By the time they start junior high school, children are already well on the way to becoming surly teenagers, who would rather stare at the floor in embarrassment than hold a conversation, and whose workload gets exponentially more arduous, what with after-school club activities most nights of the week and a lengthy list of exams to pass before they reach high school, where the list of exams will become even more lengthy. At elementary school, though, they still have that wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes teaching them a pleasure, even if keeping them under control can be rather hard on the vocal chords.
I get up slightly earlier than usual on a Wednesday morning, as I have to drop by the junior high school to change into my work clothes and collect my lesson plans. Having cycled five minutes down the road to the elementary school, I will then have first period to remind myself of exactly what it was I put in the lesson plans, and to say hello to the other teachers as they pop in and out of the staff room.
While office workers all over Japan will be coming to work in open-necked shirts this summer (an idea called ‘Cool Biz’, whose purpose is to save on air conditioning bills and thus combat electricity shortages), I have rarely seen the kocho-sensei at my elementary school wearing anything other than a tracksuit, and this relaxed dress code is partly because during morning break, everyone jogs around the playground to the accompaniment of a medley of pop songs. The last of these has an instrumental break at the end, which is everyone’s cue to start sprinting, and while I can appreciate the benefits of deliberately wearing out a bunch of over-excitable school kids, I can’t say that I’m particularly looking forward to Jogging Time – or indeed Sprinting Time – when the temperature starts creeping into the thirties.
Lunch break is a little less regimented, and I will often get roped in to play games with whichever kids grab me first. Football is played with a proper ball, large goals, on a large pitch, and with lots of little players running from one end to the other and back again (elementary students all have reversible red-or-white peaked caps, and the first time I joined in, I had to ask them to properly divide themselves into a red team and a white team, otherwise how was I going to know who was on my side?). Dodgeball is beloved of Japanese children, and the game I took part in a couple of weeks ago quickly degenerated into chaos, due to the fact that another group of children was trying to play basketball in the same place at the same time. I was once persuaded by some of the younger children to play oni-gokko (鬼ごっこ / the Japanese version of tag, or ‘it’ as we used to call it when I was younger), but have vowed never to do so again, as I became ‘it’ within a few seconds, and spent the rest of break time fruitlessly chasing down the other players, who were able to utilise a rule which says that even if you are caught, you will be safe so long as you have crossed your arms first.
Elsewhere in the playground, the children will be riding unicycles, spinning hula hoops and clambering around on the rather old and frankly treacherous looking climbing frames, which are a good three metres high: last week, one poor girl burst into tears at the top, and was still stuck there with a teacher trying to talk her down when the bell rang to signal the start of cleaning time.
Elementary students aren’t quite as thorough with their cleaning duties as their counterparts in junior high, but they are admirably dedicated to the task, and dutifully obey the class rota that dictates who cleans which part of the school and on what day. They also line up when they’re finished to bow to each other and say ‘gokuroh-sama-deshta’ (ご苦労様でした / ‘Good job!’). Just like at junior high school, they even serve their own lunch, which is delivered ready prepared and still warm from the town’s municipal catering company. Again, there is a rota for each class that lists who has to dress in surgical masks, elasticated bonnets and white coats and act as dinner ladies and dinner gents for the day.
One of the kocho-sensei’s right-hand men, S-sensei, is my main point of contact at the school, and as well being very patient with my rudimentary Japanese (relatively speaking, his English is significantly better), he always has my schedule mapped out well in advance, including which class I am to visit for lunch. There are only six possibilities, as due to the declining birth rate in Japan, many rural schools have been forced to close, class sizes are getting smaller, and where my junior high has two classes in each grade with up to thirty seven students in each, the elementary has just one class per grade of around twenty.
The great thing for me about working at elementary school is that the students are closer to my mental age as a Japanese speaker, and I am a lot more comfortable talking about zoo animals or Tokyo Disneyland than I am about politics, religion or radiation levels. Over lunch, your typical elementary student will ask me something like, ‘What’s your favourite mode of transport?’ or ‘Do you have any pets?’ and then, depending on my answer, will proceed to tell me all about how their dad owns a truck that he drives for the family cleaning business and he let them ride in the cab once, or how many dogs their family owns, how old they are and what breed they are. When I was introducing myself for my first lesson with each class, I had to answer many such questions – questions that for children of between six and twelve years old are of the utmost importance. ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ or ‘What’s your favourite food?’ are the standard, but you do get some pretty bizarre ones now and then. ‘What’s your favourite shape?’ for example, had me completely stumped, until one of the other students called out ‘heart!’ and saved me from having to say that I liked squares or triangles.
At the end of the day, everyone lines up in the playground wearing their other hat – either a yellow baseball cap or a yellow Richie Richardson-style cricket hat – and randoseru (school bag). The children will be grouped depending on where they live so that no one has to walk home on their own, and god forbid that anyone’s parents should come to pick them up in the car: just as the junior high school students all ride bicycles to school, so the elementary students all walk, even if it’s for a very long way indeed (one of them told me yesterday that it takes her fifty minutes to walk home, which makes for a round-trip of an hour and forty minutes every day).
As one of my colleagues at junior high said, many of the students had probably never seen a white man in their entire lives before they met me (their previous ALT was Chinese), and because I only teach at the elementary school once a week, the sheer novelty of my presence means they can barely contain their enthusiasm when they see me in the playground or when I pass them on my bicycle. Before I start to feel too much like a pop star or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, though, I am back at junior high by 4pm, where the students treat me a lot more like the mere mortal that I am.