I Am a Japanese School Teacher
Today is Keirou no Hi, or “Respect for the Aged” Day. Everyone in the country is taking time off to visit their grandparents. This would be a little expensive for me, but I got into the spirit by talking to my grandmothers for an hour and a half. Well, an hour and a half plus two minutes. My grandmother Franco was so happy to hear my voice that she couldn’t think of anything to say, or rather, didn’t need to say anything, so she expressed her love and that was that. As long as I’m thinking in English, this is the perfect time to express something to all of you, as well!
I have now taught four hundred fifty students at a junior high and two elementary schools. I spend Monday, Wednesday afternoon, Thursday, and Friday at the town’s junior high, Tensui Chuugakko, where I have my own desk and a locker for my “outside shoes.” On Tuesday and Wednesday morning, I one of my four elementary schools (Oama, Oama-Higashi, Tamamizu, and Ikura). I rotate between those: my first week was Oama; last week was Oama-Higashi; tomorrow, I’m going to Ikura. I have a box full of laminated pictures, number cards, clock hands, and such that I take from place to place; I spend my dead time at school adding to it. I want my box to look like the ? Block from the Mario games, but I want to find a perfectly square piece of cardboard first. Doing the best I can at this job can’t just mean learning Japanese; it means being a Great Teacher, as well.
I have also made big posters with photos of my house, town, family, friends, travels, and interests for my self-introduction lesson. Since you’re receiving this e-mail, chances are good that you have been enshrined forever in the Japanese education system. When I made a photo album of Carmel a few years ago, people asked me why I was taking so much time on a nondescript suburb, but here everything about me, from my nose to my name, is exotic.
The Japanese school system is demanding but (with apologies to all you school board moms out there) conceptually superior to the American model in my opinion. One conundrum in American education is what to do with young boys, since sitting still for two hours at a time is well nigh impossible for them. Japan’s solution is to add productive, physical, non-academic activities to the daily schedule. Schools do not employ janitors, groundskeepers, or even multiple cooks; instead, the students do the work. Every day, there is cleaning time, for example, in which the kids and teachers take twenty minutes to fix things up both inside and outside the school. Because the students know they have to take care of their own messes, they don’t make messes to begin with. If there is something on the grounds the students cannot address, the principal does it himself! The elementary schools additionally have gardening time, in which students grow their own plants and such. Junior high still has recess; the kids don’t get sweaty but they do have time to hang out with each other and unwind. At school lunch time, the students go to the kitchen, take the food from the one school chef, and serve it to each other inside their classrooms. They then do their own dishes. If American schools adopted this practice, I’m certain boys would perform better, and we wouldn’t have nearly the same problems that we did between the inconsiderate students and resentful staff workers at Duke University. It is also helpful that teachers are very dedicated to the sports and culture club activities after school.
Every student wears a school uniform. There are no exceptions and no “casual days.” Further, every student eats the same school lunch. This makes class differences impossible to notice, at least from a teacher’s perspective. The teacher’s room is sacred ground. Any student who wishes to enter must state his name and reason for entering, then request permission to enter. This gives the teachers a student-free place to relax while enhancing their appearance of authority. Since the keys to the multi-purpose rooms and buildings are inside the office, this permission ritual is repeated several times a day. When a teacher enters the office, he must say “Good morning” to everyone, and those in the office say the same to him. When he leaves, he must say “I am being rude (by leaving early)” or “Thanks for your hard work,” to which those who remain say, “Thanks for your hard work.” Before and after eating, the students put their hands together and say, “We humbly partake in this food” and “We savored this meal,” respectively. (Once, when I was leaving the office, I said “Thanks for this delicious meal” instead of “Thanks for your hard work,” so there’s my sawatte/suwatte moment.) Every class begins and ends with the students standing up and saying “Hello” or “Goodbye” to the teacher in chorus. When they are finished with their sports, they must bow to the teacher and thank him for leading them, and then bow to the field to thank it for giving them a place to play. In this way, and not through campaigns or videos, a respectful atmosphere is created. One of my elementary schools even presented me with a beautiful bouquet of flowers hand-picked by the students. So a typical student’s day typically goes from 8 in the morning to sundown, after which he must do homework, so he doesn’t have much leisure time (or he doesn’t have much time to sleep), but he still has a well-rounded physical, academic, and moral education. Do the instructive formalities remind me of anything in the West? Yes: the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, relationships are a little less joyful than they would be in a Christian community – often people my age will sink into text-messaging, fail to make eye contact with each other, and mutter or forget the correct responses during social functions, even karaoke – but Catholics, famously in the U.S., have the same problem.
I’m grateful for this break because the last week was somewhat manic. The job has an official 35-hour work week, but as with all Japanese positions it comes with a host of unwritten expectations and unmentioned required functions that push the real number rather far past that – at least if you want to receive the same respect everyone else does. For instance, I spent my entire Thursday night learning the junior high students’ names, since it was becoming obvious that they wouldn’t open up to me if I didn’t. Then I had an English teachers party on Friday night, a luncheon and conversation class with Japanese people in town on Saturday afternoon, a party at my house with three young Japanese people on Saturday night, and Mass, a barbecue with elementary school students, and a couple hours of baby-sitting, rough-housing, and guitar playing with preschool kids on Sunday. So my character and kindness are being stretched, which is a great thing.
My Japanese is continuing apace. I can understand half of what’s going on in any conversation if I’m willing to devote a hundred percent of my attention to it, but too often my mind wanders or balks at the speed of the speaker. I was an active participant in my Japanese house party. I can now follow the Mass, including the Scripture readings, which is a nice achievement. Every day I become more aware of the divergence between my native language and theirs. Grammar isn’t the problem; Japanese grammar is cleaner than its English counterpart. It’s more a question of the meanings of words, as Plato would say. Your understanding of a word does not derive from the dictionary – half of you have probably never looked up “cheerful,” for instance – but instead from the thousand times you’ve heard it before, in various contexts, all refining your view to a single picture. It is the same in Japanese, but because Japan was completely removed from the English/Latin axis, its basic words have a depth of connotation that even I do not understand. “Muzukashii” and “taihen” both read “difficult” in my language dictionary, but in usage the former is closer to “puzzling” and the latter closer to “tough.” “Shizuka,” the word you are given for “quiet” in a Japanese textbook, has stronger connotations of “peacefulness” than its counterpart. “Natsukashii” literally means “nostalgia-inducing,” and it is applied not to a person who is nostalgic but rather to the thing that causes that feeling. And so forth. “Engrish” is just directly translated Japanese, and it sounds bad because the mental language is so different. In turn, my Japanese sometimes makes my conversation partners better at English. It’s language interference at its finest.
I am sorry to say that of the free time I spent thinking in English the last couple weeks, I spent much of it not contacting my friends or writing letters but rather reading about John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama! The good news is that so many Americans have done the same, but the bad news is that I don’t have much time to follow a rich man’s sport. (That’s what politics is here in this voluntarily one-party state. The next prime minister will be decided not by the people but by the Parliament members, most of whom occupy safe seats.) In case you’re wondering, nobody knows who John McCain is here, but Barack Obama is popular enough that the students informed me that one of their classmates looks just like him – and they’re right!
With that said, it’s time for me to forget English again and go back into the Japanese world. Thanks for keeping in touch…and thanks for your hard work!