Interactive Bring It On
Today was Interactive Forum, a contest where kids from around the local area schools compete in small discussion groups speaking in English. Three eighth graders and three ninth graders from each local school come together, and in groups of four have three different conversations. The first one is a free talk. The second one they had to talk about friends. The third discussion was about their school life. At the end of round one, the two best speakers are taken from their group and moved to the second round. The ones who lose move into a category where they can try to get back into the second round. From the second round the winners then move into one big group for a final round, from which the two best speakers are chosen to go on to the regional tournament. After that, they winners move on to the prefecture tournament, and I suppose after that there is probably an All Japan tournament as well.
I was one of two judges for the local tournament. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, too. To see all these kids coming from different schools, doing practice warmup discussions beforehand, practicing their pronunciation and grammar, trying their best to speak another language--well frankly I've never seen anything like it. In the U.S. we don't really place any importance on speaking foreign languages. We're complacent in that aspect of our culture to speak nothing but our own. And even the languages that are most often offered in our schools are still western languages. What these kids here are doing is incredibly hard and I'm in a little awe of them.
To make a long story short, the other judge was a local Japanese teacher of English, not in this district to make it fair. Unfortunately he and I disagreed on what was most important in the conversational abilities. He prized students who were outrageously cheery and ridiculously overbearingly happy while spoke, who would actually seem fake to a Western speaker of English. I prized students who spoke correct grammar and showed an earnest effort to communicate in a realistic manner difficult ideas. All of my ninth graders made it to second to final round, and one of them made it to the final round, a boy named Takayuki who is very serious and has an amazingly mature English vocabulary for a fifteen year old. But because he had a serious demeanor and didn't ask as many questions as he answered, the judge wouldn't give him the points necessary to move him on to the regional tournament. In fact I had to fight to get Takayuki to the last round. The other judge could only say how Taka didn't look happy enough. And I kept saying, but do you hear what he's saying?? His grammatical ability is leagues ahead of the others. Unfortunately, even with my high score for Taka, the other judge scored him so unfairly low that he doesn't get to go to the next tournament. Instead a boy who practically jumps out of his seat and claps alot and smiles radioactively gets to go. Nevermind that he still leaves out "is" and "are" from most of his sentences and forgets to pluralize most of the things in his conversation that need to be plural. (There's no plural form in Japanese, really, so this is very difficult to learn for the kids, but still, when you are making that mistake in a tournament and another student isn't, I would go with the correct speaker instead of the nuclear happy boy).
In the eight grade, we had some more success. My boy Shoki got high score hands down. Shoki is the boy who has a terminal illness but is somehow the happiest kid I ever met and speaks English that sounds like he grew up in America. I don't know how he does it. He was amazing. His questions were so complicated that most of the time the other students in his groups didn't have the faintest idea what he was asking them. They would sit there, stunned, until they finally said they didn't understand and that they'd now change the subject. There was one strange girl (who actually gets to go along with Shoki to regionals) who pulled out a pen and an eraser during the conversation on friends and told the others that these were her best friends and that they help her study. She had a very unnaturally happy manner of speaking, which of course the other judge adored, and she sounded crazy. Shoki asked her, "Why do you think they are your friends?" and she kept smiling but couldn't answer. Then he asked her, "Are you sure you're okay?" and she sort of tilted her head, still smiling crazily, and Shoki said, "Okay, let's change the subject maybe."
The eighth graders from my school were amazing. All three of them made it to the final round with the crazy girl, and one of the other two should be going with Shoki, but the other judge racked that girl with points for being insanely happy, as he did in the ninth graders tournament. A third judge would have been good to have there with me. I felt powerless sometimes because I was the foreign teacher, which would then make me frustrated because I'd think, "But hey! I know good English! I was born into this language!" and I wondered why they hadn't just had three judges, all Native English speakers, from a different school district do the judging. If they had, I think two more of the Edosaki kids would be going to regionals.
In any case, I was enormously proud of my kids. We walked back to school from the town hall (where the tournament was held) together, and I gave them all hugs and handshakes and told them that if I had my way the results would have been a little different. Afterwards we watched the film of the tournament that Fujita sensei videotaped and laughed at mistakes and applauded significantly important points and questions they each made. At the end of the day the eighth graders said they would all participate again next year as ninth graders and they wanted to know if I would be in Japan next year to teach them again. I hesitated and felt horrible because I have recently pretty much made up my mind to leave at the end of the school year, at the end of next March, and come home. But jeez if there's one thing that could sway me to do otherwise it's these kids grabbing my hands and wrapping their arms around my waist and asking me to please stay with them.
So I told them I didn't know yet. And felt like such a bad person somehow. I know that I'm not a bad person for not planning to stay and teach them another year--after all, I have my own family and friends back home that I miss in ways I didn't even know was possible that these kids don't understand yet--but I still managed to feel all stirred up emotionally about it nonetheless. I don't understand how it happened, but I've come to feel so responsible and to have so many feelings for a group of kids who I hadn't even known existed a year ago. And here they are, able to tug on my heart strings in the same way family and friends are able to affect your emotions and decisions. Even when and if I do come home at the end of next Spring like I plan, I already know that the part of myself they've managed to touch so deeply will miss them as profoundly as I miss my friends and family back home.