Hello My School Days

September 8, 2009

Part 1: Introduction to the office

When did junior high school students get so small? I thought this was the time in your life when your body starts going crazy and you start getting angsty and buy a Smiths CD. Yet every student I saw today looked like they were 10, not in their early teens. I guess I have a horrid memory and don’t remember my junior high existence…I’m sure I was just as tiny.

What I do remember from junior high that is radically different here is class rotation. Back in the day, the prospect of going to multiple rooms in one day excited young me a lot. I was an easily excited child. I would have hated Japanese junior high, though, because the teachers get to do all the moving – the students stay in the same class pretty much all day (they switch for a few, but not many) and just have different teachers come in. They also have to clean the room at the end of the day, sucks for them. Since instructors don’t get a room all to themselves, they get to share one big, cluttered staff room. And so do I.

The staff room resembles a giant classroom that happens to have a miniature kitchen in the corner. A biggie-sized blackboard covered in Japanese symbols rests in front of the rows of tables holding the teachers. In the back is a machine that dispenses all the green tea you want. There are a collection of megaphones piled up on a cabinet. I had to give a small introduction in front of the room, and it felt just like an elementary school speech, except it was entirely in Japanese and I wasn’t wearing glasses.

My schedule said I didn’t have any classes to work today, only two meetings with teachers I’d be teaming up with later in the week. That is until one teacher had to reschedule because he had a lot of work to get done. A third English teacher asked if we could move our meeting up to today and it looked like my schedule would remain accurate…until he had to cancel the moved up meeting because he had to leave early. I did end up having one meeting, but it lasted only five minutes (“so tomorrow, I want you to introduce yourself to the class. Can you fill up 50 minutes? Great, thanks!”). My total workload today lasted as long as it takes to warm up a frozen pizza in my microwave.

So I spent most of my first day at school sitting silently at my desk studying Japanese. I can count to five now. Various teachers tried talking to me with varying results – one teacher told me she wanted to talk to me but just didn’t know enough words in English. “You can still try!” I said like a self-help guru. “No…..” she replied sadly. Once I got sick of staring at the “learn to tell time” page of my textbook, I started memorizing the tranquil school bells schedule. I also realized the office phone’s ringtone was “The Entertainer,” which blew my mind.

At first I felt incredibly guilty for not being nearly as busy as the other teachers in the office. At the start of the day everyone else was buzzing around, throwing teaching materials into plastic baskets and talking away in Japanese. I made notes on my self introduction outline reading “don’t forget to bring this paper tomorrow.” Nearly every other instructor left the staff room when classes started, save for a few with a free period…and me, twiddling my thumbs and softly mumbling “chigaimasu” to myself. I eventually let the guilt go and realized that I was (brace for terrible metaphor) sort of like the middle relief pitcher from Japan who joins a Major League team. I only come out of the pen for a little bit and nobody around me understands what I’m saying, but I’m still treated like part of the team and my scoreless innings still celebrated. One teacher commended me on how hard I had been studying Japanese all day and high-fived me. Well, I think that’s what she meant when she stuck her hand up…when we actually connected, she seemed a bit confused and responded with a series of slaps better suited for pumping a flat bicycle tire.

I did end up having one other job for the day…and it was terrifying. After school a teacher came up to my desk and told me the students were very interested in meeting me…which even I picked up on as I could hear students outside the staff room talking about “Mr. Patrick.” In order to get to know the students better, I’d have to hang out where the kids were. So after the final bell of the day, I went to the student entrance of the school and became the type of creepster who ends up on local law authority databases by just hanging out as a steady stream of young teenagers walked by me. I wasn’t sure how to interact with them – I said ” hello” and waved at the younguns’ but they seemed either uninterested or confused. To be fair, I was a “FREE CANDY FOLLOW ME FOR CANDY” sign away from a police call.

Eventually, kids actually talked to me. Some straight up walked by and said “hello” – one guy dressed in a baseball uniform played it like a greedy trick-or-treater and came back twice to say “hi” (not sure if this was a joke). Even more bold were the occasional students wanting to have a small conversation. Said talks didn’t really go anywhere beyond “how old are you” before my 14-year-old conversation partners just started laughing in that way teenage girls do that is both endearing and annoying. My favorite though were the duos of students that featured one kid trying to feed the other English lines to speak to me, but with that kid being way too nervous to break them out. Very cute.

Students also really enjoyed my old-ass iPod for some reason.

Part 2: In which I spend four hours talking about myself

I’m officially sick of myself. I still have about 20 more of these self-introduction classes to go, but I already could care less that I really like deep dish pizza and I live near Disneyland. Each new class, I spend thirty minutes (note: it’s also very crushing to condense one’s existence into a half-hour) talking to 30-some students about where I’m from and what I do. I hold up pictures while the teacher I’m working with translates what I’ve said to the best of his/her ability. To buff out the rest of the period, I then give the kids a worksheet to fill out featuring a few questions about me (what kind of pet do I own?) and a section where they can write a little about themselves.

On the way to each class, the teacher I was paired up with described the upcoming set of tots to me. “This class is very shy” or “they are very loud and immature, but cute.” Since I’m American and subscribe to the idea that “blah blah blah individuality rugged toughness blah blah blah,” I assumed only a few students really summed up these qualitites and just stood out in a class full of average kids.

Wrong.

A Japanese class, together at all times during the school days, is like an ant colony wearing green ribbons and holding pens with little charms on the end. They all must receive mental directions from some far-off hivemind telling them to put their heads on their desks or talk during class. The first class of the day, the one described as “quiet,” seemed to be completely zoned out. The kids either stared at me with glazed eyes or they simply fell asleep head on arms. I can’t say I blame them…I’m not the most thrilling person in the world (“I like tacos kids!”) and, more importantly, these kids work crazy hours before, during and after school, and deserve all the rest they can get.

The rest of the classes I went to weren’t nearly as comatose. Well, at least not at first…the second period I went to were extremely talkative at first, even raising there hands during my conversation to add their insights. Unfortunately, my academic career at Northwestern didn’t thrill them like I hoped it would and they got pretty quiet for the rest of the presentation. Though to their credit they were the only class to have a strange obsession with my picture of Vladimir Gurrero, so they scored a lot of points.

Third up, the total opposite. These kids were very energetic and definitely the edgiest (as edgy as a bunch of 13-year-olds can be) of the day. When I came in they asked all sorts of questions, culminating in the one-two-punch of “are you married” and “do you have a girlfriend?” They talked a lot during my actual speel, asking questions and generally just chatting. A few kids snoozed out…but weren’t met with tranquility. The other students launched erasers at them to wake them up. One kid even got busted for reading what appeared to be a soccer-related manga in the back of the class. This was the “childish” class. Also, the most entertaining to watch from the front.

After a long day, I didn’t expect my last class of the day to be much different. It was the last class of the day, so I assumed the students would be totally restless or burnt out. When you are only 50 minutes away from sweet, sweet freedom, you could care less what the boob holding the Barrack Obama photo has to say. And yet…these kids were completely into it. They never seemed too tired, they asked questions during my talks and really liked my dog “Cookie-chan.” They were also the only group to clap for me, which was sweet. Plus one shook my hand, pretty neat.

So each class seemed to have a unifying trait, but the worksheets did allow for individual students to shine. Sure, they are chock-full of grammar errors (personal favorite: “you has dog”) but also really cute. I included a box where the kids could draw a picture, either of themselves or something they enjoy, and got a boatload of cool illustrations. A sampling: four Hello Kitties, an intense anime portrait, a panda bear seemingly exploding out of a sea of hearts, a detailed picture of Doraemon with the word “I LOVE DORAEMON” surrounding it, a set of glasses, a bunny thinking about a carrot and what appears to be the Circle K logo. And the kids also ask cute little questions – “do you like sushi?” “Do you know Yu-Gi-Oh?” “English fight!” OK, that wasn’t a question. But still warmed my heart.

Like all kids, these ones can get a bit rowdy at times, but they have their hearts in the right place, even if they didn’t laugh at any of my Los Angeles Clippers jokes. Still, I wouldn’t blame them if they started thwaping me with kendo sticks if they get tired hearing about “my governor, who was in Terminator.

Random Leftovers

– Every morning you have the opportunity to buy a school lunch for low, low prices. I threw my 400 yen into the little tin collection box. Come lunch time, I went to pick up my meal only to discover another teacher had jacked it. Whoa. The people in charge of making sure I don’t starve to death were extremely sorry (to the point later in the day that it would seem like a legitimate atrocity had occurred, and not the fact I didn’t get my rice), but still pretty strange.

– One positive from the theft, though – I got to buy lunch from the nearby Circle K. Fearing I wouldn’t have enough time to eat a big lunch box, I opted to buy the chicken nuggets instead. And wow did I stumble upon a great thing! The clerks at the convenience store microwaved it for me (a very cool little feature of convenience stores may I add) and when I bit into the nuggety goodness I was shocked – shocked! – at just how tasty these things were. They surely had the nutritional value of a sponge, but they tasted great. I have so little taste it’s astonishing.

– After classes ended, one teacher asked me what kind of music I liked. I hate answering this question, because I honestly don’t know where to start. I gave my stock answer (“rock and roll is my favorite, but I try to listen to everything!”) and then countered by asking him his musical tastes. He asked if I’d ever heard of Underworld, and I said I had (“Born Slippy” is pretty rad). Then, he went and asked “Do you know Jay Dilla?” Holy shit. I can barely find anyone I know in America who really digs the late, great Dilla, yet here I am in some Japanese classroom a million miles away from Detroit where a 26-year-old dude just revealed he loves Jay. This led to one of the best musical talks I’ve had in a while (dude owns nearly every Jay album…except Donuts. How does that happen???) and left me seriously geeked up for the rest of the day. “I found a guy who likes Dilla and Madlib and Pete Rock and…woooooooo, gotta calm down.” It was doubly great because I’d been listening to “The Light” on repeat before I left for school.

(Japanese Fun Fact #15 – They show the Magic Bullet infomercial in full here. Amazing.)

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2 Responses to “Hello My School Days”

  1. Emily said

    I’m so excited that you have a blog! How did I notice this before? It’s so interesting to see your perspective on the school system and culture as it more or less confirms what I have experienced in Japan and also with my Japanese language teachers back in high school.

    Also curious as to why you were saying “Chigaimasu”???

    Regardless, Ganbatte!

    • acrosstheseaandback said

      Yay, glad you like! I didn’t actually say Chigaimasu to anyone (I know that wouldn’t be smart…) but it was one of the vocab words in my book.

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