Well, after one day of practice, I'm no longer the worst player on the Manyo Junior High School girls' soft tennis team. Technically, I'm not officially on the team (some silly rule somewhere forbids that), but starting today I plan to practice with the boys' and girls' teams twice a week or so. I need to get my body moving, and it's also a good way to get to know some of the students. Today, I started out with the boys, but their practice was really disorganized so I had no idea what was going on. I looked over and saw that the girls in the next court were forming lines and doing their drills, so I could actually understand what was going on and see how to participate. Also, the girls are usually much more enthusiastic about having me around (at Manyo, at any rate), so although I try to give the boys equal time so as not to discriminate (I make the opposite effort at Go-chu, where the boys are outgoing and the girls are shy; my teachers tell me that Manyo is unusual in having such boisterous girls), I just don't always feel as welcome with the boys. It is generally the case, at least in this part of Japan, that girls are much more eager to learn English; specialized English-intensive high school programs tend to be 80%-90% female. Anyway, it was fun, and I got better quickly, although I've a long way to go and I'm sure I won't be able to beat some of the better girls any time soon (although I realized from watching these kids that I have a tremendous advantage in upper body strength over 70-90 lb. little girls, but that really isn't much to brag about). It was definitely worth the ¥498 I spent to buy gym shorts yesterday.
More good news: the crushes that two Manyo girls had on me seem to have waned over the spring break and the couple of weeks of limited contact before it (there had been no club activities, and that's generally when I talk to most of the kids). One of them was a girl I had worried about, and she has become much happier and more social over the last few months.
Some of you know that last week was a holiday week in Japan, a period called "Golden Week" with only two days of school. How do kids spend their holidays around here? Well, I asked a lot of them that question, and found out that about half of them spent a good part of the time planting rice. For reasons that I think have more to do with tradition than economics, a lot of the rice here is still planted by hand. There are perfectly good machines for this, and they seem to be available to rent. In fact, farmers with a lot of land will generally leave a couple of paddies unplanted when they use the machines, and then they and their families go out and do those by hand. There are decent-sized farms, often in hidden valleys, that are entirely managed by hand. Most of the stoop labor (you stand knee deep in the flooded paddies, stooping over to push the little shoots into the mud under the water) is done by the elderly, especially grannies; cultural arguments aside, one can see how this division of labor evolved since most of these old women are permanently stooped into the planting posture already--due to lack of calcium, their vertebra have collapsed (some are bent so far they actually can't see forward). As glad as I am that I'm not out there aching in the hot sun, the old farmers with their straw hats and traditional colorful blouses and pantaloons in the flooded fields mirroring the mountains are a wonderful sight.
I didn't do very much with my three days off for Golden Week. On Saturday, I rode my bike uphill about 15 km to my visiting school (mostly just to see if I could make it), then rode around the surrounding villages for a couple of hours seeing if any of my kids were out before coasting home. I saw eight or ten of my kids or recent graduates (and one of my colleagues) out in the rice fields and half a dozen or so of my elementary school kids just running around. Since I'd gone all the way out there, I sort of wanted to be seen, by the junior high kids so they know I'm not a total slug and can in fact survive the ride up there, and by the elementary school kids because it still gives them a kick to see me (how vain am I?). Since a teacher from one school and the vice principal from the other school also saw me, my stock in both offices has gone up a bit.
One of my activities with the 8th graders (second years) has been to pull six of them at a time out of class and ask them what they did over Golden Week and Spring break. Some answer beautifully and easily; most do pretty well; but with some it is like pulling teeth. It astounds me that usually one or two out of each six (sometimes four of the six) cannot after a full year of studying English string together the simplest sentence. Granted, some of these kids are LD, but they can't all be. It actually offends me that they have learned so little, and yet this is the way the system is designed--next year, the national curriculum calls for them to learn less. Generally, a kid next to the turnip being bled will whisper to the turnip; I don't know why they whisper since I am three feet away and am not even pretending not to hear. They'll ask in Japanese, "Well, did you play soccer? Say you played soccer." Then the helper will whisper the sentence in English: "I played soccer." Sometimes, that simply doesn't take; then the rest will start whispering to the turnip, one word at a time. "I." "I." "Played." "Puray-do." "Soccer." "Soccah." Astoudingly, even that doesn't take with some kids. Even after repeating the three words, they cannot string them into "I played soccer" (or even "I puray-do soccah"). A lot of the time I end up asking the question again in Japanese (even though the other five kids have already discussed and answered it), and even then I cannot get more than one word at a time out of them. This isn't shyness (or, rather, when it is shyness I can tell); from listening to their classmates helping them in Japanese and English, I can tell these kids just have not absorbed a single thing. They haven't even bothered to pay attention to what the five kids before them have said, both in Japanese among themselves and in English to answer the question, even though they knew they would be asked the same thing. With the kids who aren't impaired, this bugs the hell out of me. How can anyone care that little? (I should say that although an honest third of the kids really have a tough time anwering, most of those manage to respond long before reaching the complete vegetable status described in the previous few sentences.)
Anyway, life is good. I'm still amazed at how much fun I have at school. (Most of) These kids are great.
O genki de