Thursday, July 11, 2013

Elementary School: Cuteness Overload

Today was quite the day. While running into school in the rain, my umbrella broke. Thinking I'd fix it later, I left it by the door and went inside for the morning meeting. When I came out again to go to an elementary visit, someone had already cleared and disposed of my broken umbrella pieces. Oh those Japanese and their intense work ethic.

Little did I know that, not only was I in for a rain-soaked day, I was also in for a delightfully emotional one.

As part of my job, I work at my junior high school half-time and visit elementary schools the other half. This has been one of my favourite aspects of my work setup, as trips to elementary schools always give me more than a few things to smile about. One particularly memorable visit included teaching a grade one class how to count from 1-10. Four tiny children, accompanied by their teacher, picked me up from the staff room and shyly walked me to the gym where the class was to be held. The kids watched me, curious and wide-eyed, then ran ahead to alert their peers to my approach. As I neared the gym, I could hear a growing din, made up of about fifty squeaky voices, cheering and shouting and emitting whatever sort of noise their excitement prompted. When I finally walked through the door, the room erupted. I felt like I was at concert, where I was the main act these wild fans had been waiting for.

Strange as the sensation was, it was one of the most amusing things I've seen in Japan, watching them shake and bounce and wave their arms and reach out to touch mine in uncontrollable excitement. I started by introducing myself and showing them a few pictures from Canada. Every single photo brought a deafening chorus of "iiiiiiiiiii naaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!" (wow!! awesome!!!!!.) and a round of applause. By the end they were no longer uttering recognizable words, but simply a round of unintelligible, excited noise.

Being one of four ALTs in Yokote who regularly does elementary visits, and having current and past ALTs with names like Katie, Kathie, KK, Connie, Kahlila and MacKenzie (notice a "/k/" pattern?), it's not often that the kids don't confuse me with one of the other elementary ALTs. So it was especially touching to visit the same school a few weeks later, and have the grade one students not only recognize me but remember me by the correct name. Much hand-holding, arm-stroking and jumping up and down ensued (from the kids, of course).

Another time, at a different school, I found myself playing Fruit Basket with some third graders. Usually the kids all race to sit down and don't want to be the last one standing, but this particular class was full of spotlight-loving clowns. By the end of the game, none of the kids wanted to sit down - they would slowly meander around the circle, dramatically gesturing to offer the chairs to their friends while they tried so hard to be the last one standing. At one point, one boy was dancing his way through the hubbub, another was twirling round and round and round, and yet another was purely running in circles waiting for all the other chairs to be taken. That was by far my most exciting and hilarious game of Fruit Basket yet.

One more recent adorable memory was teaching a grade two class about different kinds of fruit. The kids simply could not contain their excitement. Every time I showed them a picture and tried to get them to repeat the word, the teacher had to step in and quiet them down so they could hear me in the first place. Kids were bouncing and rolling around on the floor and flailing their arms in glee. One girl started crawling around my feet in a circle, looking up at me with huge puppy-dog eyes and, I swear, panting.
Impossible to get a clear photo because they just couldn't stop moving!

This brings me back to today. It was my last visit to one of my favourite elementary schools. The kids there are energetic, fun, and extremely sweet. I usually wander around during lunch break chatting to the students until one group of first graders or another whisks me off to play oni (a version of tag), or clusters around me for high fives and arm-strokes (seriously, it's like they have this need to touch people, and just don't know how to handle it). One time a little girl would not stop stroking my hand, saying it was "kawaii" (cute).

I've always enjoyed the grade five class at this particular school, as the kids love just about any activity we do and the teacher routinely asks for my input and creative game ideas, something that most of the schools don't do - I often just get a lesson plan the day before, and show up. Today was my last day, so we played one of their favourite games I had introduced to them, and at the end of class the teacher explained to them that I would be going back to Canada, and asked me to share a few words with them. I gave them each a Canada pencil as a present, and they all went crazy. Then a few students stood up to share their reflections about English class. Hearing them say that they hadn't known much English before, but now they remembered a lot, was pretty awesome to hear.

After the lesson, the teacher returned to the staff room to tell me that the students enjoyed the lesson.
"But, children...they say they don't use pencil..."
"Ohhh..." I remembered that the kids often use mechanical pencils; perhaps I gave them a useless gift?
"They say...very special, very important gift...they don't use...they keep, forever."
Here's where I started to tear up. After I composed myself, a few of the students came to the staff room to personally deliver their reflection cards for me to sign. They told me (in Japanese) not to forget them, and that they had always enjoyed English class.
Spitting image.

I began to read their reflection cards, which were full of comments about how much fun they had had, how they had learned a lot of English and been able to remember many things during our lessons, hoping we would meet again someday, and wishing me good luck back in Canada. Again, it was hard not to cry.
roughly translated: "I look forward to seeing Katie sensei again someday. Thank you very much."

"After her year of studying at college, I want the English teacher to come back again."

During lunch, a teacher made an announcement that it was my last day, and later several kids asked me why I was going back to Canada. One of the fifth grade girls asked to take a picture with me. Of course, a bunch of others jumped into the photo as soon as they saw it was happening.
Photo-bombed by a flying peace sign

I left school with soggy shoes, a damp schoolbag and no umbrella, but having had one of my most memorable days in a long time.

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