Saturday, November 28, 2009

“When first we practice to deceive.”

One of the many things I loved about doing the speech contest was the opportunity to see parts of the school that I wouldn’t otherwise. In an ever-expanding search for rehearsal space, we occupied a series of ever-shrinking rooms. First we’d use the large meeting room, then the PTA would use it so we’d migrate to the small one. The next week we’d find ourselves in the counseling room, the broadcast room, the student council. (One memorable occasion last year we were banished to the copy room, and had to pause whenever someone need to use a machine.)

Another day the only student available for rehearsal was M-kun, who lived in Ohio for half his life and speaks English better than the Japanese teachers. There were no rooms available, so they told us to go practice in his homeroom on the third-floor. I thought wryly, if I hadn’t known before that I’m in a different country, I would have at that point. How often in the US would a teacher be - not just allowed, but expected to sit alone in a room, out of anyone’s hearing range, in a darkened building, with an adorable student of the opposite gender, after all the other students have gone home? I can’t help but be charmed by Japan’s innocence, but I wonder if they behaved the same with my male predecessor.

Sometimes we’d use one of the study rooms, of which there are a few on every floor. Being former classrooms they have the same layout and decor as the current, a sobering reminder that the school once had twice as many students as it does now. Empty chairs and empty desks. But I also like being in them for the dusty, nostalgic smell. My other senses aren’t very reliable so most of my emotional cues come through my nose. The regularly-used rooms have the windows and doors constantly open and are well aired-out (not to mention freezing).

I also like the study rooms because of the things one can find in them. Desks with inappropriate pictures carved into them are moved there, chairs the legs of which form parallelograms, a very old go board and bowls of stones with half the black missing.

In one room there is a giant old vase that reminds me of nothing more than L. M. Montgomery’s A Tangled Web, possibly my favorite work of hers. I have frequently wanted to look at it closer but feared, being the clumsiest to ever trip over the earth, that it would break if I got within five feet. One of the last nights of the speech contest, however, we were waiting for the Japanese teachers. The students were rehearsed-out, and to be honest so was I – and we were all a bit punchy. The kids had found a box containing the Japanese version of The Game of Life (人生ゲーム) and were trying to set it up before rehearsal proper started. I had given into my temptation to put my mouth to the mouth of the vase and holler, “Helllooooo, is anyone in there?”

M-kun decided my game was more to his liking. He looked into the vase’s dark depths.

“There’s broccoli in there,” he said. I laughed at him. “No, I’m serious, there’s really broccoli.”

I looked. There was not only broccoli but corn and pieces of ham resting at the bottom. It looked familiar.

“Didn’t we have broccoli for school lunch today?”

We had.

There are some students who can’t or won’t function in the normal classroom setting. They are divided into two groups – the special needs class that I teach English to every week who are sweet and friendly and I adore. Then there is the other group, who I’m not even allowed to be in a room alone with. They are the ones who flout the uniform, wear their pants huge and their jackets minute. Their shirts underneath are bright colors and their hair defies gravity and natural coloring. Lately they have even gotten their ear pierced, and one wore a temporary tattoo that said Tijuana. Punks, obviously.

They’re no longer containable in one room, so they wander the school distracting other classes while a teacher follows them at a short distance to make sure they don’t destroy too much. They remind me of pre-Sullivan Helen Keller, wandering a dinner table and taking what food she wanted from anyone’s plate. The teachers don’t hope to stop them, just control.

The room we were rehearsing in was the same one where those students ate their lunch when they could be persuaded to sit down to do so, but it was obvious that one of them did not care for broccoli and had dumped them into the vase. It was such an endearingly child-like action, reminiscent of hiding peas under a napkin or slipping liverwurst to a dog. I found a rag and fished the mess out. Though the room was freezing I assumed it would thaw and rot eventually. Who knows how long the vase would sit there undisturbed?

For this and many reasons, I get confused when people ask if my Japanese students are more or less insert-adjective-here than American children. I think the most important and most unmistakable fact is that they are just kids, and kids are kids no matter what country they live in.

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