I went to Inaba Junior High School today to start my week in exile from Bairin. Inaba is the junior high school from which my grandmother graduated. It's also the junior high school my cousin attends currently. I've become somewhat of a celebrity, though this time, it began even before I entered the school. People knew of me through stories told by my cousin. The staff is enchanted by the story of an American man and his family ties with a student in their school.
Not a frequent occurrence by any means.
Let me say that I have been living in a slowly elevating state of dread and unease for the past week, as the day I was to switch schools and teach in a new environment to new students slowly approached. I had become comfortable in Bairin, and the students had become comfortable with me. And now I was going to a place where I was already being spoken of in the hallways, to work with teachers and students I'd never interacted with before. I spent nights teaching to my wall, running every possible classroom scenario and how to deal with it through my head. Painting posters, affixing magnets to pictures, and thinking up rules to games that would either bore or enchant the students depending on the execution and delivery of the language. I realized no matter how much you prepare for "every possible situation" in a classroom, it will never be enough.
I approached the school on my bike, first entering the wrong school grounds and being politely pointed across the way by a little girl. Riding into the school grounds, boys stared at me, and girls put their hands to their mouths and giggled. It was the Bairin Experience all over again. In the hallways kids called out to me broken English and I replied with a wave and a smile, which sets them off on even more fits of giggles.
As I stood in my first class, I nearly gave up my plans to introduce my improved Introduction Lesson, and opt for the simpler original plan. Let me enlighten you about why the difference in these two plans is monumental. One is simply going through a checklist of hobbies, likes and family to an audience of students, comatose by the 2nd sentence. And the other illustrates a plan to organize the students into groups, have they compete with each other in a game revolving around the content of my introduction akin to Jeopardy. And I nearly chickened out of the second plan, a literal evolution in my teaching style. I am so happy that I did not.
Students went nuts for it. They were absolutely riveted by the point system I had in place and the content of the introduction (a smattering of body building, a dash of home made pizza, and a sprinkling of mustachioed sister) knocked them out. The flexing of a bicep, and the revelation of my Japanese ability and ancestry sealed the deal on a sold audience.
I think I would like to say here that speaking Japanese in the English Language classroom is looked down upon by some teachers. They usually want you to speak in English exclusively. They can usually get the point of your activities if they're simple enough, if conveyed in clear English. However, I explained the rules in a mixture of simple to understand English while highlighting the more complex parts in Japanese. The result was a clear success in both enlightening the students, as well as ensnaring their admiration for my ability to speak their language.
I'd like to reiterate, that no matter how many simulations you run on the possible happenings in a classroom, you can't quite predict it perfectly. The questions that are thrown at you, and the behavior of the students, and the action or inaction of the Japanese teacher are just some of the variables you have to deal with on the fly. And I fielded everything perfectly. From the heckling of the rowdy second years, to the unyielding energy of the energetic first graders, I took it all in stride and used it to embellish the classroom.
During question and answers, I was asked if I was a man or a gay crossdresser. I replied with the signature "Joudan ja nai wa you!"(Stop being so silly!) of effeminate Japanese crossdressing males in popular culture. The result was resounding, desk thumping, laughter. One student asked me why I have a white streak in my hair. I told her it was from stress, from students like the asker of the previous question. Students asked about girlfriends, for me to show them my body (to which I responded: "Isn't that a little dangerous?!") and how much I could bench (a pathetic 90 kilos...which to them is quite impressive considering that's like two students stacked on top of eachother). After class, the male students were feeling for any muscles, to which they found plenty. They all began slamming their hands against my chest repeatedly. I was a little sore.
It's difficult for me to convey, in English, the nuances in which I replied to energetic students. But suffice it to say in summary that I have, today, witnessed a tangible increase in my linguistic ability. I don't mean vocabulary-wise, or grammatically, but the ability to bridge the gap between language ability, and the atmosphere. In other words, my ability to roll with the punches, for lack of a better phrase, in Japanese has increased dramatically. The students laud my fluency. I'm making puns left and right- not premeditated puns, but outright, on the fly, off the handle puns and jokes and reactions that the students all find absolutely hilarious. For memory's sake, I'd like to write a couple of them here.
The first is "Ryan" and "Lion". Students have taken to calling me "Lion" because of how similar the word sounds to my name when spoken in a Japanese accent. I turned around to a couple of students who called me "Lion" and said "gaoooo" with a paw in the air-which is the sound a lion makes in Japanese. Today, a student was saying "UMA!" which is slang for "umai" which means "skillfull!", in reference to this poster I made.
I turned around to him and said "This isn't uma (also Japanese for horse), it's a lion!". The class slowly came to the realization of what I'd said, and exploded into laughter. The unique viewpoint of a foreign language learner lends me the ability to see connections to words the native speaker would usually take for granted.
I ended up having the opposite of what I'd expected. I had a good time. I had a great time. And as I watched the students play during recess, I thought about how far I'd come, and how I just didn't realize it until I took a step back and looked at it. As I thought about this, some students walked by me and asked me if I could speak Japanese, and I told them no. Then I said in Japanese "just kidding yes I can." and they squealed and giggled. I think I might have cried a little because of how happy I was, being able to see my progress.
In the hallway, I was approached by a special needs student. He, to my very pleasant surprise, wanted to speak to me in English. It was apparent that he had been attending juku, because he had gotten a grasp of the English language which his peers haven't quite mastered yet. He didn't make eye contact, and he didn't project his voice, but he kept on pushing his point. He wanted to know if I watched a particular anime. He wanted to know who my favorite characters of the anime were. And all the while, I was praising his English, telling him I couldn't believe how well he spoke. My heart warmed at the thought of him receiving, perhaps pivotal, positive reinforcement behind his obviously laborious studies.
At lunch time, I was lead to the announcement room to give my short introduction over the lunchtime announcements in both English and Japanese, to the admiration of hundreds of students and a score of faculty and staff, who swarmed me afterward to tell me how beautifully clear my Japanese was (I even got a phonecall from my aunt, telling me my cousin said he was surprised by my voice on the announcements. He wasn't even aware I was in his school. What a surprise that must have been).
I'd like to wrap this post up with a reflection. I never viewed myself as a leader. Or somebody who inspires. Not even an organizer, and far from a teacher. Barely hovering somewhere below speaker. But the students, laughing and excitedly jumping and speaking their best English, the guys, looking up to me and my 90 bench pressed kilos, the girls wondering why my Japanese is so good, and if I wanted a girlfriend, the teachers who praise my ideas and laugh with the students when I made a particularly silly pun or reacted in stride to a heckler, and the punks, the kids who can't be bothered to speak another language, asking me who my favorite baseball player is in English, and I can't help but feel that perhaps I'm not such a bad motivator after all.
Of course, I do have the added benefit of being the new shiny toy on the block. But it's not just that. Even in the school I'd been in for months, where my novelty has largely faded, I find students are still motivated by my actions and comments (when I'm allowed to teach freely, that is).
Last week in Bairin, as I was leaving the teacher's room on Friday, I found that the school nurse was practicing her English with alphabet crackers.
She said she feels like she's something of a mother to me. It warmed my heart, and I said I loved her too. And then I ate the message.