by Kenji DuBois Lee
Day 1. Five classes, 580 students. What a trip! Yesterday I went to the largest elementary school in town and experienced the full spectrum of elementary students.
I start with a class of about 16 special needs children. Among those who can focus on anything, there is one student doing his own thing the entire class. One of the three teachers constantly attempt to make him participate and focus on me. Since he is in the front row this is quite distracting. Or so I think. However everyone else seems well accustomed to him. When I am walking around the class showing pictures of my family and home, he finally acknowledges my existence by “kancho-ing” me (kancho = put hands together, lock fingers together leaving only pointer fingers extended, as if making your hands into the shape of a gun. Keep extended pointer fingers pointing upwards, sneak up behind unsuspecting victim, aim for butt-crack, and thrust upwards). This is my first of five classes for the day. Each class period: 45 minutes; average class size: 35 students.
Off to the first regular 4th grade class. I duly arrive at the classroom which is on my schedule, but my schedule has changed without notification so I’m redirected to the classroom next door. No big deal, it’s still a 4th grade class. There, the teacher is very helpful and the kids are attentive. It’s hard to tell whether the students are stunned into silence by having this big foreigner is in front of their class, or if they are actually well-behaved, attentive students. Most likely it’s a mixture of the two. I do my self-introduction, proceeded with the lesson plan, and make plans with the students to play soccer during recess and head to my next 4th grade class.
In the halls of the school, the children are very lively and curious. I have a swarm of children of varying ages following my every step. They are constantly looking up with eyes wide open, asking questions; “How tall are you? Where are you from? Are you from Brazil? Are you a good soccer player? Are you our new English teacher? How many centimeters are your shoes? Do you perm your hair? Can you bend over so I can touch your afro? Will you eat lunch with us please!? Are you coming tomorrow?” They are so easily amused by comparing body parts to mine. I hold out my hands and as soon as one child puts her hand to mine to compare sizes, there is a line – no, rather a cluster – of children around her waiting to do the same. I smile and let the kids enjoy this new experience. I sometimes hold my hand up above them, challenging them to try and touch it. I think jumping will tire them out… but who am I kidding? These are elementary kids – their energy is limitless.
I’m led to the second 4th grade class by a group of its students – all boys with endless questions and requests. Like always, I smile and amuse their curiosity. We get to their classroom and after ducking to make my way into the classroom, like I always have to do, I’m greeted by the usual chorus of “oohs” and “aahs.” I’m quite pleased to see a big world map hung on the board. I know it will be useful in my self-introduction. As soon as the Homeroom Teacher (hereafter referred to as HRT) starts class, the other HRT who has been standing in the hallway just outside of the classroom doorway steps in and whispers to me, “By the way, this is a difficult class,” then walks out. I smile and say, “Jaa, ganbarimasu” (Well, I’ll do my best).
I soon realize why he has said this. Throughout the duration of the class, I don’t think there is a single moment when I have every student’s attention. My best effort is a moment when I have about half the class focused on the lesson. Students nonchalantly stand up and walk to someone else’s desk and draw, talk or fight. One guy comes up to the picture cards I’ve set up on the board, points at the picture card of a peach and says “Chiki chiki!”. He laughs and runs back to his seat. It’s quite easy for me to figure out what chiki means, since the picture of the peach looks like a butt. In case I don’t, the kid looks up at me, points at his butt and repeats, “Chiki chiki,” numerous times.
The same boy repeatedly comes up to the front of class, grabs my teaching materials freely, faces the class, and mimicking everything I say, writes on the chalkboard until one of the HRT’s slowly guides him back to his seat. “Wait a minute, does he even have a seat?!” I think to myself. If he does, he’s never in it longer than a second. By this time I just accept that none of the other HRT’s will do anything. This 4th grader has just turned English class into amateur hour. I bitterly accept my demotion from first-day Assistant Language Teacher to struggling entertainer onstage desperately attempting to finish the show while dealing with a hardcore heckler.
The hands of the clock on the classroom wall seem to be frozen in place, despite the lingering late summer humidity. This truly is a circus. And just as I’m congratulating myself that I’ve made it, in the face of cruel mockery, to the halfway milestone of my “act” and I’m still standing; he really crosses the line.
As I’m in the middle of saying fruit names, he walks up again, this time directly in front of me; toe to toe. He takes the card out of my hand, “Hey. Hey English teacher, how do you say ‘chin chin’ in English?”
The audacity! I freeze mid-sentence and there I stand, completely flabbergasted. “Don’t react! Act like you didn’t understand what he said! Continue! The show must go on!” The entertainers’ creed seeps into the front lines of my consciousness.
“Hey! C’mon, how do you say it? Tell me. You know, chin chin.” This time with a two handed motion towards his crotch and then mine.
The he grabs mine!
Instinct takes over and I push the kid away immediately, “Sit down!” I stammer. I honestly have no idea how I’m supposed to react. First day on the job and this happens? To make things worse none of the teachers seem to regard this offence as seriously as I do.
During five years in elementary schools in Japan, I have observed nonchalant contact below the belt more than I wish I had. I have come to the conclusion that Japan is Japan, and should not be held to the American values I grew up with. I collect myself, and continue. Until he comes up again just moments later, only this time I know what he’s trying to do. I take defensive angles keeping him at bay, blocking his attempts until finally he gives up. Mind you, this is all whilst I’m ‘teaching’ fruit names to the other 34 students.
With a sour look of defeat he steps back, looks at me and asks the question insistently one more time, “How do you say it?!” And just to clarify, he pulls his pants down revealing his own “chin chin” to all and sundry.
That one second or so has seared itself into my memory bank on so many different levels. This individual boy, his classmates, the teachers at this school, this city, this prefecture, this country… what is going on?! No time to think, I’ve still got a pile of picture cards I need to repeat to that one girl in the back of class who seems to be taking notes. Yes, taking notes. That’s what she’s doing!
Sometimes students leave the classroom and talk with the other HRT who is in the hallway – and remains in the hallway for the entire period occasionally stepping into the doorway to watch me. I think perhaps he is stationed there because kids tend to leave the classroom at any given time without explanation. I guess he’s some sort of loose student herder. I stop trying to speak over the noisy students, because I figure the small percentage of focused students will hear me anyway. I feel bad for all those students in the back of the class who aren’t necessarily disruptive, but are obviously disengaged because of all the commotion in the room. Needless to say, I now fully understand the Hallway Herder HRT’s earlier warning.
Then it’s on to recess. I hadn’t planned to actually be playing with the kids, but there I am, running around in my good dress shoes. “Whatever – I’ll clean them later,” I think to myself as the dust starts matting their sheen.
At each school I visit there’s usually a group of kids who like to show me around. Here at the biggest school in town it’s no different. My tour-guide group runs with me across the field to their soccer goal. We start to take shots at goal, but then I notice some commotion nearby. a group of children are yelling as they cluster around something. My tour-guide group race to the scene and I pursue them. “Kenji-sensei! Kenji-sensei!! Hebi! Hebi!” (Snake! Snake!). Sure enough, these kids are in hot pursuit of a snake slithering along the irrigation ditch surrounding the field. The plates covering the ditch are made of some kind of durable plastic which makes it easy for the little children to flip them over and follow the snake’s progress. One by one, the kids flip over these plates as the snake tries desperately to slithers for cover. The group soon works out an effective system to completely expose the snake. They flip over the plates at opposite ends of the ditch, moving inwards towards their quarry, leaving only the plate the snake is hiding under in place. Then, once they’re all armed with balls, sticks and stones, one kid readies the group and flips the last plate. As soon as the snake is in sight, the group starts to bombard it with anything they can get their little hands on.
The first attacker is a kid who holds a soccer ball above his head, extends his arms, and throws downwards into the ditch at the poor snake. Rocks and sticks follow until the beaten snake manages to make it to the next un-flipped plate. Being in an irrigation ditch, there are few options when deciding where to slither or hide. After a 45 second blitz, the brutal event comes to a fatal end. The body of the snake is lifted out of the ditch by one brave boy and thrown over the fence. It’s a good sized snake. Just under a meter long I’d say, with a diameter of about an inch and a half. When the boy picks up the snake and holds his arm straight out, the snake’s body nearly dangles down to his ankles!
Without skipping a beat, the snake-bashers return to their soccer game. It takes me a moment to soak in what’s just happened. This is only the third occasion I’ve seen a wild snake and this one is easily the biggest. It’s now also the biggest dead snake I have ever seen.
Lunch ends and on I go to the last fourth grade class. A bit sweaty and still in shock from the biggest snake beat-down of my life, I start my self-introduction. To my relief, this class is attentive and focused. Also, the HRT is participating and providing good explanations to the students. No nudist hecklers like the last class. However, when I’m fielding questions from the students about myself, where I’m from and so forth, one of the boys in the back stands up and asks, “What kind of woman do you like?” This follows an enquiry about my marital status. Being used to questions like, “What is your favorite color/animal/food?” or “Where do you live?” I pause, a little taken aback. I tell him it’s a hard question for me to answer in Japanese, and I will give him an answer after class.
Sure enough, after class he finds me and reminds me of my promise. So, in my kindergarten-level Japanese I do my best to explain what I like in a woman. His eyes are locked on mine and not a muscle in his face moves as he lets me finish. After my explanation, he reaches up and puts his right hand on the top of my chest, then moves his hand away from my chest in a big circular motion which returns to the bottom of my chest. He looks up at me through his glasses with great earnestness. It takes me a second…”Ahh! Breasts!” I venture. I don’t think it’s proper to go into the physical details I fancy, so I just smile, pat the top of his head and say, “You’re too young for that don’t you think?” He grins back at me and wanders off.
I decide to eat lunch with the first fourth grade class. The kids are very happy to see me again. I sit down and once again I field questions about myself and my hair. After lunch, I chat to the HRT for a while. She tells me she is very surprised to hear me speak such good Japanese. She says my Japanese sounds beautiful, even more so than hers! I appreciate her efforts to be friendly and encouraging.
Two of her students approach us and one of them asks me if I have a girlfriend. I tell her I don’t. The two girls giggle. A third girl is hiding behind the others. They push her towards me. The HRT is laughing too now, and put her arms around the girl being pushed and says, “How about Miyuki?” with a smile and giggle. I smile and tell them all that I don’t need a girlfriend.
Lunch time recess consists of more soccer but thankfully no more snake slaughter. I have a blast playing soccer because I haven’t played since arriving in Japan 6 weeks ago, and it’s nice to kick a ball around again. Whenever the ball goes behind the goal, a nearby student punts it back towards the field where all the players are waiting. I take this opportunity to impress them. I ask them to let me punt the ball once, and when I do, I make sure to kick it really high and far. They are all amazed at my kicking ability and beg me to continue punting for the remainder of recess.
Finally this day comes to a close. Exhausted, I take a moment to collect my thoughts.
I’ve been standing up for the majority of the day in front of classes and while playing soccer for two recesses. The kids and I have been showing each other all kinds of soccer tricks to impress each other. I’ve been stunned by the kids’ brutal response to snakes which dare to creep around on the school grounds. I’ve been amused by their endless curiosity. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the English level of some of my students, but shocked at some others’ brazenness. I’ve been followed, interviewed, touched, pointed at, and oh yeah… kancho-ed a grand total of 3 times (3 times too many). It’s been a long day!
My teaching assistant’s schedule has me visiting 6 other elementary schools and 2 kindergartens each week, with this particular school slotted as my Wednesday school.
As I trudge wearily homeward, a sobering fact dawns on me. There are still thirty-one Wednesdays left this year!