Wednesday, February 27, 2008

2/29/08 The School Year's Dusk Approaches

Its been painfully gusty the past week or so. My daily bicycle commute is sort of like trying to row a sailboat against the wind.

The school year is starting to die down, with classes finishing up mid-March. For the 3 graders, though, classes are going to be finished next week, maybe on Tuesday. For me, that means I am teaching lots of "last classes". I am often supposed to give some closing comments to the students. I've mostly been telling them that I appreciated our time together, and giving them some hints for developing their English abilities in the future. I feel a bit guilty, as I don't really feel sad in the slightest. I only see each class once a week, and I still don't know most of their names. I feel like I have a good relationship with the students, but its usually at a pretty non-personal level, I think. We have fun, learn some grammar, I try to make them laugh, but after 50 or so minutes class is over and I move on to the next group.

I felt bad then. Yesterday, though, was much, much worse. I was saying my last goodbye at the end of yet another lesson, but this one was different. A couple of the students came to the front of the class and gave me some flowers and a card. I was really surprised and I thought it was very kind of them. I thanked them and put a little extra feeling into my last comments. Back, at my desk, I read the card. Inside was a fairly long, handwritten note. The student wrote their name at the bottom, but I couldn't tell you which one of those kids it was. I'm a terrible person.

The flowers never would have made it through the bike ride home, so they are currently sprucing up my desk.

Monday the students put on a ceremony for the third graders. It was much more showy than the usual long speech ridden assemblies. Curtains were pulled over every one of the windows to set the mood, and chairs were brought in: every other event I've been to, everyone just sits on the floor. In addition, the kids all had their fancy uniforms on.

I think the school uniforms deserve a bit of explanation. On usual days, the kids all wear these little tracksuits with stripes up the sides. There are three colors: gray, dark blue, and light blue, one for each grade. The colors follow a student, so the dark blue that the third graders are wearing now will soon roll back to the new first graders. A detail that I find a bit militaristic is the names. A student's last name is embroidered onto the front of their track shirt. And the front of their pants. And the backs of their shoes, as well as the front of the T-shirts that they wear under the heavier clothes. Sure, no one's clothes get lost, but what does is the sense that they are children, not soldiers or one big football team.

This ceremony was important, though, so everyone was wearing their dress uniforms. The clothes that the boys wear are particularly question-raising. "Japan's school system, established in the 1880's, took as its model the Prussian system, complete (for the boys) with black military uniforms with high collars and brass buttons. Today, even though the boys have dyed hair and wear earrings, they must continue to wear these uniforms" writes Alex Kerr, author of Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan (amazon). Wow. Say what you will, but the Japanese can keep a tradition alive like no people I have yet encountered.

Every day I walk by this painting hung beside the doorway that teachers and visitors use. Its Manet's Le Fifre, painted in 1866. I've checked it out once or twice, but I couldn't determine the significance. "Why the heck is this here?" I wondered. After reading about the uniforms, it hit me. The coat that this child soldier is wearing is just about identical to the ones in use at my school in the present day.

In case you've forgotten about the things I am daily forced to eat for lunch here, I present a reminder. Ahem, the menu today is a bowl full of noodles, with chunks of tofu and tiny bits of a meat. Half a kiwi and a tin of rice comprise the safe portion of the meal. For the main course, formless lump on a stick. My teacher said it was made of ground up fish meat and bones. Wow. "Hey, I'll trade you my fish lump for your kiwi." The cool thing was the milk. That little brown tube has chocolate stuff inside. You simply poke the sharp part through the hole in the milk box and squeeze to make chocolate milk. Delicious, but not a strong enough taste to wash out fish lump, unfortunately.

And now for something completely unrelated. Star Wars according to a 3 year old. Enjoy.

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