Chasing Cherry Blossoms
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Friday, September 2, 2011

Autumn Term Days #1 + 2: “wait, is this a school or a military camp?”

What do Angelina Jolie, eggs, Harry Potter, Dragonball Z and cutting people have in common? You're gonna have to read this post to find out...
Pinch, punch, first day of the month – and, with it, my first day of teaching! (Yeah I know, I forgot I was here to actually work too...) With the exception of my two-week stint in Matsuyama, I’ve been at work at Johen Junior High every day since I’ve been here, but up until now “work” has just consisted of sitting at my desk in the teachers’ office churning out lesson ideas which will probably never get used. Well, now that the summer holidays are over, things are getting a little more exciting...!
To start with this morning, there was “cleaning time” at school. This is something which just wouldn’t happen in England. There I was, sitting at my desk, when suddenly a chirpy 80s-gameshow-style theme tune was blasted throughout the school. I thought it was just another hilarious Japanese quirk (like the similarly odd fanfare played to welcome in trains as they arrive at the station), but to everyone else – teachers and students alike – it was the cue to grab a mop and sponge and clean everything in sight! Hilarious. Obviously I wasn’t just going to be The Useless Gaijin sitting there doing nothing, so I hopped up out my desk, grabbed my own cleaning gear and got my cleaning on!

                                                                I have no idea.
With every inch of the school now sparkling (except the few windows which were designated as my area...), the kids lined the pristine corridors and I was paraded to the hall. Walking past hundreds of giggling, waving students, the odd one daring a “Hello!” or “Good morning!”, I felt like some sort of celebrity...something like Britney in the “Everytime” video (yes I did just make that reference): luckily for me, I didn’t get whacked on the head with a camera, bleed to death in the bath and be reincarnated as a baby. (Except in the PG version where I’d, in fact, wake up in the bath at the end, lolling away). Instead, I was lead to the school hall where, once all 200+ students had piled in, I was taken up on stage to give my introductory speech (in Japanese) to the whole school. Knowing how nice all the kids are, and having already given this exact same speech approximately twenty times, I wasn’t really that nervous: I just didn’t want to screw it up by doing something characteristically stupid like fall over or forget to turn the microphone on. Luckily it all went swimmingly and I descended the stage to a thunderous applause. Score.

                                                 Luckily, I managed to avoid this fate.

Next, it was off to class for my first shot at teaching. My first two lessons were a pretty nice way of easing me into life as an ALT at Johen: simply me introducing myself and my home country to the students with a bunch of photographs and a “How well do you know Jim-sensei quiz?”.  The kids were all super genki and up-for-a-laugh. At the end, when it was time for them to ask me questions, I got some pretty interesting results. First, there was the obvious “Do you have a girlfriend?” (JOOOKES), then the slightly more intense, “Are you married?” (LOL), and finally the downright weird, “What is your favourite egg food?”.  I also got asked to “explain” English tea (whatever that means), whether I’d ever met any of the cast of Harry Potter and whether I “like” Angelina Jolie. Dubious. Obviously there’s the odd kid who’s too cool for school, but when you walk into another class to a spontaneous round of applause and find yourself performing a kamehameha from Dragonball Z at the front of the class with a kid, I’d say that makes it all worth it! (The answer should be obvious by now!)

Class over, it was time for lunch. Now, if the choice were between giving a speech in front of 200+ students or eating a plate full of fish, I’d choose the former every time. Needless to say, you can probably guess what I was served up for my first school lunch. Yep. A plate full of fish. It wouldn’t be so bad if the Japanese custom at school wasn’t to clear your ENTIRE PLATE. The kids are expected to eat every scrap, so the teachers are meant to lead by example and do the same. This meant that I couldn’t realistically leave the table until every last fish flake was gone. Great. Lunchtime will from here-on-in by the bane of my day. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the kid who inexplicably comes up to you whilst you’re cleaning your dinner plate, roars in your face and casually strolls off. Hahahaha. Oh dear, this is going to be interesting...

Having somehow cleared my lunch plate (and, even more surprisingly, somehow managed to keep it all down), and survived my first encounter with The Roarer, I was treated to an experience unlike any other I’ve seen before: watching the kids prepare for Sports Day. At home, Sports Day was never really that big a deal – I just liked it because it meant we got the afternoon off (since obviously I was never involved in actually competing haha). All I can say about Sports Day here is that if any of the schools down the road are looking to start a war with Johen, they should probably back off. The preparations were literally carried out like the kids were at an army training camp. Military-style music blast out through the school speakers whilst all the kids marched on the spot and completed their drills like soldiers. Not a foot out of line. It was so surreal seeing all 200+ kids stand to attention and march so uniformly. At school. One of the teachers told me not to worry, since the Japanese Constitution prevents the formation of private armies. The fact he had to say that is reason to worry in itself. Of course, that ignores the fact that it's all just fucking hilarious. Taking it all in, I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that Johen is the school of the second-best kendo competitor in the whole of Japan. Bitches be crazy.

Restricted in the pictures I can take at school, I trawled Google Image for something representative of Johen Sports Day prep. This is the outcome.

For all the seriousness of the practice for the opening ceremony, the actual "sports" the kids take part in are like something from a kids version of Takeshi's Castle. My favourite was "Catch and Release": two kids strap washing-up baskets to their backs whilst another puts a football on a plank of wood; the last kid then stamps on the plank to launch the ball into the air, leaving the other two to scurry around trying to catch it in the basket on their back. Genius.
So that’s it: my first Big Day at work complete! It’s nice just to finally get the ball rolling! In other news, there’s a typhoon set to hit Ehime this weekend so the forecast is looking roughhhhh. As long as it doesn’t interfere with me getting internet, I’m not worried!

Okay, after my second day at Johen, there’s unquestionably a new winner of the weirdest (and most downright-fucked-up) question. It started pretty innocuous (but still pretty weird): “Jim-sensei, what’s your favourite sound?” ...strange, but nothing to worry about. It was what came next that was really golden. “Mine’s the sound of cutting people”. Literally, WHAT? Cutting. People. Wow. Luckily it wasn’t followed up by a “Where do you live?” like I’ve been asked in other classes. Either way, someone remind me never to give that kid a bad mark. there you have it, they're all things that my students asked me about within my first two days of being at Johen. Who says kids lack imagination?
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