Today, March 4, 2014
It suddenly got cold again here in Osaka. I woke up this morning to find a thin skim of ice on the basin into which our rainwater collects and the sunlight reflecting off the ground frosted white. I was happy to grab an empty seat so I could sit down on the warm train ride into town. I was reading over a research article by Nick Ellis on working memory and its influence on language acquisition. I was trying hard to keep track of the running dialogue I have with an article when deciding how any particular piece SLA research is transferable—or not as the case may be—to my classroom practices, when the doors opened and a young man with stubble on his chin and the hint of a mustache shuffled over to the seat besides mine. He sat down heavily and thunked his backpack down on the ground in front of him. I looked at him and slid the Ellis article into my bag.
I turned to the man. He had bags under his eyes. “Michi?” I said.
He looked at me. He smiled. “Kevin?”
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Today was my school’s graduation ceremony. I was kind of surprised to find eight of my old students waiting for me outside of the ceremony hall after the graduation ended. They handed me a bouquet of flowers. I was a little confused and asked why they were giving me flowers. “Because you’re graduating, too,” Junchan and Nanae said.
I realized they were right. Next year I am moving to my new campus modeled after an AmericanSchool. The International Program I helped coordinate, the one they graduated from, was officially ending. Today. This very evening.
I was a little chocked up. So I tried to change the topic. “So who did you come to see graduate,” I asked. I figured they had come to see one of their friends receive their diploma. “For you. We came to say congratulations to you.” They said it at the same time. Some in English. Some in Japanese.
So I gave up and cried. And said thank you. And, like I did at the end of so many classes I looked them in the eyes and said, “I love you.” And today all that love came back to me. Today, too, I feel blessed to be a teacher.
Today, March 4, 2014
I noticed that around Michi’s eyes, there were flecks of sleep. His hair, just as it was when he was my student, was a mass of wild tangles.
“What are you doing now? Where are you working?” I had heard he had a job on a farm. I held my breath.
“I work over at the dollar store part-time. And I work in the vegetable fields.” He pointed vaguely towards the window. The city rolled by and I felt a little disoriented. Where amidst the tumble of streets and eruption of office towers in Osaka did Michi go to pick vegetables?
“Do you enjoy it?” I asked. He froze in that way he used to in class when he didn’t understand. “Do you like working in the vegetable fields?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. It’s good,” he said. He looked down at his bookbag. All of the zippers were closed. There were no stray pieces of rumpled paper poking out. His shoes were laced up and knotted. In the two years since he had graduated he had grown. He seemed like he could take care of himself.
“Do you have any work in the fields in this season?”
“No. Not now. Now the plants are just starting to grow. So I work at the dollar store.”
And then my stop came. “I was so happy to see you,” I said.
“Yep.” He nodded. And then I got off the train.
When Michi walked into my International Course classroom for the first time, he was functionally illiterate in Japanese and English. He couldn’t read or write Chinese characters, and couldn’t get beyond A-B-C in English. He took part in our first ER classes and read books about Floppy sounding out one letter at a time. By the time he graduated, he could hold a simple conversation. He could write a sentence. But he never did figure out how to put his class notes into a folder. And he never managed to get above 30% on the standard academic ability tests he had to take twice a year. At that time, I had just started in my new job. I had all kinds of ideas of what my students needed to know. I had all sorts of lines in the sand by which I measured success and judged my students. I was not always kind to Michi. I was not always kind to myself.
I sometimes wonder if there is any job quite as bittersweet as that of being a teacher. Do people working in other professions see the ghosts of their past all around them? Is every success matched with the ache of “I could have done more?”
My friend Josette LeBlanc recently wrote, “Teaching can be a lonely profession. Often, we don’t have anyone to turn to who understands the challenges we face. Self-care may be the only strategy we can turn to when the job gets too hard.” She ends her blog post this way: “I want to propose an idea to all teachers: be kind to yourself no matter what happens. No matter what.” Her words come at a good time. In three weeks I start my new semester in a new campus and I’m tired of seeing my students as a yardstick by which to measure my success. I’m tired of hearing only part of what they say to me because I’m always also half listening to the whispers of what I said yesterday or last week or last year. So I’m going to give it a try, this being kind to myself. Maybe if I find a way to quiet the voice of self-judgment, even for just a moment, both the ghosts of the past and the bouquets of the present will take on a new hue, will stand out with a new kind of clarity. Maybe, with practice, they will both reflect the joy of now the same way even the March frost reflects the morning sun.