It Takes So Little

November 14 2015

I won the Listserve around midnight, riding the Yamanote line. My last night in Tokyo, after two and a half years.

What a world.

* * *

I moved to Japan because I was in love. I told the man I’d been dating for less than a month, “I have no desire to move to Japan,” and then instead we got married and went.

It didn’t work out. With my husband, I mean. With Japan, I fell improbably in love. Not instantly--not like a chemical reaction--but like water dripping steadily into an empty bucket, until one day you realize it’s full.

* * *

I became a teacher, in Tokyo, working my way up from a half-hour, kindergarten, English song-and-dance-routine to discussing and deciphering Leonard Cohen lyrics with 20-somethings at a 2-year technical college.

“There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in,” Cohen sang, and Mayuko--the class clown--cried, saying "Meccha ii!" over and over again ("It's so good!")

* * *​

We cannot know where even our “bad” decisions will lead us. My ex-husband brought me to Japan, and he left me, but not without a gift: the radical notion of actually giving a shit about my students. You’d be amazed the way so many English language teachers talk about their pupils in Japan—that they’re stupid, infantile, incapable of intelligent thought.

I assure you, they are none of these things. A little bit of cultural understanding goes a long way: in English, we say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” but in Japanese, it’s, “the tallest nail gets hammered down.”

So I had to play around, to try and fail and try something else. If the whole class was lost, then I knew my fault; if one student didn't understand, it was still my responsibility. I couldn’t just stick to what had worked in the past, what was easy and familiar for me. I had to find out what was best for them.

I asked. I gave them a safe space (journals and emails) to ask questions, make suggestions, critique my teaching and connect our lessons to their lives. I took the time to get to know my kids, and I found each and every one of them to be delightfully unique and thoughtful and silly and good. They were the most amazing bunch of weirdos, and I already miss the way they made me laugh, made me cry, made me think.

I learned their names, and it meant more to them than you could ever imagine. Mariko wrote, “It is that you learned my name that I was the gladdest. When I met you in a corridor, I was very glad that you called for my name!!”

It takes so little, truly.

* * *

Teachers: find out who your students are. If they act out, or get bored, or something just isn’t working, find out why. It is not their job to follow your plan; it is not your place to try and be their friend; it is not for you to share your stories with them, but to help them tell their own.

Or, as Airi wrote (in response to the question, “How would you run this class if you were the teacher?”), “I think student don’t have concentration. So what is their interesting thing? I need to find it.”

* * *

​My interesting thing? You. Please tell me about yourselves.

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Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

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