September 2, 1998
Last Tuesday I had to give a speech at one of the junior high schools. In front of the entire school. In Japanese. And I was told the day before. I'm not kidding.
It was fun, but a bit surreal. I figured that since it was the opening ceremony, I should wear a suit ( I usually go ýbusiness casualţ), but that meant I didnÝt want to ride my bike to school. For some reason, I think somebody riding a bike in a suit looks silly. So, I walked (about 15 minutes), and as I neared the school I finally understood the staring stories -- all the junior high kids were looking at me as if they had never seen a six-foot, redheaded Jew with glasses, wearing a gray suit and carrying a Notre Dame backpack, walking down the side streets of Kiryu at 8 in the morning before.
Anyway when I got to school, the first person I saw was an English teacher whom I had already met. Thank God. She showed me into the principal's office, and I met him, received his business card, and gave him his present, amidst all the proper bows and platitudes. We talked for about 10 minutes (with an interpreter, since he speaks less English than I speak Japanese), and then it was time for the teachers' meeting. After some opening remarks he introduced me, and I got up and made a short speech that I had found in one of the books given to us by the JET program. It was just three sentences saying how much I am honored to be working with them, yada yada yada. And they nearly fell out of their chairs clapping. Whatever that speech was, it kicked ass. And I get to give it three more times (three more junior high schools). Then I went to the assembly, which was the real opening ceremony.
This is the surreal part. 307 Japanese junior high school students stood in perfect rows and columns in the middle of the gym, facing an empty stage. Empty, that is, except for a podium and a microphone (cordless, of course -- this is, after all, Japan). A woman standing to one side, with a second cordless microphone, yelled "rei" (two syllables -- "re" as in red, and "i" as in "ee"). Simultaneously, 307 Japanese junior high students bowed -- low -- and held it for 5 seconds before straightening. Then, the music teacher and a student walked out onto the stage. The student sat behind the piano, and, I am not kidding, the teacher conducted the entire school body in a singing of the Higashi Junior High School song. Which, admittedly, is pretty weak. When the teacher and student left the stage, the mic woman spit out another "rei" and the students bowed again.
This whole time, I was standing next to the principal and vice-principal to the stage-left side of the gym floor. Actually, next to Microphone Woman. The principal then ascended to the stage and bowed to the student body. Microphone woman didnÝt give the "rei" shout, so the students didnÝt bow back. Apparently, all according to custom. He then gave a 5-7 minute speech, bowed again to the student, and descended from the stage. The vice principal then ascended and bowed, and again the bow was not returned. He talked for about 20 seconds, and then bowed again before descending. Then, the principal motioned for me to follow him, and he went back up onto the stage, bowed once more to the students, and then said a few words of introduction. He then bowed to ME, and it was clear that it was my turn at the podium. I walked up to the podium, bowed to the students, and was about to start talking when Microphone Woman blurted out a completely unnecessary "rei" and 307 students bowed back. They didn't bow to the principal or vice-principal, but she made them bow to me. I looked right at her and, I am not kidding, she was laughing. I prefer to think that she was laughing embarrassedly at her own mistake.
It seems like I say "I'm not kidding" a lot when describing stuff in Japan.
So, I gave a very short speech, saying hi, I don't speak Japanese, so try to use English with me. Thank you. As soon as I was finished, the principal, I'm not kidding, let out a bit of a "yahoo," only Japanized and somehow not silly, and started clapping. So, of course, all the students started clapping too. I didn't even bow before descending -- I knew Microphone Woman was just bursting to yell "rei" again. I'll bet I took some of the wind out of her sails.
I then spent about 45 minutes talking one-on-one with the principal, who, as I mentioned, speaks very little English. So, it was almost all in Japanese, and I had forgotten my dictionary; I had to borrow one after a few minutes of near silence. Still, it was kind of cool -- for most of the time, we talked about where I'm from, what I studied, what he studied, where he is from, and all kinds of stuff, in Japanese. I have a new-found self-confidence in this country. If nothing else, I am becoming gesture king. My gestures have nuances that have to be witnessed to be fully appreciated. I haven't found the gesture for "modesty" yet.
After that, I spent an hour with the two English teachers (English! Yahoo!) going over the plans for the next couple of days. Near the end of the meeting, one of the teachers mentioned that when the principal said my name in front of the student body, the students thought that my last name was "Dirty," because he did sort of pronounce it "Dahty," and since the last ALT at this school was English, that was how they learned how to say "Dirty." I think that is going to be the first point of my introduction. Actually, my first point is that if any of them actually manage to say my first name, they get major browny points.