To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: My day

Good morning, Western world,

      Well, it's morning as I write this, anyway, though it will be evening when this goes out. I'm sitting at my desk looking out the window on a rare sunny morning in December. I'm convinced there's some sort of unadvertised rainy season here--more than half the time since late October, it's been raining.
      On the way in, I laughed, as always, at the high school girls walking to school. They're supposed to wear mid-calf length (no higher) white socks and uniform skirts with a modest hemline. The fashion now is for huge loose socks that look like they'd reach the neck if pulled up, but all bunched around the ankles (these are called, I kid you not, "rusu sokusu," which is "loose socks" with a Japanese accent), and as with schoolgirls everywhere for hemlines pulled or rolled up as high as possible. They are allowed to wear their uniform gym pants under or in place of the skirt (it isn't warm here in winter), but none do. Ever. Anyway, with the skinny brown legs and big fluffy white ankles, they look like clydesdales. They think they're just so chic, and every time I see them I'm laughing and hearing the old Budweiser jingle bells song in my head. I even refer to them in speech as clydesdales, and it's catching on among the JETs (as in, "I almost ran down a girl on my way to school. Clydesdale rode right out in front of me--didn't even look").
      When I came in today, I changed into my indoor shoes at the teachers' entrance, then said "good morning" in English to every student I ran into, asking small questions of the second and third years, trying to talk to students who don't speak to me regularly. With the one first year I ran into, I asked a simple question in English but then asked it again in Japanese. The first years don't know much English yet. Whenever I ran into a teacher, I said "good morning" in Japanese. As I entered the teachers' room and moved to my desk, I said "good morning" every three feet or so so as not to miss anyone or any small knot of people. It's how things are done.
      Not this morning, but many times there will be a traditional sweet or cracker sitting on my desk when I come in. Whenever anyone goes anywhere or whenever anyone has missed a day of work, the custom is to give each of your coworkers a small gift, ideally from wherever you went. Gifts also come in from parents, people who've visited the school recently, and the PTA. There's about a 50/50 chance that someone will give me something before I leave tonight.
      After this, we went through another of life's little rituals: morning meeting. As the 8:30 bell rings, all the teachers and the principal stand up, the teacher appointed to be bureaucratic drudge for the day announces the date and then intones "Ohayo Gozaimasu" ("Good morning"). Then everyone bows as we repeat this, the teachers toward the principal and he toward us. Some ALTs are convinced we are bowing to him, and I'm not entirely sure (this is one of those things on which you get n + 1 explanations, where n = the number of Japanese you ask), but I think it's more of a collective greeting to the group. Then the MC announces the kocho-sensei (principal), who says "good morning" and bows to us (then we say the same and bow to him) and gives a short speech. Then the MC turns it over to the kyoto-sensei (vice principal), who gives a longer speech, most likely any special business of the day, generally punctuated by a few jokes. Then, by turns, the MC asks for comments from the first, second, and third year teachers; every day, a different teacher is appointed to speak for each group. After the group remarks for each group (these are arbitrary; they all teach students in all three years), teachers with something to add on their own speak up. Generally, the lead teacher of the third year group, who is the gym teacher, speaks for a long time in a low mumble. I have no idea what the hell all these people find to say every single morning; I assume it's mostly pro forma, with a wee bit of news thrown in on occasion. This demonstrates for me daily the primacy of form over content here. I asked a teacher who's a good friend, and he said he doesn't know because he never pays attention. Indeed, a quick check around the office on any given morning will show that the only attentive looking teacher is the one who can't understand Japanese.
      After meeting, a couple of students came in to talk to teachers; they say "shitsurei shimasu" ("I'm going to commit a rudeness") as they enter and "shitsurei shimashita" ("I've committed a rudeness") as they leave. Occasionally, one will come in a few minutes after a class period begins to remind my supervisor that, gee, she does have a class right now (they also sometimes call her from the phone in the classroom). Given that I missed more than half of a class last week because my mental clock was off by an hour and I was out getting lunch, I can't make too much fun of her for this.
      A teacher near me has just received a phone call; she is actually bowing to the telephone as she intones the polite respectful formulas that make up a large part of conversation here. Fellow JETs tell me this sets in after about year here--I'll be doing it too.
      Today, we had cleaning time in the morning instead of the afternoon because a TV crew is coming this afternoon, and the school must look good. A visitor just came in, and each of us said "good morning" to him three or four times with a lot of nodding (the sitting form of the bow) and smiling. Must be someone important. I supervised my little crew, especially pushing a group of lazy boys so the two girls would not do all the work. After cleaning, they lined up and waited for me to dismiss them with "thanks for your hard work" at the right level of politeness for a teacher addressing students, but as always I dismissed them in colloquial English: "Good job, everybody. Thanks. See you." My favorite cleaning moment lately is from last week, when Yamada-sensei came out and instructed the kids to climb up on the decorative statuary (granite slabs) and wack a couple of trees with their brooms to knock down the last of their leaves.
      I've talked to everyone I'm teaching with today and tomorrow and done my preparations, so I'm goofing off for the rest of the day, except when I'm actually teaching. When the bell rings for my first class, the students will stand at loose attention, one will say, "Good morning, Mrs. Yamada and Peter-sensei," and then the class will repeat this together. Mrs. Yamada and I will say good morning, ask the class how they are (they thunder back "I'm (sleepy/cold/fine/tired/etc). And you?"), and then maybe ask a few questions about the time, the date, and the weather before letting them sit down. After class, they will all stand up and say either "Goodbye, Mrs. Yamada and Peter-sensei" or, more usually, "Thank you, Mrs. Yamada and Peter-sensei." With one of my teachers, the class stands, and the student leader first yells sharply, in Japanese, "At ease! Attention!" and the class snaps to before he gives the greeting for them to repeat. It took me a while to break the classes of saying "Mr. Peter" ("Rivard" is hopeless) or translating literally into "Peter-teacher." Some just call me "Peter," which I encourage. Around school, the kids will address me as "Peter-sensei," "Peter," or just "Sensei." At my other school, one of the first years occasionally gets confused and after "attention" yells out "bow." We're all so conditioned--me included, even after only five months--that we do it with confused looks on our faces before we start laughing. It made me want to just start shouting out "one time, bow" (the usual formula) at random moments near big crowds because I know they'll do it before they start to wonder who the hell I am and why I'm telling them to bow. Turns out other JETs have had the same fantasy.
      Between classes, I'll walk around the school to stretch my legs and chat with students. Maybe during a class when I'm not teaching I'll walk up to a balcony on the third floor that has a great view of the mountains; maybe I'll take one of my very rare and slightly illicit off-campus strolls to climb a nearby small hill with a new shrine at the top. At lunch, I'm going to hang with the girls in the AV club, our appointed DJs for the lunch period, because they've agreed to play a request or two for me today. I'm leaning toward Iggy Pop, but Siouxsie and the Banshees still have an outside chance, maybe with a Sarah McLaughlin chaser if the girls seem put off by the hardness of the first course.
      After school, I'll go around bothering the kids doing club activities, as I've described before.
      Just finished lunch with the DJs. Gave them some of my Nutella (their first questions: "Can I buy this in Japan? Where?"). Talked about music, played 3 of my requests: B-52s, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Queen (found out that, yes, everybody under 50 in the entire world knows "Bohemian Rhapsody"). In my second class (first years, cute but not much English), we watched the first part of Titanic. I remember thinking, "she doesn't get topless in the first 40 minutes, does she?" I entertained myself by asking boys if they thought Kate Winslet was cute and girls about Leonardo (there's a big cult of DiCaprio here). One girl said no, so I asked her if she thought Billy Zane (the evil fiance) was cute (she doesn't). In my last class, we watched the second half of Beauty and the Beast. I just assumed there was no nudity. Also first years--they seemed spellbound. I'd swear the boy in front of me cried as the beast lay dying.
      The semester has wound down but doesn't end until Friday, so we're just marking time. There is no school until January 9, but the students have to come in every day for club activities and sports practice (same with summer and spring vacations--they just don't understand the word "vacation" the way we do). The other teachers do, too, but I don't. Well, officially I do, but really I don't. They've already told me not to.
      Oh, and the last loose end: the total of today's bounty was two pocket packs of kleenex from some lady leaving them with sheets of ads on everyone's desk. No candy, no crackers. In Japan, businesses give you free kleenex all the time--they send people to leave it on my desk, in my mailbox, and hand it to me as I walk out of a store or down the street. Further bounty as I write: the secretary just came around with a tray of sweets; I've chosen a nice looking slice of tea cake.
      So, that's it for now. Classes are over and kids all over school are waiting to be bothered. Maybe today I'll watch the baseball team practice outside in the dark (they don't turn the lights on on the field for practice).

O genki de



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