Tag Archives: students

Ritualized graduation misery

I expect I’ll always remember March 2013 as one of the saddest times in my life. It’s been a tough week and it will only get worse until the term ends on the 22nd.

With graduation coming up in less than two weeks at all of my schools, classes are drawing to a close and the end-of-year finality is heavy in the air. Yesterday I was invited to a shaonshiki at one of my visiting elementary schools, which is a thank-you ceremony that the graduating students put on for the teachers and staff. I have two more of these to get through (one for each of my schools), not to mention graduation as my third-year junior high students move on to high school, but I’m choosing to write this post before any of those other events. I suspect I’ll be so rubbed raw emotionally over the next two weeks that I’d be dripping all over the keyboard…

What makes shaonshiki so unbearably poignant, I think, is a combination of two potent factors. First, as a teacher, I feel the unavoidable sadness of sending off students with whom I’ve spent hours of classes and exchanged countless greetings and banter; students with whom I’ve shared the desperate frustration of trying to cross the language barrier. (In my *last ever* class with the junior high third-years today, I felt that helpless frustration for the billionth time as a student eagerly asked me a question in Japanese which I couldn’t understand. I thought, maybe by the grace of God I can give this student the small gift of a successful exchange before I say goodbye forever – but no such luck.)

Wrapped up in this teacherly pain is a parental concern for the kids, which leads me to the second stab of shaonshiki: I realize with surprise that maybe the hallmark intense groupism of Japan has rubbed off on me. As I watch my students, thanking the teachers and staff with stiff formality but full of emotion, I find myself feeling everything on their behalf.

These young teenagers fight through tears as they prepare to leave the group of peers and adults that’s been their community for six formative years. Nobody in the class of twenty-six is immune. Not Oyama, who was Mr. Personality all year, loud and confident and always joking; not Mori, who was sweetly silly, constantly smiling, and whose favorite pastime in English class was saying his own full name with an exaggerated American accent. Those students who are dry-eyed still can’t hide their set mouths, tight lips, drawn faces.

And I want so badly to be a grown-up for them: to smile at them, tell them it will be okay, tell them that about a decade ago I was in their shoes, young and scared and uncertain about the future. But my throat is painfully tight as I see in my class of young, bubbly sixth graders the misery that comes with ending a chapter in their lives.

Also, it’s simply not true that I was in their shoes when I was that age. Thinking back on my own commencement ceremonies at elementary and middle school, I remember being a few things – relieved to be done with that level of school; excited to move on; happy and proud to be celebrating with my family and school community. I definitely wasn’t sad. And that’s only natural: in American society, school was nowhere near as big a part of my life as it is for these Japanese kids.

As all ALTs in Japan come to understand, teachers and students have a much closer relationship here than in the United States. And with Japanese adults working famously long hours, plus school and club activities in the evenings and on weekends, many of my students have probably spent more time with the teachers and staff than with their parents.

Somehow the fact that I’ll see these students in less than a month, when they enter my junior high school, doesn’t console me as much as I would expect. Again, I feel that my whole pattern of thinking and feeling has been impacted by this culture, and I can’t escape the collective sadness that this room full of students, teachers, staff and parents seems to feel as one.

All I can ask for during this trying month is to be as strong as these students are forced to be: to face the future with their grace, their maturity, and their bravery. I can be thankful, too, that my job is something I care enough about to shed tears over.

Sometimes, the tough nuts do crack

Last term I taught the same four classes of 6th graders every Friday at my weekly visiting school, and many of you know that I was saddened to learn that I wouldn’t be teaching them this term. Luckily, the 5th graders that I’m working with now are adorably enthusiastic. 🙂

This week, however, the 5th graders are on a ski trip, so the other JTE, who’s now working with 6th grade, asked me to come in just for today. I got to see the 6th graders for the first time since early December, and it was a shock to see how they’ve changed. Maybe the class psychology has shifted now that it’s their last term at elementary school, or maybe simply having a new JTE has changed the way they behave in English class (even though the same homeroom teacher is still ostensibly in charge of discipline. Keyword, ostensibly…).

The most surprising change was in fourth period. This class was always the most stressful part of my Fridays last term: there were 4 boys in particular who were unruly and disruptive, and the homeroom teacher was explosive and borderline abusive, in my opinion. So I was apprehensive as they filed in today.

Not only was the class pretty well-behaved, 2 of the 4 boys in particular seemed to have transformed! Last term, they had chatted with each other and the other 2 boys, wandered around the classroom and often didn’t participate in activities (indeed, actively sabotaged them on occasion!). Today, by contrast, both of them seemed really engaged and focused.

One of them — let’s call him Okada-san — especially stuck out to me. He knew all the answers, participated enthusiastically in the games, and had this big smile on his face the whole period. I had always known that he was sharp (the disruptive kids are often the ones who are best at English and consequently bored out of their skulls) but it was still so inspiring to see the change that this 12-year-old kid had undertaken in less than 2 months.

Of course I felt a little sad that all this had taken place after I left — could I have done something differently to make it happen sooner? was there a way I could have better gotten through to the disruptive boys? — but still, it gave me all kinds of warm fuzzies. And I’m more optimistic than before about seeing how these kids will have grown up when they enter my middle school as first years in April.

English and perception: a new perspective

This post has been brewing for a few weeks, and tonight I feel ready to write it. I’m writing in response to a post by none other than myself, written a little over a year ago when I was studying abroad near Tokyo. It was about a young stranger’s passing use of English to me and the prejudice that, at the time, I thought that incident highlighted. I feel differently about this topic now, and I’d like to explore why.

I still agree in large part with some of the arguments I made — in particular, that code-switching (switching to another language, dialect, accent, etc.) is a linguistic strategy that’s powerful and makes statements about the speaker, the listener, and their linguistic and cultural environment. Language mediates every single human connection, and any linguist, anthropologist or sociologist will tell you that even the most casual linguistic joke “speaks” to us at a deeper level about how people see and relate to one another.

But being a teacher and working closely with teenagers here has really changed my view on the motives and emotions at work behind kids’ (and adults’) use of English in Japan. I suspect that if last October’s situation happened to me today — if a high school student passed me on the street and said two words to me in English — I’d smile and maybe even respond in English. I’ve certainly had practice by now: every day in the halls of my junior high school, I field “Hallo” after “Hallo,” as well as the occasional “How are you?” or just my name said in an incredulous tone (maybe the kids forget that I exist, or they’re perpetually amazed by my non-Japaneseness).

It was when two girls shyly spoke English to me in the bathroom between classes today that I realized what I’ve been figuring out on JET, and the reason I’m writing this post: using a foreign language is exciting and terrifying. Speaking that foreign language with a native speaker is an electrifying experience for many students, a chance to take part in cultural exchange without leaving the familiar spaces of their halls and classrooms. Like my students, I’ve felt the awareness of myself as a “global citizen” (however limited or temporary) as I’m conducting a conversation in another language.

But I think the experience is more thrilling for these teenagers than it is for me. I’m an adult who’s had the privileges of a college education, studying abroad and traveling to different countries; for kids like the high school kid last year, seeing a foreigner on the street may well be the most exotic, global experience they’ve had. It seems natural to me now that students here would jump at the chance to use English, even if it’s just a passing politeness to a stranger who looks funny.

The other facet of English in Japan that my old post doesn’t take into account is the unique position of English in the world as compared to any other language. I drew a comparison to English speakers using Spanish in the United States, but these two situations are not equal. We can’t deny that English really is a “global language,” a language charged with political and economic power. A connection between an English speaker and a speaker of another language involves two distinct positions that aren’t interchangeable; there’s a global privilege that all English speakers possess, whether we are comfortable with it or not. (Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that English speakers are in any way better than other speakers, nor that we somehow have control and agency with respect to this privilege; it’s institutional, part of an overarching structure.)

So what do we do with this privilege that chance or design has granted us? Hold up a measuring stick and stoically demand total linguistic equality (as I’m afraid I flirted with in my old post)? I no longer think that’s the best course of action. I think we should dive in alongside English learners and experience the joy of foreign language and “cultural exchange,” as vague and cheesy as it sounds. We can strive to be more aware of the systems that put English speakers and Japanese speakers, for example, in different positions. Maybe we can even set our sights on freeing languages from a political and economic hierarchy. But to start with, I’m letting go of my pride and accepting that being a native English speaker abroad involves a whole lot of greetings and niceties. And that these “Hellos,” while empty of literal meaning, are a big deal to the shy teenagers who utter them.