Monday, 4 March 2013

Confronting my discomfort with small children

It's 8 am, and I'm walking through the morning snow-shower with a battered issue of Aquaman cradled under my arm in a gigantic manila envelope. A Slavic-looking young woman in a wreathe of furs and a two-inch skirt is arguing with an Indian guy in heavily accented Japanese. The Kiyamachi mornings can be just as hilarious as the nights.

Herp derp, going to work!

I've always contended that everything you really want from the world, you have to go out and take, because nobody's going to give it to you. Actually though, this isn't always borne out in my real life. A little while ago, my Japanese Politics teacher held an end-of-semester party for everyone who'd been in the class, also inviting a couple of her personal friends. One happened to be an English teacher who was planning to be out of the country for a bit. Bang, part-time job.

As near as I could tell, it was basically a low-pressure juku. I had little to no interest in teaching English, and I had my reservations regarding children (for whom my loathing is matched only by old people and dogs), but I don't have the luxury of turning down a job. And anyway, it might be fun. Plus, if it turns out I absolutely hate teaching English or something, now would be an excellent opportunity to find that out – rather than, say, after signing a one-year contract.

For a harrowing moment it looked as though I would be inexcusably late, but some A-level train tangling puts me at my destination a solid ten minutes ahead of schedule. Instead, it's my co-teacher-to-be who's late; I wondered if a guy standing near me, also clearly waiting for somebody, is the man in question, but reminded myself that there couldn't be too many young white guys roaming around the asshole of Oosaka on a Saturday morning. Eventually I did get to meet the boss, or the “real” teacher as I can't help but think of him, a middle-aged, slightly weird guy who delivered us to the school by van.

I've taught a few lessons in the past, TA'ing Japanese in high school, and I've also spent years fielding grammar questions and tidying up essays. Obviously, this was a totally different game, due mainly to differences in level and format. Unsurprisingly (I remember being that age), the majority of the students' energy was spent trying to derail the lesson as frequently and as distantly as possible, and the real teacher humoured them to an almost alarming degree. Not only did he spend huge amounts of time speaking in Japanese on interesting but completely unrelated topics, he actually allowed them to address him in kougo. And not just familiar kougo, either, but explicitly rude kougo. It was a little jarring to see them get away with that, even knowing that they were mostly joking. I mean, I don't even let my kouhai get away with that shit, never mind little kids. Nobody tried it with me, which was wise of them.

I tried not to let on that I spoke any Japanese, because I figured that would kind of defeat the purpose. It was a lost cause, though, because they were all so hilarious I was left stifling laughter the whole morning; the smartest girl of the group figured out what was up right away, and I had to gently steer the discourse away from a Japanese explosion. My sudden monolingualism, however, also meant that I was frequently left with not much to do but sit on my cushion for minutes on end. I introduced myself and talked a little about Canada, ran through a couple of exercises, and provided pronunciation, but really, I'm tasked with incredibly little. It's actually kind of disconcerting; for being present in a room and occasionally speaking my native language, I made 7000 yen. What the hell? Isn't making money supposed to be hard? I shouldn't complain, but if “real” English teaching doesn't turn out to be more challenging, I don't think I'm cut out for it.

As for teaching children, I needn't have worried. Well, one kid delivered a detailed analysis of my apparently fascinating stubble, one tiny girl accidentally (?) called me her boyfriend, and another little boy tried to touch me inappropriately (triggering my co's single and only Serious Hat moment), but nothing worse than that. I'm sure elementary school teachers get all that and more on a daily basis. They're all so adorable and sweet, I barely wanted to vomit at all. In one hazy, distracted moment, I had actual visions of myself running into them, years later, and marveling at how they'd all grown up. Damn, maybe there's a teacher lurking inside me somewhere after all.


  1. Is "kougo" like regular or informal speech in Japanese? (I'm thinking of the equivalent (banmal) in Korean, and if you talked to a teacher in that, there'd be a goddamn reckoning at hand)

    And yeah, pretending to be monolingual in a language class is often a big part of it. If you let on how much you know, they'll often just use it as a crutch. But damn it can be hard not to laugh when you get all the jokes.

    1. Yeah, from what I understand of banmal it sounds similar - it's generally reserved for friends, family and so forth. So yeah, in an actual classroom in school that would...definitely not end well. At first I thought, damn, this guy's got no classroom control at all! But then I realised that maybe he just feels a casual and non-threatening environment is more conducive to the already stressful task of language-learning or something. We'll see.

      That's exactly what I was trying to avoid, yeah. But now I totally understand what INP means when she talks about her students being hilarious.