So I went to my last week at the School of Peace. I’d just finished my final stint ever at the Ghetto School – one down, two to go. I wasn’t too sad about leaving The Ghetto, but the School of Peace was a different story. I actually liked working there, and there would be a few people I really would miss, such as Ms. S, Principal Peace, and of course, Ultimate Sweetness.
The weekend before the final week at The Ghetto, I had received a call from Ms. Forehead, giving me a proper heads-up about what they wanted to do for my last class. I got no such call from the School of Peace. Not that this was abnormal – it was not at all uncommon for a teacher to drop by my desk and say, “Hey, um, we have class in about an hour…do you have any ideas?” I suppose this is one of the few jobs where someone can actually get away with this kind of thing, because I certainly don’t see it working in any other profession…
Nurse: Hello, Doctor?
Doc: Yes, what is it?
Nurse: Well, we have brain surgery operation coming up…
Doc: I see. What’s the timetable? Two months from now? Three months?
Nurse: Um, 15 minutes from now.
Doc: …WHAT THE FUCK?!
Nurse: We’ve already scalped him ‘n shit, so somebody’s gotta operate, and you do happen to be the brain surgeon…
English teaching is a far cry from brain surgery, absolutely. But still, some advance warning would be nice. Having become a three-year veteran, I came to anticipate the random calls to class, and always have some sort of backup/fallback plan at the ready. Perhaps this is why the teachers kept doing it to me, then they knew they could get away with it. I always wanted to just kind of sit there, give them a blank look, and say “No.” But heading into my final week, I hadn’t done it yet, and it was kind of too late to start.
The Ghetto School was one end of an extreme – chaos ruled the classrooms, the problems were numerous and out in the open, and both students and teachers grew weary of their everyday lives. The School of Peace was the other end of the extreme. No kid ever got entirely out of line, and teachers were quick to jump on a kid if he or she even showed the slightest inkling of doing something not quite right. I don’t call it “The School of Peace” solely in comparison to the Ghetto School – no, the school is extraordinary on its own.
Though kids will be kids, and there were still things such as circles of friends and cliques, for the most part just about all of the students were able to co-exist without any problems. If there was any bullying, it happened very scarcely – I never saw anything of the sort, and no student ever talked to me about it. The students were all very polite to the teachers, even lining up in the morning in front of the school gate in order to greet the teachers coming in (students always made sure to say “Good morning!” in English if an English faculty approached). Most kids actually did do their work, and were quite serious about it. The only troublemakers I saw during my three years there were Rico Suave (think way, way back), Mousey, Penis Boy, and Gropey. Even then, they were more rambunctious than anything (except for Rico, who tried to play the “I’m too cool for everything” angle), and could at least be corralled as necessary. It was what you would think of a Japanese school – clean, ordered, efficient.
This could be attributed to the harsh discipline policies employed at The School of Peace. Although Japanese schools really don’t have any disciplinary procedures, the teachers used the one thing they actually did have – authority. They let the students know they were boss, and weren’t afraid to bust them down a few levels if the kids showed signs of getting out of line. In one English class, the teacher stopped the entire lesson for fifteen minutes to lecture one boy, and the whole class, on proper classroom etiquette after the boy playfully smacked one of his friends over the head. Another time, a male teacher singled out a boy for not paying good enough attention. Mind you, the boy wasn’t talking to friends or sleeping or anything like that. He was really only perhaps looking out the window a bit longer than he should have.
After three long years, it was time for my last week at the Ghetto School. Now, here is where you would ordinarily expect me to say some words like “bittersweet”, “mixed emotions”, “the good times, the bad times” or something. But really, there was one emotion overpowering all the rest – relief. Sweet, blessed, relief. I know I should have felt sad over not being able to work with the good kids, or have class with Ms. Forehead or trade witty banter with Ms. Americanized anymore, but more than that I was just glad to be getting out of there.
Perhaps the Saturday before my last week, Ms. Forehead called me to to work out a final lesson plan. This is way more time than I’m usually given for lesson plans. They will usually ask me the same day, perhaps 5 minutes before class, or in some special occasions, during class itself. So getting almost the WHOLE WEEKEND to think about a lesson plan was like striking rare gold.
Unfortunately, it took Ms. Forehead THE WHOLE WEEKEND to communicate the plans to me. Now, don’t get me wrong – I love Ms. Forehead to death. I am also supportive of Japanese people with English ability who actually do try to speak it. So many times we get the “No, I can’t speak English!” from Japanese people, that people who do use their abilities get an extra gold star in my book. I guess there’s no way to say this without sounding asshole-ish, so here goes anyway – she takes forever to get sentences out. It’d be light years faster if she spoke to me in Japanese. It’d also be faster if she sent a coded message by carrier pigeon, and the pigeon had in its beak a Cracker Jacks decoder ring.
It occurs to me that in all the editorials I’ve written, I’ve never actually done anything on the actual schools themselves. While you all probably have a general idea of what they’re like, it would be a good idea to actually do something about the three different schools I work at. I do realize that I’m writing this as my time at the schools ends, but better late than never, right? Eh heh heh heh….
Anyhow, as I head into my last week there, here’s a closer look at the Ghetto School.
Of the three schools I teach at, the Ghetto School is the oldest. Its age shows too – anything metal is rusted, anything wooden is splintering, and anything painted has long since cracked and peeled. Aside from that though, the school is battle worn – anything that can be broken, has been broken twice. Light switches have been punched in, emergency glass broken and fire hoses unraveled, etc. Door vents have been kicked in and covered up by cardboard, and windows are held together by duct tape. I’ve occasionally asked why don’t the teachers fix up the school more – their response is that out of the things they can afford (new light switches, window panes, etc), more or less the minute they fixed them the bad students would just break them again, so it would ultimately be pointless.
The Ghetto School’s state of disarray has long been a point of contention with me. I mentioned it once to my supervisor at the board of education, who simply responded with “no money.” However, it’s not so much an issue of my town being broke, but just where they’ve decided to spend their money. Over the past three years, they’ve renovated the area around the train station three times, built a huge new shopping center, re-paved the sidewalk leading from the train station to the town office, built a pedestrian sky-bridge from said new sidewalk to the train station, and constructed a “flower clock” on the grass in front of the town office. Before ANY of these things, I would have much rather seen the Ghetto School get a much-needed renovation. But as the story goes in Japan, out of sight, out of mind. And since nobody important (read: businessmen who will bring contracts to the town) will ever see the Ghetto School, it gets relegated to “out of mind” status.
The school is actually located close to the “ghetto” of my town (or, more accurately, the buraku). And, unfortunately, most of the students who cause the problems do live in the ghetto. Most of the teachers are quick to just label this as the underlying problem, but I feel that its a cop-out excuse. I see kids at the other two schools who have the potential to be just as bad as any Ghetto School kid – and while all three schools are limited by the lack of discipline options in the Japanese school system, at least at the other two schools, the teachers do a good job of coming down on the kids, lecturing them, screaming at them if necessary, letting them know that the adults are still the boss. At the Ghetto School, most teachers just throw their hands up and blame the system, and make friendly with the bad students while secretly counting down the days until they graduate.
Has it been three years already?
I am a JET. Although I hear change is in the winds, for now we are limited to three year contracts. Regardless of whether I want to or not, my job as an English teacher for this town will end in August. I feel that this is just about the right time. I’m not a real teacher, nor do I intend to be one. It’s time to move on.
As my time as a school teacher comes to an end, I start to wax nostalgic about all my adventures. …Hell, who am I kidding, I’ll wax nostalgic about any damn thing if you give me the chance. I’ll tell you about the golden age of the 90’s, when neon colors were The Shit, ABC’s TGIF lineup made staying home on Friday the cool choice, and the biggest concerns we had with our lawmakers was what interns they were screwing around with. I’m like rusty old Autobot soldier Kup, regaling Grimlock with tales about how I once fought off an entire army of Kanchoticons on Vanagar-7 armed with only my wits, a broken carburetor, and a carton of milk. But I digress – it’s been an interesting three years, to say the least.
Year 1 is sort of the trial and error year. The vast majority of us come into this thing with absolutely no teaching experience, and even if you had teaching experience it doesn’t necessarily help you here in Japan. Many mistakes will be made. A big, common ALT mistake is to assume the kids are interested in things they’re not. Things that Japanese kids aren’t interested in include anything outside of Japan, and quite a few things within Japan as well. It’s often quite depressing for us ALT’s, we come into a class hoping to teach these kids all about our home countries and cultures and whatever, and most of them couldn’t care if our heads spontaneously caught on fire.
We also kind of assume that our primary co-workers, being English teachers and all, can speak English. Nuh-uh sir, no. Being an English teacher in Japan is by no means a promise of English ability. Sometimes, you’ll find it’s the exact opposite.
Me: Hey, is it okay if I take a day off tomorrow?
Teacher: Tomorrow? Ok, yes, yes!
The next day…
Teacher: (calling my cell phone) Hey! Where are you? We have class!
Me: I took a day off. I thought it was okay? I asked you yesterday.
Teacher: …Yesterday? What?
Me: Yeah, I asked you yesterday? You don’t remember?
Teacher: Yesterday? What that?
Me: Yesterday…you know…yes-ter-day…the day before this one…
Teacher: …Beatles song?
Me: Goddamit, I’ll be there in 10 minutes.
It is often said that music is the universal language. And certainly, it can prove to be a valuable tool in an ESL classroom. I’ve heard of many ALT’s who bring their guitars to class and serenade the students with a nice ballad. I would love to do something like this – however I’m about as musically inclined as a can of tuna, so I’m forced to rely on the professionals.
At all three of my schools, we occasionally have a music lesson. The most common one is to play a song in class, and give the students a lyric sheet with certain words blanked out. The students have to listen to the song and try to pick out the blanked-out words. Some adventerous teachers will attempt to get the students to sing something. This usually leads in Hindenburg-esque disaster, as the students innate hatred of English as well as natural shyness kick in, and we end up with 30 Japanese kids mumbling their way through Celine Dion (which, actually, I prefer better than the real thing*). Given that karaoke is almost the natural pastime here, you’d think the kids would be more receptive to the singing lessons, but eh. Another small annotation in the “Japan’s Weird, Did You Know That?” file.
*Celine Dion fans, please direct your hatemail to email@example.com.
One teacher at the School of Peace though decided that she was going to forge ahead with the singing lesson anyway. She would pick one song, and as a warm-up the students would sing it before class everyday. They would sing it at least three times together with the song, and then once without. However, if the teacher felt they weren’t singing their little hearts out (and most of the time, they weren’t), she’d push them to sing it a fourth, even a fifth time.
And while this was a nice idea, in theory, the song that the teacher picked was “Top of the World” by The Carpenters. Given that we had three classes together, that was “Top of the World”, 10-15 times a day, for an entire week.
There have been very few times in my life where I’ve faced a situation so bleak, so desperate, that I wanted to take my own life. Criss Cross and the backwards clothes fad of the 90’s. Watching the Spawn movie in theaters. Promising a girl I’d go on a date with her to a Yanni concert. But let me tell you, going to work that week, there were a few times where I thought about jumping in front of the oncoming train instead of boarding it.
I had the Tuesday entry all typed up and ready to post. Went back to check ONE thing, and accidentally deleted the WHOLE thing. Didn’t have it saved anywhere else.
Check back tomorrow. If the tears ever stop, that is.
(March 14 Edit)
Okay, what happened: I’d opened up the entry editor in my browser, and had typed out 3/4ths of the post, “Tone Deaf”. Along the way, I went to go search for the name of the R.Kelly song Ms. Americanized and I had talked about, as I didn’t remember off-hand. A smarter person than I would have done the search in a brand new browser tab, but being the idiot I am, I did it in the SAME tab I’d been writing the entry in. Once I confirmed “Ignition”, I went back to edit the post, and realized my mistake. I clicked on “back”, but the editor came back empty. As it was already late at night and I was pissed at myself over such a careless mistake, I just said screw it and re-wrote Tone Deaf the next day at work.
Well, anyway, to make some good use out of this posting space, here are the translated lyrics to that ever-loveable Koda Kumi song, “Ima Sugu Hoshii”, aka “I Want It Now”. It’s great fun to sing at karaoke if you ever get the chance.
You may remember from the Quiz Millionaire editorial a girl I christened “Ms. Butterfly” for having gone Evander Holyfield on a poor defenseless butterfly. I went in to the School of Peace one day, and the English teacher told me that she was particularly happy today because Ms. Butterfly was coming back to school.
Pardon me if I don’t notice these things. I have 1000 students spread out over 3 schools, so aside from the kids who really stick out, if one goes missing for awhile it’s a little difficult to notice. Granted, Ms. Butterfly is in the English Club, so I really should have noticed. But Ultimate Sweetness is also in the English Club, and she tends to make me forget about everything else in the world. Cute Concussion, if you will.
Anyway, the English teacher explains that Ms. Butterfly has been missing a lot of school. I asked why and got another one of those roundabout Japanese explanations that do a wonderful job of destroying the area around the bush while never actually touching it. From what I could gather, Ms. Butterfly’s little brother is a special education students. Apparently, because of this, her parents spend a lot of time caring for her little brother, and as a result she tends to feel neglected. And somehow this has led to psychological problems, which results in her not coming to school.
I accompanied the English teacher to our first class of the day, and sure enough, after a long absense Ms. Butterfly was there. However, it only took me one look to realize that there was something different about her – bitch don’t got no eyebrows!
So I started going to the gym.
It would be nice to be able to go to a doctor in Japan and get a diagnosis other than “you’re fat – lose weight”. Aside from that though, there are an abundance of good reasons why I should be go. I think a big motivating factor is my father. The man is in his 60’s and is in better shape than I am. Granted, he was in the army for 30 years, so part of it comes with the territory, but still. He’s like a foot shorter than me, he orders from the Senior Citizen menu at Denny’s, and he could kill me with his bare hands if he wanted to. …Laugh if you want, but realize that he could take you out too.
There’s a gymnasium in my town that has a small little training room. It’s not much, but they have enough machines and weights for an adequate workout. And since it’s small, I can workout in peace without having to worry about being bothered. The only real drawback to the training room is the music. The Japanese don’t really seem to grasp the concept of workout music. You need something that will get your juices flowing, kick start that adrenaline and make you fight to the finish. Like, the theme to the Mortal Kombat movie. I don’t care what condition you’re in, that song WILL make you move harder. You could be lying in your death bed, and if someone started playing the Mortal Kombat movie theme, you’d get up and go run in the Boston Marathon. …And probably win.
But no, the music flow for the training room included a lot of 1970’s Japanese folk (shudder) and, strangely enough, country music. And not regular country music either. I heard this one more than a couple of times, and I swear to Goodness I’m not making this up.
Don’t put no plastic flowers on my grave.
I don’t care how much money you can save.
Make sure my tombstone, aint made of styrofoam
Don’t put no plastic flowers on my grave
That kind of music doesn’t make you want to move! If anything, I wanted to stop running, and go curl up in a corner somewhere and die. Where, hopefully, no one will put plastic flowers on my grave.
It’s no secret that there are very few foreigners in Japan. Japan’s population is 99% Japanese. Out of the 1% that isn’t Japanese, 40% of that are Korean nationals, many of whom speak Japanese. I don’t know how much of the remaining .6% are Chinese nationals, but even if we were to assume zero that’s still only .6% of the population that is foreign and obviously so.
So foreigners are already rare, and as you can imagine, black folks are the rarest of the rare. As a black male, I am often asked about racism – does it exist in Japan? Have I ever had to deal with it? It’s kind of a hard question to answer, especially as an American, coming from a background where my parents had to go to segregated schools and couldn’t even drink out of the same water fountain. The simple answer, however, is – yes.
It’s nothing blatantly hateful. You won’t see the Japanese version of the KKK, wearing white hoods and swastikas and going around lynching the first darkie they can find. But there is racism here. Call it ignorance, unawareness, whatever you like, but they do have a tendency to lump people together by race and then assume the worst about them.