“Yolusku a-naga shimas!”
Every class begins with this student-led sing-songy call and response. It’s charming because it seems playfully military but doesn’t involve the word “heil”. I could get used to this.
Today I’ve invited myself to some third grade classrooms and if I’m reading my schedule correctly, I’m in an English lesson. Once again lost in the land of polysyllabic gibberish, I’ve decided to live blog the duration, which will simultaneously make me look busy and feel accomplished. Accordingly, I’ve parked my carcass behind a desk low enough that my knees are higher than my bottom, and I’m currently reevaluating my initial perception to determine that this is Kanji, not English class. I think that because the chalkboard looks like someone threw magnetic pick-up sticks at it and my comprehension is lower than my hips. Every new schedule I get seems to be accurate for a satisfying ten minutes before devolving into an incomprehensible mishmash of room changes and plot twists.
Flexibility is the name of my game here. That, and ignorance.
All the desks are quietly moveable and it appears the kids are shuffling, so I’m flipping a coin and joining this group. Wait, there’s a plant here… oh! Giblets are jabbering at me and it looks like they expect an answer, so I turn to the page in my notebook that I’ve dotted with helpful Japanese phrases and respond in Nihon with the first few sentences I see:
“More water, please. Let’s go to a Japanese bar! It is hot today.”
The closest girl thrusts her head forward indignantly because she knows I’m being absurd and she’s unwilling to admit it’s funny. She enunciates carefully in English while pointing to her work.
Oh. It appears that this is an art class. Foiled again; I guess it’s back to the drawing board.
I accede to what I think are this serious student’s wishes and start to throw down some pseudo-artistic lines, getting all mathy with my knowledge of the Fibonacci sequence and its influence on plant growth. I’m feeling pretty good about it until I study it and grudgingly agree with that noggin doctor, the one who diagnosed me with borderline visual retardation. This is not a leaf sketch; it’s a lightning bolt, and I give up and start taking in the room.
This, apparently, is not allowed, so a couple of 8-year-olds yank me pleasantly from my reverie. We draw simple pictures at each other for the remainder of class, labeling them in our respective languages. Though I understand this to be learning, I actually comprehend a smaller percentage of their speech than I did before the fun stuff, because the more (four) words they teach me, the more words they think I recognize implicitly when realistically my responses are always, “huh?”
It would be disturbingly easy for me to flush my self-confidence if I thought for a moment I were staying here.
When the break bell rings, I pop over to the adjacent room and peruse it for the earthquake helmets I’ve heard about. The concept fascinates me in the same way tornado drills did when I lived in Charleston. In Maine, our school-based fears lie more in the vein of, say, bathroom bomb threats… or blockheads who think that plants wrapped in homework are smokeable… so tangible evidence of looming natural disaster kind of flabbergasts me. I wonder if fears of them- tsunamis, earthquakes- permeate these students’ waking thoughts or invade their dreams.
In my own childhood- comparatively idyllic, devoid of Cold Wars, globally warmed El Ninos, and elementary gun violence- the pandemic panic-inducers were comfortably imaginary. Oh, there’s a blue van napping nearby kids? A sordid, psycho, sewer clown? Those were sleepover ouija fears, the kind we summonsed willfully for fourth grade feigned excitement. But as mentioned, I had the rare childhood untouched by tragedy, and maybe only appreciate that now. The threats facing so many wee ones today feel more imminent than imaginary, and it’s disconcerting to think that they live constantly with such a vivid visual reminder as an earthquake helmet on a shelf.
Except I can’t find them in here; there’s just that one in the corner. The prize for survival of the fittest? A Hunger Games-esque culling of our overpopulation? I probably just can’t see the rest of them… I hope. But these crafty Japanese have continually astounded me with their resourcefulness; they’ve probably made tremor-activated foldables that fit nicely into uniform pockets.
Oh! The delightful ones have sung for me again! This almost makes me want to return to elementary school as a teacher- a sensei, as I’m honorably known here- except “oh hell no” just alarmed across my brain, so probably not. This class in particular is a treat, though, which I suspect has everything to do with a teacher who seems, with her inflections, expressions, and body language, to exercise both control over and engagement with her students. They clearly love her, and it’s sweet. Effective elementary school teachers, I think, are a gift meant to balance the unforgiving rages of nature.
Aw, the pigtailed little midget in front of me keeps turning and shyly smiling. Is it weird if I pick her up and hug her?
Whoops again with the scheduling. I amble back to the teacher’s room for some word transfer- notebook to ‘puter- and sadly give up my work crush, because today I realized that the anticipation was more evident than any attraction and meh- I’m bored. Know this, though: I’ll still go for whiskey.
It’s fourth period now: time to gate-crash the first grade because my novelty hasn’t worn off there yet, and I love that they still love saying hi to me.
Oh, hooray! These kiddos are doing math, and yes! I speak that language. Not only that, I’m fluent in the simple plus and minus work they labor now to master.
Sort of. That fraggle-looking kid is wearing his workbook as a hat. The diligent little princess next to me, however, is manipulating her counting fingers with the rabid concentration of a fighter pilot. I point to an answer she’s written, say “five” and “good job!” and instantly her face is set aglow. I wish everyone found such innocent pleasure in working and getting it right.
Whoa. This professional-looking woman is getting incredibly strict as the younger guy prints problems on the board. I haven’t seen that kind of discipline yet, and her staccato admonishments grate as she shoves in wayward chairs. With fidgety bums still in them, mind you. Unusual, or the norm? I wonder how much the presence of my foreign face adjusts things. It’s like one of those science experiments in which the mere act of passive observation modifies the subjects’ behavior, thus casting doubt on the validity of any conclusion.
And now I sit here judging like some Little Miss Omniscient? Shoot, I can’t even decipher what she’s saying. Aw hell, I’m really glad it’s lunchtime.
You guys, I miss this morning when I smelled okay and thought I was athletic.
Grand, sweeping gesture across the brow about lunch, too, because I was placed with some curious eighth grade girls who had a lot of ready questions about whether or not I had a boyfriend, and – if not – perhaps I “liked” someone. Luckily, my proximity-induced infatuation has passed and I could honestly answer with a “nah”. The boys up there were excited though, too, because they’d heard I play basketball and wanted me to join them at recess.
“Sure!” I gushed, before the teacher harshed my varsity vibe, “I would love to!”
“No, no,” she told me, “too dangerous. You can only play with girls.”
Say whaaaaaat? I am certainly not the delicate type to “only play with girls” and said so in no uncertain terms.
“But they will hit you,” she answered. “American boys are respectful and Japanese boys are crazy. You will get hit in face.”
“Totally fine!” I enthused, a little overanxious to make my point, so much so that I skipped over the laughable part about respectful American boys, “I love getting hit in the face! It’s fun!”
Ten minutes later I found myself on the court, resigned to a gentle girls’ game. Turns out I was terrible, too. What I saw last week as a beautiful, intricate melding of three games in one was from the front lines a raging clusterfudge impossible to navigate. I had no idea who was on my team, no idea how to pick my way from one side of the court to the next, and no idea how to dodge balls I couldn’t see coming. I threw up one shot- an airball- and then just started toe-running frantically, trying to figure out how to avoid being such an embarrassment to my hemisphere.
Made up for it a little bit in sixth grade volleyball, but only because the game balls were beach balls and everyone was terrible. Also accidentally whacked some girl so hard that I think I heard her nose hit her brain, but that’s to be expected when I’m subbing in PE, as Orianna learned the hard way back at Moore.
Sorry kids, but thanks for letting me play!
Wait, no- let me say that properly, the same way you do when classes slide to an end: