Total Physical Response in the University Prius

By Meredith Stephens

Today is the day of the annual visit to a student on her practicum, this time at the Kawabata Middle School. This year I have been spared the agony of memorizing honorific language to make phone-calls to the principals of students who are on their practica outside the prefecture. All I have to do is visit the school in person.

I go to the office to collect the gift of rice-cakes and a set of name cards, which the young administrator has prepared for me. He tells me that the university Prius Is waiting for me outside the office. The administrator’s attention to detail is unrivalled. He hands me the keys, and wishes me well as I make my way to the car. Oh yes, this car is keyless, I remind myself, as I press the Start button. Oh no, the gear stick is unfamiliar. I decide to give up and run inside to summon the aid of the helpful administrator. He looks worried as he sees me reappear in the office, and I try to explain in halting Japanese that I can’t start the car. He runs outside ahead of me, sits in the passenger seat, and shows me that the gears are indicated electronically on the screen in front of me. Ever the teacher, I ask him to watch me as I practice what he has told me, and then am confident to venture off.

“This car is too good for me” I tell him in Japanese. He catches my irony, and smiles. The technology of this car is so advanced I can’t even start it.

He runs inside. Next, I notice that the side mirrors are turned inwards and I can’t use them. I press a series of buttons to no avail, and then decide to ask the guard for help at the exit. I hop out of the car, run over to the guard, explain my conundrum, and he accompanies me while chuckling, apologizing that he probably doesn’t know how to do it either. He identifies the right button to press and voila, the side mirrors move into position. I thank him, and gently take off in my purring Prius.

I am very fond of the narrator on the Japanese GPS because she shows no awareness whatsoever of my foreignness.  She keeps politely telling me what to do at a normal speed. She doesn’t slow down for me, and maintains her calm instructions regardless. The GPS is the ideal interlocutor. She reminds me of a language teacher using James Asher’s Total Physical Response. She keeps issuing instructions and I keep responding. I can make a mistake, and she keeps instructing me until I arrive at my destination.

I decide to take the freeway because I want to arrive in good time. Shall I do a runner and escape to Matsuyama, the city at the other end of the island? Reluctantly, no. The GPS tells me to continue going straight ahead for the next five kilometres. Finally, she tells me to exit, and I arrive on narrow country roads, lined with former businesses premises from the old days, the signs not having been taken down. I have arrived in the past. Finally, I arrive at the school. Like most schools, it’s a labyrinth, and it takes me a while to find the official entrance. I remove my outdoor shoes, place them in one of the empty spaces in the shoe boxes, and wander in, until I am identified by one of the teaching staff. She ushers me to the staff room. I am invited into the principal’s office, provided with a welcome cup of green tea with ice, and I offer the rice cakes and my name card to the principal.

No time to enjoy the tea though, because it’s one o’clock and the lesson is about to start. I am guided upstairs to the classroom, and sit at the back, observing the lesson. My student is well prepared, explains the third person singular to the students clearly, and follows up with a communicative activity done in pairs. I am impressed. I make notes for my report, and return with the student to the principal’s office, where I give her feedback on the lesson.

As I leave, my student opens her arms to give me a hug. This is not the first time. It’s almost unheard of for a student to hug a teacher, but last year when visiting another student on her practicum at another school, I was given a hug then too. My student is relieved that the staff and I have witnessed her successful lesson.

I retrieve my shoes, return to the car, and my GPS kindly guides me back to the university in the Prius. This time I take the winding country roads and avoid the freeway. I arrive back at the university, park the Prius, and return to the office to give back the key. As I enter, I make eye contact with the young administrator, and he smiles. Then the whole office erupts in laughter.

“I made it back,” I boast to them in Japanese. “It’s a really good car!”

A few days later, I have to visit the aged-care facilities where our student-teachers will be volunteering as part of their course-work. Again, I must take them some rice-cakes and exchange name cards. This time the administrative assistant will be absent, so I have to go and pick up the university Prius from the Engineering faculty by myself. Meanwhile, he has prepared maps to the facilities and attached photographs of landmarks en route.

I cycle in the rain to collect the Prius. It’s uncomfortably large compared to my bicycle. I’m not sure how to program the GPS so my friendly TPR teacher no longer accompanies me. I drive along an endless road dotted with large brightly-coloured warehouses with signs in Japanese imploring me to stop and spend. Eventually, I identify the landmark where I have to turn off, and follow the lonely narrow road through rice-fields lined with ditches. This is more fun than orienteering. I find the aged-care facility in the distance and abandon the map as I take any road that appears to head toward the facility. It is hard to find a park, and I awkwardly manoeuvre the Prius as I search for a parking spot. Eventually I find the entrance and deliver the rice cakes. The aged-care administrator is a little taken-aback to see a foreigner arrive in such an unlikely place, representing the local university. We exchange greetings and I am back on my way to my next appointment.

Again, I follow the map back along the main road, identify the landmarks, and locate the second care facility. Confusion ensues when I announce myself at the reception. Why is this foreigner coming to deliver rice cakes to the care facility? Eventually I am directed to the right personnel and am ushered into a small room. The staff member explains the duties the student will have to perform and gives me a tour of the facility.

The hardest part is extricating the Prius from my spot in the carpark. Despite the rear camera and the beeps, I cannot exit. I inch in and out nearly twenty times and then see a friendly face in the side mirror. Someone is directing me back, saying ‘alright, alright’, which means ‘it is safe to back out’ in Japanese. Shortly I am clear of the other cars and ready to leave the carpark. I thank the smiling stranger, bow to him from my driver’s seat, and follow the road back to the university.

Besides teaching and research, being entrusted with the university Prius, and delivering rice-cakes to local organizations is an unexpected adventure that I look forward to once a year.