It has been a while. I’m in another mood where I feel like I want to start doing more regular updates and writings, but who knows. That may only last for today. Or it may go for weeks and weeks, if I’m lucky. But for now, here’s an update on the last week of my life. It’s long, but I felt like writing. Maybe you’ll feel like reading…
This week began with a “WWL Research Presentation Expo” at our school. WWL stands for ‘World-Wide Learning,’ and it is the name of a consortium of schools in various countries that our school is also a member of. Students from my own homeroom showed the research work they have been doing since August on various topics of their own choice. The group nearest to the front in the photo above conducted some experiments by providing junior high school students with newspapers every day for two weeks and asking them various survey questions before and after to see what effect the exposure to newspapers would have on their awareness of world goings-on as well as their attitudes towards newspapers. Another group researched ways to improve the school environment by reducing the workload of teachers—a project that predictably became a pet favorite of many faculty members. These presentations were all done in English and were originally planned to be done in front of guests visiting from around the country and from other nations, as well, but our original event date (in January) had to be suddenly canceled due to a snowstorm, and this was the replacement date for it. Unfortunately, not many visitors could make it this time.
Tuesday was one of the most stressful days of my adult life, as I was not only struggling to confirm student scores and attendances for school, but also dealing with the sudden decision of a student and her mother to come visit the school to discuss their future plans. This student, whom I’ll call Susan, has been absent from school for the better part of 2 months, and no one really knows why. Susan has been refusing to explain herself or to talk with anyone about why she won’t go to school. It was getting down to the wire about needing to decide if she was going to continue on at our school next year or not, and so her mother finally forced her to come to school to talk. When she arrived she looked like a totally different person. A big reason of course is because students are always in uniform at school, and the uniforms are rather conservative—not showing a lot of skin. So when she showed up on Tuesday in short shorts and an oversize sweater with loose stitching that revealed the tank top she was wearing underneath it threw me for a moment. Not to mention the glittery makeup and long bejeweled nail extensions she had plastered on—all of which are strictly forbidden at school. She still didn’t want to explain why she was acting this way, or perhaps she just genuinely doesn’t know, herself. My guess is that she is, like most teenagers do, having an identity crisis and is not sure who she is or who she wants to be. The makeup and nails were so over-the-top for a 16-year-old that I suspect she feels lost, and is latching on to something that makes her feel special, and maybe something that has the approval of some friends around her. Unfortunately for us, though, the timing is very, very bad. In our school, in the course that she is enrolled in, advancing to the next grade level comes with the added baggage of going to study abroad for 7 months. We, however, as a school institution cannot afford the risk of sending a student who is being delinquent overseas, which means we needed to ask her to leave our school. She was an incredibly sweet girl—she gave me a Kirby keychain in the first weeks of school just because I had said offhand that I liked Kirby—so it’s truly sad that it came to this conclusion, but my hope and belief is that, in the end, this is the right move for everyone involved. I told her that as a member of my very first ever homeroom class, she will always have a place in my heart and if she ever needs my support I will always do what I can for her. After all was said and done, although dealing with the situation as a whole was extremely stressful amid all the other tasks I had to do, it was quite a relief to have reached a conclusion with Susan and her mother.
The rest of the week was mainly dominated by two things: finishing up study abroad and study visa applications for students that will go to Canada next year, and making sure that my class can move up a grade level by getting all the necessary paperwork done for them. The grade level advancement in Japan is determined at the end of every school year (in March) by a faculty voting session. Like so many things in Japan, it is a system seems so old-fashioned and out-of-date; a truly anachronistic method of determining children’s future in a country that was long the frontrunner of technological development. Japan’s society, however, remains largely stuck in the early days of the Internet, when fax machines were still a useful method of document transmittance and websites were overly splashed with shiny buttons and features. And grade advancement, it turns out, is determined by having all the faculty sit in a room together and raise their hands to decide if students should be approved to move up a grade level, or be held back for another year. Everything has to be approved by a majority vote, and the choices are always “for,” “against,” or “abstain,” and voting is conducted by hand-raising. In 7 years here, I have never seen a single person raise their hand to vote against the crowd, and I’ve only ever seen a person abstain once. Other than that one instance, though, it has been a hundred percent unanimous decisions every time. This was the first year that I had to stand up at the front and testify about a student in front of all other teachers. Normally, no testimony is necessary. It’s only for the outliers—students who have failed one or more classes, or have gone over the acceptable amount of absences—that teachers who have relevant insight are asked to provide a report on the situation. There is one student in my class this year who has gone over their allowable absences, so I had to explain. This student, let’s call them Kiki, has been battling with a physical disability for several years—a condition called orthostatic dysregulation. In short, being upright can cause this kid any amount of discomfort that ranges from nausea and vertigo to extreme pain. Kiki worked really hard to come to school as often as possible, but when the weather turned cold in November and December, that became more and more difficult. The harsh Winter weather only exacerbated the problems, and Kiki went for months without coming to school at all. They tried all the way to the end of the year to keep up with their school work and come to school whenever possible, but in the last few weeks of school they finally reached the maximum limit of excusable absences, and after some discussion with the family decided that it would be best for them to switch to a correspondence school that would better serve her with her physical condition. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do any sort of argument in favor of letting her stay at our school and advance in grade level in spite of the amount of absences, so it was simply a matter of explaining the situation to all the teachers. Still, it made me nervous. My hands shook as I held the microphone in front of everyone, and my throat constricted as my heart raced, making it difficult to say too many words in one single breath. I managed to make it through, though, and it was a good learning experience, albeit stressful. I’ll be more prepared for it in subsequent years now.
I read two books this weekend. Both were on the shorter side—around 200 pages—but that’s still a pretty impressive accomplishment for me, considering how slow of a reader I am. I’m discovering, however, that I’m not quite as slow as I once considered myself to be. I am thorough and careful as a reader, which does keep me from reaching quite the same top speeds as others, but I can go at a decent clip if I’m focused. What I’ve realized, however, is that it’s difficult for me to continue reading for extended periods of time. Thus it often takes me a long time to finish a book. Time just moves excruciatingly slow when I sit down to read, and I used to be bothered by that, but I’m growing to increasingly enjoy that fact more and more.
The first book I read was Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. It was underwhelming—an odd little overly-sentimental bit of derivative Japanese cheese. What I mean by that is it was sappy, and extremely conventional as far as Japanese storytelling goes. Japanese books, tales, dramas, and movies are full of examples of stories like this: two (or more) societal misfits form an unlikely friendship as they struggle with finding their place in the world. Add onto the fact that the thing these two misfits bonded over was a kind of traditional Japanese confectionary, and you’ve got the kind of navel-gazing self-congratulatory schlock that Japanese people tend to eat up without question and praise it as another example that shows why their culture is so great and how it must be preserved at all costs. I’m coming off as very critical of this book, but I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t love it. It wasn’t very inspiring, or novel, or surprising in any way. I knew exactly where the story was heading, and it delivered on that premise, which in its own way can provide a sort of pleasantly comforting reading experience. So, three stars out of five?
The next book, on the other hand, I would give the full five stars. It was A Heart That Works by Rob Delaney. This was Rob Delaney’s memoir about going through the loss of his young son to cancer a few years back. It was devastating to read, as you would expect it to be, but also full of warmth and humor in a way that didn’t make it miserable to read. In fact, once I started I couldn’t put it down until I finished it. There are scenes and sentences in that book that will be fodder for my gray matter to chew on for several weeks, I expect. As I told my family members, it is a magical thing to have a book that can make you laugh and cry all within the span of a single sentence. I cannot recommend it more highly, as long as you can handle a father digging deep into the topic of grief at the loss of his child.