To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: A typical Peter screw up turns out for the best

Hello, all,

       I hadn't thought it had been that long since I'd written, but a few people have emailed asking if I were still around, and the answer is yes, I'm not pushing up any daisies yet. I've been busy lately, but in that strange way that now that I look back on it I can't really think of much that I've done or had to do. I've been staying late a lot at work to help two of my kids prepare for the local international association's English speech contest--which has been fun. Ironically, I think the girl did much better, but the boy won third prize and she got only the last of the honorable mentions.

       I was also entered (to speak in Japanese for five minutes), but in typical fashion procrastinated until sometime after the last minute. Thursday I wrote about a third of it in an hour between classes, then I read it to a first year class so they could point out my mistakes. Yes, I get away with a lot when the other teachers aren't around. Actually, I think it may have had some educational value for them, and they certainly enjoyed getting to play teacher to me. Anyway, they really did help polish it up, and helped me improve several phrases that I ended up using several times in the part I wrote later. Much later. In fact, I started about 11 o'clock last night and worked until two, spending the last hour and several this morning memorizing. Bright and early, I took my letter from the organizers and set out by bike, in fairly warm weather and full sun, to the spot half a mile away where the letter said to go. I got there half an hour early but no one was there. I checked the kanji (Chinese characters) on the letter against those on the building to be sure I'd read them right, and sure enough they matched. While I was waiting for other people to show up, I practiced, reciting my speech three times to a dog who was tied up near the center. He was surprisingly attentive, but seemed to lose interest the third time around. I'd compare his attention span favorably to most of my seventh graders. Eventually, fifteen minutes after the supposed starting time, I figured out that no one else was coming. I called the number of the organizer, who of course wasn't there. Then I pedaled (in my suit and no overcoat, mind you) through the rapidly cooling streets of Takefu to the international center, where they told me the contest was on the top floor of a nearby shopping center (at four floors one of our local skyscrapers), in a suite with exactly the same name as the place near me.

       I listened through the junior high school students and adults speaking in English, then waited my turn among the ten foreigners. As mine approached, I actually found myself physically nervous. I hadn't expected this--public speaking has never bothered me. I suppose public speaking in a language you're not good at makes it much more threatening. I tried to tell myself there was no need to be nervous--I had a decent speech and could spit it out reasonably well. After listening to the first speaker, who was years ahead of me in the language, I realized I wasn't in the running for an award, so there wasn't any pressure to win, either. I worried slightly because after each speech the speaker was asked a couple of questions in Japanese, and the first speaker got questions I couldn't understand. I assumed they'd hear that my language was at a different level and would toss me some softballs. While the speaker before me spoke, I ended up mopping my brow and taking the shine off my nose and cheeks several times with the handkerchief I'd brought as a prop for my speech. I got up, skipped half a sentence in the first paragraph of my speech, stopped and corrected myself a couple of times where my errors made it hard to understand me and let a few errors that didn't affect understanding go--all errors I hadn't been making in practice all morning. But people laughed at my jokes, and I was bold enough to charge ahead with exaggerated tones and broad gestures (the broadest being an imitation of students cleaning the floor with their butts sticking up). After I finished, though, I became so nervous my hands started to shake, audibly rattling the papers in them. I made a face to pretend I was doing it for effect and raced back to a seat--any seat. As I sat, I realized I'd been supposed to leave from the other side of the stage and answer a question, and that the MC had chased me halfway across the room and unable to stop me had given up--and by the time I realized this he was introducing the next speaker, so it was too late. Of course, they were softballing those of us whose skills weren't so advanced.

       Anyway, people liked the speech and flattered me, which is very Japanese, and I sought out the two junior high kids who I'd thought had given exceptional speeches and told them how well they'd done. One of them told her teacher how excited she was that a foreigner had complimented her speech, and he later thanked me for talking to her. If you're a foreigner here, it's easy to make an impression, I guess. The surreal finale is that I won first prize! Several speakers were clearly far more skilled in the language than I was, but they were dry as toast and failed to engage the audience (they didn't yell, make voices, and stick their butts out). I'm now the proud owner of a nice certificate, a plaque with a lot of shiny gold plastic and red velvet (it says something in Japanese!), and ¥2000 in phone cards. Completely amazing.

       So that's the big highlight. What else has taken up my time? The last time I wrote, I mentioned that I'd gone on two school ski trips. On the second one, I burned the hell out of my face (yes, it's far enough south that you can get a bad sunburn in February here, and the cold wind keeps you from feeling it until it's too late). It was easily the worst burn I'd ever had, and it kept me indoors during daylight for some time, but it's healed now. Kind of a shame because that day was the best I'd ever skied. My students, especially my elementary school kids, thought my red face was very funny (it was bad enough that I had to leave my main elementary school early the next day and go to the doctor because I had a fever and the skin of my nose, which wouldn't stop seeping, seemed in danger of becoming horribly infected).

      Another highlight a week later was my first visit with the 1st through 3rd graders at my second elementary school (the one I go to only three times a year). One little girl who attached herself to me and wouldn't let go--and was very curious about me and about English and was a very quick learner--came very close to getting herself adopted; she was irresistibly cute. Another boy just about waist high also spent a lot of the day physically attached to me, and he was pretty cute, too. I love these kids. I visited the 4th through 6th graders I'd taught before (the ones with excessive anatomical interest) and I really got the impression they were making fun of me in an unfriendly and aggressive way, but when I began to leave the room they were playing in at recess they swarmed around me and started to ask me all sorts of questions, and it became clear they actually did like me, and I just had not understood their way of playing. I felt much better--one wants to be liked, and really in my position here it would be difficult to NOT be liked by the elementary school kids.

      I've been worrying a bit about one of the junior high students who really likes me, one of my regular letter writers. She's a sweet kid, but she's a genuinely and deeply unhappy adolescent. Because she sometimes doesn't even try to smile (acting cheerful is considered a measure of maturity and is actually considered a moral characteristic, and learning to fit in is the whole point of childhood here), the teachers don't really know what to do with her or how to help her. Obviously, they know how much better than I do, but because I have some rapport with her I at least want to give her the moral support of knowing that she is likeable and does have a friend. There isn't the kind of support for teachers--counselors and the like--that we have back home, but my supervisor, her homeroom teacher, and I can get together and discuss possible approaches. Obviously, this can be a tricky situation, but you can't just sit back and do nothing. Worse, she reminds me of my own situation 20 or so years ago. I really like this kid and I'd like to see her happy.

       Other random notes: the padding on the inside of the roof finally decided to detach itself from my beloved "car," leaving it a bit louder and colder than before, and sometimes the emergency brake doesn't want to release in the morning, but since I can't afford to get it fixed, I've just stopped using it. Gives life sort of an Appalachian feel. I've been talking to kids and reading in their journals about their class trip to Tokyo last year, and it's clear that Tokyo is much more alien to them than it is to me. God, this is the boonies. I'm starting to feel a bit sad because the third years will be graduating in a month, and I've really come to like a lot of them--they can speak a lot more than the younger kids and some of them are very outgoing and funny around me. Pretty soon, just about everybody should know what high school they got into, and exam hell (since September) will be over for them until the third year of high school. We've been giving them a lot more room to express their creativity lately, and the results have really impressed and entertained me. I've found that if you ask them to choose some topic for self-expression, they will always choose some dreadful "important" or, even worse, "uplifting" thing that they've been told to care about but really don't have any ideas about, so I always use completely absurd examples--girls wearing very high shoes as a major problem facing Japanese society, etc.--so that they feel more free to choose something they find interesting or at least funny. They put more into it and they get excited about using English to say something that they really WANT to say. The stuff in the books here is dreadful. The kids who do care about pollution, helping the third world, etc., all put out much more intelligent ideas and thoughtful analysis than the books. One thing I didn't like about helping kids prepare for high school interviews was that I had to make them do the kinds of stupid dull things that really come up in the interviews, but to exercise their minds a bit and wake them up, I'd ask things like, "if your pet were a teacher at Manyo, who would it be?" I invariably get more intelligent responses to that sort of thing. For the dreary stuff, the books have already taught them exactly what to say and how to think.

       Oh, yes. In the last two months or so I've been noticing this one really funny girl at Go-chu more than before. If I had to describe her personality in American terms, I'd say she was "off her meds." She's always buzzing around the classroom when students are working out of their seats. In group work, she'll hover from group to group, sometimes falling like a sack of flour on some other girls with a dramatic sigh, until some girl picks her up and guides her by the shoulders to her own group and drops her there, where she falls on some other girl. It's like she's got five times too much energy. She'll always be doing some other girl's hair (whether the other girl wants it or not) or just generally moving around playfully annoying the other kids. Sometimes she'll just walk up and smack some boy again and again until he smacks her back (I asked her about this once and she said she just enjoys hitting boys). I wouldn't diagnose her with anything--her attention span is fine; if anything, I'd say she's far ahead of the rest of the class in intelligence. She figures out a lesson right away, finishes it while we're still explaining it to the others, then needs to find some way to spend her tremendous energy. I only recently found out her English is fantastic--she doesn't want to speak in front of me, the teacher tells me, because she wants to be perfect, but now that I know and I know that she understands me, I pull her out a lot more. She's the one kid who is funny 100% of the time--you could just tape her at any time and put it on TV and you'd have a hit. The teacher and I were laughing about this, and she mentioned that during the last lesson she was making some sort of silly animal noise--a quiet "quooo, quooo"--the whole time, assuming it was just some form of energy spillover. The next class, when the teacher wasn't there, I found that those were her lines in a play her group was putting together--she plays a rabbit. Normally, I'd insist students take speaking parts, but since I know how good her English is and since I suspect she did a lot of the work of actually writing the script, and because I thought she'd be a very funny rabbit, I didn't make them change the play. (Yes, I do largely structure lessons for my own amusement.) On the ski trip for her school, I rode up with her mother and some other parents, and I said, "Oh, yes. I know your daughter. Great kid. Very lively." At which the other parents started to laugh and say I had the right kid--part of the joke seemed to be that "lively" is a dramatic understatement. I also told her she had her daughter's voice, which she did, but that didn't seem to go over as well. I later found out that the mom also speaks great English, but she was too shy to try to say much to me in English.

       So, yes, I'm still here. Things are going well. I just haven't had too much time to write lately, but I haven't given up. I hope all is well back in the real world.

O Genki De,


Oh, yes--the speech (English version--Japanese available upon request; explanatory notes in brackets []):

I have a good job. I'm a junior high school assistant English teacher. I go to school, and teenagers giggle at me. It's fun. It's different from American junior high school, so Japanese junior high school is very interesting
["for me" is implied in the Japanese].

In America, when I enter the school, I don't take my shoes off. Many students ignore me. In Japan, every student says "Goodo Morning, Petah-sensei." They get excited. First years shout "Oh! Petah!" from far away. Second and third years make English jokes and ask friendly questions. Sometimes, I feel like a celebrity.

I like Japanese teenagers. They smile, so I think they are friendly. In America, teenagers never smile. They think smiling is uncool. From the ages of 9 to 17, my nephew did not smile. very Strange, don't you think?
[Apologies to my real nephews--I made this up.]

American schools are very different from Japanese schools. In America, there is no morning meeting. Every day, after drinking my coffee, I go to the classroom. When the bell rings, I begin teaching. In Japan, it's just like the army! "At ease! Attention! Good morning, Petah-sensei."
[Japanese all recognize this. When class begins, the class leader crisply calls students to attention and leads them in greeting the teacher. In some classes, they bow to the teacher. I shouted this quite loudly and snapped to attention myself as I did.]

In Japan, junior high school life is very difficult, I tell you. In America, a janitor cleans the school. Students leave at 2:30. Here, students and teachers clean the school. Students, when they clean the floor, stick their bottoms up in the air.
[I mime cleaning the floor with my butt in the air.] I think it's very funny. In Japan, students stay at school until 6:00, and after that th ey go to cram school! It's hard. Junior high school life in Japan is like military life in America. [I couldn't find the word for "boot camp."]

Also, Japanese teachers are different from American teachers. Japanese teachers think, "the principal is God." Until I had been going to junior high school for four months, I didn't know the prinicipal's name.
[this is true--he's always addressed by title, "kocho-sensei." The following plays on the fact that other teachers are addressed as "last name--sensei." "Tetsuo" and "Masahiro" are common male first names.] I thought his last name was probably "Kocho," that his name was Tetsuo Kocho or Masahiro Kocho. In America, teachers address the principal by first name: "Good morning, Bob."

For me, compared to America, Japan is a little weird, but I'm very happy in Japan. Students and teachers and the PTA have been very friendly. Fukui people are great.

Thank you very much. Formulaic politeness.


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