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Part IV First (and Second) Day of School

September 4, 1998

I arrived at 8:20 the first day, in time for the daily teachers' meeting, which was an interesting cultural phenomenon.  First, the principal talked.  Then, the vice principal, then all the departments heads (if they wanted to), one by one although in an order I couldn't figure out.  Then the senior teachers got to talk (if they wanted to).  Then the junior teachers got a chance, but they usually didn't say anything.  Then everybody thanked everybody else and the meeting was over.  Not exactly a "meeting" as we know it, but interesting.  On the second day, I showed up at 8:30 so I wouldn't have to sit through it (they didn't give ME a chance to speak, after all).  Also, they had told me that I didnít have to be there (translation: ěYour presence is a distraction, so come laterî).

On to the classes.  I have to say, when I walked into the first classroom and all the kids stared at me and I had no idea what I was going to do and all these thoughts were running through my head, it finally sunk in that I am in Japan, and that I will be here for at least a year.  I think I almost fell down.  I was actually quite dizzy for a few seconds.  Then, with very little preparation I became "super genki" and talked for 50 minutes about myself, in English, to kids who had been learning English for exactly four months.  "Genki" is one of those Japanese words that have no direct translation but are very useful.  I find that I am using it a lot in daily conversation, so I should explain it now in case it slips out again later.  Basically, it is a combination of healthy, lively, and some other things.  So, in the morning you can ask if someone is "genki," or healthy, but the way I used it above was more in the lively sense.  That is, I wasn't just lecturing the kids, but rather I was walking around, smiling, trying to engage them, trying to make them laugh (or even react).  See, that's part of the problem -- the students tend not to be very genki, and it is hard to get them to do anything.  Especially since I am this huge American redhead who must be a bit intimidating.

So, its hard to tell with these students, but I think the first self-introduction went OK.  We (the JTE and I) passed out very simple worksheets, which were basically just fill-in-the-blanks about me (His name is _____.   He is _____ years old).  It is easier to keep their attention if they are filling out the information as I give my introduction.  The first day, I did four of these self-introductions, one of which was really bad.  I didn't give all of the information in the order that was on the sheet, and it confused the students as well as me.  There are six periods in a school day, and I have at most four classes, so I can't complain about the schedule.  Still, after the first day I was drained.  All the nervous energy just left me, and, emotionally, I was exhausted.  I don't think I have ever smiled that much in one day.  Until today, the second day of school.  This morning, I had to give four consecutive self-introductions before lunch (there are 9 classes at this particular school, so at least I only have one more self-introduction left).  I was a bit dizzy after that, and  a couple times I thought I  was stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, or in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

I did learn a few tricks, though, and I learned what works and what doesn't.   First of all, someone told me a really awful joke that has had every class rolling in the aisles, mostly because they can't believe at first that I made a joke in Japanese.  It goes something like this:  after explaining laboriously that South Bend is very close to Chicago, which they have heard of because of the Chicago Bulls, I say that Michael Jordan is a good friend, even my best friend.  This gets wide-eyes stares, but only of surprise, not of disbelief.   In Japanese, Michael Jordan comes out ěMaikal Jodan,î which is where the joke comes in.  "Jodan" is the Japanese word for joke.  So, I say "Maikal Jodan is my best friend," wait a few seconds for the appropriate stunned reaction, and then say "oh, no, jodan, jodan, jodan."  It doesn't sound like much, I know, but every time I used it two or three kids laughed right away, and then 3-5 seconds later the entire class busted out laughing uproariously.  It is very gratifying.  The first time I did it, the JTE couldn't stop laughing.  The important part is that I say all this 5 minutes into the class, and I have their attention for the whole time after that.

Another thing that works is telling them my shoe size, since they don't even sell anything bigger than a 9.5 anywhere outside of Tokyo.  It works best if I hold up my shoe against one of theirs.  Itís funny what takes them aback.  I tell them that my sister  Rachel had a nose ring, and I get the same reaction.  What doesn't work?  Asking them questions.  In the States, if a teacher says "who can answer number 5," usually there are at least a few students who raise their hands.  Not in Japan.  The thing is, most of them know the answer, and if you single them and ask them, they'll say it (albeit very, very softly).   So, I have them try to guess my age, but no one is willing to try, so I have to point at someone and have them guess.  Guessing is something that is simply not done in Japan, I guess.  In 6 of the 8 classes so far, the first guess has been 30 or 31.  Maybe to junior high school students, anyone over 18 looks like they are 30.

Anyway, after lunch I had to sit in the teachers' room until 4:15.  Granted, I did a little bit of lesson planning with the JTE's, both of whom are awesome about including me in the lesson planning process, rather than just using me as a tape recorder.  But for the most part, I just sat there reading a book about Japanese Verbs and Grammar.  I became very tired, so it was hard to stay awake.  However, in Japan your physical is presence is as important, if not more important, than what you are doing, and I am getting paid enough that I absolutely cannot complain about anything.  Even the school lunches are good (most of the time).  Also, a few times students came up to me and asked me questions (or, at least they tried), which was cool.  Unlike in the US, students are more than welcome in the teachers' room.

Then came the highlight of the day -- I played basketball with the basketball club.  I understand that each school may be slightly different, but at my current school classes end at 3:25, after which there is a cleaning period during which time every student helps clean the school.  There are no janitors.  Then, there is a little break, maybe 15 minutes, after which every student does some club activity, usually a sport.  The basketball club has about 10 boys and 10 girls, although they never, ever mix.  I played with the boys, simply because I felt like the waves I was making were big enough already.  Some of the boys were even pretty good; they had some skills.   Personal challenges are big in Japan, so they made me play one on-one with the best player.  He was as tall as me, but I am 22 and he is 14.  It wasn't very close.  I am not bragging, its just that I am 22 and he is 14.  Actually, I felt a little bad, so I stopped trying as hard on defense.

Funny thing about the challenges -- one of the ninth grade classes insisted that I arm-wrestle their class's strongest boy after one class.  I mean, I didn't want to do it, but I also didn't want to seem stand-offish, since my job is to make them comfortable about approaching me and speaking English with me.  Again, though, I am 22 and he was 15.

The basketball game itself was fun, but a little weird.  First of all, those Japanese kids don't get tired.   They did a full 60 minutes of running before anything else.  Not jogging -- I'm talking about wind sprints.  And they still never got tired while we were playing.  It was fun, because the kids are so good-natured, and more unselfish then any group of players Iíve seen in the US.  The thing that made it very weird was that the girlsí club, which was waiting on the side while we played our game (they got next!), yelled "Rafi" (or "Lafi," actually) every time I touched the ball.  All of them.   Every time.  And when I scored, it got louder.  I hit a three pointer, which turned out to be a mistake, because it got louder still.  I tried to get them to yell the names of some of the boys who scored, but they would have none of it.  So, after about 4 minutes of this, I decided not score anymore, so I just passed the ball a lot, which was actually more fun, because the guy guarding me was the same guy I had played against one-on-one, and I think he was starting to get very frustrated.  By passing more, I allowed him to save face (I mean, he shut me down, right?), which is very important in Japan.  Nobody wants to get embarrassed, and almost as strong is the urge not embarrass anyone else.  Besides, I was getting so tired that I don't think I could have gotten the ball up to the rim anymore.  I will probably play with them again, but I will stick to passing unless my team is getting its ass kicked.  Maybe I'll even try playing with the girls' club -- they canít yell my name every time I touch the ball when they are playing, can they?