Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Why being an ALT is the best job ever.

In the women's break room at Hirasawa elementary school, there is a couch. I've never seen anybody use it before and I never imagined myself using it considering it's well-worn and old appearance. Yesterday after my last class, I sat down on that couch for the first time and cried.

As I mentioned before, students run through and practice their graduation ceremonies hard well in advance of the real thing. Yesterday, my elementary school students had practice when I'm usually teaching my first 6th grade class. During the next hour when I'd normally be teaching the second 6th grade class, they had a combined class of both groups and instead of in the music room they had it up on the third floor in the combined space between their classrooms.

I thought I heard something about a 感謝会 (kanshakai- "Thank-You Meeting") last week so I thought maybe we'd have a class and then a few of the students would say something nice at the end.
But when one of the teachers asked me to wait by the entrance of the classroom and one student announced in front of the class, "We will now begin the Thank-you meeting for Tierra-sensei," I realized it was going to be a bit more than that. They all stood up in four rows facing each other and applauded as a student lead me through them and to a seat in front of the class.

First, we played a fun Rock, Paper, Scissors game (in English). Everybody found someone to do Rock, Paper, Scissors with and if they lost, they had to go behind the winner and place their hands on the winner's shoulders and subsequently follow them around. The leader of these chains of people went around doing Rock, Paper, Scissors with each other. As we played, the snake became longer and longer until there were two very long chains of people trying not to run into each other or themselves. The winner between the last two "snakes" won.

After our exciting little game, we all sat back down. A few students then lined up to give me hand-made cards and make a nice speech to me. The announcer then said they would now give me a present and joined the rest of the students. As I wondered what it could possibly be, they stood up straight and focused their attention on one of the 6th grade teachers who turned on a boom box and took her place in front of the class and raised her hands. At that moment I remembered that she is also the school's music teacher.

The first note from the mouths of over 65 students hit me like a tidal wave. It wasn't the sound of tired children fulfilling an obligation. It was the sound of students putting everything they have into something beautiful and full of meaning. As I gazed over them, they stood tall and didn't lose their focus. These students, some of whom barely uttered a word in class, sang with purpose and confidence.

Once the last note died away, the announcer said they would now hear a few words from me. Usually when prompted to say anything in Japanese on short notice I find it a bit difficult to come up with the right words and say what I mean. But in that moment, standing before those upturned, hopeful faces- faces that wanted nothing more than to hear what I have to say no matter how grammatically terrible it was, I found myself unafraid and unworried. There they were having sang with their hearts and souls to me and mine unashamedly exposed in turn being close to tears. In that moment, words didn't matter anymore. The communication was already done and it didn't matter which words I used to represent them.

So I expressed how I was so moved I didn't have words. I said even though I couldn't understand all the words, I think I understood the message. I told them that even though the year had been short,  I was glad I was able to teach English and play games with them. I said let's continue to enjoy English from now on and with one, loud, unified voice, they replied "Hai!" like the would to any Japanese teacher for whom they held respect and I said thank you.

The announcer then said they would be concluding the Thank-you Meeting. The students stood and formed the lines facing each other again, but this time they also raised their hands towards each other. The same student who guided me in lead me through them and to the classroom entrance.

After I reached the second floor, I went to the break room and let it out. I couldn't even look inside the cards in my hands yet. When I finally composed myself and sat down at my desk, I opened them.
One sentence that stuck out in my mind was, 「ぼくはこの外国語活動で感じたり気付いたりした事は日本人と外国人は言葉が通じなかったら、ジェスチャーで言いたい事を表現している事です。」
"One thing I felt and noticed through foreign language activities is if words between Japanese people and foreignors don't make sense, we express what we want to say with gestures." Having been able to convey something so important that can't be learned through tests and grades makes me feel like I've accomplished what I've been sent here to do. I feel like if I had to go back to the US tomorrow, coming here would have still been worth it with all I've accomplished so far.

They say that Japanese people don't express their innermost thoughts and emotions to people very often. Because of this, many foreignors and ALTs often feel left out or underappreciated. Sometimes it can even lead to frustration. Us Westerners are raised in a culture that requires constant validation and praise. We say "I love you" at the end of every parting and phone call to those we love and to not do so means that something must be wrong with the relationship. To not be praised for doing something well must mean you did it wrong or they don't appreciate the work you did.

To ALTs and indeed other foreignors in any workplace in Japan, I want to say that just because they don't say anything doesn't mean they don't appreciate you. If you pay attention, you can see it in other small ways. The way your JTEs smile and say thank you when you turn in that pile of tests you graded or they ask you a random question about you during class when the students are working or when they come to you for advice or help on an English problem. The fact that they came to you at all means you are fulfilling an important role. Don't worry, every once in a while, you'll get a special moment and believe me, when Japanese people do choose to express their true feelings, they do it sincerely and with the same level of care and thought they put into everything else.

So whenever you get that cog-in-the-machine feeling, don't focus on the fact that you are one (let's face it, most salaried people are), but the special and important role you fulfill to that machine. It doesn't need you to function, but it would be a certain amount of worse off without you. Think about the cards you got from your students or the song they sang to you or even the last time you saw a "Eureka!" moment on a students face when you helped them with a problem. Maybe a laugh, however small, you shared with a student or co-worker. If you hit a dry spell between these moments, reach into your pool of memories make them live again and remember they won't be the last.

Our time here is limited, but the impact you have on the community and the legacy you leave behind for the next lucky person to sit at that desk will be timeless. One of my friends from Tokyo is in the middle of her undergraduate studies and said she remembers her ALT from grade-school. The teachers and other citizens here recall my predecessors fondly and remember things like their favorite restaurant or what sports they did. I have found materials written by predecessors from several years back.

We are all appreciated and we will be remembered.

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