For the past week I wasn't anywhere near the internet so I apologize for being so disconnected. What follows is almost an entire summary of the last month. It is long. I won't try to convince you to read it but peruse it as you wish. Some will survive it and others won't. I'll be back soon with internet. I should get my modem today. I'll also respond to any emails or messages as soon as possible. Good luck.
The first couple days of school didn’t have much going on. Aside from the second semester opening ceremony, where I was introduced formally, classes were in review modes for a few days. The kids came to school all summer but they don’t necessarily study specific subjects. At least I don’t think. The teachers were supposed to have a welcome party/beginning of the new semester party the weekend before school started but it was cancelled and moved to the following week. Not all the teachers came to the party which was at a restaurant in Kochi city. Such parties are a bit expensive in my mind. If you want to drink a lot they are good I suppose but for what you pay I could be just as satisfied for a fraction of the cost. I could get two huge bowls of pork ramen for 1/5 of the price probably. Aside from the cost the food was pretty decent in most respects. It was an assortment of sushi and other random foods. Everyone who came thoroughly enjoyed themselves and I had some interesting conversations with the teachers. I busted out some Tosaben (the local dialect) and everyone was so amazed. It might have been the alcohol they were consuming that blurred their amazement. The strangest part of the night was probably staying with the principal from the main middle school. None of the teachers that came actually live around it so I had to stay in the city. The principal has a pretty spacious apartment type house and next door has a three story guest house. He called it the Oguri Hotel. When the principal and I arrived we talked with his wife for quite some in the living room. They showed me to the guest house a half hour later and we said good night. At this point my head felt a bit heavy. The biggest mistake of the night was probably drinking the shochu (Japanese whiskey) that the principal gave me at the restaurant. I think he gave me two of those mixed with water and I was just being polite to drink them. As I sat there watching t.v. my body went limp with regret as I pondered what would happen next as I lied down to sleep.
Sure enough when my eyes came to a few hours later I felt pretty awful. In the morning it was kind of awkward to feel sick with the principal and his wife. The principal gave me some little drink in a bottle that tasted like medicine. He told me it would make me better but I think it made things worse. I stomached some toast and bitter coffee with a hidden grimace every bite. I think that coffee was a throw up activator because a few minutes later everything came back up. I just wanted to be back home. Yet, I would have to survive a 30-45 minute car ride with a churning stomach and head. Before we left he snapped a picture of me outside his house. He lives right next to the major river that flows through Kochi City so it is a nice view. I really wasn’t in the mood for pictures though. On the way back I had them stop once so I could use the bathroom. Talk about embarrassing. My conclusion from later that day was that it wasn’t only the alcohol that made me feel sick. I think I ate some food that didn’t sit so well the previous night and it exacerbated my situation. Yoko, I might pass on the shochu next time.
The Middle Schools
Japanese schools are interesting places. Don’t expect much space from one teacher to the next. We all share the same office and each of us has a desk. But this environment is nice in ways because the teachers communicate a lot more between one another. There are three main classrooms at the middle school. One for each grade level and then there are several classrooms for science, art, and other subjects. Generally speaking the math, English, and Japanese teachers rotate through the different classes. Sometimes the teachers don’t teach every grade level one day. The daily schedule usually changes from one day to the next. I think there is a regular pattern each week but I haven’t really figured it out. It seems overly complicated to me but it might be my imagination from not paying attention.
Dress code for the teachers is pretty much non-existent or nobody cares. In bigger city schools the teachers might dress more professional but I had no idea. The science teacher always wears a tie as well as the principal. The other teachers are completely random. Sometimes my teacher wears athletic pants and a t-shirt. The math teacher and vice principal are always wearing some type of athletic apparel because they coach some sports. I think that some of my clothes are a little too dressy so I try to dress down a bit to fit in with the teachers. I don’t want to stand out too much. Then again I’m not going super casual either. I think the teachers give you more respect if you look nice consistently. I asked what I should wear for sports day and they said anything was fine. The music teacher said I look nice every day so it wouldn’t matter. Not sure what that means.
I only do three classes maximum at the middle school per day. Sometimes it is only one, sometimes it is two. This depends on whether I have an elementary school visit in the morning which in that case I sometimes miss most or all the English classes on a given day. This leads to a rather easy schedule for me. It is almost a guilty feeling but I don’t make my schedules so oh well. I show up at the middle school and get a briefing on the plan for the different classes and then help out as directed. I don’t have to do any planning which is easy as well. I would like to plan some activities because I think the students want to jump out the window half the time and run away to the mountains when they have to do worksheets and repeat what I read. My teacher wants to drill grammar for awhile to help students prepare for high school entrance exams so after that she wants me to plan more for classes. I feel kind of bad for the students because class is kind of boring. I try to make it as interesting as possible even if I’m just reading vocabulary. If I want to talk about something related or unrelated my teacher doesn’t really mind. I think it is just the Japanese style of teaching though. What these kids need is something interesting to do in class other than reading out of the book and filling in worksheets. Hopefully we can add that into the lessons in the following months. It would be a shame to waste such an opportunity to try things and learn as a teacher.
With that being said the students are generally pretty nice as you can expect middle school students to be. The third year students (9th graders) are shell shocked from a war they fought with the 5th graders when they were 6th graders. Apparently it had something to do with rotten fish and fermented soy bean paste. They don’t talk much and seem disconnected from reality. Hopefully you understand that “the war” is just my grand imagination at work. Maybe after they go to high school they will have forgotten such traumatic events and can learn to talk some more. The third year students are just quiet and have always been that way since coming to middle school. All the teachers report the same thing. I think if any class needs some life breathed into it with a large billow, it is them. It will be tricky to get them to do an activity so it will require careful planning.
I knew that Japanese girls don’t prefer to have hair on their arms and usually shave it but I have come across a related phenomenon. In the third year class there are two girls who sit in the front next to each other. They like to stare at their forearms quite a bit. Well as you might guess they scan over their arms like a battlefield mine detector looking for hair to pluck out. They could really care less what is going on in class or who is watching and intently focus down on their arms with the utmost concentration, precisely pulling unwanted hair from their slender arms. The pain we suffer for such vanity. Is it beauty or an atrocity to undertake such measures? My teacher told me that other girls do the same thing but I haven’t noticed others yet. I find it funny that I can stand right in front of them and watch them do it, yet they don’t seem to mind nor do they hide the fact. If girls have plenty of time to pluck their arms in class then things might be a bit boring for them.
The second year students are pretty lively and interesting. I like their class because they usually talk and participate. Some of the students try to mess with me a bit but that is fine. They sometimes notice things about me and then tell the teacher. I hear the word 失礼(shitsu rei) from some students shortly after which means rude. I can only wonder what they said to my teacher. Is snot hanging out of my nose, did I miss a button on my shirt? Well the other day it was merely that I had some scruff on my face and they were surprised despite the fact Lachlan had a beard when he was teaching. The second year students are generally fun to be with. The first year students are very similar in that respect. Their command of English is pretty poor but they usually try regardless. They like to ask me questions about different things which I love to answer. They asked the other day if I was rich which led into a discussion about how many floors are in my American home. That is difficult to answer if you can picture our (old) home because it has several different levels. I drew them some floor layouts and they were amazed at how big it was. The first year students usually find most things interesting so it is easy to get off track with them to talk about English things.
I never ate school lunch in America. I would usually get milk though. For awhile during elementary school I stopped getting milk at school and brought my own from home. They had switched to milk in a bag. As you all know, milk from a bag is highly suspicious. I thought it had a strange taste and wouldn’t stand for such a dairy derelict. To drink the milk you had to stab the bag with a straw. I’m sure this caused many a mess. Looking back it was a good way to save money for the milk company by reducing the weight of the packaging. Those plastic bags are now sleeping peacefully in a mound of refuse and slowly seeping methane. Japanese lunch is pretty good. The foods have been different every day so far and are tasty. All the teachers and students eat the lunch provided by the 給食センター (kyushoku sentaa) or the school lunch center. They crank out meals for students in the surrounding elementary schools as well. The nutritionist who oversees the menu is pretty funny and nice. She told me to knock on her window whenever I am around at Kogawa elementary school (the school lunch center is next door). I would like to scare her eventually so I will plan for that. The school lunch is shipped in a large metal container with shelves. It is divided further into other metal pails and containers. The students then have the responsibility to assemble the food. Sometimes this only requires them putting rice in bowls or a salad on a plate. Other times they have to dump out some noodles and then put a soup over the top. They put on little hats and uniforms to serve up the lunch which seems completely unnecessary but I like it. I ask them if they like wearing the clothes and I can literally see sweat drip from their brow in exasperation. It always seems like everyone is in a hurry to finish their lunch and they don’t talk very much. This is good because I kind of don’t want to talk when I’m eating anyway.
After lunch time and the lunch break there is cleaning time. Lunch break is like a recess for the students for a half hour. Cleaning time is an interesting component of the day. Instead of having a dedicated janitor the students clean the bathrooms, floors, and entry way. I help out in the entry area of the school and push the broom around. The students follow up with wet rags on poles to collect remaining dust. The students know what to do without being told and they start cleaning. This is only about 10-15 minutes long and then the students head back to class. I wonder how this would go over if it was tried at an American school. It wouldn’t.
For the past month and in late summer the students have been preparing for their sports day (体育祭－Taiikusai、運動会－Undoukai). It is a big deal in Japan and I had heard bits and pieces about it before coming but it is pretty interesting. According to the school newsletter I read today, the first sports/athletic day in Japan was held in 1874. It has since then become a huge tradition for schools nation wide every fall. The students are divided into a red and white team but this distinction is mainly for competition purposes. It doesn’t seem that competitive and I don’ think the students care who wins. They have some processions, games, dances, and cheers. I will cover this more in depth after I attend the sports day on the 19th. Is this event just another conspicuous attempt to reinforce conformity? Who knows but it is fun nonetheless. I will be doing a relay with a teacher team.
I also visit another middle school once a week. It is about 34km south so it takes about a half hour to get there. I always enjoy the drive because I’ve been without a car for quite some time now. Konotani middle school is really small. There are 2 first year students, 5 second year students, and 8 third year students. Next year the middle school will be consolidated into the elementary school. I think they could do that with a lot of schools around here. There are some pretty random places people live in Japan. In America it’s the same way out in the country. I have no idea how some people ended up living in the places they do around here. Especially houses way up on a mountainside. Surely it wasn’t for ease of travel they picked to live there. So schools are built where people have congregated over the years but as time goes on, the students grow up, leave home, and then there aren’t anymore students to feed dying schools. Konotani is pretty cool because the students are really nice and treat me well. It is nice to have really small classes there. I have only done an intro lesson for two classes there because there was a school field trip one week and sports day practice the following week. I will have to plan more for Konotani but it’s only once week so it shouldn’t be too hard. The vice principal was involved with English classes long ago and speaks thick Janglish all the time to me. I’m not sure if he wants to practice or is doing it for the sake of me. “Uhhh gaikoku umm foreign countries uhh sangyou production ga warui uhh bery bado yen daga bad for uhh dore dollar.” Well it was something like that anyway. I’m not there enough to know the teachers that well. Some don’t really pay attention to me but teachers are usually busy so it’s understandable. Konotani is also fun because I get to eat with the students each time I go. I will rotate classes each week so I get to know all the students.
Konotani had sports day rehearsal on Thursday but their event isn’t until next week. I mostly watched and sat under a tent trying to stay cool. They had me do some of the events with the students. I like to be involved whenever possible so I’m happy to be included. One of the events was dragging elementary school students sitting on small tires down the athletic field area. It was more tiring than it looked. Konotani does their sports day with the elementary school nearby because the middle school is so small. It works out well because all the students work together. A staggering amount of prep and organization goes into these sports days and I am glad that I’m not really part of that aspect. I just show up, take pictures, and have fun. During lunch break I ate with the third year students who I have not really met yet. As I was getting ready to eat I turned my chop sticks upside down, the wrong way, and turned around to one of the students while I held my bowl of vegetables. I then said, “Am I supposed to use them like this???” He instantly jumped on the bait and was like no no no do it this way. By that time I was already shaking my head and saying the Japanese word for joke. He was a little annoyed the rest of the lunch period because I had played a good trick on him. He tried to do a couple of his own but they didn’t reach the mark. I thought about trying this joke at the teacher welcome party a few weeks ago but thought it might leave a sour atmosphere in the room so I relinquished. Lunch time soon ended which led into arm wrestling battles with the boys. Come on who do you really expect to win? I think beat everyone with both arms. The girls even wanted to wrestle so I gave them the privilege of teaming up in pairs. This made it impossible to win. The afternoon dragged on or shall I say melted into a sultry mess of misery. I was praying they would soon be done with activities. The bad part about being a part of the practice is that I will see and do the same things this coming weekend. Can I really look forward to it again?
Schooling Elementary Kids
Having elementary schools is good in a lot of ways because it breaks up the routine of the middle school activities. Plus, I can plan whatever I want but that means I’m much more responsible for lesson planning. The Japanese teachers just expect me to show up and teach something. They aren’t really that involved most of the time. I bet if I wanted to collaborate somehow they might be interested but I need to feel things out some more. I have visited all but one of the elementary schools once. The classes are pretty small at the elementary schools so they put classes together (except kindergarten). So 1/2, 3/4, and 5/6. Some classes when put together can get big, however. This is especially true of the first elementary school I visited.
Kogawa elementary is the biggest school and has the most students. Next year I think they are closing some elementary schools and consolidating. I may have already said this somewhere. I wasn’t so nervous to show up and teach at an elementary school for the first time. I planned out some introduction material to teach the students about myself and my life. I printed out pictures of myself, family, things I like do, etc. I brought some maps of America, Illinois, and Champaign. I also brought some screen printing pictures and a shirt I made. I knew it was probably more listening than the younger students would care to sit through but I went with it anyway. I started off with introducing myself and saying my name. I brought a fake microphone from the board of education and had students tell me their names in English (My name is….). My first class at Kogawa was the kindergarten which is in a separate building from the main school. Should I even call it a class? It was two students, a boy and a girl. I didn’t know it would only be two students. It is kind of hard to do an intro activity with this age because they get distracted and antsy so easily. Somehow I managed to keep them mildly entertained. I showed them my pictures and asked them some questions. For the younger kids the big map of Illinois I have with many pictures got their attention. With the two kindergarten kids we found animals and talked about what sounds they make in Japanese and English. There are some big differences in how animals sound in Japanese. The little boy by the end of the class period had lost interest completely and wanted to lie down. I applaud him for his effort to pay attention.
The rest of the classes were pretty good. The first and second graders were nice. The teacher supervising was friendly and involved which I appreciated a lot. The third and fourth graders are a little more bold and sneaky. The teacher supervising them gave me a bad feeling. She didn’t really smile and seemed like she was in a bad mood. It made the class atmosphere extremely awkward for me compared to the class before. The fifth and sixth grade class might be the biggest of all. There are about 14 students in there. The teacher supervising is really friendly and happy. He reminds me of a character from Ocarina of Time, haha. With all the classes I had everyone say their names. I then asked students if they knew how to write my name (obviously no one did). I wrote my name out on paper and cut it into separate letters which I then randomly placed on the board. Students had to guess the correct order of the letters. It was pretty difficult when it came to the vowels so most of the time I had them pick between two letters. I then asked if they knew what brain was in English and wrote it out on the board. I pointed to my head and emphasized it was the brain and then at myself to emphasize I’m Blaine. The students found this amusing and difficult because of the pronunciation. After this we started looking at pictures. I showed my family and went through everyone. I showed pictures of pizza, my unicycles, football, etc. I asked students what sports and foods they liked. The students really loved finding out that I like riding a unicycle. Most elementary students practice riding unicycles in the fall for their sports days so it hits home for them. This scored me a lot of credit with the kids. Towards the end I showed them a map of America and pointed out Michigan looking like a glove. I also taught them about the gnome (Minnesota, Iowa, etc.) that is formed by the states. They also liked this. I then showed the map of Illinois followed by Champaign. By this point the period was usually about finished so I would pack things up to move to the next class.
I repeated these activities at the three other elementary schools I visited this month. The only difference in other schools generally speaking is the size of classes. The second elementary school I went had a kindergarten with about 10 kids. This was challenging to do my lesson and keep them all interested. Several teachers were there so they helped to keep the kids involved as best as possible. After I ended the kids got up and ran all over the room yelling and screaming. One of the teachers said something about the elementary school doing practice that day which really confused me. It sounded like they weren’t having class so I said I didn’t know if I was supposed to go to the elementary school. It caused a bit of confusion for everyone but in the end it was a normal school day. The principal came into the entry way to greet me but she wasn’t that friendly. I think ALTs put the staff on edge because they are worried about communicating with someone who might not know any Japanese. So my first impression of her was one of disgust. The first and second graders become very excited when they found I like unicycles and asked me to come ride during recess time. Many other students were out in the school ground and they were all impressed. It wasn’t only the students but the teachers were watching me from the office as well. When recess ended the teachers were a bit shocked and laughed because I could ride a unicycle. This won me some instant favor with the students and teachers. In all my unicycle experiences in Japan thus far, this has been the case. The rest of classes went off without a hitch. The sixth grade teacher even showed me some local nature photographs and talked to me for awhile before I left.
Kami elementary is the third one I went to. It is right next to the middle school. The kindergarten has five students (1 boy, 4 girls). They are so cute. We had a good time together. Things went about the same as described aside from the unicycle riding part. The most interesting thing I can remember is that they interviewed me for the school newspaper when I was done teaching. One of the teachers prepared random questions for me to answer. The ordinary age and where you are from were asked in addition to favorite color, flower, actor, etc. I’m not sure if they are secretly planning the bachelor but they also asked if I had a girlfriend in the interview. I was like, “What?” and the teacher smiled and laughed. I can’t remember what her reason was or if she even had one. Remember when I talked about Japanese people telling me to find a girlfriend? I swear ladies have been watching too many romantic dramas and want to imagine the love life of the foreigner. Anyway it was a fun little interview. I should see how they write it up in the school newsletter.
Kiyomizu elementary is the fourth school I go to and it is the smallest. The kindergarten only has one boy. He is cute and a bit shy. He smiles a lot though. I tried to do my lesson as best as possible but I think the teacher was more interested in what I was doing. Scratch that, she was more interested than the kid. The principal also came over and was thoroughly interested in my lesson as well. He took some pictures and asked me some questions as I was going through the lesson. He is a really nice guy. He gives off a very warm harmonious feeling. After the class ended they took me outside with the little boy and we rode unicycles together for a few minutes. He is still trying to learn so can’t ride yet. The principal had to help him. I ended up being a little late to the next period but nobody cared. They had been watching me from the window. So after the first and second grade class I went back outside to ride unicycles with all the students. It was a great time. Yet again looks of awe descended upon me. I rode backwards for awhile and this really caused an uproar amongst everyone. I had students asking to be taught the ‘technique’. I wrote last week how riding a unicycle can make you famous. I was being kind of prideful about it but only in a joking sort of way. It serves as a great way to bridge a gap between the students. Here I am the foreigner pouring golden morsels of English into their heads so they can treasure and use them forever but do they really care? I don’t know but riding unicycles with the students puts me on level field with them in some respect. It’s something we can share together that doesn’t have anything to do with language. I love the feeling.
A lot has happened in the cracks and seams that I have either forgotten or do not want to take the time to cover because this is already so long. Congratulations if you made it this far and read everything. I have recalled to the best of my knowledge what school life has been like for the past month. Greater detail about life will follow once I can update regularly again. Stay tuned for sports day and the purchase of my car.
(Blaine takes a breath and slams his computer shut)