Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Turning the tables - a teacher in Japan

As I complete this post, my former students in Hounslow are arriving for school. And I was, and will be, doing just the same at the time they should be, but probably aren't, going to sleep.

8.25 in the morning: I detach my bike from 'le fromage' (this blog needs to be read chronologically) and ride it down the hill. I chain it to the stand, say a few 'ohayo's and head up the stairs to the fourth floor.

Like my former students, I now have a school day comprising six fifty minute-periods. This is reduced to four on a Friday, although it's a fairly comparable schedule since I don't get PE of course.

My four teachers, all females (a concern here being the risk of acquiring a 'girly' Japanese accent) are dedicated and professional. As one would expect in Japan. Attendance records are taken and published, and those with a poor record are named and shamed on corridor walls as well as barred from moving on to the next class in the following quarter. Homework is set daily and it is anticipated that we should be putting in an evening shift of three hours per day. (In truth, I aim to exceed this and boost it with private study.) It is returned to us on the same or following day.

We start the morning with a 'quiz' (euphemism for a vocab test), for which the pass mark is effectively 90 %. (Students used to ask, before vocab tests, "does spelling count?". Sometimes, writing in hiragana and katakana, I wish it didn't.) All marks are entered on a database - sounds familiar to former colleagues? - and we are made to repeat the tests at home in the event of sub-standard performance.

I'm settling in, despite still making the (ahem) schoolboy errors of confusing my 'kyu's and 'jyu' and 'ni's and 'ji's, and already have a good friend in the class, Singaporean Rainbow-san, who is a benchmark / pacemaker both for her diligence and repertoire of kanji. (She is already in Kanji Class 2, whereas I knew precisely none on starting Kanji Class 1 only 3 days ago.) She's also one of those model, polite students that teachers are only too happy to help, and quite rightly too.

A typical day begins with a three period morning, with 10-minute breaks inbetween. A visit to the toilet can be a risky business when the door to the corridor is open, since the urinals are built to Japanese heights, so I lean well forward... (On a similar note, back ache must be a cultural hazard here, as sinks and showers typically pose the same problem for 6-footers.)

There are three more lessons in the afternoon, the penultimate one being an 'elective'. Kanji is on Mondays and Wednesdays: working through the penstrokes relaxes me, although the class is extremely challenging since many of my classmates are already relatively far advanced. This is followed by a private lesson with one of two very obliging and encouraging teachers. Again, female. (In fact, there seems to be only one male teacher in the whole school.) The latter set as much additional homework as I want, and it's for me to dictate the content and pace. So far we have spent time conversing and consolidating work from the textbook; we also go over some of the kanji, which is where I'm really looking for an 'acceleration' in my learning. Not everyone does these private lessons, which cost a premium but - I felt (time being money) - are worth it.

Japanese lunch is a joy. No indigestible, soporific sandwiches. We sit in the cold common room and listen to Kanada-jin P-san's cosplay stories / fantasies, and the North American girls' tales of visits to Nagoya cat cafes etc.. Hhm, where was I? (P-san has provided the most amusing moment of lessons so far when he consistently mispronounced one of the textbook characters' names as 'Tampon' rather than 'Tawapon'. There were a few hands over mouths yet mutual acknowledgement of this amusing slip only followed over lunch. The teacher respectfully passed no comment.  I'm not sure that I would have shown the same degree of self-restraint.)

The composition of my class spans a range of backgrounds. We have a Catholic priest, a nun (I think!), three members of an American Christian charity and a self-confessed Taiwanese slacker repeating the quarter. He outswears Gordon Ramsay and is here for the visa .. and the girls. (Today he was trying to convince me of the merits of Shibuya girls over Osaka ones, not that I asked; I could be gay for all he knows and am a hesitant but amused participant in the conversation.) Just like Rainbow-san, I have left a job and much more besides to pursue this passion for learning Japanese - the priority is study, study, study - so it is fair to say the nirvana we seek is somewhat different.

There are fourteen of us in Class L, the lowest 'set' if we can call it that, and we change our seating plans daily by drawing numbered sticks on entering the class, which ensures we get to work with everyone. The ambiance is polite and respectful. Noone is here in Japan against their will, although it does not follow that everyone is a willing student (aforementioned would-be party boy - a role which may be difficult to fulfil in Okazaki - being a case in point).

Sometimes it's worthwhile staying on campus to continue these studies and begin homework; on other occasions, come 3.30, respite and a break is the priority. Or, maybe, study in a cafe. There's not really much social life, which is not what we - well, most of us (see above) - came for anyway, and leisure plans and cultural pursuits tend to be arranged for the weekend instead. Okazaki is big (and, in my case, as yet unexplored) but not exactly kicking. (Long-term residents will - no doubt with good cause - take issue with this generalisation, but it's my impression, and in truth I would rather be studing in a city short of distractions, anyway.) Instead, most of us continue our studies from our rooms and maybe interrupt one another on MSN to talk about weather, compare notes on the likely cost of an electronic dictionary and discuss other similarly exciting stuff.

So here I am, caught in a moment of nostalgia. I have fond memories of my former school, you see, and am grateful for what so many of my students did to make my final days there as memorable as possible. I even brought the touching goodbye cards they gave me to Japan. And the video from my Tutor Group is the greatest gift I have ever received, bar none (true). Just like the end of any relationship - and, let's not shy away from this, for a 'relationship' is what it should be - there was a sense of bereavement. On leaving a school, this is played out on a microcosmic level across a range of classes and years. Some of them have respected you; some have not. Some of them respect you now; some of them still don't. But in most cases there is an acknowledgement, mutual and spoken. And, as my father told me, often it's from the student with whom there were ups and downs along the way that the goodbye carries greatest poignancy. I remember their faces, words and their occasional complexities, and I feel happy to have had these times.

If anyone thought that this teacher had forgotten what it was like to be a student, I can honestly say I feel more like one now than at any time since I was eighteen. This isn't University. And thinking back to Hounslow, the words sung by Robert Forster of the Go-Betweens, in a beautiful track from their comeback album 'The Friends of Rachel Worth' ( ), come to mind:
"I wish him luck, I hope he gets it right, as he lives my life".

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