This is a three day weekend because of Monday being Culture Day. It's just in time, since we've been very busy lately.
First there was the speech contest, and the training for that lasted until after dark every night for a week. Well, it's getting dark earlier now, and colder to boot. After the work we and the kids went to, I would have been fairly disapointed if we hadn't done well. The ALTs were also to judge, so we went in two taxis with the students. There were about eight other schools, with three students each. Interestingly, none of them had representatives of both genders. Some schools only sent girls, like ours, and a few only had boys. Everyone seemed a bit intimidating - though they were also Junior High students, their uniforms were the blazer style that the high schoolers in town wear, which have a more grown-up look. Our girls wear the sailor style, which is cute but a little kiddish - the older girls are constantly rolling them up at the waist to make them shorter but they can't help the shapelessness. But they carried themselves well and spoke clearly. We weren't allowed to score our own students, but listening to them with my fingers crossed I thought, "They're the best here." Biased, me?
Then we had a long lunch break while the points were counted and certificates written up. Meeting the other ALTs from the area is... an eye-opening experience. I can see why the position is thought so lowly of by just about everyone - basically a free ride to a new country. There's a certain type of Westerner in Japan that makes my skin crawl. It's as though they think because no one around them speaks English fluently they can say whatever they want, they can make digs and innuendo and no one will be offended. I'm an extremely sarcastic person, as I'm sure you know, but I've toned it way down since I came here. It's as though, would you make obscene gestures in the face of a blind person? Of course not, it's disrespectful to them, it's disgusting to the seeing people around you, and it makes you look like an idiot. And then there's a type who have been here at least five years, who sound as though they would have like to have left after five days. They hate everything and everyone in Japan, they hate you if you like it here - you just haven't been here long enough to realize the truth - and they often coincide with the previous type. Whenever I meet one I am entirely at a loss to understand why they don't just go home. It's one thing to complain about the country you're born in, but why one you've voluntarily moved to?
So after a harrowing wait we filed back into the auditorium and the results were read. The other ALT, A. and I cling to each other and cheered silently as both our third year and first year won 1st place. The second year won 2nd place, which I think shocked everyone since she was the daughter of the English teacher, and had won 2nd the year before. She was only three points from making it a clean sweep, but she has a very deadpan manner and I think the judges preferred another student's enthusiasm to her clear delivery. She has another year to try, though - I was especially happy for the third year, since it's her last chance before high school. And I was very proud of the 1st year, who excelled despite her age and inexperience and bested many of her seniors. We had brought one trophy from winning the year before, and we went home with two.
After that excitement was over, it started anew for a choir contest. This was a competition inside the school, however, with all the classes of a grade against each other. Since we're usually grouped with the second year teachers, we sat in on one of their rehearsals. I'm too critical when it comes to singing - I've had too many voice lessons to be otherwise - but our students aren't bad, if a little quiet. The third years are better, to the point that ranking them - as we were judges once again - became a challenge. The chorus club members were really good. And then it was someone's bright idea that the teachers should sing something. We'd been given the sheet music a week before and we'd run through it as a group once. The rest of the teachers had an unfair advantage since apparently they perform the same song every year. A. and I weren't so familiar with it, plus the lyrics were written in hiragana. While I can read music and I can read hiragana, I can't do both at once. But we got through it without embarrassing myself too much. And I was thrilled that my favorite 2nd year class - whom I like so much possibly because they like me so much - won their grade. As much as I love hearing music and watching performances, though, it hurts like a physical injury. It's one more reminder that everything I've wanted to do with my life I've failed at miserably.
It's the bane of A's existence that we can't take pictures of the kids - I've resigned myself to it by taking a hard "the company knows best" frame of mind. But we've been offered the chance to have a visual reminder in the form of this year's yearbook. Japanese yearbooks aren't the creative works of America - it's just a seated portrait of each class, and some snapshots of major events - Sports Day, and the contests. It will only be the third years, and it comes at quite a high cost of $80. But I'm inclined to think it will be worth it to remember those faces. We were shown a yearbook from 1998 to help us make up our minds - there were only a few teachers from now back then, as there's almost constant rotation around the area. But it was very interesting to see the few in common - the schedule coordinator, before gray hair, and a science teacher looking quite dapper. And the students, looking the same as they always have and always will. Same childish, neat uniforms.
The song the choir club sang, which I've loved for a while, is by Angela Aki called "Letter to my 15 year old self." Which is appropriate. It's beautiful in the original, and it's heartbreaking sung by dozens of 15 year olds who know better than anyone that the sea of life is rough, and you have to keep rowing.
(Interesting side note - Angela Aki is the daughter of the founder of AEON, a major English conversation school.)
And here's a hyper, folksy version (by the lead singer of the ever-popular Southern All Stars) of what the staff sang, "That Wonderful Love Once More."