’s see—come to school and do absolutely nothing for eight hours or stay home and spend time in ways not limited to staring at my computer screen? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Yeah, I think I’ll stay home.

Interac lists these days as “Work Days” on your schedule, because the theory is that even if you’re not going to your own assigned school, hypothetically you should still be available to take a substitution assignment if one comes up. I’ve had quite a few of these Work Days and not once have I ever been called to sub, so the name always seemed the height of irony to me. “Work Day” in actuality seems to mean “Day Off”.

I got up at my normal time of 7:00 a.m. and went for a run. Normally if I want to run in the morning I’ve got to wake up an hour early but today I had the luxury of not needing the extra time to get ready. But when I got back from the jog I saw I had a missed call from Interac. Seriously? I’d missed the call by just two minutes, so I listened to the message and found that they were asking me if I’d be able to take a sub assignment for the day.

Let’s see—stay home and do the same things I can do every weekend or go off on an adventure to get a taste of a totally new school for a day? Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? I called Interac and told them I could do it, and they sent me the details in an e-mail shortly thereafter.

I’d be going to an elementary school in a town near Funabashi, about three-quarters of the way to Tokyo. I was surprised they were asking me to travel so far. Even if I could have caught the 8:36 train I wouldn’t have been able to get there until 10:30 due to all the train changes. Luckily the 9:12 train got me there at the same time, so I didn’t have to rush. They said the ALT for this school has been absent five times so they really needed someone to get there without delay. Absent five times this year already? It’s barely been three months. Made me wonder if there’s something about this school that saps the teacher’s motivation to go in.

So there was some trepidation on my part as I made my way there. This school was much farther from my location than any of the four I’ve been to. It’s not out in “the sticks” as many would refer to my area. Around here it’s little pockets of town surrounded by acres of rice fields and patches of woods. But get a little further into the mainland and you enter the gargantuan concrete sea of Tokyo-suburb-world, where there’s no distinguishing where one town ends and the next begins. Perhaps in these parts the students wouldn’t be as respectful, particularly to a substitute teacher. That might make for a particularly difficult day, but at least it would massively increase my appreciation for the schools I’m currently assigned to.

I found the school from the train station easily enough thanks to a little help from my iPhone and the satellites tracking it, but the entrance was a much trickier thing to find. The school was huge and mostly surrounded by high walls, parts of which were even topped by barbed wire (though I’m pretty sure those were not part of school property). I walked around the whole building as the kids were having their recess, immediately getting a sense of how massive the student body is. This was going to be an interesting change of pace indeed.

I couldn’t find anything that looked like a standard entrance to a school, but when I got to an open gate with some people who might have been teachers nearby, I asked them in Japanese if this was the elementary school and where the entrance was. The man gave me directions in English, slowly and cautiously as though dredging up information from English lessons long ago, and I thanked him in Japanese and walked towards where he directed me. I still found nothing that resembled a real entrance, but luckily a teacher looking out the window a few floors up spotted me and told me where to go in and that I should go to the second floor. I found the second floor but didn’t know where to go from there. A teacher walking by eyed me curiously until I asked him in Japanese where the Teacher’s Room was. For a split second he must have been wondering what this foreigner was doing just wandering into an elementary school.

At least when I got to the teacher’s room, the woman in charge of the ALT was there to greet me and tell me what I’d be doing. Apparently in this school every grade gets English lessons, though fourth-grade and under only gets them in short 20-minute bursts once a week. Tuesday is the day for second and fourth grade, so I’d be taking over those lessons. Because I’d missed the first two periods, they’d be combining four second-grade classes into two and I’d be teaching them first. The material was actions—things like “sit down”, “stand up”, “turn around”, “jump”, “spin”, etc—and they had flashcards prepared but said I was welcome to use my own games if I wanted. I explained that I’d never taught students below 5th-grade before, which she naturally found surprising. I asked if the students knew the numbers 1-10 because I’d brought my materials from the other elementary schools and they were learning numbers, but she said they didn’t. So apparently I’d just have to wing it.

I was brought down to the English room, a normal-sized classroom only completely devoid of desks and chairs. The teacher found the flashcards for the lessons I’d be teaching and showed them to me, as I read the Interac lesson-plan they’d printed out telling me in unclear and poorly-written directions how I was supposed to use them.

But before I could even begin to visualize it, the lesson time was starting. One full-size class of second-graders was led into the room followed by another. They sat down while the teacher who’d greeted me explained to the homeroom teachers that I hadn’t taught this before and she used what little English she had to try and explain the game I should play. That was as much preparation as I was going to get. She gestured to the students, indicating that it was time for me to begin.

So this is an interesting moment. I could have been on the couch watching old football games in the comfort of my apartment. Now here I am in front of more than 60 eight-year olds being prompted to conduct a lesson without a moment’s preparation, having no experience or even training with this kind of teaching. Well…nothing like diving straight into the deep end.

I greet the class with an enthusiastic “hello!” Instantly the intimidating sea of staring faces transforms into a beacon of warmth radiating at me as they return the greeting. I say “hello” again in a high pitched voice, and laughter accompanies the repetition. “Hello” in a low pitched voice, and they mimic the change in tone. Taking control of a classroom, it seems, is actually quite simple. “Hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello,” they repeat. “Hello hello hello,” I say. “Hello hello hello,” they repeat with a chuckle. “Hellohellohellohellohellohellohello,” I bellow while waving frantically, and they’re only too happy to mimic me.

So that’s the easy part. Next I have to do a brief self-introduction. Luckily I’ve done this many times and it doesn’t really matter what age the kids are. I tell them my name and have them guess where I’m from and how old I am. All the kids are wearing big name-tags so it’s easy to call on students, and when some kids guess ridiculous things like I’m from Brazil or Africa, or that I’m 13-years-old or 100-years-old, it keeps the students laughing.

Now I go to the flashcards, and find that this part teaches itself. Luckily this is just a review for the students, so they already know every card and the action it signifies. I get them to stand up, turn around, walk, run, jump, spin, and all that stuff, of course joining in and looking as silly as possible in the process. For “hands up” and “hands down” I have them do this with increased rapidity until we’re all flapping our arms, which they get a kick out of. And since one of the actions is “Be quiet” I come up with the idea of first making lots of noise and then suddenly shouting “Be quiet!” to bring everyone to silence as instantly as possible. There might be nothing more that young kids love than being prompted to start yelling and screaming wildly.

I think my best preparation for this wasn’t any kind of training, but my brief stint with improv comedy back in high school. While I’ve recognized before that I’m implementing many of the principles of improv into my teaching, nowhere was it as apparent as this. Throughout the day I’d be coming up with and trying out ideas on the spot constantly, then repeating what works in the next lesson and discarding or altering what doesn’t. One of the best ideas I came up with came in the second lesson, when after I finished the first round of actions with “sit down” I had us run through them all again, doing things like spinning and walking while sitting down.

The game itself was as simple as it gets. I’d show one row of students a flashcard and prompt them to make the gesture, then the rest of the students would guess it. I would never have done such a simple and mindless game on my own, but it was all I could do with a room of that many students and no time to come up with something better. But by that point the students were already having a great time and had an absolute blast even with the most basic, can-barely-be-called-a-game-at-all game ever. Once all the students had had a chance, if there was any time left I’d have half the students gesture for the other but show them three cards at a time, and later I came up with pitting one half of the class against the other by having a volunteer come and do three gestures for each side, which made it a bit more of a proper game only the students were all perfect so it ended in a tie every time.

In any case, those second-grade classes were an absolute blast for everyone involved, probably myself most of all. Being only twenty-minutes, they were over in a flash but I gave it my all every time and the teachers seemed to recognize this. I have no idea how their normal ALT does it, but the students’ reaction to me suggests it’s not quite as enthusiastically. A part of me felt a slight twinge of guilt that maybe I shouldn’t be doing such a good job as a substitute (after all that’s exactly what I was worried my sub would do when I was stuck in America) but I found that I just couldn’t turn it off or tune it down when I was in front of those kids. Their enthusiasm gave me energy and the more they responded the more I wanted to give. By the end of the third and final second-grade class period (which was just a single class so only about 30 students) I was already exhausted, but exhilarated as well. This was about a thousand times more fun than anything I’d have been doing at home, not to mention a massive learning experience.

Next there was to be one fourth-grade lesson, followed by lunch and the remaining 4 fourth-grade lessons afterwards. The physical difference between the 8 and 10-year-olds was noticeable, but the enthusiasm level was practically the same. The “hello hello” opening worked just as well, and the self-introduction just as smoothly. The material wasn’t much different either—just activities rather than actions. Things like “I wake up”, “I go to school”, “I brush my teeth”, “I watch TV” and so on. I’d have them say the activities on the flashcards and repeat a couple times using every funny voice at my disposal, then I’d play the same sort of gesture game only dividing each class in two and giving double-points to the first team to guess their team’s gesture. In the afternoon I experimented with other various things like having volunteers do gestures for the whole class first, letting the first person to guess do the next gesture. And in lieu of or in addition to the gesture game I’d have the students compete by drawing pictures of the activities on the blackboard. The entire experience was filled with laughter, cheers, and students enthusiastically raising their hands with more eagerness to be called on than I’ve ever seen before.

At lunch time, the teacher who originally greeted me came back to the English room to ask if I wanted to eat lunch there, in the Teacher’s Room, or in her classroom. Is that supposed to be some kind of decision? Well, it almost is, but as tired as I am I only get one day at this school so I might as well interact with as many students as possible. She was a 1st-grade teacher so her students were as young as it gets, most of whom still had missing teeth. I’ve actually eaten with 1st-graders once before at M-sho, where they have me cycle my lunch between all the grades and not just 5th and 6th, but there it was a combined 1st-and-2nd-grade class that still had only twelve students altogether while this was a full-on at-capacity 35-student classroom. At least a dozen of the kids were keen on talking to me, so I had to push my Japanese-chatting skills to the limit and still failed to understand much of what they were saying. But with kids that young non-verbal interaction is perfectly fine, as nothing more than a funny face can almost always generate a smile.

The normal ALT doesn’t order school lunch so I had to bring my own, nothing more than a little rice-and-seaweed snack from a train-station convenience stand, so I finished very quickly and watched the rest of them eat and play with their food the whole time. When the lunch period was over I headed back to the English room where I thought I’d get a few moments to myself.

A few moments was all I had, as a handful of students from earlier classes came in to hang out. There were a couple of strings with various flags from different countries hanging from the ceiling, so I played a simple game where I called the name of the country and the kids would have to jump up and touch the right flag, sometimes having to guess a few times before they got it right. Unfortunately I barely recognized a quarter of the flags myself, so this game was pretty limited.

After that it was cleaning time so I did get some relative peace as I did my Japanese flashcards on my laptop and the kids assigned to clean the English room did their thing.

The afternoon lessons started at 1:45 and lasted until about 3:00, twenty-minute lessons interspersed with five-minute breaks in which I’d reorganize the flashcards and see how many of the students’ names from the previous lesson I could remember. Over the course of the day I’d met with 10 classes total, and with about 30 students in each class that made for over 300 students I’d met and known for 20 minutes before saying goodbye forever. I must have made a minuscule impression on all of them, and quite a few of them made a minuscule impression on me. Some students just really stand out no matter what, always raising their hand to volunteer or get called on even if I’d already done so multiple times. I’d always try to call on as many different students as possible, constantly scanning for hands I hadn’t called on yet, but some students were so eager and excited that I couldn’t help but call on them multiple times. Occasionally I’d call on a student who’d make a mistake and embarrass themselves, and I’d always try to remember to give them another chance. One girl seemed absolutely devastated when she got an answer wrong but I made sure she got two more things right over the course of the lesson and by the end she was just as happy as everyone else. My only big regret was when one team lost the game and I let them leave feeling dejected. I made sure to give the next team that lost a nice happy cheer in spite of it at the end to let them leave feeling like they still had a good time.

When I’d finally finished my last lesson I headed back to the teacher’s room and was glad to find the 1st-grade teacher who’d invited me to lunch with her class there and ready to help me get the appropriate form and stamp I needed. I’ll submit the paper with my actual pay sheets at the end of the month but I don’t think I actually need to. It was pretty ironic to think I’d have been paid exactly the same for the day if I’d stayed home.

On my way out the teacher asked me where I was coming from and was shocked when she heard it was as far away as Togane. She told me she heard from other teachers that my Japanese was very good and I was a skilled teacher, which is always nice to hear. After that I bid her farewell and began the long journey home.

Overall, taking the sub assignment was clearly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, as it wasn’t just incredibly fun but also a tremendous learning opportunity. I got to see what a truly large elementary school—982 students total as I found out—is like, and what it’s like to teach in a more urban area. I got a good impression of what teaching younger kids is like, and while it was undeniably fun I’m not sure I’d want to do it every single day. It’s no wonder the normal ALT—yet another girl from Jamaica as I found out—has called out so many times. It’s exhausting, and if you’re sick it’s got to be nearly impossible to keep up the energy.

But even so, a part of me thinks I might prefer it to my current assignment. The big problem with my current assignment is I’ve only got 10 classes spread across three schools, so most of my time isn’t spent teaching at all but merely preparing for lessons or just finding ways to keep busy. The full-time elementary assignment may be draining but at least you’re always busy, and most of the lessons are quick and simple enough that you barely need to prepare anyway. And while the 5th and 6th grade lessons are the full-period and would require preparation, there being five classes in each grade would allow you to work out all the kinks by the time you’re done. Now I only teach those lessons two or three times each, which isn’t really enough to perfect them.

All that aside, the warmth of the students is still the biggest factor in my thinking. I can’t yet say definitively because as of now I’ve still only set foot in 5 schools total, but it seems that the larger the class-size the better, as counter-intuitive as that may be. Smaller classes tend to be quieter and more subdued, which I’m sure makes for a better learning environment but not a more enthusiastic one. Classes at Togane Chu were all about 30 students and they varied in enthusiasm, but these days I’ve got classes as low as 16 students and those are all the most quiet and least enthusiastic, even the elementary schools. At Togane Chu the 2nd-graders were generally the least enthusiastic but the 2nd-grade class as K-chu is the biggest in the school at 30 students and the warmest class of all. The 5th-grade class at M-sho is only 17 students and extremely quiet, while the 5th-grade class at H-sho is my biggest group—35-students—and also the most enthusiastic by far. The 6th-grade classes at both M-sho and H-sho are 20 students each and all three are about as quiet as each other. The 35-student class at H-sho is my favorite class of all the schools, and almost every class at the school I subbed at yesterday was like that class.

In many ways, the hardest part of the day wasn’t figuring out how to do the lessons on-the-fly, but saying goodbye to the students when it was over. With groups that big, there are always about a dozen or so students who are super excited to meet you and anxious to rush up and shake hands or exchange high-fives at the end. Students wave and make faces at you as they say goodbye, laughing when you mimic them. You want to get to know them better, to exchange those priceless little moments all year long, but it’s a sub assignment and the odds of having a Work Day on the same day their teacher calls out again (and that it would be on a Tuesday) are infinitesimal.

One girl took both my hands before leaving the room and did a little dance with me, delighted when I played along. She kept waving goodbye and saying “See you!” as she walked away and finally “See you tomorrow!” before disappearing out of sight. It nearly broke my heart in half. I’m so sorry, you adorable precious little person, but you won’t see me tomorrow. You’ll never see me again for the rest of your life.

There wasn’t even that kind of finality when it came to this past years’ graduation—I at least still live in the same town as those kids and do in fact run into them all the time. But the kids from Funabashi aren’t likely to be going shopping in Togane any time soon.

One very real consequence of the day, however, is that I’ve now already pretty much made up my mind to request a change of assignments again next year. I’d been wondering whether or not I’d want to stay on in this situation since I started it. About three months in I can already state definitively that I preferred my assignment at Togane Chu. The school was bigger so the students were friendlier and the days were busier, and on top of that the teachers were more helpful. The only thing better about this year is I get the added variety of elementary-school teaching, but 4 of my 5 elementary classes are actually rather cold and dull when I look at them in comparison to the classes I taught yesterday. The only thing I’ll miss when transferring that I was looking forward to is seeing my current elementary school 6th-graders become middle-school 1st-graders. It’ll be tough to say goodbye to some of them, but in the end I’d rather move on to a completely new batch of students, and I’ll specifically request that it be a big school. I’ve already pondered the idea of specifically requesting the school I taught at yesterday if its current ALT switches next year, but I’m hoping to sub at a few more schools throughout the course of the year to get a better idea of where I’d be happiest. Hopefully I’ll get to try a high school or two as well.

This morning I sent an e-mail to Interac letting them know I enjoyed the sub assignment and I’d like to have more of them. I didn’t get a response but we’ll see what happens. I’d never been called to sub before but they sounded surprised when I agreed to, so now maybe they’ll move me up on the list of who to call when they’re in a pinch. I just need more Work Days.

I had my M-sho classes this morning, and I felt compelled to try and tell them about my experience yesterday. I did my best to explain in Japanese that I’d taught for one day at a school of a thousand students, that I taught over 300 students, twenty-minutes at a time, met them, taught them, then said goodbye forever. I tried to convey that I was happy to see them and glad that I had a whole year together with them, trying to express the same sort of message I did in my farewell speech to the Togane Chu students but now instead of waiting until the end of the year to let them know I appreciate them (even if they are rather quiet). I didn’t have O-sensei to help me translate so it was a struggle. Luckily the 5th-grade teacher was able to tell what I was getting at and helped me explain, and those kids at least got and appreciated my message and were perhaps a little warmer today because of it. But the 6th grade teacher was just confused and the whole thing fell flat. I tried one more time with a 1st-grade junior high class this afternoon and the benefit of practice helped me get my first points across but not the important stuff about appreciating the chance to get to know them. Of course I got no help from W-sensei (she seemed perplexed by the whole thing) but I think maybe a few students might have gotten some sense of what I was getting at. Still, the rest of the lesson was cold and almost completely devoid of excitement and a part of me couldn’t help but think that next school year can’t come fast enough.

It was quite an experience yesterday. To meet 300 people in batches of 35-70 each for just 20 minutes at a time, then say goodbye forever. Somehow it was enough that I know I’ll always remember some of them. I wonder if any of them will remember me.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

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.

A Questionable Sighting

June 25th, 2012 No comments

Although I try to record any event of significance in this journal, there are quite a few instances of hanging out with other people that I’ve neglected to mention because they seem too routine or normal. I’ve hung out with Trey at his place in the evening about every other week for the past few months, gone out to dinner with Jack and Lily a few times, cooked dinner at my place with my neighbor Kim from Interac, and spent a weekend afternoon with a Josai student named Tracy on two occasions. While I enjoy and appreciate all these experiences, I never feel compelled to write entries about them. There’s usually just not that much to say. “I hung out with soandso. We did suchandsuch. We chatted about thisandthat. I enjoyed their company and had a good time.” End of story.

The same lack of something interesting to say would apply to this past Saturday, when a group of five Interac ALTs including myself went to the beach in the middle of the day for a picnic, but there was something that happened right at the beginning that did strike me as something noteworthy. The picnic itself was a great time—about four hours of sitting on the beach drinking and eating tons of delicious food—but there’s not much I can say beyond that. Kim and Enam, the two ALTs I hung out with the first time at the hanami festival, were there, as well as two Interac ALTs I haven’t met before, an Indian-American named Laura-Anne and a Jamaican guy named Ravi. All splendid people with enough similar interests to keep the conversation lively and interesting.

But the noteworthy thing happened when Kim, Enam and I were waiting for Laura-Anne and Ravi to pick us up in her car in a parking lot in Togane a few blocks from the apartments where Kim and I live. There were a few people coming and going to the convenience store there, and one young girl who looked familiar standing and waiting for someone, dressed in an outfit like a call-girl might wear. I didn’t pay her much attention and was just chatting with Kim when I suddenly realized that I did know who she was—she’s a student at my school but she almost never comes to class. She was a second-grader last year and I saw her so rarely that for awhile I thought she might have transferred to another school. She’s an attractive girl but she always seemed depressed or pissed off at life, so when I stopped seeing her in class for months I was a little worried about her, thinking maybe she had a rough home-life or was maybe the victim of abuse. This year I’ve seen her more often, never in class but frequently in the hallways or during Sports Day when she was sitting on the side and not participating with the rest of the students.

So there she is waiting in this parking lot of a convenience store dressed like a prostitute, and just a minute after I recognize her and mention it to Kim, some older guy comes to meet her and she leaves with him in his car. This strikes us both as very shady, as the guy is too young to be her father but way too old to be a sibling (he was probably just a little over 30). When Enam comes out of the store we mention it to him, and he says she might be doing something called “compensated dating”. Apparently in Japan some guys pay big money for the company of young girls, and apparently this isn’t illegal. I didn’t know this but apparently there’s no age of consent in Japan—it’s decided on a case-by-case basis whether or not a sexual encounter between an adult and a minor constitutes rape.

As for the law itself, I see the rationality behind it. In America there are 18-year-olds who wind up convicted of rape and permanently labeled a sex-offender for sleeping with their 16-year-old girlfriends, which is just insane. And there could conceivably be non-coercive, genuine loving relationships between older men and younger girls (that was pretty normal for most of human history), so deciding each case based on its own individual circumstances makes sense to me.

But witnessing this made me feel a little sick. Assuming I wasn’t just completely misinterpreting what I saw, this was just a cold business transaction with nothing even close to “love” involved. The girl is probably depressed just as I assumed, and she doesn’t have enough sense of self-worth to refuse to be used in that way. She probably figures she can make a lot of money so why not? Who knows what kinds of rationalizations and justifications go on in the minds of girls who choose to do that?

But what really disturbs me is that idea that it might not be her choice. Maybe she does have an abusive home. Maybe her father is the one who got her into that so he could take the money.

That possibility enrages me and almost makes me think I should say something to someone, but I know it’s none of my business and I should just keep it to myself. I’m not even sure I saw what I think I saw. For all I know that guy was her uncle and she was only dressed like that because that’s how she likes to dress, and her whole permanently-depressed demeanor is just a coincidence. And even if I did say something there’s almost certainly nothing that could be done about it anyway, and all I’d be doing is spreading gossip about this girl to other faculty members and making them judge her based on what could very well be a mistaken impression on my part.

All I know is that I’m going to feel sick every time I see her now. I saw her this morning and it brought the feeling right back, but I’m just going to have to deal with it.

On the bright side, she’s probably the only student in the school who’s involved in that sort of thing. Almost all of the other girls seem completely innocent—even moreso than the girls I went to middle school with—and I can’t even picture them with a boyfriend let alone an older guy paying them for favors. Luckily, Togane seems like a good town for kids to grow up in, and the vast majority of them manage to get this far with their honor intact. I guess you just can’t expect everyone to be as fortunate.

Categories: Personal Tags: , ,

The Explosion of Team C

June 9th, 2012 No comments

It felt nice to finally be back in normal teaching-mode this week, though unfortunately I didn’t have any third-grade lessons.

For my second-grade lesson I had to teach future-tense using “will” and one of the things I did was make a class schedule where we’d all stop and do something at 50 past the hour, 5 past the hour, and 20 past the hour. I started the lesson by teaching them “the wave” like we do in baseball stadiums, and the first thing on the schedule was always to do the wave again. For 5 past and 20 past I let the students vote on three options each, the first being 1- Shout “What’s up!” (the first “phrase of the week” I taught them) 2- Chant “Let’s go!” (second phrase of the week) and 3- Dance “YMCA”. Most classes vote for the easiest thing so it was usually “What’s up!” but one class voted for “Let’s go!” and one totally awesome class voted for “YMCA”. For 20 past the options were 1- Make noise, 2- Be silent, and 3- Sing the school song. The students got a kick out of my singing of the first line of the school song to demonstrate, but no classes actually voted to do it. 5 out of 6 voted to be silent—the least fun option—but I made it funny anyway by shushing everyone who made the tiniest peep, thus drawing laughter which would prompt more shushing. The rest of the lesson was also fun, but it would be too much trouble to explain.

For the first-graders I had to teach “Is he/she___?” and I made a gesture game out of it, where a student would come and draw a piece of paper with a gesture-prompt on it (both in English and Japanese) and have to act it out for the class. Easy gestures included cold, sad, a baseball player, a dog, etc. and more difficult ones included bored, a mother, a geisha, a chicken. The student’s own team would get to make the first guess (every student had a Hint Page with all the gestures in both English and Japanese) and then the whole class would chant “Is he a baseball player?” or “Is she a chicken?” or something, and then I’d either point to “Yes, he/she is” or “No she/he isn’t” depending on whether they were right or wrong and we’d chant that. If their team got it wrong, the other team would get a chance to guess and steal the points, 6 for easy gestures and 10 for difficult ones. At first I couldn’t solicit enough volunteers so I used a random number generator iPhone app to pick students, but when I started offering Kyle-dollars, there was no shortage of volunteers. I gave everyone who tried a Kyle-dollar even if they were completely flummoxed and I needed to walk them through the entire gesture. Some students were surprisingly good at it, but most were clueless and needed help. In any case, it was lots of fun for everyone and had them all using the target language enough times to hopefully have it stick.

But the real story of the week was after school. When I handed out the price list for items from “Kyle’s Shop” (カイルの店) I painstakingly explained to the students that they can come to Team C even if they’re in another club, something they clearly didn’t understand before. I drew a line on the board representing the after-school time, which lasts from 4:15 to 6:00 and shaded the time from 4:15 to 4:30 pink for Team C and from 4:30 to 6:00 blue for their other club to drive the point home that even just coming for 15 minutes was okay and then they’d still have 90 minutes for their normal club. And of course, every time they come they’d be able to go shopping AND get an additional Kyle-dollar.

I was not at all prepared for how effective this pitch would be. On the first day, after having showed some of the gifts and handed out the price-list to just 3 second-grade classes, I had about fifteen students show up to go shopping and get their Kyle-dollar. I couldn’t just hand out the money for nothing though, so I’d ask each student a few questions in English like, “How are you?”, “What did you eat for dinner last night?”, or “What music do you like?” and help them give the right answer before letting them have the dollar. The boys just did their shopping, got their dollar and left, but some of the girls stayed behind and we looked through the Sports Day pictures I’d taken from Saturday.

The next day, after making the pitch to two more second-grade classes, about twenty-five students flooded in and it was a little overwhelming. I had my laptop out for anyone who hadn’t checked out the Sports Day pictures to look through while students lined up to have their brief interview with me to earn their Kyle-dollar and go. This is not at all what I had in mind when I envisioned Team C, and I was already starting to think of ways to fix the situation. Once all the boys had left there were still a decent number of girls willing to stay behind and actually try some actual communication, so at least some of the original intention behind the idea was honored.

But on Thursday, after teaching the final second-grade lesson along with two first-grade lessons, there was just this giant flock of boys crowding in and surrounding the table with the gifts, all eagerly waiting to get their interview over with to get their dollar. Some of the girls who’d been there the previous days just looked in and decided it was too crazy in there to even bother coming in.

But the biggest problem is that some of the boys obviously had far more Kyle-dollars than they could have possibly earned on their own in the few lessons I’ve had with their classes so far this school-year. They’d obviously just gone up to other students and taken Kyle-dollars from whoever didn’t want them. I’d known it was possible that might happen but I couldn’t think of a way to avoid it that wouldn’t be a complete pain in the ass. But this sucks because they’re buying up the best items before any other students—particularly the third-graders because I didn’t have lessons with them this week—could have a chance to. I’d thought that after the first day or two they’d run out of Kyle-dollars even from their other classmates, but on the Thursday they were still showing up with enough money to buy all the best stuff, stuff that should take students weeks to earn enough to buy.

Once the shopping and interviewing was over, only two students remained. One is a first-grade girl named R- who has been at every single Team C meeting since the very beginning, the only student who has. She’s an absolute joy of a person and the reason I didn’t despair of the whole Team C idea even during the weeks when it was only one or two students coming. Her English is still extremely basic but she’s totally determined to learn. On top of that, she’s a pretty good teacher on her own, extremely patient with me when I try to speak Japanese and always gently correcting me when I make a mistake and helping me figure out how to say something I’m struggling to say. If R- were the only person to ever come to Team C it would still be worth it. The other student is a first-grade boy who comes occasionally for lack of anything else to do. The three of us played a game with the “Elfer Raus” cards I’d brought back from my dresser-drawer in America and that was pretty fun, but I left knowing I really need to do something differently. I’m getting a lot more people to come, but I’m still barely getting anyone to stay, and if I don’t fix the Kyle-dollar issue the entire store is going to be sold-out before any of the honest students honestly saving their money get a chance to buy anything.

I had three first-grade lessons on Friday and when I handed out the price-sheet I implored them not to give their Kyle-dollars to other students, and the JTE helped me explain why this was unfair. So when after-school time rolled around, at least none of the first-graders showed up with absurd amounts of cash-in-hand. But the second-grade students who’d been buying all the best stuff still came with their seemingly never-ending supply of Kyle-dollars, I had to struggle to explain to them why what they were doing was unfair and that I wasn’t going to sell them any more items for which only one remained. I also told them that next week’s Team C would only be for third-graders, so that should give those students a chance to buy things as well, and I’ll at least be able to explain when I hand out the price-list that they shouldn’t be giving their Kyle-dollars to other students and if any of them showed up with more money than they could have earned on their own, I won’t sell them anything. Just to be sure, I’m going to start making students write their names on the back of the Kyle-dollars when I hand them out and they won’t be able to use any Kyle-dollars unless their own name is on them.

But at least the week ended on a high note, as R- got three of her friends to stay and play a card-game, the same game we’d played the day before and which she really liked. It’s a game called “Dötsch” (I’m unsure of the spelling because it’s just a dialect-slang) which roughly means “stupid” or “fool” but for which the Japanese have a word “baka” which actually translates much better. So we called the game “baka” and spent an entire hour playing it. It felt surreal and pretty cool to be playing a German card-game I used to play as a kid with my grandmother and cousins with a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls who totally loved it.

At any rate, this was a milestone week for Team C and it came with many pros and many cons. Starting next week, I’m going to attempt to do what I’d had in mind for Team C ever since I thought of the idea and bring in a sign-up sheet for each day. From now on if students want Kyle-dollars they’ll actually have to stay and communicate (even if that just means learning a card game and playing for fifteen minutes) and not just answer a couple of questions in English. I’ll have six slots per day, so students in their groups of friends can find a day available and plan to come then. Anyone can still go shopping, but only those who participate in the communication activity will get the Kyle-dollar. Had I done this earlier nobody would have signed up, but with the gift-shop/Kyle-dollar element it stands a much better chance. I’ll make an exception for R-, the Original Team C member, who is always welcome to come and join even if all the rest of the slots are full. She’s earned that privilege.

There’s no doubt that the gift-shop idea has given Team C a much-needed boost in participation, and hopefully once I get a few more of the kinks worked out I’ll finally end up with something close to what I’d intended with the idea in the first place.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

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.

Chu-hai and Cherry Blossoms

April 11th, 2012 No comments

Togane Lake

A “hanami” is a cherry-blossom viewing festival, a very popular activity during the cherry-blossom season, which lasts for different durations in different parts of Japan but is usually about one month long. The cherries only started blossoming last week, but they were in full bloom by the time of the hanami on Sunday.

I never received my school schedule in the mail from Interac, so all I knew on Sunday was that I had to attend the school’s opening ceremony the next morning. I didn’t know if I’d then have to stay the rest of the day or even do any lessons, but I was pretty resolved not to drink. It wasn’t until text messages from other ALTs informed me to bring drinks that I realized this was going to be that kind of event, so I ended up bringing four tall cans of chu-hai (a sweet alcoholic fruit-flavored beverage which is less expensive and less fattening than beer, but often with a higher alcohol content).

Before leaving for Tokyo the day before, I rang the doorbell of the new Interac ALT for Togane, Kim, and asked her if she knew about the hanami and if she wanted to go. She said yes, so I rang her again on Sunday when I was ready to go. Kim is practically fresh-off-the-plane, having just come from the big Interac training session in Narita, and she’d invited another ALT from training who now lives in nearby Sanmu, so the three of us walked to Togane Lake together while I told them about the area, about teaching Japanese students, and about all the things they learned at training that aren’t exactly true. It felt very weird to suddenly be the experienced one. Up until now I’ve been the new guy in nearly every situation.

There were already a ton of people at Togane Lake when we arrived at 3:00. After taking my first pictures I immediately spotted some of my students and said hello, and felt some more apprehension about drinking at this event. I’ve never had to encounter students in that state before, and there were guaranteed to be many of them here.

Lake entrance.  Along the path.

Japanese loveliness.

We walked around to the back of the lake, taking in the gorgeous and quintessentially Japanese scenery, until we spotted the two giant tarps on the grass swarming with fellow gaijin. Ben was there and immediately gave us a warm greeting, launching straight into introductions with the two new ALTs I’d brought. There were a few other familiar faces, but a whole bunch of people I’d never met before. Pretty much all of them had some kind of alcoholic beverage in their hand, so I went ahead and opened one up myself. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about greeting their students with booze-in-hand when they walked by, so I figured I shouldn’t either.

The gaijin tarps.

I chatted with a few people I haven’t seen in awhile and met a few others. Atsushi, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, was one of the few Japanese people there to mingle with us, but it was nice to have a few Japanese faces among us. Most of us were American, and most of the Americans were from Wisconsin, as apparently Wisconsin and Chiba are “sister-states” and there’s a special program for Wisconsinites to come here and teach English. Kim is Canadian, and as far as I know the only one among us.

One of the first people I ended up in a conversation with is Dan, from the infamous night of Ben’s Christmas Party when he took Diana from me without realizing I’d been interested in her. I naturally hated him at the time but he clearly felt bad about it and even apologized in a Facebook message after-the-fact. We didn’t bring her up at all, but by astounding coincidence she just happened to walk by us right when we were talking, chatting some other foreigner’s ear off. She didn’t seem to notice us and he didn’t notice her, so I didn’t say anything.

What we did talk about was the teachers our schools would be exchanging. His school was getting S-Sensei in exchange for K-sensei, whom Dan told me is a really great guy who loves to chat in English and is really easy to get along with. Apparently they’ve even hung out outside of work. But he also said, “With him you’ll hardly have to do any work,” which made me nervous because having a teacher who does everything himself and leaving nothing to me is exactly what I’ve been fearing most about the replacements. But if he’s as nice a guy as Dan says, I can probably just ask him point-blank to give me more lesson-planning responsibilities.

After a little while, Kim and I decided to take a walk around the rest of the lake and check out the rest of the festival. As we walked I kept passing groups of students and saying hello, eventually no longer even thinking about the chu-hai in my hand. A few of the students’ eyes widened when they saw me with Kim and they asked me if she was my girlfriend, but I laughed and told them in Japanese that she isn’t—she’s just a new ALT. Kim thought it was funny how in Japan, if a guy and a girl are walking alone together it must mean they’re in a relationship. But she was also very excited to see how enthusiastic some of the students can get when spotting their teacher. She’s obviously looking forward to it, and indeed it is one of the best things about this job.

In fact, it turned out to be one of the best things about the festival. Back at the gaijin tarps as I continued to drink and chat with other ALTs about everything from where we’ve lived to places we’ve traveled to our impressions of Japan and so on, students would constantly be walking by and they all smiled and said hello. That doesn’t even happen at school, where the presence of their English teacher is nothing unusual and therefore calls for no acknowledgment. But seeing me outside of the school environment, in my street-clothes, drinking chu-hai, was quite a novelty for them. Some groups would call me over and challenge me to remember their names, which was really difficult having not seen them for a few weeks but I turned out to be a pretty good guesser and they all got a kick out of watching me struggle.

Of course the best part was seeing some of the recently graduated third-graders again. It’s been weeks since they graduated and I got all sad and melancholy about the idea that I’d never see them again, but since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere. The Spring Concert, the farewell ceremony, out jogging or riding my bike, in the supermarket—they’re all over the place.

The one group of recent graduates who were the most amused to see me was the “bad kid” group, Japanese middle-school version of “hoodlums” I guess you could say. They weren’t really bad, just the kind who didn’t care about school and would frequently disrespect teachers (though never me). The fourth time I spotted that group, one of the boys came up and put a chu-hai in my hand. I didn’t understand what was happening at first but one of the other ALTs explained he was giving it to me. I don’t know how he got it, but I thanked him and took it. At that point I was on my third and pretty buzzed, so if there was anything unethical about that I wasn’t concerned. He’s not my student anymore anyway.

Jack's back! I also got to see Jack and Lily again. They’re now back from visiting Jack’s parents in Boston and Lily’s parents from France are now here visiting her. I walked around the festival with them once and got caught up. Jack actually has some sort of job with Interac now, not as a teacher but something else I’m not too clear on. He was actually at the Narita training session, so he’d already met Kim before I did.

As dusk was setting, everyone was told to leave the grassy area and move to one end of the lake from where we could view the fireworks. I spent so much time trying to get good fireworks pictures that I forgot to enjoy the fireworks. The pictures I’m posting here are just a few of the many dozens I took, a waste of camera memory space.

The crowd just starting to assemble. Boom.

Fizzle. Ooh! Aah!

During the fireworks I also somehow managed to finish the chu-hai my former students had given me, which pushed me past that fine line between buzzed and drunk. That made the next part a ridiculously bizarre experience, as with everyone all bunched together I was bumping into students left and right, and my super-enthusiastic hellos must have been highly amusing to all of them. I’m pretty sure a bunch of students had heard I was there and were deliberately coming up to say hello, perhaps just for the fun of seeing me drunk.

I probably shouldn’t have felt too apprehensive about that in the first place. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. All the other ALTs were drunk and greeting students too. I found out later that getting drunk is expected at a hanami, just like it is at an enkai. I’ve interacted with teachers while drunk, and now students as well. No harm, really. All I did was say hello and try to remember their names.

One of about 20 pictures I don't remember taking. Ben invited us all back to his place for an after-party, and at that point I was extremely merry and just wanted the fun to continue, so while I really should have just gone home, eaten something, and drank tons of water before going to bed at a decent hour, I went to Ben’s place, drank my last chu-hai, and got embarrassingly drunk to the point where it wasn’t until the following afternoon that I was able to remember some of the things I did. Thank god my students didn’t see me in that state. I’m embarrassed enough that other drunken ALTs saw me that way too, but after apologizing to Ben through Facebook the next day he assured me it was okay, everyone was pretty sloppy at that point and his memory is pretty hazy too, but that getting sloshed is perfectly appropriate for a hanami.

Eventually I did stumble home and go to sleep, though I have no idea when. All I know is that the sleep I got wasn’t nearly enough. The alcohol would not wear off completely until the following afternoon. And of course, the following morning just happened to be the first day of the school-year.

To be continued…