When I first started working for this company I was told that they hired teachers for Elementary, Junior High and High Schools and was asked which I preferred. I’d told them anything but an Elementary school was ok. I’d had my fill of toddlers and pre-teen kids during my tenure at Nova. So, naturally when I received my first assignment it was to cover not 1 not 2 but 5 elementary schools. Temporarily, they’d said, until there was an opening at a high school. My commute to these schools was a hell of a daily hike (2 trains and a bus) but I did it for a few months. Little did I know those rich spoiled brats I taught at Nova were atypical. The kids at my schools were so much fun that time just flew by and the best part: my work day would end sometimes as early as 12 noon…
Can’t beat that with a baseball bat.
When the High School opening came along I almost turned it down just to keep those lovely hours with the charming kids at the elementary schools. But the high school was 2 stations from my house and that pretty much mitigated any time disparities. I could sleep an extra hour every morning and, with my sleep schedule (I write best at night and often do so until the wee hours,) an hour is worth its weight in Bluefin tuna.
This High School was GREAT!
It wasn’t an international school; it was a public school, but there were many exchange students there from all over Asia, and most were English-speaking. And, there were many returnees and very high level Japanese English students. English class was held completely in English. I assigned and corrected essays written by students from Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, as well as Japan. The students didn’t even wear uniforms. They could dress however they liked, as could the teachers. And, the icing on this cake was I was invited to play basketball with the basketball club twice a week and we’d have actual full-on games!
The head of the Foreign Languages Department (They actually taught French, German and Chinese as well at this school) was a woman I will call Ono-Sensei (not her real name.) She was also an English teacher. She was sweet! She sat beside me and every day we shared a rapport I have seldom experienced in Japan. We loved films, especially those by Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers. She could even appreciate Charlie Kaufman. We REALLY hit it off.
I helped her plan lessons and together we executed the syllabus she had put together long before I had joined the staff. It was an agenda she’d created with the ALT before me, some bloke from England. The agenda actually included a trip to England with the students to spend some time in a High School somewhere north of Manchester. I wouldn’t be joining the class (phew!) because I had come there after the deadline for down payments. But, Ono couldn’t stop talking about how much she was looking forward to getting back to Jolly ole’ England. She’d apparently done a home-stay there when she was a young woman, some 30 years ago, and the impression was a lasting one, molding her into the professional she is now. However, despite having been exposed to English as a career for over 30 years, her English still was only at a level where she could communicate and be understood, nowhere in the vicinity of fluent and heavily accented with Japanese.
“That’s nice,” I’d find myself saying constantly. “Oh, you went to the Isle of Wight? Wow. That’s nice.” Her accent wasn’t British but she swore it was and I didn’t argue. (“Oh I can hear it a little…wait…yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear it.”)
Anyway, this went on for a few months. Then one day while we were teaching a class, and she was using me as a human CD Player (Just listen carefully to Loco-Sensei’s reading of the passage) we had an incident. One of the students, a Japanese one, a Returnee who had lived in England with her parents and had recently returned to Japan, asked me could I repeat a word because she couldn’t quite catch it.
“Sure, which word?”
“I don’t know. Actually there were a few words I couldn’t catch,” she said in Japanese to Ono-sensei.
Ono-sensei responded to the student and to the other students, in Japanese, “Loco-sensei’s accent is a little strange and not standard. He’s American and from New York so those of you accustomed to the proper English spoken by the previous ALT will have to endure. So sorry.”
She said this with smiles and nods to her students and me. I wasn’t nodding with her but she probably thought it was because I couldn’t understand a word she was saying as opposed to my catching every other word and not appreciating what I heard at all. At the time, my speaking level of Japanese was very low and since I never had to use it at the school- because enough people spoke English- it wasn’t likely to improve while I was working there. So Ono assumed I didn’t understand Japanese at all.
“I beg your pardon,” I said, in front of the class, in English. Ono looked at my face, searching for the smile I usually wore effortlessly, the one that wasn’t there anymore. It had been replaced by dismay and a little shock. Maybe even a little of my temper spiked to the surface. Her unprofessionalism was off the charts in my book. “Did you say my English was not as good as the previous ALT’s? Maybe I misunderstood you…”
“Well, it’s your accent, the students are having trouble with…I’m so sorry!”
She was turning a deep shade of red at being busted and I had to remember that I was not the boss in this room so I quickly tried to cease hostilities and return to my role of underling.
“Oh, kochira koso, it’s my fault…” I said. “I’ll try to speak more standard English if you like.” Then, I started choking on those words and sarcastically added, “I’ve watched a lot of Monty Python and listened to a lot of Beatles songs in my days. I’m sure I can can tidy up my pronunciation for you guys.”
She was still in shock at my having comprehended what she’d said, knowing good and damn well she shouldn’t have said anything even vaguely like she’d said. But, I’d let it go and did my rendition of “My fair Loco.” The students enjoyed my Eliza Doolittle gutter cockney accent as well as my Hugh Grant Queen’s English impersonation which I used for the remainder of the lessons. I patted myself on the back for skillfully cleaning up the tension with humor.
Later in the office she apologized profusely. Even Moshi Wake Gozaimasen-ing (strongest I’m sorry) me. Of course, I accepted it.
“I’m sorry I got upset, ” I said.
“Oh no, no it’s all my fault!”
“But, I think more people in the world are exposed to the accents used in America than in England, either through music, film, television, books or magazines, so if any English is the standard it’s probably spoken in America. You don’t think so?
“You’re right, I think.”
“Not that I agree that there is a standard English, but I think there was a time when the Queen’s English was considered the standard. I think today, however, that’s just not…realistic.”
“Ummmm” she replied, nodding, and from that day until the end of the year, our relationship had one added element: mutual respect.
That is, until I heard the result of the questionnaire about ALT quality sent to Japanese teachers to fill out and return to my company. Mine stated that one of the teachers at the school, no names of course, felt that I was not a good fit for their school. That I did not live up to the standard of English excellence the school had built its reputation on and that person was afraid I would tarnish it somehow. I was not welcomed to return there the following semester.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when this information was forwarded to me from my company. They’d put it to me as gently as possible, as to spare my ego and added that “sometimes these things happen without the ALT having a clue what was going to go down. That’s how it is here. We’ll find you another spot, don’t worry. You’re still in good standing with us.”
And that’s how I came to be at my current Junior High School, sitting before Yoshida -sensei, deciding how to put what I wanted to say to her. I had learned a very valuable lesson with Ono-sensei. How shall I apply what I’d learned then now?
“Yes, what would you like to talk about, Loco-sensei?” she asked, her smile shaking in her face.
to be continued…