February 12, 2010

Leave it to someone like me to leave it until sometime like now to get to know my soon-departing students. I had ground out a pretty comfortable little crevice for myself, tucked away in my quiet office with one of the other English teachers and presuming that, as blossoming young adults with graduation and fornication on the brain, my students wouldn’t have much interest in or time for chatting to a foreigner without a firm grasp of their language.

It dawned on me that the time to say goodbye was rapidly, unavoidably approaching, and that I had better make the most of what little time I had left with them. Subsequently I have been far more outgoing and active around my schools of late, inviting myself in to eat lunch with my students, taking photos with them, kicking a soccer ball around the corridors until the librarian tells us off, that kind of thing. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the last few days with my san-nensei’s have been my best as an ALT (ie. sponsored foreigner) in many months.

This change of attitude in one area of my life has been countered by multiple miniature failures in another.  As I become closer to those people in my life with whom my relationship is bound to be irreparably severed at the hands of fate, I am realising countless missed opportunities to establish relationships which were never doomed to such finality, but rather ones that I let slip due to my own pride or carelessness.

Hard to believe it’s a year since the last round of high school entrance exams, upon which a swarm of foetuses descend upon my school to sit a pointless exam that determines their ability to wear baggy pants (if you’re a boy) or teeny-tiny skirts (if you are girl). These are seemingly the most important criteria for acceptance into my school and I can’t seem to be able to pin down any other common traits amongst my students. Anyway, this year the corridors were even more deserted than last year, so I was forced to partake in my overpriced bentou by myself.

And of course, classes are as frustrating as ever. Today my students whinged and complained about having to take their ‘oral communication’ test, which (you guessed it) involves no speaking whatsoever and requires nothing more than memorising three or four words from any given set phrase and then filling in the gaps. Of course, we had been drilling these same exact phrases for the past two months, yet the students all cry bloody murder and righteously proclaim English to be ‘impossible’ whenever I ask them a question that isn’t branded onto their eyeballs (such mind-bending, challenging things like ‘what’s up?’).

This one particular class has not improved by a single fraction over twelve full months. In fact, I think they have gone backwards. The difficulty of this class started out lower (much, much lower, in fact) than what they had been doing the year before, and has remained consistently ridiculous for the duration of the year. The tests and other assessments follow the exact same formula, week in, week out. It’s at a point now where if I suggest anything that doesn’t ascribe directly to this deadening monotony, the teacher complains that it’s ‘too hard.’ I know it’s too hard, that’s why I’m suggesting it, moron. How else are they ever going to learn anything? And God help me if I suggest undertaking an assignment that might require (gasp! shock! O great hell fury!) homework.

What a rewarding, wholesome approach to learning a new language! I’ve said it before and I will repeat it again: it’s no wonder the children here hate English so much. On days like this, I hate teaching it. I hate identifying myself as a native speaker of a language that can be reduced to something so fucking sterile and lifeless.

With this in mind, I have decided that if I can bare this kind of bullshit format of ‘English education’ (I use both words reluctantly) for another year, then I’m gonna write the tests myself whether they like them or not.

By the same teacher in question, I was also told off for sitting on the ancient oil heater with one of my students before class started. God forbid I should try to relate to them outside the confines of militaristic class time. I was then also scolded for having my phone in class (not really even in class because it was during the break) when there were students sitting not three feet away from us furiously sending emails to their 好きな人 in the precious seconds before class started up again. Yeah, I love the respect I get over here as a teacher.

Perhaps I should also mention at this point that Japanese people don’t ‘get’ The Far Side. Not that there’s much to understand, I would have thought: a majority of them are basically just ‘if animals could talk…’-type gags. I gave a bunch of my students Far Side cartoons with the captions removed, and asked them to write their own, based on the picture. I had heard from a friend of mine that this kind of exercise worked well with his students. Alas, it would seem that by the time the kids have ground out their first year of senior high school, their capacity for lateral thought and well-observed humour has been well and truly beaten out of them. I even told the kids they could write it in Japanese first, and then I would help them translate, but even after that, most of the captions were nothing more than the poor victim exclaiming ‘OH NO!’ Some of the kids even asked me, ‘what’s happening in this picture?’ I nearly blew a fuse. If I told you the punchline of the author’s original joke, wouldn’t that make the whole exercise kind of pointless?

I had other notions about exposing the kids to different styles of Western journalism, social politics, cartoons and humour (all of which The Far Side embodies well), but…well, if they can’t even think of witty captions for funny drawings of animals, then I suppose maybe I’m aiming a little too high. And here I was thinking I could find something that would transgress cultural barriers! Ha!

I guess I’ve been going snowboarding a fair bit lately. After nearly throwing in the towel after numerous failed ordeals and career-threatening injuries (at least, they seemed career-threatening at the time when I needed to be snow mobile’d back down the mountain), the last few times I’ve been have been really great, and with night skiing in full swing it would appear my weekends are booked out for the foreseeable. Last night we had more snow in my little town than I have ever seen before (almost knee-deep outside my apartment this morning) and despite the cries of fear and panic from my Japanese driver, I kinda got a kick out of the whole experience.

Snow is still very much a novelty for me. I feel like it casts of blanket of tranquility over daily proceedings, as if tucking the whole town into bed at once. Snow makes unnecessary haste impossible, and I’ve noticed that it brings people together in a common fight to simply go about their business with such an unwelcome menace pervading their day.

However I admit that if I lived in an even more snow-prone region, shovelling and digging my way out of mountains of frozen white torture every morning – combined with the mere knowledge that I would frequently require the use of gumboots – this whole snow caper would probably get old pretty quickly.

Seems like I’ll be heading down to Tokyo again soon to purge myself of my sins. Until then, take care.


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