One of the parts of becoming an ALT that I had feared the most was teaching at junior high schools. If I had a dime for every time I heard, "Well, you'll be teaching Japanese students, so they'll be much better." I was reluctant to ascribe to the stereotype that uniformed Asian students did not have the behavioral issues of their American peers. Rightly so, I dare say, because my junior high school students can be as surly as a bear in Spring and stubborn as donkeys.
I think I was mentally prepared for the junior high schools. My junior high schools are like zoos—you know there are animals there, but sometimes they're active and sometimes they're not. A day at the zoo can be thrilling or a drag, depending on whether or not the polar bears are doing anything interesting. The additional benefit is that there are zookeepers who know the animals well and can intervene on the visitor's behalf. If I am really having trouble communicating with junior high school kids, the English teacher isn't far away.
Teaching in an elementary school is as close to extreme sports as I need to get. There's no adrenaline rush like playing tag after eating too much for lunch, then realizing that the entire class is gunning for me. Fight or flight kicks in almost immediately, and I pelt across the schoolyard, shrieking comically at the top of my lungs to disguise my real fear of being trampled by a pack of wild second-graders. I've been manhandled and sexually harassed by six-year olds (sounds harsh, but what else can I call it when I'm writing on the blackboard and a kid comes and pokes me right between the buttocks?) and endure daily run-ins with xenophobia and racism. Not only that, but sometimes that brutal honesty which is characteristic in all children who aren't old enough to understand social niceties can be downright hurtful.
Only once have I been so frustrated with a class that I've neared tears. Elementary school. After I'd exhausted my lexicon of Japanese in efforts to get the teacher to help me manage her badger-like bunch of 6th graders, what was I to do when she shrugged and told me in Japanese, "I don't understand English, sorry"? I tried being stern with the disruptive students and was met either with the same reaction as the teacher's, or with mimicry. Imagine one of the Mario Bros. being kicked in the head by a horse, filling his mouth with peanut butter, and trying to list his favorite pastas. Apparently that's what I sound like when I talk.
Let's examine my Wednesday this week. I was at Sogabe Elementary, which hosts one of the best teachers I've worked with and the most insane first and second-graders I've ever encountered. The day started pretty well. I taught with Ms. Yumiko Okita, who has created an environment that is so positive towards English that her students actually take the initiative. They write their daily schedule in English, call each other Mister and Miss, and always answer "yes" instead of "hai." At the end of class they asked me to explain the first verse and chorus of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," then we sang it together. Fabulous, I say, fabulous. And not one of them told me I look like Michael Jackson in his youth, so that was even better.
Let us now skip ahead to fifth period. It was after lunch and recess, both of which I had spent with the sixth grade. I had barely sat down to make my notes on the morning's classes when a couple of first-graders came to fetch me for their class. I grabbed The Very Hungry Caterpillar and skipped after the boy. The teacher of the first grade class, while a very sweet woman, is disinclined to involve herself directly in the instruction of English. She stands to the side and wanders up and down the aisles, making sure that the students are seated and facing me.
During this most recent visit the Sogabe first-graders seemed to have been injected with massive amounts of taurine. They stood on their desks, yelled over me, and could not seem to focus on the only book I've ever used that had yet to maintain group attention. Come on, kids, count how many pears the caterpillar ate. Ignoring my cheerful invitation "How many? Let's count!" the students discussed whether or not they wanted to eat a pear, and what fruits they liked. When we got to the part about how the tiny caterpillar had grown big and fat, they all laughed and said that the rotund larva looked like the teacher.
I don't know how that woman kept smiling.
The thing about this is that the students are actually sweet as candy. They are always thrilled to see me, and often pull me into the classroom when I'm just passing by. Sometimes I can't make it back to the staff room because a group of of first-graders is crowding around me. If buttons are cute, working around these kids is like diving into a pond of shiny, mother-of-pearl buttons. It just so happens that they are also mischievous and insane, so like candy with habanero inside, or buttons that pinch you in the swimsuit area if you aren't vigilant.
Charmed by their eager welcome and baby faces, I didn't hurry from the class at the end. The students reached up to touch my hair and I didn't stop them. This was seeing candy without noticing the habanero inside, or more plainly, a mistake.
Allowing one child to pat my head and exclaim, "Wah! Fua fua! (fluffy)" opened the door for the rest to swarm like hornets. One tiny hand became ten on my head. I kept hearing a word repeated as they asked me questions.
"Katsua? Katsura desu ka?"
Whenever they used the word katsura the students would gesture as though taking something off their heads, or would pull their hair back.
I used the only word I could remember. "Jige desu." It's my natural hair.
Still, the students kept repeating katsura and trying to expose my hairline, and suddenly I understood. Katsura means "wig." My hair looked like a wig to them. I told them no, reiterating that it was my natural hair. The students didn't believe me. I know this because they exclaimed, "Eh? Honto? Honmani?" (Huh? Really? Really?) and pulled my hair.
Allow me to emphasize this point. The students pulled my hair because they couldn't believe it was grew from my head.
I reacted to this as best I could. I asked them to stop, told them forcefully to cut it out, and did my best to separate the fingers that were causing me pain. Meanwhile, two more students were attempting to tickle me. Being young and inexperienced in the art of tickling, what the children were actually doing was turtle-pinching my sides. Still, it was not half as uncomfortable as feeling two small hands running over my backside, patting gently and dipping into my pockets.
"nnNNOOOOoo, thank you," I yelped, and put my teaching materials down to grab the culprit's hands. The girl was completely unabashed; she smiled at me and reached up to my head. I retrieved my supplies and shuffled out the door with six and seven-year-olds attached to my sides like adorable malignant tumors. I could see the relative safety of the teacher's office at the end of the hall, but at that moment it seemed impossibly far away, lined with a gauntlet of hyper children with grasping hands. Distracted by the task of dislodging the cute parasites from my legs and back pockets, I took little heed when a familiar little boy approached.
I should have known. This boy was particularly touchy-feely; he liked to hug me and hold my hand, and would play with any zippers or buttons on my clothes. The child had once tried to fit his toothbrushing cup over my breast while I was talking to other students. I had made it very clear that the lack of cup etiquette was unwelcome and he hadn't tried anything too strange since. Still, the school-of-piranha-viciously-devouring-a-fluffy-lamb atmosphere was enough to change the most obedient children into a bunch of crazypants. This boy was no exception.
As I detangled my hair from the last of the clutching fingers, the little boy took the chance to unzip my left jacket pocket. This jacket's pockets were vertical, situated on the front so that it would look super cool and indie rock if I were to walk around with my hands in them. As it was, the boy saw something more than indie rock; there was a golden opportunity for him to reach inside to feel where my ribcage began, then to turn his fingers upward and reach for my mammaries.
"BAH!" I shouted, unable to voice anything more comprehensible in my flabbergasted state. The fingers in my hair finished untangling themselves, the students were so shocked by my violent exclamation. The little boy laughed and ran back into his classroom. Booger.
The worst was yet to come. As I bade the students a firm goodbye and gave the teacher and apologetic boy, one last little girl approached. She held her arms out for a hug, and since she was one of the quietest students I allowed the embrace.
“Yes?” I asked the little devil in cherub’s clothing.
“Akachan mo?” she asked sweetly, patting my stomach.
Akachan is “baby,” mo is “also”.
The child was asking me if I was pregnant.