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Part XXXII Elementary, My Dear Watson

August 3, 1999

I read in the paper yesterday that the temperature reached 116 degrees in Chicago recently.  I need to stop complaining about how hot it is here.  That being said, it's been damn hot here, and in Japan central air-conditioning is very difficult to find.  The city office has it, but none of the schools do.  Fortunately, it is now summer vacation here, and I am in the city office every day.  Unfortunately, it is now summer vacation here, and I am in the city office every day.  Sure, it's cooler, but there is absolutely nothing to do, and I get very bored.

(Quick recap: the Japanese school year is split into three trimesters.  The first is from April to mid-July. The second is from September to mid-December.  The third is from January to mid-March.  There is a long (six-week) summer vacation in July/August, and short (one or two week)  vacations over the new year and in late March.  Got that?)

By the way, even though the students don't have classes during summer vacation, they still have to go to school every day and attend club activities, at least in the morning.  These club activities include sports, martial arts, band, etc.  Each student participates in one and only one club.  In addition, many students, especially third-graders, study every afternoon for the high school entrance exams, which are more than six months away.  Not exactly my idea of a vacation.

Anyway, last week I had a very fun diversion from the monotony of the city office.  I was asked to teach an English class for elementary school students for an hour and a half each day for the week.  There were twenty students from fourth through sixth grades, and the genders were evenly split.  I had taught one or two elementary classes before, but this was the first time for me to plan such a long series of classes on my own.  There was a Japanese woman there to help translate, because my Japanese isn't good enough to explain games and activities, but it was my class.

The class was advertised as "very easy," and it was for young kids, and I had never taught such classes before.  Also, some kids in Japan go to English classes after school starting in first grade (to get a head-start on the high school and college examinations -- I'm not kidding), so some students already know a bit of English.  My concern was to plan activities that everyone could understand but that wouldn't be boring for the more advanced students.  The solution?  GAMES, and lot of 'em.  Games with numbers, colors, animals, letters, and other easy stuff.  In my opinion, my job wasnít really to teach them a lot of English, but rather to show them that English can be fun.  How much can you really teach in that amount of time, anyway?  However, if the students think of English as fun, then they will have a much better attitude towards studying English in the future (i.e.,  in junior high school, when some of them will be my students).

I showed up the first day, and most of the students were very shy.  That's understandable, of course, because for many of them this was probably the first time to have any real contact with a foreigner.  And I am a big, scary foreigner with red hair and big feet.  So, I started out with a running game to loosen everyone up.  I split the class into two teams and gave each student a number from one to ten.  The teams lined up opposite each other, and I put a ball on the floor in the middle of the room.  When I yelled a number, the two students assigned that number had to run and grab the ball.  The winner earned a point for their team.  At first they were a bit hesitant, but once the students really learned their numbers we played faster, and they seemed to relax and become a little less shy.  Sometimes we played running games like that one, sometimes sitting games like bingo.  I even taught them duck-duck-goose.  All of the games were fun, and they especially liked bingo.  For some reason, students here LOVE bingo.  We played bingo using numbers and letters.  In Japan, if a student needs only one more thing for bingo, they yell "REACH."  I have no idea why.

By the end of the first day, the students were already becoming more friendly, and during the rest of the week they grew more excited and noisy and friendly each day.  On Tuesday, Jimmy, my new neighbor from Hawaii, came with me, and on Wednesday both Jimmy and Robyn, another ALT, came.  The two of them came again on Thursday, while only Jimmy came on Friday.  I am very grateful that they came, because with each day the students became more genki (lively/noisy) and more difficult to control.  By Friday, they were running all over the place, including up my back.  Once you give one student a piggy-back ride, you have to give EVERY student a piggy-back ride, prefereably all at once.  By Friday, they were even going through our pockets when we were otherwise occupied.  This was while we were still wearing our pants.

It was a lot of fun, and the kids were very cute and they smiled all the time, but I have a newfound respect for elementary school teachers.  After a week of only an hour and half per day, Jimmy and I were completely exhausted.  I can't imagine doing that everyday, all day, with only one teacher.  How is anything accomplished?   Actually, now that I think back to my own elementary school years, I'm not sure anything was accomplished.

Today, the head of the BOE, Mr. Hioki, showed again how cool he is.   He is the guy who took me out for fugu fish a few months ago.  His favorite English phrase is "bar hopping."  His second favorite is "heavy drinker."  Anyway, Jimmy and I were looking extremely bored at the office, and he was leaving the office to check out a couple of school-related activities.  I jokingly said that he should take us along, and he thought it was a great idea.  The thing is, he is so far above us in the office hierarchy that he doesn't even have to acknowledge our existence, but he is always friendly.  He gives us Japanese lessons when he is bored, he takes us to bars, and now he is taking us on field trips during work hours.  He doesn't speak too much English, but with his broken English and my broken Japanese we can communicate pretty well.

First, we went to the Kiryu City Zoo, which is a pretty weak excuse for a zoo.  Today, about 40 elementary school kids were being "zookeepers for a day," which sounded like a pretty cool idea at first.  Of course, when you think about it, what do zookeepers do?  They clean.  What do they clean?   Well, I saw kids cleaning pony poop, penguin pellets, bunny bombs, flamingo feces, and, worst of all, elephant excrement.  Boy, I'll bet that was fun.  The moral of the story?  Always find out what exactly it is you are volunteering for, or you will end up in deep you-know-what.

Then, Mr. Hioki took us to a place called the "Youth Activities Center," which is a kind of convention center.  A group of teachers was having a seminar about how be a school counselor.  We arrived at about 11:30, just in time to see about 15 minutes of the seminar, and then we got to eat lunch with them.  Lunch lasted approximately two hours, because first we had to make it.  When Jimmy and I volunteered to help everyone was shocked, because in Japan men don't cook.   I was disappointed when Mr. Hioki upheld this stereotype.

When we assured them that we could chop vegetables without losing too many limbs in the process, they let us help.  Everyone complemented us on our ability to chop.  Then we helped wash some dishes, and everyone complimented us on our ability to wash.  Then we sat down to eat, with chopsticks, and everyone complimented us on our ability to use chopsticks.  Then we said "arigato," and everyone complimented us on our ability to speak Japanese.  Then we both had two helpings, and everyone complimented us on our ability to eat.  This endless stream of platitudes seems to be standard procedure when eating with foreigners in Japan.  It happens all the time.  However, whenever I turn it around and compliment a Japanese person on their ability to use a fork, I get very strange looks.

After lunch, I jokingly said that since it was hot we should all go get ice cream.  You can't make jokes like that in Japan, though.  Mr. Hioki, being the nice guy that the is, took me and Jimmy for ice cream, but I think he wanted some too.  Also, he wouldn't let us pay; more standard procedures, at least when Mr. Hioki takes you somewhere.  Then, I jokingly said that I was tired and wanted to take a nap.  He smiled and drove us back to the city office.  So, I guess you can only go so far.  But I look forward to the next opportunity to go bar hopping with Mr. Hioki.  I'll be sure to compliment him on his ability to drink.