Earlier this month, right in the middle of everything, we randomly switched from one semester to the next. I went to the closing ceremony of the junior high and the opening ceremony of one of my elementaries and understood everything that was happening – if not exactly what people were saying then what we were talking about. Then I went two days at that elementary school without using my dictionary at all. So the change of terms may have been arbitrary for the kids, but it was meaningful for me: it marked the point at which I could do just fine without learning another word of Japanese. Everything I want to talk about, I can say, if not directly then in a rough or roundabout way. And from here I have to learn from study, not everyday conversation, because the new words are fairly rare.
Just when I realized this goal, work then got so heavy that I went two weeks without studying. There were bright and colorful things to prepare (sometimes past midnight) for the elementary schools, and at junior high, Culture Day and the county English Recitation Contest were on tap. Culture Day is something we don’t do in America, but it’s pretty easy to understand: the choir, individual music, theatre, science, and band performances and art exhibitions that are spread across the American school calendar are all done in one day, from 8:30-5 on a Sunday. So teachers and students alike were working through exhaustion for two weeks for the sake of culture, and for me, that meant practicing English skits from the book and student-written (teacher-translated) personal speeches with ten students ‘til well past sunset every day.
Some schools draft their best students into the English competition, but we used all volunteers. So my kids were all super eager but not all super able. A couple were below-average students, and another was from Osaka. Her fluency was fine, but she sounded like she had water in her mouth, or maybe she was really cold, and it even stood out to those who have a “regular” Japanese accent. But! Having eager students is far preferable to having accomplished students. It would be craven to just pick winners because the whole point of competitions is to engage kids and make them improve, not to see who’s the best.
At first, we had three groups of students doing prepared skits from the textbook and a ninth grader, Shiori, giving a speech. A few students have better English than Shiori, but she wants to be an English teacher and she worked hard from the get-go. She wanted to talk about her brother, Yoshiki, whose favorite foods are ramen, curried rice, and rice omelet and who is very naughty but who is like an angel to her (trust me, I’ve memorized everybody’s speeches). I encouraged more people to consider doing a speech, since you can put your own feelings and dreams into words that way, and that convinced Sakura, a really sharp seventh grader who wants to be a journalist. She wrote about how doing work study in an orange garden taught her to work even harder in every aspect of her life, because the joy of achievement shines so much more than the pain of getting there. (The kids all had two days of work study at the beginning of the month, another example of Japanese middle school being much better-rounded than ours.)
Everyone was naturally shy, so I looked up the words for “expression” (hyogen) and “performance” (happyo) and wrote them on the board just about every day. We worked on body language (including weeding out “Japanese” expressions), long sentences, which syllables to stress (Japanese doesn’t do this), rising and falling pitch, where to pause in a conversation, terminal consonants, TH’s, V’s, X’s, short A’s and I’s, “circle,” “soccer,” “year,” and especially L’s and R’s. I’m no education major, but finding things to improve was like shooting fish in a barrel. I just made sure to keep smiling and encouraging the kids so they’d always want to do more. You can carry kids way longer than they think they can go if you’re cheerful.
There are two other English teachers at the junior high, but one was running Culture Day, and the other was a homeroom teacher who also had to do work for it, so for most of our prep time, the kids were alone with me. They were my family, in a way. So I got to see what’s so wonderful about teaching: watching people grow by your hands and before your eyes. “My greatest work was you,” a teacher can say. My co-workers, even during break time and at parties, are always talking to each other about the funny or inspiring things their kids do, and I soon found myself doing the same thing, thinking about how to make the students better even while I was running and cooking. I really love my students. They were willing to give so much, and I wanted to return it. They were times when we’d look each other in the eyes and repeat over and over and over until everything else disappeared, and I’d be giddy afterward because for that one time in the day I was entirely in the moment, totally communicating with someone. One of the big questions of life, I think, is how much you can give and how much you have to keep for yourself. You can have the best intentions sometimes and still not be able to give any more. But because of my Jesus I have a lot to give.
Culture Day was a success! The English kids were easy to understand and gave their best performances yet. The choir songs were the typical school fare about weather and living life to the fullest. The plays were (1) an old-style magic fox comedy/tragedy, (2) a play about the Battle of Okinawa (1945) in which the –Japanese– were the villains because they killed so many civilians there; (3) a trick-ending play which at first castigated but ultimately vindicated the individuality of junior high students. (So the stereotypes about Japan covering over its evils in the war and punishing people who stand out don’t apply here in little Tensui). Kids played piano, handbells, and guitar, and sang folk songs. There were a couple rock and roll pieces which loosened everyone up. The first graders gave a Power Point presentation about Tensui. The science experiment was about using a tissue to filter clean water from sediment. The three student opinion speeches were about (1) how peace is preferable to war, (2) the need for people to volunteer in nursing homes, and (3) how I learned to be brave from my experiences being bullied. There were some landscape, pop art, and kanji paintings; the kids seem to get radically better at art each year. There were hiccups, especially with the student tech crew, the kind of thing you notice as an adult and wish you’d told the kids before (but which you just assumed they’d know!) Nevertheless, as our principal pointed out afterwards (in one of his long-winding but well-meaning speeches), all the kids were smiling at the end of it all. They were relieved it was over but also proud of what they’d accomplished up there. For my school to have two hundred students, and still produce so much on top of sports commitments, is incredible. Just look at how long this paragraph is.
Today we had the competition. I stuck with my teachers and students the whole time. Reassuring them and doing last-minute practice was more important than chilling. The kids were tight, of course (the typically formal ceremonial aspect didn’t help matters), so I just made sure to tell them how much they’d improved and how proud I was of them and how much more important this was than winning – things I really believed. I wasn’t nervous.
And after all that talking about how winning didn’t matter, we won three out of six groups in a field of twelve schools.
My school hasn’t produced big results at the competition before, at least as far back as anyone can remember – last year we definitely didn’t place in anything. But this time, we won the seventh grade speech contest, the ninth grade speech contest, and the seventh grade skit. The eighth grade and ninth grade skit groups didn’t win honors, so they were crestfallen (the ninth grade girls, who worked with me more than anyone else, were crying an hour later, to give you an idea of how much they were into it). Nevertheless, they were definitely in the top half of their peers, as well, and this was the group with problem students/Kansai people so they really did the best they could – they had their best performances at the competition, and they improved a lot – they were just coming from a lower point. I’m just as proud of them. I love my students in the same life-giving, parent-like way I loved the kids at Awakening. I hope whoever follows me is kind to them; sometimes I think about staying here forever just so nothing bad happens to them, but my marching orders come from above.
Autumn has finally come to Kumamoto, and with the speech competitions finished (besides the seventh grade skit group, which gets to participate in a state skit competition), and a lot of materials for elementary school already made, I should actually be able to come home while there’s still daylight. And it’s about time – to cover the Level 2 Japanese Language test in December (the appropriate test for me, as I already know everything in Levels 3 and 4), I need to learn a hundred words a day from here on out. There is the matter of the one hundred-person annual Halloween party I’m hosting here on Saturday, but other teachers are running that so it should be a one day commitment for me. Putting my language dreams on hold paid off, though, because I could set my kids on their way to theirs. Shiori, who wants to be an English teacher, has a big trophy to show her she can make it. Sakura, who wants to be a journalist, knows she can speak English as fluently as anyone else, and she can go anywhere in the world with that. All my kids want to be great at English not just today but tomorrow, and my fellow English teachers and my school have an achievement they can really be proud of. Tomorrow, I am a busy student. Tonight, I am a happy teacher.