Archive for August 2010

How I Grew 3 Years in 12 Months

August 27, 2010

Ready the harpoons, because this is a big one. (Are whaling jokes still acceptable? Japan, the Bartleby the Scrivener of whaling bans, is a little sensitive about it.)

It is indeed my third mail of the week, but these were my only free days of the month, so it may be the last you’ll see for a while. It’s too bad, because I still want to write about The Dominican Republic, the Japanese wedding I attended, some of the cheerful people I met in Japan, and so forth, but thoughts of school pounded the walls of my brain, and I had to let them out first. I’m relieved to have this all on paper!

Whether I make it as a writer or not, I’m glad I grew up dreaming to be one. For a writer, there’s no such thing as a waste of time. As a student, I opened a book every chance I could. I read every word of Shakespeare’s plays, from “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” to “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” Though I learned about composition that way, I had nothing to compose: I was heating up leftover ideas, even writing fanfiction! The horror, the horror! ::Lightning crashes:: Reading fiction is like dreaming, and I was the Leonardo DiCaprio of books. Well, okay, not that experienced – I was more like the Ellen Page of books. (This is my only chance to compare myself to Ellen Page, and by Jove I’m going to use it!)

Moving to Spain woke me up, and my further education in Christianity even moreso. Everyone I meet could be a character, so I’ve never met someone who was boring. Everywhere I go could be a setting, so I examine every part of it. (Hence, my photo albums are interminable, too big to upload.) Everything natural is more complex than we know, and everything man-made required someone’s time and effort, so I try to learn something from it. Everything I’ve gone through is an experience. I’ll consider my adolescent years of chatting and video game playing well-spent if I can turn them into something like “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.”

So, I was one of the happiest people at the junior high school this year. I learned a great deal. That was my consolation.

When I came to Tensui in August 2008, it was a model school. Before merging with Tamana City, the town emptied its coffers to construct the most modern building and grounds in the prefecture. When I arrived, it was one year old, so fresh and so clean. The teachers had worked together there for years, and they were respected and loved. Academically, the students were average for the prefecture, not bad for a rural backwater. The baseball and tennis teams punched far above its weight: the former won the prefectural TV station’s winter tournament, and the latter went to the national championships in spring 2009. (They came home lovesick, telling anyone who’d listen that the girls from Hokkaido are the fairest in all the land.)

The best thing about TJHS, however, was the students. Teachers far and wide talked about how good they were. Some figured it was their grandparents’ influence; many families had three or four generations under the same roof, helping to raise the children.

By the time I left, Tensui was the most difficult school in Tamana County: 200 students, 200 days, 200 problems. I told you the main reason last time. That incident might have crippled the school’s and teachers’ authority, even if no one said it. Part of it was cyclical, as well. The two classes who graduated during my term were among my three favorites, and I’ve heard the Class of ’08 was just as good. Getting the Class of 2010 through junior high was like giving birth without feeling any pain. Realizing what else was transpiring, and doing something about it while still looking out for myself, defined my year.

Teachers change every year. This is good for some schools and bad for others, since not all teachers are equal, even in a country like Japan where teachers are well-respected and their testing and training is very rigorous. One of my elementary schools was a zoo my first year, but then half the staff changed and it became one of my favorites. The kids had as much energy as before, but it was channeled better. Sure, they still poked me in the bum dozens of times a day, but they stopped doing it during class.

The junior high school wasn’t as lucky. Our math teacher and tennis coach had such an intense angry samurai face that I was afraid to talk to him my first 6 months at school. His desk faced mine, and whenever he looked in my direction, I put my head down and worked furiously. He was as tough as he was caring, though: his alumni swear by him, and he was so virtuous that he wrote columns about morality, hope, and the triumph of light over darkness for the school newspaper. My first day of school, he announced to the staff that he was engaged (at the age of 38), and tears filled his eyes as everyone applauded him. His homeroom class and the tennis team all attended his wedding. We became friends once I got over my fear of speaking with him, and I’ve missed him so much that I’ve mentioned him in this space more than any other teacher. He was the glue for our school.

The ’09 and ’10 staff changes ruptured our chemistry. We lost most of our disciplinarians, not just the tennis coach but four others like him. In short, we had too much jelly and not enough peanut butter. Most of our new men were shy or lacking confidence in some respect, and there were too many young people feeling their way out, including yours truly, who has never taken an Education or Japanese class. The atmosphere in the staff room always turned sour before lunch, and every day, at least one person said they dreaded coming to work or that they were at a loss about some problem. Sometimes I walked in the door from elementary school and was tempted to walk out twenty minutes later. When I rode in a car with teachers, they’d talk to each other about problems they had with other teachers: people they couldn’t relate to, people they couldn’t trust. Poison in the heart of the school circulates quickly.

In America, we sometimes suspend or expel a student. In Japan, those aren’t options. To them, a student has a right to go to school, even if he is disrupting it: it’s like using the First Amendment to shout someone else down. At schools with teachers to spare, the bullies or the bullied are sometimes put in a private room to study.

Corporal punishment has been illegal for at least 25 years, not counting comical head-bopping or forehead-tweaking, the typical punishment for forgetting something you needed for class, like a textbook. Not permitting a student to eat his lunch counts as corporal punishment, as well. I sometimes saw male teachers grab male students by the collar in emergencies.

Problems are resolved by meetings. First the student and teacher talk things over. If it’s a big problem, the entire class or else the entire student body is assembled for reprimanding by the teachers. Persistent problems lead to parent-teacher conferences, and failing that parent-principal conferences. At another school in Japan, some high school kids started a “Miscarriage Club” and tried to bully, prank, and stress out their teacher enough that she’d have a miscarriage. The story, which ran in the national news, stated the students would be called into conferences with their parents and principal. I think that community and family bonds used to be stronger, so if there was a problem everyone knew about it and tried to help out. With cars, TV, and Internet in our lives, we spend more time looking out at the stars and lose those ties close to home.

The Japanese disciplinary method works if you have strong-spirited teachers who love, protect, and inspire their students. Fortunately, there are a lot of great teachers in Japan, and I met more than my share at my schools, but in some staff rooms there aren’t enough. An average nice person telling kids to not do bad things won’t cut it.

So, at many schools, the kids who are being bullied stop coming because they don’t want to deal with it every day. They study at home, travel to high school entrance exams by themselves, and come on graduation day for their diplomas. Have you heard of hikikomori? We know it as agoraphobia, Boo Radley’s Disease, and an unusual number of victims are Japanese. They shut themselves in their rooms for years. A few of them were my students. Fortunately, my last couple months a 9th grade girl started coming to school more regularly thanks to her friends and the school counselor, so I could say hello, goodbye, and “Would you like another croquette?” on the last day of school.

In Japan, more than in America, schools try to foster an environment where everyone is equal. Everyone has to eat the same school lunch and wear the same uniform, shoes included, and regulations on clothing, hair styles, eyebrows, and makeup are very strict. They’re still teenagers, though, and that means bullying still happens when no one’s looking.

Our current 9th grade class, since becoming leaders of the school, has settled down significantly. I have a lot of friends there: in a way, we grew up together at the junior high. They’ve been obsessed with love and who’s dating who ever since I’ve known them. Every time we eat lunch together, they want me to repeat catchphrases from comedians and tell them who loves who: they already know the answers, but they want to hear “Nakayama Ryo loves Imai Manami!” again and again because it embarrasses the lovers. Sometimes a girl would ask me who her friend loved, and I’d turn the tables with “And how are you and MATSUMOTO CHIKARA doing?” The day we had bananas at school lunch, they were more excited and fluent in English than I’ve ever seen them. (“James, which is bigger: this banana or your banana?” “This banana is not as delicious as your banana!”)

The boy with the burning curiosity about the fruit of my loom was one of my English Recitation Contest champions soon after I arrived. He’s rich, smart, and athletic, but he wasn’t always so laid-back. Last year, tried to make a shy, portly, less intelligent boy buy his iPod for $200, and when the latter refused, the former beat him up so badly he had to go to the hospital. The offender kept coming to school and participating in student like, but the other students started to dislike him. In response, he turned against them for almost a year: he sometimes held everything up by refusing to appear in class pictures, walking in the middle of busy streets during field trips, and so on. His parents were not as concerned as they should have been: they worked so much they were rarely home, and they believed that as long as his grades were good, he was fine. During that phase, I tried to draw him in and make him laugh every time I saw him, baiting him with English questions, and eventually he grew out of it. Grow he did: he looked like a Japanese Rajon Rondo, and he tried to eat as much school lunch as possible; once he destroyed his stomach by eating 15 portions of cheese on curry day.

One girl had been bullied throughout elementary school as well because she was prone to headaches and struggled with academics and verbal gaffes. She had wanted to change elementary schools, but since she was one of only two girls in her grade, she stayed so the other girl wouldn’t be isolated among her six male classmates. Though she wasn’t our best piano player, we let her alone play a song solo on Culture Day to help her confidence. She also played tennis, but last winter, the captain of the team started to bully her very badly. She would find messages written on her folders like “YOU’RE AN IDIOT. DIE.” She found tacks in her shoes after gym class. She quit the team; the captain lost her position, and there were constant conferences between teachers and parents, students and teachers, the principal and others, for two months. That’s how long it took to make this girl stop. The ex-captain was a girl I’d always liked for her smile and politeness, but that masked a dark side I hadn’t seen.

The 7th grade class, 46 boys and 28 girls split into two homeroom classes, was noisy. I knew that when they arrived, because we’d always made a joyful noise together in elementary school. This was the class that performed “Peach Boy.” Every day, we jumped, joked, sang, and play-acted, and I had to pause class sometimes because I was laughing too hard. We had refrains like “GREAT GREAT GREAT GREAT GREAT!” and “I’m SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUPER HAPPY!” and “PERRRRRRRRFECT!” that still ring in my ears now. We were like peas an’ carrots. They made me feel three times funnier than I really am. Pure energy is like a lightsaber, though. It can cut any which way. The boys fought and mocked each other with a manly frequency. We were putting out fires they started every day.

The current 8th grade class kept me up at night. As 7th graders, they were blank slates: not bad but not good, either, though they struggled with academics. It took me way too long to learn their names because so few had defined personalities. Over spring break, their homeroom teachers, who were young men, had to change schools, and their supervisor, Mr. Fukuda, was locked up. Their results on the previous winter’s standardized tests came in, and they were in the red on everything. Experienced teachers took over their classes, but that didn’t stop their decline.

Baseball coach Casey Stengel said, “The key to good management is keeping the nine guys who hate your guts away from the nine guys who haven’t made up their minds.” In April, each student had to pick a Chinese character (hence, a concept) he’d aspire to that year. One boy picked闇, “darkness.” His goal for the year was to “have a heart of darkness.” He loves Dragon Ball Z, but his favorite character is Freeza! The androgynous alien who kills everybody! He’s autistic, but he’s never had special education, and his parents let him do what he likes at home, so he ignores his homework and plays World of Warcraft until morning. In class he shouts things like “I have to pee!” and responds to questions like “What is Bill’s dog doing?” with “Dying!!” If he was a negative 10, we had a negative 9 and a few more negative 7’s, and eventually the positive and neutral students gave into this very vocal negative group.

Not only class but also other school activities, right down to cleaning and preparing lunch, became more laborious for that class than it was for elementary school students. The awkward turtle walked all over the room during our lunches together. There were boys who made fun of my accent every time I said something in class and jumped on all my grammar mistakes and girls who didn’t say hi to me because they thought I was creepy. One 8th grade boy stayed in his room and cried for three days after his volleyball teammates made fun of his large head. After that, he had a heart of glass: any hardship left him crying on the floor or scurrying to a tatami room to study alone and pick his scabs.

One of the English teachers was a 34-year old mother of two. We got along from the beginning. She was a solid teacher: no pyrotechnics, but she always had a plan. Her students’ English improved every lesson, and so did her teaching. The male students especially admired her. …Anyway, her younger son often got sick, and she was a PTA officer for his kindergarten, so she took time off every week with little warning to take care of him. The girls’ tennis team’s bullying incident broke out in her class, and that created so much trouble for her that soon after my two months with four extra elementary schools and the English contest concluded, I was teaching her English class with her lesson plans by myself for over two months. She tried as hard as she could to get home at 5:30 PM to take care of her sons, and I tried as hard as I could to make that possible, though that often meant staying at work until closing time myself. I gave up my study time to make someone else’s family life possible. I was kind of hoping she’d have another baby and name it “James.”

The other teacher, Mr. T, was a 25-year old who came to our school in 2007. Though he had trouble with procrastination, organization, concentration – being a young man, basically – he was very exciting and handsome and much-loved by students, whom he loved with all his heart. Ladies, I would love to introduce him to you. He was one of my best friends in Japan, and I hope we’ll always be close. He often talked to me about music, the guitar, and his family. His father was a police officer who died soon after his birth, and through sheer love, his mother raised two children who became teachers. The day he passed his test to become a teacher, his mother was praying for him, and she had a vision of the demonstration class he was giving that very moment. His older sister worked at a Christian kindergarten; a few weeks before Christmas, I went there dressed as Santa Claus (with Mr. T as the Japanese-speaking elf), HO HO HO’d as hard as I could, gave my best wishes to the parents, and distributed presents to everyone. The white kids were jubilant but half the Japanese were shocked. I might have been the loudest person they’d ever met.

Mr. T had all kinds of dreams. When he was young, he wanted to be four different things when he grew up. He’d be a doctor on Monday, a police officer on Tuesday, a teacher on Wednesday, and a musician on Thursday, and then he’d take Friday off. He wanted to work in the United States one day (he spoke English shockingly well for someone who’d never been abroad), but I have the feeling he’ll always be a teacher. He doesn’t want to be that far away from his family. In April, he was transferred to a school on the distant island chain of Amakusa. The prefecture often sends young teachers to the sticks because the schools need teachers, and the young need adventure. He had a choice – mountain (Aso) or ocean (Amakusa) – and he was an islander at heart. He came back to visit one day, clad in island wear, and he was darker, leaner, and hairier. Basically, he’d become a pirate. I hope he meets a comely wench out there, because his romantic misadventures from age 11 onward gave us a lot of material for class.

His replacement was a 23-year old who moved here from Hiroshima to be close to his girlfriend and became a teacher because that was the best job available to him. He taught at a large public school last year, and he’s just started his first three-year contract with the Board of Education. He’s very intelligent and very fit – a swimmer shaped like a beanpole – but to be honest, I don’t think teaching is the right job for him. Granted, like all young teachers he had a Herculean number of tasks, but he wasn’t getting any satisfaction from it. He didn’t realize that as a homeroom teacher, he’d become a father of 37, and that in junior high emotional education is more important than the textbook. What most alarmed me the most is that after three months, he still didn’t know the names of the 100 students he was teaching. Only the most saintly student can love such a teacher.

He loved English, and he was a smooth talker, so I figured he’d be fine. The other teacher requested me much more than he did, so I missed most of his classes the first half of the spring. That was a mistake. He struggled to put himself in the shoes of someone who didn’t understand the material already. Since English is my first language, I didn’t grasp how difficult he was to understand until the test results started to come in.

One of his classes, made up of 8th graders, got so dark, unresponsive, and resistant that they practically mutinied. During one particular class, to which I arrived late because I was commuting from the elementary school, he had a meltdown in front of them. Afterward, they requested to move to the female teacher’s class so they could learn more, and they had a point: his half of the class was the “advanced” level, but their marks on tests were –behind– the remedial group. After that chain of events, which got the attention of the entire staff, I became his mentor on matters of English, teaching, self-scheduling, students, life, and love. The night of his meltdown, I counseled him at a local café from 11 PM to 1 AM. His first demonstration class for the Department of Education was my third-to-last day of school, so I was his Obi-Wan all the way to the finish. I really hope that he’s had a good summer and that Joseph can support him this fall and for the next couple years.

I put as much time into turning the school around as I could, but time was a concern. I worked around 50 hours of unpaid overtime a month from April ’09 onward, which even my Supervisor at the Board of Education thought was inappropriate. I spent a third of my work hours at elementary schools, which especially needed me because they were renovating their English programs. I had duties for Tamana International Society, City Hall, the Board of Education, and the like. And, of course, my upcoming Japanese tests and my body’s need for sleep and exercise required attention. People kept asking me if I was dating anyone and I kept saying “Oro?”

I checked the written work of all 200 students daily. I made a couple hundred worksheets and several dozen picture cards which we used in class. I made posters for the English board every month. I coached our students for the English Speech & Recitation Contest by myself. I was technically an assistant, but like I said, I taught a lot of classes myself, and at the end I’d even run the younger teacher’s English class while he was in it. There was no time to rest, and especially no time to get sick: if I didn’t do the work, no one would. Every day I thought, “If I don’t get this work done, I can’t go home,” and “I can’t do this job forever, but while I’m here, I’m going to be the best there ever was.” I remembered all of you, and I wanted to work as hard as you are. I remembered the poor of the world and didn’t want to waste the gifts I had. I put 110% into all-school functions to cheer up the kids and inspire them to try harder, right down to running all the distance events with them at Sports Day and coaching them on singing their own school song at convocations. The only time I restrained my voice was during “Kimi ga yo,” the national anthem, so that General Douglas MacArthur wouldn’t strike me with a bolt of lightning.

I heard the news during triweekly staff meetings, since teachers rarely talked to me about things personally. I read all the handouts that made it to my desk. When someone did ask for my opinion, I made the most of it: I was one of the only staff members living in Tensui, and I was certainly the only one teaching at all the elementary schools that fed into it, so I had a unique understanding of the students, their families, and the town.

As disobedience flourished, my gait changed: I went from strolling the hallways to patrolling them. I tried to be bright and friendly but intolerant of waywardness. One Japanese educational proverb is “Atarimae no koto wa atarimae deshou,” which plays on the multiple meanings of atarimae (proper, usual, natural, obvious) and means “What’s proper should be ordinary.” Young teachers often worry that enforcing the rules means losing their friendships with students. I don’t think that’s how it works. They have plenty of friends already, but they don’t have enough protectors. If you’re respectful and reasonable, you can punish a student and be even closer to him when it’s over.

I talked to students whenever I could get away from my paperwork. I was especially close to the kids who didn’t fit in: they more than anyone thought of me as a person rather than a foreigner. Names like Reiya, Ryota, Yuuta, and Mizuki will always warm my heart. One girl had an introspective phase where she quit tennis and drew away from other people. She was asking herself, “Why do I have to go to school? Why am I here on this earth?” I saw her at her siblings’ elementary school arts and performance festival after that, and I talked to her for twenty minutes about the times I’d asked myself the same questions, and what my own answers were. There were tears in our eyes. Eventually, she brightened up and came back to tennis. She knit a wristband for me when I left, and she wrote, “We had precious experiences together.”

I considered dozens of parents my friends. Parties were very important to me and the other teachers, because the more the parents knew us, the more they supported us. For this reason, every April a Japanese homeroom teacher visits the home of each of his students and meets the whole family, and a few times a year school is held on Saturday so parents can come watch class. One of my role models invited parents to come to his classes whenever they wanted; he wrote letters to the parents every week and made personal phone calls every month. I often asked students how many people were in their families, how they were doing, and so forth. Besides food, it was my best conversation starter. Usually I was too busy talking to parents to drink the beer they poured for me, and at the end they’d say “Wow, you’re a strong drinker!” I loved recognizing a mother’s children, then praising them to her and telling her stories about them. They always remembered what I’d said. It was like lifting someone up with a lever.

I had a lever for parties and a hammer to class. I didn’t need it for the 7th or 9th graders, because we always got along so well that they acted better around me than around anyone else, but the 8th graders required a different approach at the end of my term. I had to be firm with them – not inflexible, because if they didn’t understand me or something didn’t benefit them, I had to change the plan – but I had to cut through the noise, cut out the goofy jokes, and just do my job: teaching them English. When I was the assistant teacher, I walked between desks working with individual students. It’s too bad I only fulfilled my potential my last month. I still had a lot of room for improvement as a teacher, but my time was up.

“Love never fails.” Whenever I was flummoxed, I held onto that thought. One month removed from Japan, love for my students is my strongest feeling about that corner of the world. It’s a big reason learning students’ names is essential: they’ll listen to you more if they decide you care about them. I learned early on that there is such a thing as tough love, but it was hard to keep the love in my heart when I had to be tough. I could have handled some students better.

Forgiveness is essential. My father has raised four tricky teenagers himself, but he doesn’t have any hard feelings about it. He just says, “It’s a difficult age. You’re trying to become your own person then.” I’m amazed about how long I held grudges against a few people. What did that accomplish? Nothing. If a student thinks you have it in for him, he’ll listen to you even less. It would have been better to say that tomorrow is another day and greet everyone cheerfully in the morning with no memory of yesterday.

So is humor, if it’s good-spirited. It can be hard to laugh when there’s so much left to do, but it’s an important release valve that gets students into the class. If they’ve already turned against you, they won’t sell your jokes, but just smiling will lighten things up anyway.

I dislike reward systems such as stickers unless they’re used sparingly, because their legitimacy depends on consistency, which can be time-consuming. I think smiling and high-fiving is faster. My students loved stickers, though, and sometimes went all-out when the other teachers used them as prizes.

Ex post facto laws irked the Romans, and they’re no better now. If you don’t want something to happen in your class, establish it from the beginning and stamp it out whenever you see it. Measure yourself with an even harder standard than the one you use for your students. When they have a question, concern, or complaint, take it seriously.

The keynote speaker at my second midyear orientation told us to never yell at our students, that it would never accomplish anything good. I wouldn’t say never because a raised voice has worked for me before, but the struggling teacher reminded me of those words. I asked him why he got so furious at students sometimes, and he said, “I feel like they hate me.” I said, “They don’t hate you. They don’t know enough about you to hate you. They’re just uncomfortable with you. Hating them back won’t stop that.” Castigating someone works if he knows better; if he doesn’t, something else is needed.

It’s a mistake to assume that someone is good just because he doesn’t do evil. Neutral is halfway to bad. Sometimes we said our students were wonderful when they were simply not making trouble, and they became troublemakers the next year. Students who help to make class more fun and help their peers when they’re struggling are worth their weight in gold. Tensui teachers will always revere the name Daiki Kiyota; his parents met in a motorcycle gang, and while he didn’t have the best marks, but he did have the best heart. He was cool and funny enough that his classmates wanted to be like him. It was hard for him to memorize English, but once he did, he was the Zach Galifianakis of the English Recitation Contest. We turned lunch into karaoke, belting out “Last Christmas” and “All I Want For Christmas is You” one December day. He cried like a baby at graduation and returned to school every month to talk to us.

A teacher can’t just pay attention to the problem students. Making the good kids better is equally rewarding, and ignoring them can be dangerous. If I’d received attention from the teachers in junior high, I wouldn’t have turned into a jerk to try to impress everyone. While girls rarely act up during class, a class with confident, assertive girls is three times more fun and balanced than a class of wallflowers, and the girls really help keep the boys in line. One of my favorite groups was a 6th grade class at one of my temporary schools that was two-thirds female. I’d put those girls up against any anime about fun junior high school students, and the boys who grew up with them were kind, friendly, and even (gulp) feminine, even the 6-foot-2 15-year old volleyball star. When we played basketball during recess, we lost by 20, and if I hadn’t gone Kobe Bryant it might have been 40.

Workaholic teachers can lose their students. If a teacher doesn’t spend enough time with family and friends, his batteries run out. Outside interests make him more interesting. Sleep is essential to emotions, energy, and decision-making. And I saw way too many young teachers eating cup ramen for dinner every night. There’s no better way to change from Adonis to Alf.

Don’t undermine someone by speaking negatively about him in public. It’s dangerous and likely counterproductive to do that to anyone at any time in the workplace, really. Criticism should only be given when it’s requested. (I wish I’d known this in high school!)

If your co-worker needs someone to talk to, lend him your ear. Don’t count on anyone caring about your complaints, problems, or aspirations, though. It’s not that they dislike you; they just have enough stress already. I talked about myself less with each passing week.

Parents are unquestionably the most important part of a student’s development. Children learn what human beings are like from their parents and siblings. Their environment and stimuli are chosen by their parents. If these parents let the TV do the talking, children learn proper behavior from comedians and Tom & Jerry. Maybe Teach for America has such a high turnover because young people think they can override the years of experiences a child has had at home, and if they grew up in stable homes themselves, they don’t realize yet how lucky they were.

I knew the parents of most of the good students, and I didn’t know the parents of most of the bad ones. Parents’ involvement in their children’s lives correlated with student behavior more than monetary success did, though students do usually take after their successful parents’ good habits.

At one party, I met the parents of three of my boys who struggle the most at school. The mother was quiet. The father was personable, but when the topic turned to parenting, he became monotonous. Every sentence ended with “I can’t” or “It’s too difficult.” I learned he never spent time with his children, talked to them about their problems, or helped them with school. His two excuses were that he was too busy with work, and they wouldn’t want to hang out with their old fart of a dad anyway. The other fathers and I kept encouraging him, and he kept rejecting it.

In my welcome speech two years ago, I talked about how important it is to know English and different ways of studying they might enjoy. In my goodbye speech, I talked about enjoying life and living each day like it’s totally new, about loving yourself, loving your enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. I feel like I didn’t understand people until now. Obviously that’s not true; I still don’t understand them well enough. I have so many peers in both America and Kumamoto who were better teachers than I was and always will be. Still, I’ll be a much better parent than I would have been. Fifty years from now, I still won’t regret these two years.


The Incident of March 2008

August 26, 2010

Mr. F, age 51, had just completed the fifth year of his second tour of duty at our school. His classes were fantastic. He drew expressive stick figures and cartoons on the board to explain complex topics like how to start a business and the lead-up to the Second World War. He was very knowledgeable about history and culture, and he continued to study it every day. He was our only social studies teacher, and his students always performed well on their standardized exams. He was responsible for technology, videos, and announcements at the school. His graduation videos brought tears to people’s eyes, and he was a gifted theatrical director: he lead the youngest class’s play for Culture Day, the one about the family who was crucified for standing up for the poor during a famine, and it was thrice as complex and affecting as everyone else’s work. Students who couldn’t remember a word of English memorized pages of dialogue in 17th-century Tokyo dialect, and not a cue was missed. Last year, he was the head of school discipline, and though he was not a homeroom teacher himself, out of respect for his advanced age, he was always the supervisor for one grade level or another. When Mr. F ate lunch with a class, the students prepared and cleaned up lunch as fast as they could, because he didn’t like to waste time.

He wanted to learn more English, and I wanted to learn more culture. He had a good sense of humor, and he made time to talk to people. I respected him, and I was his friend. I visited his home on March 30. I met his father (a retired social studies teacher), his mother, his wife (an elementary school teacher in another town), and his 15-year old daughter, who had just been accepted to the most prestigious girls’ school in Kumamoto Prefecture. He also has a 20-year old daughter studying at Kumamoto University, the best in the prefecture. I saw his family’s perfect doll collection, which required twenty minutes to explain. I saw the photos of his older daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony, and they took photos of me dressed in the family kimonos. He showed me his den upstairs, including a book and movie collection, a large TV, and one of the five most comfortable chairs I’ve ever sat in. I walked in the garden and played with the cats. I took a mental snapshot of him and his wife standing in the garden, looking at each other and out over the horizon. They were at peace with their lives.

Afterward, Mr. F drove me past a park with some ancient burial mounds, the pride of his town. Then he took me to the goodbye party for the 2009-10 staff. More than a third of our teachers were to change in April 2010, as in April 2009. We thought we were saying goodbye to five people. But it turned out to be six.

The following Saturday, April 3, Mr. F was arrested. He was charged with sexual abuse of a student who visited his home in late March 2008, just after she had graduated from our junior high school. The story ran in the papers Sunday, April 4, with a note that Mr. F denied the allegations. That morning, when I was about to leave for Easter Sunday Mass, where I was to sing the Psalm, the secretary called and asked me to come to the junior high for something important. I heard the news, and then I met the new teachers, including the assistant principal, who had started work on April 1. The assistant principal is in charge of the day-to-day activities of a school, and ours had walked blindly into a fire. Usually, Japanese are warm and welcoming toward new co-workers, especially the foreigner, but this wasn’t the right time to be excited about anything, so it was an awkward balance, like having ice cream at a funeral. The principal met with the parents of our 8th and 9th graders, who knew Mr. F, to debrief them. I said goodbye to the parents with trepidation. They couldn’t help but see us all differently, I imagined.

On April 5, the paper revealed more details. The girl had a nervous breakdown in October 29, and that’s when she told her parents what transpired a year and a half before. They informed the police, who investigated Mr. F without his knowledge for the next six months. On April 6, the paper divulged that he had admitted to misconduct with several students at the schools at which he’d worked. He, like all Japanese teachers, was moved to a different school every five years, so he’d gotten around our region. None of the students I knew have been abused, to our knowledge, but many were shaken up by the revelations and met with school and Board of Education counselors.

Our welcome party for new staff was canceled, as was our party after sports festival at the end of May. I wasn’t allowed to go to my elementary schools’ welcome parties for a couple months, either, because I was junior high school staff. We were all told to keep our heads down and work hard. Club sports practices were postponed until the first day of school to quell gossip, but that didn’t stop the text messaging. Fortunately, the PTA was supportive to the school throughout the affair, at least to our faces, and the students couldn’t have handled it any better. We had to move on without a social studies teacher, but technically, he was still a teacher at our school until he was sentenced. So our principal, who came to our school in April 2008, the month after the alleged incident, took time away from administration, conferences with other principals, dealing with the police, and so forth to teach social studies.

On April 8, we had our first day of school; the principal apologized to the students and talked about rebuilding their trust. On April 9, we had our entrance ceremony, and afterwards, while the students decorated their new classrooms, the principal talked to the parents of the new students and the community leaders who came as guests in closed-door meetings. The students were awkward and off-guard the first couple days, but afterward their normal personalities returned. Mr. F always stood at the front gate to greet people as they arrived at school. The students’ memories of 8 AM on school days must be as poisoned as mine now. I didn’t know the affected student, but some students must have. Yet they handled it extremely well.

In Japan, it is normal to keep quiet about bad things. Often, when students commit crimes, the teachers, the police, the offended, and the parents negotiate with each other about how to reform the kids while keeping it as quiet as possible. Our student shoplifting ring was handled that way a couple years ago. The police are very careful about making arrests, and sometimes decline to arrest someone who’s guilty if they think it’s not the best course of action. It’s often said that the West has a culture of sin, while Japan has a culture of shame. Sin can be forgiven, but shame can never be forgotten. Once Mr. F started talking to the police, one of their main concerns was keeping him from committing suicide in his cell.

I learned more about the case from the newspaper than from our principal. The other teachers were shocked, especially those who worked with him the most. The consequences to the girl’s family, not to mention his own, were heartbreaking. We were crushed, as well, because other students had been hurt and had grown up without ever telling someone about it. Teachers wondered if his bad habits, like propping his feet on a desk while reading and whistling in the hallways while walking, should have tipped them off to a certain laxity. (Personal standards are high here.) I remembered our staff trip to Osaka in February 2009, the one where we went to a comedy show and I laughed so loud that everyone in Japan heard my voice on TV. That night, everyone went out to dinner together but one – Mr. F. He went off, in the words of our principal, to do “a husband’s work,” and we didn’t see him again until we met at the airport Sunday afternoon. And his email address was “fucky” and some numbers. Those nuggets are two strikes short of damning, though. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” He helped hundreds of students, and when 9th graders passed their high school entrance exams, he was often the first person they thanked. So he did both good and evil.

Mr. F was sentenced to a single year in prison. He can never be a teacher again. It seems flimsy to me, but perhaps the conviction and lost license mean more than the time of the sentence here. He has met with our principal a few times and admitted his guilt, and he wants to find a way to move on with his life. Mrs. F continues to teach elementary school; the PTA there pulled together to support her. I haven’t heard about his daughters, who must hope the other kids don’t read the newspaper. Mr. T, age 67, judo master and lung cancer survivor, came out of retirement to teach social studies starting in June. He was confused by the new educational vocabulary, struggled with our noisier students, and slept at his desk sometimes, but all things considered, we’re extremely lucky to have him. He really enjoyed getting out of the house and talking to people, especially me, and he brought unwashed produce from his garden to school every week.

I could never have a relationship with a student. I couldn’t even see them in that context. I was closer in age to them than I was to the other teachers, but I felt like they were my children. Adults have too much respect, too much power, too much experience: young people are damaged by these experiences, even if they don’t realize it at the time, even if it happens all over the world. Zeus consumed Semele with lightning, and Mr. F lanced the psyche of a 15-year old girl. I felt enervated, dirty. I even started to hate myself, knowing I was a man too, just as capable of destroying someone, and there but for the grace of God went I. The night of Easter, as I was reeling from the charges, I sent Mr. F a text message in Japanese:

“You asked me before about what Christianity teaches. Today is Easter Sunday. On this day, Christians celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. He was crucified on Good Friday, sacrificed to expiate the sins of mankind. Where there is sin and suffering, there is redemption. I don’t understand what you’re going through now, but I pray for God’s mercy and blessing for you and everyone involved.”

No reply. For now.

A Passage to India

August 24, 2010

I hope you’ve had a great spring and summer! I’m much more conscious of the seasons now; every two weeks is a different time of year in ancient Japanese culture. It’s still in the 90s back in Kumamoto, but I’m not there. I came back to America at the end of July, showed four members of my host family around for a week, and spent two weeks visiting my grandmother’s family in the Dominican Republic. I’ll spend a few days at Duke and a few days celebrating my friend’s wedding next week, and I’ll arrive in Taipei September 7th! I’ll be there at least until the end of next August.

I don’t like the phrase “I never have time to do X.” If something is important enough for you, you’ll make time for it. But I never stopped thinking about writing. The clock just ran out as I checked things off the To-Do list every day. I’m free today, but I’m so on edge that I can’t stop doing the dishes and cleaning the floor. Now that I’m changing countries, I can change my lifestyle. I think I’ll stop reading the news so much. We’re doomed anyway. So once more into the breach, dear friends! I’ll talk about three things today. I started on a fourth, but it grew and grew inside the email like an Alien, so I’ll have to send it tomorrow! For now, I before E.

India Ink
I went to the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, and sites in between), Varanasi, and Mumbai the first week of May. I did the first three cities in a 1-man tour with a taxi driver named Raj, and I was all alone for the last two. Each day I visited world-class sights and inhaled history and politics and Bollywood and cricket. I’m embarrassed that I considered myself educated without knowing anything about one of the oldest and greatest cultures of the world and the home of one fifth of its people. It was like having a crayon box without yellow. On the way I learned a lot about the countries on the road to China, like Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh, and (AHEM) Tibet.

That knowledge will be handy, but everything around it affected me even more. Most viscerally, the food. I got a case of Delhi Belly, and though it didn’t knock me out it did shake 10 pounds off my frame. I knew going in that I’d get sick, and I was careful besides the time when I swam in the Ganges, but no shield is big enough to repel the bacteria of the subcontinent! You really should go to India at least once in your life; just hang on to your bowels. I assure you, the meals were still delicious while I could eat.

Most memorable were the people. “There’s too many people in China” is a phrase so ubiquitous that it’ll be the title of a bestseller one of these days, but I never heard a similar phrase in India. Sure, there were more people than trees, but this is a country where cows and monkeys roam the streets of the capital; who would suggest it’s overcrowded? In traffic, the drivers use every inch of space on the road, but road rage would be a waste of energy. There was far less pollution than China, too, since India has been fortunate enough to grow through service work and technology rather than manufacturing.

There were so many energetic, competitive people around me that I felt like I’d lived in torpor before now. If all the hard workers in that country get the chance to compete on an even plane with Americans, we’ll rightfully lose our wealth and privilege. No one even showed ill effects from wearing pants and dresses every day in 110-degree weather. I SPF50’d myself every day but got sunburned on both sides of my nose, where my glasses touched my face. A Bollywood actor from Mumbai said, “Mumbai is hot, but at least it’s wet. Delhi is just dry, like an oven. Now I know what bread feels like.”

People were social, religious, and family-oriented. When they heard I was 24 and single, they wondered why I wasn’t married with children already. Their marriages were arranged at age 18, and several years on they still couldn’t be happier. Obviously there are broken families, too, but perhaps people are more willing to make a marriage work when failure is not an option. Though people were often overqualified for their jobs, they were satisfied because they could provide for their children that way. I felt fortunate, even guilty, that I could be picky about what to do with my future. We worry so much about reaching the top level of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that we’re not happy with what we have already: “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon said.

As for religion, there are many faiths in India, and many that only exist in India. At the Catholic Church, the men and women sat on opposite sides, and everyone wore bright colors. Hinduism is not one faith in the same way others are, even fractured faiths like Christianity and Islam. Parts of the Bhaghavad Gita are inspiring, but some ancient traditions, like burning wives alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres, were abhorrent. With prayer, love, and time, and with thanks to some British police, the best should endure: the funeral ghats on the Ganges River, the families making offerings at the temple together, and the elderly singing prayers through the night. There has been violence between Hindus and Muslims, but compared to other countries, the two faiths coexist inside India. My Muslim driver talked about faith with me and harbored no ill will toward others.

I understand why so many people go to India on missions rather than pleasure trips. I’ve never toured somewhere that made me feel so badly about being a tourist. Going it alone, and coming from Japan, left me exposed. Children and the elderly begged for my money, but refused my food, at every street corner. I was a magnet for peddlers; even the guys who just wanted to talk asked for money 20 minutes down the road. When someone said hello, I said “Yikes!” Every day brought more compliments and pleading and threats and shops owned by relatives and marked-up prices and “complimentary” drinks. The best was the guy who asked me to buy a naked wooden statue of a Hindu god and told me it was a gift my loved one “Would. NEVER. Forget.” No, indeed. Some people who didn’t want something from me just thought it was funny that I was taking time off work to traipse around ancient buildings. I wanted to prove to people I was harder-working than they thought, but it wasn’t like I could get out a sledgehammer and pound rocks everywhere I went. I was negotiating Like a Boss at the end. I’m glad I went through the gantlet. I’m grateful I grew up in safety, but that left me poorly prepared for life in the third world. Now I’m harder, more dispassionate, and more assertive.

I Heart Elementary School
Teaching junior high school had the same effect, but I have so much to say about that that I’ll keep it in another email. My days in elementary school were a train of happiness, like Thomas the Tank Engine. I spent one and a half days there a week, sharing time between four schools. The other teachers were excellent, and so were many of the parents I met. The kids were energetic and happy to see me, and in my second year, I knew better than ever how to spark them. Rather than having a set lesson plan, I’d go in with sets of activities in mind, and I changed gears whenever their engines stalled. I think I assumed, my first year, that they were like me. But I was an unusual kid. I was too concerned with myself to understand everyone else.

Children haven’t been in their bodies for very long, and so they want to put them to good use by running around and playing. Music gives them energy, and rhythm makes things easier to remember. Everything in the world is new to them, so they want to try a little of everything without getting bogged down. But they’re competitive, so they can take on difficult things if they have to do so to win a game. So at elementary school, I played to their strengths and performed six hours a day. And though I spent a day and a half a month at each elementary school, I tried to use the kids’ names as much as I could. That made them feel like I loved and respected them. It’s a little unfair when there’s 700 of them and 1 of you, but this is why we get the big bucks, right?

I tried to level with each student. Age is just a number; you have to treat everyone the same even when they’re spraying milk out of their nose every school lunch. When I was 10, I was an awkward turtle, but I still felt like I was as an adult. “You’re too young to understand” is one of the worst things you can say to someone, and “Do X because I said so” engenders almost as much contempt. That said, whenever a student did something that is morally wrong, I stamped it out, secure in the knowledge that I was stronger and tougher than even the most wayward teenager. If I, as a teacher, didn’t defend the weak, what would that teach the students about life?

Every single one of my 700 students, ages 6 to 15, wrote me a thank-you note; many drew pictures as well; some even made origami for me. My favorite thing about kids’ writing is that they’re so honest. They won’t just say they learned a lot of English or liked your games, they’ll tell you which word they learned, and which game they liked. They’re not accustomed to safe ways of expressing themselves, so they just say what they think. Things like:

“When you first came to our class, I was really surprised by how loud you were. I’d never had a teacher who was that loud!”
“Before your class, I didn’t realize I could get so excited about something. I’m sad that you’re leaving because I’m not sure I’ll ever get this excited again.”
“I’ll never forget the fun things we did in class. I’ll never forget the time you got mad at us, either. I’m sorry about that.”
“Baby baby. You look like Brad Pitt. I love you. I want you. I need you.”

July was my last month. I had goodbye parties in my honor 18 of my last 21 days. I said thank you and goodbye in person to thousands of people. I gave speeches at all my schools and gave my acoustic guitar to the junior high after singing them a song: “Take Me Home, Country Road,” which is popular here. I cleaned up the house, left notes for my successor, and drove my car to its new home.

It was hard for people to say goodbye. I was ready to go, but I’ll be so many places, with so many things to do, that I won’t miss everyone as much as I should. I live in a country town. The adults who live here have embraced their family’s heritage, want to continue it, and will never leave. The youngest children were too young to understand. We’d say, “James isn’t coming back so say goodbye now,” and they’d just say “OK! See you next week!” It won’t sink in until they see someone else standing in my place, and day after day passes without me. The other kids handled it well. I’d love to see what my students are like, and I’d love to know how I made their lives better, but that’s the sort of video I can only watch in paradise.

People were so gracious to me. Gifts were given, and tears were shed. I’m sure I did good work here, because so many went out of their way to tell me so. I tried my best to tell people of all ages what I loved about them. At ceremonies and parties, I stayed upbeat and thankful. Junior High School James would have wanted everyone to cry and feel really sorry that he was gone, but I just want everyone to remember the good times we had together, and I want my successor to be even better than me.

So, please pray for Joseph, and please pray for my people! That’s all for today. I’ll have more to say on the morrow.