September 14th, 2008


110. Open Lesson with the Kinders

(Written from notes taken August 31st and thereabouts)

Our open lesson with the kindergarten students has come and gone. I’m relieved to say that it wasn’t nearly so stressful and draining as the last set of open lessons, which weren’t tryout lessons so much as choreographed, contrived demonstrations aimed more to members of the general public. So now I only have one more open lesson and one more Sankanbi (I’m actually looking forward to this; they’re kind of fun) left for the duration of my contract.

The weather’s been swinging wildly. Sometimes it’s chilly; one night I set off on my bike for MaxValu, and almost turned around just a few blocks away from home to go back and get my coat. Other times it’s just as hot as it’s ever been. The change from summer to fall is like the changing of channels on an old analogue TV set with knob controls – the distortions and interference and crosstalk are just spread out over a longer period of time. [9/13: Lamentably, the temperature has stopped swinging – as I go back to this piece, the temperature has been holding steady at 29°-30°C, and rain has been scarce. It’s an early Indian Summer which is still hotter than the real summer back home.]

Our open lesson was on shapes. F. spearheaded most of the work; she had more free time than I did in the nascent, planning stages – later on I had much more free time, but by then she had become the brains of the enterprise. I willed myself to ask “OK, what can I do?” a few times. In most cases I ended up doing something simple and pleasant, especially cutting out or tracing shapes.

I do feel like I’ve done my share of the work, though. My contributions to the lessons when they were in progress were appreciated – F. liked my improvisations, and she was good at balancing my desire to go on little tangents with the necessities of the clock. Heck, W-sensei even approached me after the lessons were over: “You very actor! I am surprised!”

The night before Open Lesson, we took ourselves through the pouring rain to kaiten. It was my first group outing with Q., and it turns out he’s also from PEI – Summerside, I believe, but he later moved to Town and went to Three Oaks and then to Halifax for Dalhousie. Basically I’m saying that I don’t know anybody he knows, not even a MacDonald, which is kind of a rarity as far as any two given Islanders go. Amazingly, he’d heard of Albion Cross (Population: Tire). Once when I was little, and in Souris getting a haircut, another kid asked me, “Albion Cross?! Where the heck is that?” But that was when the road linking the two had potholes you could make fallout shelters in.

I was sitting across from Q. most of the time we were there, and at one point I was lost in thought about something, and Q. interrupted my reverie and asked if I was upset about something. Wuh-huh? My expression was really intense… oh, that. I’ve really got to stop looking so severe when I’m thinking, or else stop thinking and socializing. =) It takes someone new to me to point out first-impression things like this that are obvious to other people, but that they refrain from mentioning out of politeness.

I think I’m misunderstood in general, and this is complicated when I’m in a foreign country because while the locals may not be able to understand me directly, they are familiar with the clichés, and I don’t fit those, either. Heaven knows why I got along so well in Poland. Was it luck, or was it something else? In any case, going there is still one of the best things that ever happened to me. My life can be conveniently split into two parts: Before Poland and After Poland.

It’s all too easy to make the worst kinds of social mistakes here – the ones in the spectrum of presumption. Every little door opening, every tight space, every offering of food and drink, every compliment, and every meeting is a little dance that I always feel like I’m getting wrong. Some people have an innate sense of social grace. I have to learn social graces like other people learn to play the piano. And I’ve learned to play that symbolic piano! But in Japan, I have to learn to play the hammered dulcimer. It means all but starting over.

I don’t make things easy on myself, either. On the day of the open lesson I found myself standing out in a light rain shower wearing sandals with my suit and brandishing a bright yellow child’s umbrella while directing parents into the entrance for registration. Overwhelmed by awkward trepidation, I had trouble timing my greetings properly (it didn’t help that I and the parents could see each other from fifty meters away, which made the best time to acknowledge each other really hard to pin down). And I wonder why I’m misunderstood.

The lesson went well, but there were a few things about it that gave me pause for concern. You’d think “shapes” would be a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated topic. We covered squares, circles, triangles, and (other) rectangles. Simple enough, but in the course of things I remembered that squares are just a special kind of rectangle – all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, just as all circles are ellipses, but not all ellipses are circles. Therefore, I felt that, say, indicating the square and asking, “Is this a rectangle?” and prompting the kids to say “No,” was misleading at best. Whenever I was up, I deliberately avoided that question and tried the other, safer combinations instead (like asking if the circle was a rectangle). I had wanted to bring it up as a point in the lesson, but one of my cooperating teachers vetoed this. I see why she did, but even now I don’t quite agree.

After the introductions of the shapes and before a fun shapes song, we had the children make complex shapes out of simple ones (like a house out of a triangle and a square). It was OK, but it was the sort of thing that I have a hard time getting interested in, and I found it hard not to just pace about and feign casual interest. I saw the task as an inane time-filler. Not that I don’t resort to such things myself, but acting like they’re some kind of pinnacle of pedagogy requires a mutual suspension of disbelief that I’m not sure has a place in the classroom. (Then again, I must remind myself that this demonstration lesson was half theatre.)

At the end of it all, the children received certificates – complete with their photographs, which Hy-sensei had taken when they first arrived for registration. And after the children left, we got bentos again. Nothing like a free lunch!

I went on to spend much of the remainder of the weekend resting. I had gotten way behind on my sleep.

Finally, when we were at kaiten the night before the lesson (as mentioned), H-sensei came by and left us a man. <whistle> Of course, she can afford that sort of thing (while we can only dream of it), but it’s still good to be on the receiving end of noblesse oblige for once. She literally came just to pay for us; she explained later that she’d overheard K. at the kindergarten talking about going, and decided she’d come and thank us for the hard work we were doing. Well.

Still, despite the occasional benefits, I’m excited at the prospect of being out of this neo-feudal system altogether. In just a few more months, I’ll no longer be an indentured servant, and every second gets me one step closer to that. I thank H-sensei for her kindness, but I look forward to the day when I no longer have to answer to her.

On this rainy night, my need to do my own thing led me to a grocery store (all of the home supply stores had just closed), where I searched in vain for an umbrella. Finding none, I bought some garbage bags, poked holes in one, and set off. I looked ridiculous, but I kept my stuff dry. That's just how I operate. =)

125. September School Stuff

Over the past two weeks I’ve racked up pages and pages of notes about S.G. With apologies to Paul Lutus, there should be a standard frustration form for S.G. teachers:
  • I simply cannot believe this school has / doesn’t have / does / doesn’t do ________________,
  • That my ___________________ university put me here on the basis of their __________________________ reputation,
  • Especially when they pay us ___________ but their tuition costs _______________ megabucks.

If I started filling things out that way, I could get everything written up and be out on my bicycle in time for lunch.

<flips through planner to find the place to begin>

Okay, let’s begin.

Sometimes I wonder what my school’s motivation is for sending people here. Is it to help them maintain their reputation for international awareness, engagement, and mobility?

I suppose on that front, their arrangement with S.G. would have to be considered worthwhile. The trouble is, I feel like I’ve acquired my learning from the weaknesses of my situation, not its strengths. Maybe that’s how these things are supposed to go, but Saint Mary’s was painting an awfully rosy picture of things at the time (the old) M. and I were being prepared to go, and reportedly again when Ch. was being similarly oriented:

- They’re still saying stuff about some of our bills being paid for / helped to be paid for – e.g.: phone, health insurance… well, whoops, turns out they’re not.

- They’re advertising S.G. as a “partial-immersion” school, or, alternatively, “50-50 bilingual.” That’s a fairy tale too, one you have to be here to see the colors of. When under the expectant eyes of parents or the public, the students parrot carefully scripted snippets of English to maintain the illusion of fluency. It’s a depressing charade. There are a few students who are quite conversant with English, and there are also a few native speakers in the mix, but the abilities of the latter have almost nothing to do with the school, and those of the former have everything to do with cram schools, outside tutoring, and parental involvement.

- We’d only work the very occasional Saturday, and we’d get compensatory time off. I suppose this depends on your definition of “occasional.” We usually work at least one Saturday a month, and sometimes two. There is compensatory time on offer, but whether or not you’ll get to take it depends on your class schedule. You can only take an afternoon or morning off if you’re lucky enough not to have any classes scheduled, which happens only rarely – and for some teachers, almost never.

Plus, when you take this compensatory time, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, as your responsibilities remain the same. By taking time off, you’re just shifting the workload and stress to another day. It’s not what I’d call a bargain.

- This is a better opportunity than teaching in an eikaiwa. This is another dangerously subjective judgement. Looking at the salary numbers alone would give one pause to consider – it certainly gave me such, but I allowed myself to be convinced that the “unique qualities” of this job would be worth it. Eikaiwa teachers are perhaps rightly characterized as robots, as the big corporations have a highly standardized regimen. Everyone gets the same experience, no matter who is teaching. Any deviances from the prescribed program are quickly snuffed out – often along with the teacher!

So in terms of teaching freedom, S.G. is sometimes better. Unfortunately, much of this freedom stems from a pronounced dearth of resources. We’re not only talking about teaching resources – this school has no functioning library or science lab. The former is kept locked up, as no one is there to take care of it; the latter is a rust-and-dust collection (also locked up).

The resources as they are are usually made up from whatever we can throw together, with heavy reliance on internet resources (of varying quality) like (thanks go to C. for renewing the membership), and photocopying from whatever old American and Australian workbooks happen to be lying around. The only real complete courses we have are OUP’s English Time series and the old edition of their Grammar series – the former is a serviceable integrated course and is interesting and engaging for both students and teachers, but the latter series is very difficult (it’s aimed at teenagers, and we’re trying to use it starting from Grade 3) and also very Euro-centric (in terms of situations and examples). However, as of this writing it seems that Grammar has been refocused in its newer edition, and promulgates age 9 as an appropriate entry age, as opposed to the older one in use at S.G. which is really meant for 11-12ers at minimum.

The one place where I really feel helpless is teaching junior high math. I’m (re)learning it as much as I am “teaching” it, and the classes mostly consist of us doing worksheets together and then checking them over. There’s a geometry textbook that the curriculum I had been using says I should be getting into now, but I don’t have time to learn the geometry required to be able to understand what it is I’m supposed to teach, so instead I’ve been mixing-and-matching from curricula of different years and sticking to the stuff that I’m not completely lost on. (Mk. says this is a good idea and to keep it up, as the important thing is to get them using English. Unfortunately, only the Year Seven class does so – the Year Eights chat and misbehave all class, and the Year Nines are sullen and taciturn. Why they are still in the IEC program is anyone’s guess, although you can bet that $am and ¥vonn€ have something to do with it.)

So I’m emphatically not a math teacher, which I suppose makes my particular salary almost justified, which brings me to another point: Our “intern” label is a farce. I may not have professional teaching qualifications, but I have as much responsibility as any teacher anywhere ever had – we’re “interns” so they can pay us less and allow us less agency. “Interns” carry exactly the same responsibilities as regular teachers, except that we have three or four fewer classes in a typical week. Is that difference worth $1000 a month? (Especially considering that two of the three non-intern foreign teachers at present aren’t certified either?) I somehow doubt it.

Teaching here may or may not be a better opportunity than teaching in an eikaiwa, but in any case, this school is a joke.

To her credit, Mk. has been in contact with Saint Mary’s to help them be better informed on the <ahem> particular details of “interning” here. With any luck, future participants (God help them) will arrive fully informed. It looks like this'll be one less crusade I'll have to embark upon when I get home.

Despite all of these issues, I know I can get through the next three months. Back in January, and again in June, though, I felt completely sold out. I still feel like a pawn being played between the business interests of S.G. and the business interests of Saint Mary’s. You can be sure I’ll embark on any such joint-ventures in the future with extreme trepidation – and, more to the point, prior research. Had I been willing to do any amount of digging (R. even volunteered to put me in contact with present interns, and I could easily have started there), I would have learned enough to know not to come here. But I wanted so badly to believe the fairy tale and get out of town and taste independence for a while that I bought it all hook, line, and sinker. I’m as much to blame as anybody else. Even at Saint-Anne when I was talking about this job with others – in French, no less – I was advised that I’d find better opportunities elsewhere, but I refused to listen because I thought that this opportunity at S.G. was almost tailor-made for me.

The chicanery here really gets under my craw sometimes. Our new teacher, Ch., is a youthful 22. But she’s not allowed to tell the children how old she is, because it seems too young to be a certified teacher (which she’s not, but anyway…). So when they were asking her in my presence, I just told them how old she was anyway, because I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Now, I probably shouldn’t have taken the matter into my own hands, because if the kids start saying she’s 22 and H-sensei overhears, they’ll blame her. I think I told Ch. she could blame me if it gets out – unlike her, I have nothing to lose at this point.

Another thing that irritates me is being talked to as if I were a two-year-old. The YMCA Camp is back on after being cancelled in July. Since it was back on, I had cause to wonder if I was back in it, too, though I was taken out for “budgetary” reasons. So I asked A-sensei if I would be going this time, and she said she didn’t know, so she’d ask for me. So far, so good. But just minutes later I get this infuriatingly condescending dressing-down from W-sensei: “Already T-san [Mk.] explain why you not go!” Well, excuuuuuuuse me. I turned to A-sensei, who had a wall of white pearls bolted onto her face. Replicating her as best I could, I bit back, “I was wondering, since the day of the camp had changed, if that had changed too. I remember what I’m told.” Goddamn it.

Lo and behold, there’s a bright and amusing memory stuffed in among my notes. O-sensei has been away this month on doctor’s orders (no, that’s not the amusing part!). At the opening ceremony, H-sensei asked the children, “What teacher don’t you see?”

“Mr. S. [D.]!” they all answered.

Heh-heh. They were totally supposed to say, “O-sensei.” And then they were told that he was sick. We all wish O-sensei the best of luck and good health. He’s got a particular kind of endearing aloofness (at least by Japanese standards) that I think we’re sorely lacking right now.

It’s time for a break.

126. The Sports Festival Rehearsal Incident

I feel like I’ve overstayed my welcome in Japan. Whenever I go places, I do so with a guilty conscience – deep inside, I wonder if they know what I really think about Japan, what I’ve written about it – that I’m showing the severest ingratitude in the face of the privilege of being allowed to come here. I’m starting to notice the way people look at me in general. I don’t like it anymore.

I’ve always been an idiot-savant, but in terms of my job I feel like people just see the idiot and not the savant. I’m beginning to be viciously mocked by the junior high students – ball players, too, not just the IEC students – and there are even a few primary school students who are doing so as well. I was made fun of quite a bit in Poland and Ukraine as well, so this shouldn’t come as a great surprise, I suppose.

I have to be able to take a little bit of mockery, though. If one’s modus operandi is ridiculousness, it goes with the territory. I wish I’d known back when I was in junior high that I’d always be ridiculed to some extent no matter where I went. And, you know, what’s the big deal? Nobody ever kicks a dead dog – maybe they are seeing the savant. At least sometimes, I hope.

I should also make an effort to be less negative about things. Back when M. and I were joking about the questionnaire, F. stopped me and said, “You know, there’s a lot of negativity coming from you,” intoned with an unspoken, “Stop. It. Right. Now.” Well, you can imagine how I (wanted to) react to that.

I limited myself to, “Well, that’s my business.”

“Yes, but if you express it, it becomes our business.”

Oh, well lah de lah. Is this another thing about what I’m allowed and not allowed to say? And since when do I have to take orders from you? Who made you the Grand High Poobah? It took every bit of strength I had not to say these things.

Somehow – I forget exactly how – the situation became defused and we were joking about it:

“I was tempted to reply, ‘Nyah, nyah… This is why I hate working with other people-’”

“‘- and having to behave,’” she interrupted. “‘Where’s my lolly?’”

Ouch. That hurt.

(By the way, people who tell you to stay positive are usually just trying to tell you to put up with something that you shouldn’t. Just a tip.)

Friday was eventful. We started off with a late morning meeting. We foreign teachers had been waiting in the office for it to start – I almost advised M. to go ahead with it (he was on week duty, so it was his job to initiate it and lead us through kengaku no seishin), as the principal was there, but we waited until quarter after, and then we finally were given the go-ahead. And then, in the course of the meeting, H-sensei lambasted us for not being outside helping them set up for the sports festival rehearsal: “You all work for the primary school, so when you see…” Her tone was completely unnecessary – it was an innocent mistake: the morning meeting usually starts at eight, and it’s a very bad thing to be late for, and while I saw them outside moving stuff around, I didn’t know – nay, none of us knew – whether that or the meeting was the more important thing. (And why are you giving us shit about what we’re supposed to be doing when you – habitually! – won’t tell us what we’re supposed to be doing until after we’re supposed to have done it? All they had to do was tell us the night before or even shout to us as we were walking in, “Hey, please, jump in, don’t worry about the meeting.” Sheesh.) I explained about the not-knowing-what-was-the-most-important-thing to H-sensei and W-sensei after the meeting, and she was like, “Oh, OK.” In my opinion, she erred, but we make ten times as many mistakes as she does, so whatever.

So before long we’re outside under the hot sun again for our “dress rehearsal” for the sports festival. I think the sun and the previous experience with H-sensei had me on a short fuse.

A kid from Year Two came up to me, pointed at my chest, and said, “Mr. Matheson, chikumi!” It didn’t need translation.* I grabbed him by the shoulders and yelled, “You… never… say that!” and with a growl I shoved him away, and he was picking himself up off the ground.

All I saw was rage. I wanted to throttle the little bugger. Of all the sore points he could have hit…

I saw the other foreign teachers talking, and soon F. came up and all but dragged me to the office. Take your water bottle with you. He’s just a kid. You can’t do that. You’re supposed to be the adult. You’re the disciplinarian. You’re supposed to set a good example. She went in to speak to Mk., and it was then that I began to think that this might have been my last day at S.G. This would be a great, worthy excuse to fire me. There was a precedent, as one foreign teacher had been fired for hitting a kid. Maybe I wanted out so badly that I took it out on this kid.

I wondered if anyone there knew the hell I’d gone through to get here. Well, that kid had no way of knowing. He’s a congenital shit disturber – in countenance very much like my cousin Colin when he was that age – but he’s just a kid. I can’t be lashing out at people like that. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Maybe I’m just not fit for polite company. I’m still the same old screaming, immature piece of crap I was in high school. Who knows what I’m capable of doing? I could suddenly hurt or even injure someone! No, I wasn’t fit for polite company anymore. It was now time to go back to Canada and live in that shack by the river that everyone always saw me living in.

F. and Mk. emerged, and as F. returned to the sports “field,” I sat down to have a very interesting meeting with Mk.

After I talked about my own mistakes first, she allowed me to vent my frustrations – I don’t mean the way that some people do it when you get up in the other person’s face – no, not that, I just took deep breaths and went over the frustrations and contradictions blow-by-blow. In one way or another, I mentioned most of the things I’ve mentioned here, although probably in a more polite manner.

Her answer to some of the questions I posed was, “Management can’t disclose why they do what they do.” Hoo-boy. I mentioned the specific issue of telling the parents or letting them assume that we’re real teachers – it seemed like chicanery, if not outright dishonesty.

Well, this is a private school… parents have high demands. Well, why not raise tuition and give them what they want? Oh, but the tuition is already high – eight times higher than public school tuition.

“How much does a typical public school cost?”
“Um… I can’t say.”
“Don’t know, or can’t say?”
“I can’t say how much public school cost because then you would figure out how much S.G. cost.”
“But I work here. I should know that.”
“Well, you can look it up.”

Well, in any case, I already have an idea how much S.G. costs – about $800-$900 a month, I think (and there are discounts available for the children of staff (50%) as well as second and third children from the same family) – a princely sum, but I’ve heard worse. There’s also an enrolment fee that’s the better part of $1000 and various other dings, but any hardworking family could afford to send a child or two here without having to live off millet rice.

I also admitted to Mk. that I would have left some time ago were it not for the facts that it takes three months to get a new teacher and that they have my airfare hanging over me. But I did confirm that I was still prepared to finish my contract. Yes, I can do this for three more months. (That’s not that long of a time, when you think about it.)

No, there was no talk of me leaving, except what I brought up myself. I wanted to apologize to K-kun out of principle, but she said to wait – sometimes such “discipline” is necessary by Japanese standards. She’d talk to H-sensei about it. And in the end, H-sensei agreed with Mk.’s sentiment: “He did something bad to you, so he needed to be disciplined.” Since he wasn’t hurt and went back to enjoying the festival rehearsal, I wasn’t to apologize and undermine the ‘discipline’ – unless his parents were to complain, then all bets would be off, as they were when that other foreign teacher was released.

Mk. confirmed that they really wanted to keep me for the three remaining months – mostly for the kids (and mostly my homeroom kids, presumably), as they wanted to keep me. Well, jackpot! If I can only have one or the other, I’d much rather have the love and respect of the innocent children than of management. That they find room in their hearts for a curmudgeon like me really says something. It looks like I’m safe for the time being.

I left the meeting, returned to the sports festival rehearsals, and spoke to F. I said that it looked like I wouldn’t be packing my bags just yet. Oh no, she exclaimed, that wasn’t it at all. I thought she was carting me off to be fired – but she was really just acting to defuse the situation, as well as acting in my interest, too.

Things settled down, and the rest of the rehearsal went by without incident – save a dust devil that blew through, knocking some things around and scaring some kids. I’d never seen one before; it wasn’t very big, and it lasted less than a minute, but it was quite the thing to see up close.

In the afternoon after classes were out, we had a very, very long meeting about the sports festival. The principal brought us some tea and Calpis to ease the pain. They could have just given us the Coles Notes afterwards – it was also frustrating because we had to sit in a circle to get the odd translation while the other teachers, at their desks, could do other work (like correcting things) while the meeting went on (and on). They finally let us go just before 6:00, and after that I started working on my preparations for Tuesday. I finally got out at 7:30. “You a very hard worker!” A-sensei exclaimed. “Sometimes,” I grinned.

Just one more little thing that bugs me (and this’ll be it for today, I promise): It’s really annoying when someone is ordering you to “please focus on their pronounciation.” It’s enough to drive you straight up the wall. I think it’s an effective acid test concerning English – you have no business talking about pronunciation if you can’t even pronounce it. =)

Tomorrow: Hiroshima!

* - During the meeting, Mk. confirmed that, yes, he did mean “tits.” I knew he did anyway because some of the other year two kids were giving me a hard time about it the last time we went swimming, enough to effectively ruin the experience. My homeroom students, to their credit, either didn’t care or were polite enough to keep it to themselves – so the one time when it was just them, I was able to have a happy experience. And yes, call me a hypocrite – I don’t want to suppress my own negativity, yet I condemn these children for pointing out my bodily irregularities that will be sending me to the gym as soon as I get back to school. I think I’ll take the equivalent of four full-year courses instead of five and dedicate the extra time to fitness classes – they’ll be free, so why not?