To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Prop comedy

Hi, all,

      Lately, I've been busy at nothing out of the ordinary, but still having fun. This week, I was charged with preparing clothes (xeroxing and coloring in pictures I downloaded from the internet) and money for an "at the store" exercise for second years. This was an especially demanding assignment because we would be teaching the class in front of an evaluation committee. Anyway, for the money, I scanned a dollar bill (I'm the proud owner of about seven of these), altered it to make different denominations, and otherwise screwed it up to make it funny. I took especial care in altering George's portrait. I found that if one trims his hair, shaves off the sideburns, and adds a mustache he looks exactly like Larry Tate (Darren's boss) from Bewitched. I also found that if one replaces with him with a photo of a little girl in bodacious ponytails (one of our first years), the students will love it. So much so, in fact, that for the next class I replaced the smiley faces I'd put on the ten and twenty with pictures of other students--the girl on the twenty being one of the students in the class, the boy on the ten being a third year but widely known to my second years as the school's biggest cut-up. Huge response--shrieking from the girls as they discovered their friend's face, louder shrieking from Tomoko as she tried to steal all the twenties (of course, she's the honoree, and is one of the cutest kids in school--she's always got a huge, very warm smile, and she always seems like she's genuinely happy to see you). After class, as word got around the other second year classrooms, there was a clamor for twenties ("I'll give you one if you ask me in English").
      I think I'm starting to develop ("devolve"?) into that lowest of life forms, the prop comic. Aside from the money, I've been exploiting kids curiosity in the unusual by carrying strange things (strange to them) to get them to approach me and comment or ask. For example, one morning before class I walked through the halls eating a raw carrot. Japanese do not believe in raw vegetables (once you've gone all the way to raw crabs and shrimps--which are, let's face it, just enormous bugs--why should raw anything be strange?). The kids were aghast. Eating a carrot raw had never even occurred to them. About half a dozen kids, each thinking she was being original, shouted, "It's a rabbit!" (in English or Japanese, depending on their level). I stopped about fifty times, explained to each stunned group that carrots are delicious and healthy, and asked if they liked raw carrots. One or two kids actually said "yes," but the other few hundred all said "no." I asked most of the "no" kids if they'd ever even tried raw carrots, but of course none of them had, and from the sound of it, none of them ever will (sounds like some of my family members contemplating sushi). These kids better stay away from American hors d'oeuvres when they grow up. What amazed me was the strength of their amazement--I couldn't have shocked them more if I'd walked around licking a glue stick. Their reactions amused me so much that I went back to my desk a couple of times to retrieve my remaining carrots and continue the exercise on more kids. Sometimes, people's behavior reminds that there is some truth in what I was taught before I got here and what Japanese themselves continually tell me, that people here do act much more alike than in the west, and that they are much less exposed to even minor differences in ways of doing things. I try to exploit this as often as I can. (note added later: even a week and a half after publically eating a carrot, my first years are still making rabbit jokes when they see me.)
      Another prop that proved successful--this one unintentionally so--was a stack of blank masks I'd just cut out in preparation for a Halloween "lesson" with my elementary school first and second graders. Almost every kid I passed asked what I was carrying. I realized that some kids who are normally too shy to address me but must have wanted to were using the unusual object as an excuse, or at least having an obvious topic gave them more confidence to try to talk to me. Once I realized that kids who almost never talk to me were asking me about the masks (since they were blank, the boys mostly thought of Jason, from Friday the 13th), I decided to stroll around the school with them instead of just dumping them in my desk in the teachers' room.
      A few of the kids who talk to me all the time also asked about the masks, and I ended up having some longer and more satisfying conversations with them than I usually do. One girl, a first year whose English is great, followed me a couple of times after I'd spoken to her to start more conversations. Hiroe's one of my favorites--not at all shy, and she's smart about using simple Japanese and English she knows is a bit off when she wants to talk about something more complex than her level of confident English will allow (I see this as a powerful sign of intelligence, and I can have more interesting conversations with the kids and adults who can do this, or who are self-assured enough not to be bothered by the chance of making mistakes, than I can with a lot of people whose English is much better, but sadly some English teachers discourage this sort of attempt since the students do inevitably make mistakes--I had an argument [a polite one, of course] about just this in a meeting of English teachers from around the city after another evaluation class this week, and this is a major point of discussion about the future direction of English education in Japan). Anyway, I love this kid, and I'd adopt her in a second if I she were up for grabs (to be honest, this category is getting more crowded all the time). After our first conversation, she mysteriously "found" me when I was talking to some other kids, and when that conversation waned (they were, theoretically, supposed to be practicing something rather than goofing off with the resident oddity), Hiroe tried very hard to resurrect an old joke about her best friend, whom she'd first introduced to me as "Thief" (in Japanese) and whose real name I couldn't remember for about two months, so that I always called her "Thief-chan" (and then, when that got old, "Not-a-thief--chan"). A little bit after that, I joined two girls not practicing the trombone out behind the school. Keiko was doing something to her bangs, and Maki was looking at her photo club book (girls here collect and trade tiny photo stickers from the omnipresent photo booths), so I asked Maki if I could look at her book. Maki and her identical twin sister Saki are wonderful girls--very friendly, enthusiastic about trying to talk to me, and pretty funny (my life wil be slightly easier when I learn to tell them apart without surreptitiously reading their name tags--if I ever run into one of them unlabeled I'll be reduced to addressing her by her last name); oddly, they have extremely similar personalities and even gestures. Anyway, she let me look at her book, which was a surprise, since almost all of the girls always say "no," even girls I know pretty well--they're too shy to let me see them at their goofiest, posing in the booth, even if they're willing to be really goofy in front of me. I always ask when I see girls with their photo clubs books more as a way of teasing them than because I want to see the photos, since I always assume they'll shriek, turn red, and say "no." I enjoyed seeing Maki's collection not only because there were a lot of pictures of the sisters doing interesting things and at different ages (very cute), but also because she had many pictures of her friends, especially Hiroe and Yuko ("Thief-chan"), and it's always funny to see what my kids look like away from school, in clothes of their own choosing (most of the girls choose to dress like eight year olds). In several pictures, Hiroe, oddly enough, wore a leopard print stretch top with a wide, low neckline--kind of trampy, and genuinely weird for a kid who is 12 or 13 and doesn't look a day older (Yuko could pass for 17 easily, maybe even older if she lost the ponytails). I asked Maki if that was a normal outfit for Hiroe or if it was a gag for the picture; she laughed and replied that Hiroe always dressed like that. After about ten minutes (quite long for a conversation with a first year, and the most rewarding conversation I've had with a student in a while), Hiroe herself came over. I showed her one of the pictures and asked her if that was a normal outfit for her--she somehow took that as a compliment, although I hadn't meant it that way at all (girls here consistently amaze me with their ability to take anything as a compliment, no matter how it was meant). Anyway, she followed me as I left Maki to practice, so I asked her how I could tell Maki and Saki apart; she couldn't offer any advice, but a minute later she relayed the question to Saki, who suggested that maybe she's a bit plumper around the neck and chin than her sister.
      I'm starting to suspect that one of the reasons I've been content to let my social life with the other JETs wither is because I'm satisfying my need for friendship and company at work (another reason is that, at 33, I have very deep attachments to people whom I've known for years, so even 8000 miles away I still feel their presence in my life). A lot of these kids really do feel like friends to me. Of course, I don't know them all that well, and I don't really want to know them beyond the context of the student-teacher friendship, which is of course limiting (but no more so than any other appropriate relationship between an adult and an early-to-mid teen). I've come to care a lot about my kids, and I think a lot of them have some genuine friendly affection for me. Of course, simulating friendly affection is part of the socialization of girls here, so it's easy to be deceived, but I like to think I'm getting to the point of seeing beyond that; besides, the boys, though also trained to be friendly, feel less of a need to pretend that they like everyone, so their reactions are more reliable. Now I've satisfied my introspection quota for the week.

O genki de

Peter

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