I have one month left to teach. Today I went to Numasato Elementary School, the first elementary school I taught at, where I gave the speech to the hundreds of children in the dusty baseball diamond-like field. Numasato has been and remained my absolute favorite school to teach at time after time. All of the teachers there are so nice, and I feel like I had a real connection with them as colleagues that I don't always feel I have at every school I teach at, including the junior high, where there are too many politics in the English department. I know, at a junior high of all places, but it's true. In any case, at Numasato (and after Numasato, Kimiga--David do you notice the Japanese influenced grammar I used in English sometimes?) is where I really felt like I could come into my own as a teacher here, and also just as a part of the local community. The teachers here were unafraid to speak to try to speak whatever English they possibly could muster when I first arrived and didn't really understand any Japanese unless it was written down, and even then I just didn't have enough vocabulary and grammar to understand a lot. And they were unafraid to hand me the reins to their classrooms when they realized I was understanding them and speaking to the children in Japanese during English class to help them understand what I was teaching. They struck up conversations with me in Japanese and never made me feel weird about speaking their language; when I was at Numasato, I spoke more Japanese than at any other school because they never made it into a big deal that I was suddenly speaking their language, as sometimes happens. It's true that when at other times Japanese people are surprised I can communicate with them that they're not trying to make me feel bad, they're in fact really amazed and think it's great, but the affect is often that I would become self-conscious and not talk as much as I do when I'm in situations like at Numasato, where when I speak Japanese, they made me feel it was as ordinary as turning on a water faucet and water comes flowing out. I'll never be able to thank them enough for making my days at their school for the past year and a half so comfortable and natural.
I taught the sixth grade there today, three seperate classrooms full of them. The head teacher among the sixth grade teachers is also the mother of one of my ninth grade girls at the junior high and we often talk about her daughter's progress in English. She's getting ready to take an English interview test as a part of graduating junior high this year and moving on to high school. Her mother's extremely worried and doesn't think her daughter understands English well enough, gets too nervous. I told her if it were me, I'd be nervous too! She said, but you can speak English! and laughed. So I said if I were a Japanese student I'd be nervous too and she said she thought I'd still speak English good if I were Japanese because I'm a hard studier.
While we watched the sixth graders doing their end of the year interview game I made up for them, she said, "They're having so much fun. That's what's important. When they go to the junior high, it's so serious. They lose interest in learning English when it becomes tests tests tests." I said, "I wish I could teach at elementary schools everyday because it's more fun." We talked about me going to Thailand over winter break and asked if I'd been back home at all during the time I've been here. I said that I hadn't. "Will you go back this spring to visit?" she asked and I said I was going back to live in American again. She was sad at first, then said, "Are you here alone in Japan?" I nodded. "Well then," she said, "it's too bad we won't see you next year, but that's hard, living alone in another country. My sister went to Australia when she was 28 for two years. She called home often and was crying but insisted she'd stay until she could speak English well." I asked if she could. She nodded, "Yes, my sister speaks English now. Very well. Me? I don't understand at all. All I can say is I can't speak English and English is difficult. But my sister is really good. How long have you been here now, Chris san?" she asked. I told her a year a half. "You've fought hard," she said. "You became really good at speaking Japanese and living in Japan. Your family and friends are waiting for you."
After class was over we went back to the teacher's office together and she made me a cup of coffee and after I was finished and preparing to leave she said, "O genki de," a phrase that I like to think is most like, "Be well," or "Godspeed". It's said at partings, when you don't expect to see someone for a long time. I said, "If we are able to meet again," the first half of the way you express a hope in Japanese, and she said, "If we are able to meet again," smiled, nodded, and then I said my last goodbye to the rest of the teachers.
It was a sad drive home, and then another goodbye at my landlord's office, paying my last rent, and the landlord's secretary telling me she hoped I would come back to Japan again one day, and then a forty minute ordeal with the three post office ladies who would not just send my packages home by sea and surface mail as easily as I wanted because they themselves wouldn't do that and had a discussion about it while I looked on until I finally interrupted and said that it didn't matter when my packages arrived in America, there was no hurry, and that settled their argument over which way was best. It was frustrating but amusing.
The closer the time to leave comes, the harder it feels to leave all of my life here behind, to see it shipped off in packages to America and come home to a slightly emptier apartment, to mark my day at Numasato Elementary school off my schedule and know I'll never go there again, or see those children, or talk with those teachers who made me feel at home whenever I was with them, to give up a life that I've come to love, even with all its hassles and hardships. It's harder to leave here than it was to leave home. I don't know what that means.
Last week was my last visit to Hatozaki Elementary, where the wild first graders I wrote about a while back are. The "Come on, baby!" girl is in the back row, last on the right. As wild as they are, I know I'll look at this photo for the rest of my life and be unable to stop myself from smiling or bursting out laughing at the hilarious, happy memories they gave me.