Outside the Classroom

by Michael Pronko


In April of every academic year, when classes are just getting into gear, I meet my students in the evening at one of the nearest stations. Everyone stands awkwardly, huddling in small groups, chatting nervously, checking cellphones, and wondering about the night ahead. We wait for stragglers or apology messages and finally head into the nightlife streets of Tokyo. For the next two hours at an izakaya, a Japanese-style pub, we’ll eat and drink and talk together. 

Many teachers around the world would never even consider socializing, much less drinking with their students, but I go willingly. It’s a ritual I find relevant and meaningful. Much of what I know about teaching, the university, and life in Japan was revealed to me at such drinking party nomikai.  

Weeks ahead, students start organizing the nomikai. They select the most affordable izakaya, where prices are so low I wonder how the places make a profit. We follow the leader inside the large interior and pack in tight along big tables on benches or wobbly chairs. When the wait staff arrives, we’re given the go-ahead to start our two-hour set-menu, all-you-can-drink course.

The first drinks arrive, and students push me to give a toast. I start with a heartfelt speech telling them how impressed I am with their work. The students in my seminar have chosen to do their last two years of university study by reading novels, watching films, giving presentations, and engaging in discussions—all in English. It’s hard for them to set aside the easy excuses and hard confusions of youth and stay on task. 

But it’s also good to get off task sometimes, too. I shout, “Kanpai!” Everyone clinks glasses, and we’re off. The ritual’s underway. 

Students are always nervous at first. They slug down their first drink and flip through the menu, a laminated sheet or tablet ordering system. The food is often pre-set and follows a predictable series of typical dishes. We usually order more, talking over what looks good. They frequently try to take care of me by translating and explaining, even though I’ve been going to izakaya longer than they’ve been alive. 

But food’s an easy topic to get started. In asking me what I do or do not like to eat and drink, they realize I’m not just their teacher but a foreigner living in Tokyo, far from his childhood home. And I know they’re out for one of the first drinking parties after reaching the legal age of twenty. 

While they order, I look around at the other tables filled with salaried employees and working people who frequent this kind of cheaper izakaya with grungy toilets, oily floors, and weary service. Everyone’s saving a buck while nomu-nicating (drinking-communication). Far from the tensely regimented spaces of the classroom or company office, the down-to-earth basement space allows the volume of talk to rise.

As the first dishes arrive, talk gets louder, and shyness retreats. The wait staff, usually other students in T-shirt uniforms, hustle the food out on overloaded trays and clutch drink mugs like Oktoberfest. Students tend to stick with mixed drinks that are so sweet that it pains me to taste them. I stick with beer, red wine if it’s on the menu, or Japanese sake if it looks palatable. 

Topics circle around safe issues at first. I love hearing about their families, and the myth of Japanese conformity doesn’t last long. Some students have lived abroad or have one parent who is not Japanese. Some dropped out of high school. They like to share who they are and what they’ve experienced. I ask if their parents speak English and what they do for a living so I know what stakes they’ve set out for themselves by going all-in on English. 

After we rotate seats a few times, they lean closer to open up about the mother who passed away, the autistic sibling, the father who’s a rice farmer or a Buddhist priest, the alcoholic mother who dragged her to English lessons, the sister who’s a nail artist and hates studying. I always ask to see their high school photos. They trot them out and eye their former selves. And then ask to see photos of me as a student. I oblige. Sharing photos is more secrets revealed.  

Students often apologize in a hushed voice for a late assignment or missed a couple of classes. The reason is rarely that serious: a passing illness, a demanding boss, or a demanding school circle activity of sports, music, drama, or a speech contest. I avoid scolding them, having no reason to, and mention things like time management, how to set aside anxiety, and the importance of sleep. What would have been a lesson in obedience if it had taken place inside the university becomes a life lesson instead. 

I see them searching for self-understanding. One’s own behavior is often a mystery, especially when overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, or confusion. I’m always surprised at how easy they are to read and how much I like them anyway. They are engaging in a way that’s hard to identify. Maybe it’s their energy, which seems boundless, even if misdirected sometimes. I’m surprised at how much they try to get along with me and with each other. I see me doing that, too. 

Eventually, someone breaks the wall about boyfriends and girlfriends. A student will lean over to me and point at a friend. “She has had the same boyfriend since high school.” Then, confessions spill out about a lover from another class, from a part-time job, or from the same gender. I always ask them to see a photo of their significant others. “Do you tell your parents…?” The answer is usually “No,” but it’s less hidden than in the past. At the end of the night, at the station, some of them whisper to me they are not going home but to their lovers’ apartment. I raise my eyebrows and smile. 

But don’t students get totally drunk? With me as the adult responsible? Once or twice, yes, someone needed help getting home. And I know students overdo it at the nijikai, the after-party they often head to. They post photos of a classmate or two flaked out on an all-night karaoke bar bench on our shared LINE app. It’s hard not to laugh, but I find students rarely overindulge. As much as I did anyway. For them, drinking as an escape or limit-testing is not the point as it was for me—being together is. 

More than anything, students talk about their futures, and once job-hunting starts in their fourth year, that’s all they talk about. They ask me a lot of questions about why I became a teacher. Was it the same when I was young? No. Did I ever work in a company? No. Whether my experience applies or not may not be the point. Sharing attitudes, anecdotes, and advice helps them think it all through. Maybe that’s all a university education ever does—help think things through. 

We always talk in English. They ask many questions about how to study, too, but in a different way than in class, where they tend not to ask many questions. In that sense, our nomikai bridges the gap between school and life in ways I don’t always grasp. Having moved between the two realms all my life, I often forget how hard it is to take something learned at school and apply it in the real world. University learning usually stops before the point of contact.  

Maybe that’s because all the fun gets excised from school learning. Classrooms in Japan are generally set up as places for serious, self-conscious attendance to policies and rules. But nomikai break that up. I can always bullshit the students in class. I have the whole edifice of the university behind me. But over a glass of beer, I find it hard to bullshit them at all. Being with them there restores the honesty needed for genuine understanding. 

The talk crammed into our two hours at the izakaya involves more subtlety and individuality than inside the classroom. They bring themselves to the conversation instead of acting like cutout cardboard students. In a casual setting, they can reveal who they are. The mousy girl who blushes in class is mature and experienced. The class clown is desperate to succeed. The always-prepared student gets flustered about what to say. When things become unscripted, unconstrained, and de-centered, we all have to interact with richer dimensions of ourselves. 

That lets me see them as complete, rounded people and helps me interact with them more fully. It makes me teach with greater sensitivity. After sounding out the depths—and shallows—of students, I am reminded that school is just one thing they do, the most important thing for some, less so for others. Talking without school constraints lets us get down to root causes—why they are studying, how they view their work, where they are coming from, and where they want to go. 

Shouldn’t I know this from the classroom? I should, maybe, but even after years of teaching, I usually can’t see past their in-class manner. Does that matter? It does to me. I don’t like teaching based on guesswork or some imagined picture of who is there and what should happen. I want to see what can really happen by knowing the missing pieces that bring the larger picture into sharper focus. It enables me to map out larger contexts and higher goals for the seminar. It helps me encourage their ambitions and bolster their confidence. 

Of course, that happens inside the classroom, too, but outside school, we’re repositioned into a much larger frame, a frame I share. Sitting there with them around a table, passing plates and glasses back and forth, is very different from standing in the front of the classroom where I can direct the proceedings. There’s no micromanaging a nomikai chat. 

That’s especially important for a literature seminar because the frame for literature is, after all, a huge one—life itself. Literary study often feels like looking at wild animals trapped in a zoo. A little sign is hung in front of the novel, film, or short story, and we’re looking in, not looking through or looking out. I like being outside the university for just that reason. It ups the stakes for what we do in class. Students and I start looking at stories and language as a human construction, an essential part of life, not removed from it for dissection. 

As we eat and drink, change seats, zip through discussion topics, laugh, and let loose, at some point, we all start speaking from the heart. It’s a relief not to be a teacher for a while, to return to what I like best about the world, what I loved from when I was in college—traveling, talking, and telling stories. I became a human being visiting Japan, a traveler traveling, not a teacher toeing the university line. 

At some point, when imbibing slows down and our two hours are almost over, students click into honest mode. That gives me a chance to speak from the heart, too. They let emotions come out, and so do I. Reserve and restraint are values teachers put on like jackets, but they are good ones to set aside from time to time. Jackets become straitjackets all too easily. 

Hearing the story of their studies from their point of view, emotion reenters the proceedings. Things can get dry and distant inside even the most dynamic classroom because everyone tries to be intelligent, not passionate. But at nomikai, all of us, without our roles and masks, can reveal frustrations, pleasures, joys, successes, and feared failures. When that happens, like in a good story, feeling subverts intellect.

These nomikai are like the subtext of a story, hidden until you get it. They prove William James’s observation that “We learn to swim during the winter and to skate during the summer.” It’s the downtime that makes the uptime click. To hear students’ stories of successful job-hunting, of success at getting a part in a student play, of losing their mother to cancer but making the dean’s list studying abroad, of deciding to take off a year for work-study—all of that makes the stories in class make more sense. 

It would be ironic if we only studied literary and cinematic stories in class but made no attempt to share our own. I want them to see the omnipresence of stories and the power of stories to explain and shape our lives. Without sharing a story, we don’t really live it or even understand it. 

And selfishly, I can see their lives, and through the story of their lives, I see Japan. They get what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital,” and I get savvier about Japan and about my work. But more than anything, talking helps restore honesty, emotionality, and joy, which are, after all, the core values of all literature. It certainly helps keep me from being a noun—the teacher—and helps me remain in verb form—teaching. I’m grateful for that. 

At the end of the nomikai, we always stop for a photo outside the izakaya, a moment of still precision, asking some passerby or wait staff to take a picture with all of us together. We pose and let the camera do its work, and then we return to the flow of our lives, heading for different trains and our different stories. 

But for a couple of hours, and inside that single last photo, we’ve packed our hopes, frustrations, misunderstandings, energies—a shared chapter of our stories—and we’re all the better for it.