End of an era

End of an era

I had intended to work at the friendly, rural junior high school and friendly, rural elementary school for another couple of years, but just before Christmas a friend of mine made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse, and as of this month I shall be working at not one but five friendly, rural junior high schools in the next town (and to Mrs M’s delight, earning an extra few thousand yen into the bargain). So before I forget what it was all like – and if it’s OK with you – I’m just going to pop on my rose-tinted spectacles and go for a quick jaunt down memory lane.
As you may remember from my posts about baseball and soccer, I spent the first fortnight of the summer holidays having a go at the various club activities on offer at the school. Possibly because most such sports were originally imported (while some schools have kendo or judo clubs, that wasn’t the case here), the chants and calls employed by the students as they played were almost exclusively in English – or rather, a brand of English specially adapted for use by Japanese teenagers.

When I was with the tennis club we shouted ‘Naishoh!’ (‘Nice shot!’) when a point was won, ‘Naisu catchee!’ (a sarcastic ‘Nice catch!’) when the ball went out of play, and ‘Faitoh!’ (‘Fight!’) for any exhortation to try harder. With the basketball club it was ‘Naishuu!’ (‘Nice shooting!’) when a point was won and ‘Domai!’ (‘Don’t mind!’) when the ball went out of play. And with the volleyball club it was ‘Chaa!’ when there was a ‘Chance!’ to win a point and, er, ‘Spaiku!’ for a spike (ie. what you or I would call a smash).

Aside from stretching, squat jumps, press-ups and so on, we would start the day with at least ten laps of the school grounds, to be completed within a certain time limit and accompanied by a chant of the club members’ own devising. The volleyball girls would maintain a continuous call-and-response of ‘[name of junior high school], hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-hoooh!’ and the tennis girls would chant ‘[name of junior high school], faitoh, ho, ho, hoooh!’ Before the basketball girls started jogging, we stood one at a time on a kind of podium next to the playing field for koédasu (声出す), which entailed each of us in turn shouting the name of the club, our own name and our aim for the day – eg. ‘I WILL PRACTICE HARD AND SUPPORT MY FELLOW CLUB MEMBERS!’ – at the tops of our voices.

M-sensei was in charge of the table tennis club, and on the day that I joined in fully lived up to his reputation as the angriest teacher at the school. Each member of the club keeps a notebook in which they write about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and reflect on how their practice and tournament matches went, and M-sensei berated the students for their lack of application in fulfilling this task for the best part of three quarters of an hour. In fact, he spent most of the morning in a barely concealed state of frustration and anger, and the entire time we were in the sports hall, I only saw him smile once.

Then again, the table tennis club is the most successful at the school, and its members regularly progress from regional to prefectural tournaments (despite having the tidiest pitch, the soccer team hasn’t made it beyond the first stage of a tournament in more than five years), so this climate of fear seems to do the trick.

More significantly, such a regime really does appear to instill confidence in the students. My playing partner for the morning was T-kun, who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum and hardly utters a word during the normal course of school life, but who patiently took me through the basics of the game in simple Japanese, and who appeared to be taking it very easy indeed as we knocked the ball back and forth – once or twice I even noticed him suppress a smile after I had played a particularly poor shot.

Club activities were a lot less formal at the elementary school, although H-sensei, the 5th year homeroom teacher, did a very good job of knocking the brass band into shape. At the beginning of last April, most of its members had never even picked up an instrument, but for sports day in September they performed a selection of pop songs, film theme tunes and the school song, all while marching in formation.

As it turned out, H-sensei was classically trained, and explained to me that she only became a teacher after much soul-searching over whether or not to try her hand at being a professional musician instead. She also re-wrote a Japanese folk tale in easy English for her homeroom class to perform at the end-of-year culture festival, where along with demonstrations of their acting, writing, arithmetic, skipping and unicycling skills, almost all of the students did some kind of musical performance.

While only one student fainted from the heat and only one was injured seriously enough to be taken to hospital during the junior high sports festival, its culture festival only went ahead with the aid of large numbers of surgical masks and large amounts of prescription cold medicine. But where the elementary students tend to be slightly off key in an endearing kind of way when they’re singing or playing, the junior high students sounded like full-blown professionals for the inter-class chorus contest. Formation dance routines copied from the latest pop videos received the biggest applause, but the highlight of the day for me was a swinging, jazzy waltz performed by five members of the brass band – I’m a sucker for underdogs, and the quintet’s tuba player was the fat kid with chronic eczema..

The students I most enjoyed teaching English to were the tokubetsushién (特別支援 / special needs, which after studiously consulting his dictionary at the beginning of the year, my fellow teacher K-sensei insisted on calling ‘the handicapped class’). Because there were only four of them, there was more time to get to know their personalities than in the usual classes of twenty or thirty-plus, and in any case, they were an inherently memorable – if rather motley – group.

Like the aforementioned tuba player, A-san was overweight and suffered from eczema, not to mention permanently greasy hair and a uniform that only saw the inside of a washing machine about once a month. But despite such obvious drawbacks, she had a pretty good grasp of English and the kind of sunny personality that could brighten up the greyest of days, and while a certain amount of what she said was impenetrable – she would sometimes rock back and forth in her chair and talk to herself – we would often share a joke with each other as she waited for the other members of the class to finish writing. K-san was the quietest of the four, and another A-san the most awkward (sometimes she would sit through an entire lesson grumpily staring out of the window and refusing to answer any questions, even from K-sensei), but the star of the show was I-kun.

For roughly fifty per cent of the time, I-kun had a cold, a stomach ache or some other indefinable illness, and when he wasn’t excusing himself to go to the loo, he would be blowing his nose on the roll of toilet paper that was always close at hand, and throwing the remnants into a tatty old cardboard box he used as a wastepaper basket. For the remaining fifty per cent of the time, though, I-kun was unstoppable, and instead of studying English in the conventional manner, treated our lessons as a kind of free-form word association game. Whenever he managed to come up with a correct answer – which was mostly, it has to be said, by pure chance – he would exclaim, Ah! Yappari, oré wa tensai da! (あっ!やっぱり、俺は天才だ!/ ‘Ah! Just as I thought, I’m a genius!’), and while most of his gags will be meaningless to a non-Japanese speaker – in fact, most of his gags will be meaningless even to a native Japanese speaker – I made a note of some of the ones that made me laugh:

For the days of the week: ‘Monday, Tuesday, Queuesday…’
Or: ‘Saturday, Sunday, nandé?’ (nandé means ‘why?’)
When counting: ‘thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-Doraémon…’ (Doraémon is a famous cartoon character)
Or: ‘thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-san…’ (san is Japanese for the number three)
And in the same vein: ‘ten, twenty, santy, forty…’
Instead of ‘I leave home at seven forty’, ‘I leave home at seven horse’
Instead of ‘Her husband Koji teaches Japanese’, ‘Her brass band Koji teaches Japanese’
Instead of ‘Miss Green’, ‘Miss Glico’ (Glico is a famous confectionery company)
K-sensei – ‘What’s the past tense of “have”?’ I-kun – ‘Ham and egg!’
And instead of ‘I like tea’, ‘I like unchi’ (unchi means ‘poo’)

Rather than sharing a single table, the special needs students preferred to spread their desks around the classroom, and I-kun was always furthest from the blackboard. Even when copying word-for-word, his spelling was atrocious, and at first I put this down to his learning disabilities. Eventually, however, I came to the realisation that he was merely short sighted.

‘Do you wear contact lenses?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, yes. I wear contact lenses,’ he replied.
‘Does I-kun wear contact lenses?’ I asked M-sensei later that day (as well as the table tennis club, M-sensei oversaw the special needs students).
‘No, he doesn’t,’ said M-sensei. ‘His mother won’t let him.’

The following lesson, I-kun was sitting in his usual position at the back of the classroom, and instead of a dialogue from the textbook about school timetables, he wrote this:

I have FOR GENERAL WRITING
They are ADHESIVE STICK
The ZEBRA
How PLASTIC ERASER MADE IN JAPAN

In other words, he gave up trying to write what was on the board and instead copied whatever English he could find on the items in his pencil case.

Despite his hard-man image, M-sensei was the most visibly emotional of the teachers during the graduation ceremony at the end of March (he had taught I-kun at elementary as well as junior high school), for which the kocho-sensei made a typically rambling speech about a spacecraft that was lost for several years on its way back from collecting samples in a far-flung corner of the solar system, and a musician who became successful despite going blind after a childhood illness.

Apart from the graduation ceremony, beginning of term ceremonies, end of term ceremonies, clubs, lessons and exams, there were plenty of other events to keep the students occupied. These included sankenkai (散見会 / open day), ohsohji (大掃除 / spring cleaning) and sohkohkai (壮行会 / a rousing send-off to the summer sports tournament, for which a group of students in bandanas and white gloves chanted and gesticulated along to the rhythm of a big bass drum, and which looked and sounded like something from a Kurosawa samurai film). There was work experience week, school council elections, a drill for evacuating in the event of a disaster, and a drill for evacuating in the event of a suspicious intruder. A visiting high school headmaster made a speech about ‘What it means to become an adult’ (which despite the title had nothing to do with sex education), and one day we were all shown a video about bullying, which coincidentally was one of the most post-modern experiences of my entire life (I was in a school sports hall with some junior high school students, watching a video in which some junior high school students are in a school sports hall watching a performance of a play by some junior high school students that depicts the true story of how one of their classmates was bullied, and is performed on a stage set that recreates one of the classrooms at the school. As well as flashbacks to the bullying and to how the bullying was then turned into a play, at the climax of both the play and the video, the girl who has been bullied, who is playing the role of herself in the play, breaks out of character and delivers an emotional speech to the audience – or rather the audiences, if you include those of us watching the video – as herself. Confused? Unless you happen to be Noam Chomsky, I should hope so).

When writing about the junior high school in particular, I have tried to emphasise how friendly and relaxed it was, but despite his apparently laid-back attitude, the kocho-sensei ran a very tight ship, where even the slightest transgression from school rules was deemed unacceptable – normally the student in question would be surrounded by a posse of teachers, given a very stern talking to and leave the staff room in tears. The school was such a nice place to work precisely because the students hardly ever caused trouble, behaved badly during lessons or vandalised school property, and precisely because they always said hello when they passed you in the corridor, and always addressed those students in the years above them as ‘so-and-so senpai‘ (先輩 / senior) rather than just by their names.

At a rehearsal for the graduation ceremony, the students’ conduct was monitored down to the minutest detail, including how to stand up and sit down, how to bow while both standing up and sitting down, and even how to walk out of the hall at the end of the ceremony – a reminder of which was displayed behind the scenes on the day, and reads as follows:

– Sitting bow
– Hands when bowing – don’t let them hang
– Girls’ hands – don’t open them, don’t curl them up into a ball (cat hands)
– How to walk when you leave – don’t let your mind wander
– How to replace your graduation certificate (when you are sitting down)

On one of my last days at the school, a former student dropped by to let us know the results of his university entrance exams, and while he was chatting with the other teachers, I went outside to load some things into my car. His girlfriend – who told me that she too was a former student – was loitering at the front door.
‘You can go into the staff room and say hello if you want,’ I said.
‘I’m not allowed.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘Having your hair dyed is against the rules.’
Her hair had reddish-brown highlights, and even though she had long since graduated from the school, its regime still applied. I wonder if I’ll still be under the same spell in three years’ time?

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