Monday, May 29, 2006

Vocabulary Building

As class began, SexPlayer approached me with a new word on his mind. “Service parlor,” he blurted out. I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but my best guess wasn’t too savory.

For students without inklings for English, it’s tough to find something both educational (even marginally so) and that keeps their attention (and mine). Thank goodness for the word association game. It’s my go-to activity whenever I have ten minutes to kill, or have lost patience trying to teach the textbook. Please allow me to introduce it to you.

Hello, class. Do you know the word association game? Okay then, watch me, please. S-c-h-o-o-l [I write it on the board]. School means gakko desu ne? Okay, now what is in a school? Students, teacher, class…or…desk! Okay, d-e-s-k. What is desk? Chair or…wood! Okay, w-o-o-d! Wood is…brown, tree…. Do you understand? Okay, okay, let’s play now.

The rules are simple, and the results interesting. Here are some teacher-vetoed associations students (read: boys) came up with:

  • speak…mouth…smoke
  • needle…HIV
  • pie…meat pie…cherry pie…cherry boy
  • toys
  • wedding…baby…six nine [69]…mother…Meg Ryan…children…Mr. ChildrenMichael Jackson

Shrimp…lobster…crab prompted Me Too Pants Dropper to make lewd clawing gestures while pointing to girls. Another boy tried to make an association from that by crying, “Let’s play masturbation!” Me Too Pants Dropper pointed and fired back, “Masturbation boy!” I desperately tried to divert their one-track minds to words I could write on the board. Like “winter.” But Me Too Pants Dropper heard “wiener,” and yelled out “meatball.”

A tamer class started the game with “school” and followed it with “teacher…student….” The final two words before the bell rang were “danger…landmine.” By the law of syllogism, school is a landmine. At Kanokita, teachers already know to tread with caution.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Naughty by Nature

Behavior of perverted, pubescent students at Kanokita has been well documented.

Although I get tired from standing all day, one perk of being a teacher is the freedom of classroom mobility. I call it “The Teacher’s Walk,” and mine sort of looks like a giraffe drinking water. With hands clasped behind my back I methodically pace and pause up and down rows, lowering my neck to inspect desktops.

I walk mostly to keep from falling asleep, but also to joke around with students and to encourage them to at least put books on their desks. This time, Glue Boy in the back corner had another idea. From inside his desk emerged a tissue-covered cup. I braced myself. He yanked off the tissue. A penis sat in a glass of water. It was one of those Grow-A-Penis things that swell when immersed.

I tried to act like the mature professional that I am, and said: “Chisaii chimpo!” He burst out laughing; it was indeed a small pecker.

Later on I was Walking to check the lack of progress in copying sentences from the board. I couldn’t help but ask Glue Boy, “Hey, show me your penis.” We both laughed, and he ducked his hand into his desk to whip it out.

* * *

Eating lunch with students is my favorite time of day. First of all, I’m fed for cheap. Second, anything can happen. And it usually does when taking meals in section 2-4, home of Potato Face, Me Too Pants Dropper, and SexPlayer.

It was a Friday, and these boys were in weekend mode. I opened the door to a scene of culinary chaos. Me Too Pants Dropper was inhaling globs of rice with baby sardines by the fistful while banging his spoon on the lunch cart to demand more from the intimidated girl server. His shirt was untucked and unbuttoned. From the lunch cart he also grabbed the last frankfurter with his teeth and taunted SexPlayer with it. The ever playful SexPlayer bit the other end and tugged.

I ate alone, but as I was finishing the boys closed in. I guessed what perverted question would spill from SexPlayer’s mouth. Usually he lives up to his nickname by asking me if I like to play sex or if I like to play sex everyday.

“Do you like adult video?” he chirped. I almost congratulated him for asking a new question, but replied negatively hoping to end the line of questioning. It didn’t. SexPlayer brought over his book bag for some show-and-tell.

“Porno DVD!” Me Too Pants Dropper exxxclaimed, announcing the obvious. I was floored that they had gotten their hands on another objectionable item (at least this one didn’t shoot pellets), and had brought it to school. They circled me with eyes and ears eagerly awaiting a response. I couldn’t disappoint. “Mimashou!” (Let’s watch!) I shouted to a chorus of cheers.

At other schools class can be as quiet as a library. At Kanokita, however, the only way to get students’ attention would be to press play. Something tells me it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve seen it.

SexPlayer started sucking on Me Too Pants Dropper’s index finger. I rose to rack my tray. SexPlayer followed, and I asked him what other videos he watches. “I have two at my house,” he said. “Toy Story and adult video.”

Far left: Potato Face. Center with Rasta wig: SexPlayer. Far right: Me Too Pants Dropper.

* * *

Hormones run high at Kanokita, but those inside Me Too Pants Dropper are off the charts. He’s grown by inches in months. Now I look up at him, which he never lets me forget by sliding up next to me before class with big brown eyes and a naughty smile.

“Kiss me, please,” he likes to ask before class, pointing to each cheek. I send him back to his seat unfulfilled.

“Would you come here, please?” he asked during the lesson. I should know better than to accept his entreaties, but sat down next to him to see if he’s added anything new to his routine. “I like sex play. Do you like sex play?” Same shtick. I turned away, but he patted me on the shoulder. He smiled devilishly, and began stroking my knee, moving his hands onto my thigh.

“Enough!” I yelled, jumping up and causing a disruption.

“Wait, please!” he begged, sticking out his tongue and winking.

One time he tried a more direct approach: “please tell me about your penis.” His pronunciation hasn’t caught up with his hormones.

“My parents? Oh, well I have one mother and one....”

Slowly, I’m teaching them. We’re starting with the small stuff. Don’t raise your middle finger. “F*%# you” is not pleasant parlance. Erase “COCK” from the blackboard and your textbook cover. And please don’t describe your weenie as an “anaconda.” You’re 14 years old, and Japanese at that.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Crime and Punishment

Just as class finally settled down, Seiko strolled up to the front. She was holding her head. Mr. Hirogashi wrote her a pass, no questions asked. He’s just as happy to get rid of her as she is to get rid of him. Her hand was glued to her forehead, but only figuratively. It’s not a migraine, but rather a bad hair day. She’s been having a lot of those ever since her father lopped off her prized bangs as punishment for misusing a vending machine.

He should have trimmed her tongue instead. While waiting for the pass, Seiko couldn’t help but be a nuisance. She looked up from the floor to crack jokes at my expense. They’ve become so repetitive that I can now understand almost everything she throws my way. I counter with squinted eyes.

Discipline is deteriorating at Kanokita like the paint flaking off the walls. Some behavior qualifies as bad even for public schools in America. Fourteen-year-old girls, Seiko included, were caught red-faced after drinking beer (from a vending machine) in the bathroom in between classes. Not that they attend those classes, but the school nurse solved the mystery of their suddenly flush complexions.

Several boys, meanwhile, uploaded pictures of lighting up on school grounds onto their homepages. Word spread quickly. Enforcement of rules has not. The usual morning staff meeting at other schools is held in the late afternoon at Kanokita, probably to take stock of the day’s carnage and to make sure all teachers are accounted for.

In between classes one day, I returned to the teacher’s room to get more pencil prizes. I didn’t understand an announcement on the PA system, and empty chairs greeted me the next period. Class was cancelled. An emergency assembly was held instead because papers spontaneously combusted in the bathroom for the second time in four days. The fire department knows the route here well. Alarm pulling, or paper burning, has proved effective in postponing class.

Walking out of school one afternoon, I approached a girl shivering in the cold. Her skirt bopped up and down as she sang along to the J-pop playing on her cell phone speaker. She congregated with a group of boys on the steps near the gated entrance.

Their eyes radiated mischief. This group also hangs out on the fire stairs in front of the building. A boy sporting a mini-mohawk smiled suspiciously. As I walked by, he opened his uniform jacket and pulled out a gun. His grin exploded into laughter as he fired blanks at a student peeking out from behind the gate.

The kyoki (murder weapon) fooled me at first. But this is Kanokita where anything is to be expected, and so long as the gun’s not real, it’s not threatening enough to take meaningful administrative action. Try telling that to the special ed students caught in the crosshairs and rushing through the gate to reach the safety of waiting vehicles.

Seeing a policeman with the principal in the corridor doesn’t raise eyebrows. Last year the school made national news when a dozen girls were arrested for fighting. The melee unfolded on an embankment where they were trying to throw (drown?) someone in the river. The only thing that sunk was the school’s reputation.

The headlines never seem to fade for nearby residents. Sometimes I meet people who grew up or now live in the ward. While not an alumna, Carrie at Hollywood Models was well aware of Kanokita’s reputation. She cited breaking windows and casting a teacher’s chair into the pool as less criminal mischief.

What it boils down to is that these kids are just naughty by nature…To be continued.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


The beauty parlor was in full swing. Mirror, brushes, pads, lipstick – cosmetics crowded the desktop. A dumb-looking girl adjusted her fake eyelashes. She applied blush and eyeliner with the vigor of an actress due on stage. All that was missing were the vanity lights, but the oversized mirror was enough to draw the teacher’s disapproval.

She continued primping despite being instructed otherwise. When the teacher walked over, the girl glanced up with a vacant stare, her fingers still on her lashes. I recognized the stare from when I had asked her what she did on vacation. Maybe she didn’t understand a word of English. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

The Japanese take beauty seriously. While it’s taboo to eat or drink on trains, women routinely apply makeup as if they were in the privacy a dressing room. Men trim and reshape their eyebrows (not on board). Some shave them off completely. The grooming begins in junior high school, and is especially noticeable at Kanokita where students prioritize plucking over cracking a book.

Popular in-class treatments include gelling each other’s hair, filing nails and straightening hair – one strand at a time. Even the boys tote oversized mirrors that they prop open on the desk and spend the period perfectly aligning their spiky hair. The mirror reflects their attention away from the board. Such was the case with one punk with a band-aid patched over his eye and a (fake?) Burberry scarf concealing his neck. When done attending to the hair on his head, he shifted gears to tweezing his eyebrows.

In another class, two kids plucked the body hair off of an early bloomer. One friend dutifully worked on the boy’s arms while his exposed leg rested in the other’s lap. He didn’t flinch much, perhaps numbed from the sound of English.

Personal care isn’t all glamour. Sometimes it’s messy. Like when one student got a trim. Or when the normally well-mannered “Harajuku boy” (as I call him ever since spotting him on the train bound for this trendy area of Tokyo) was playing with shards of glass from the mirror he had sent crashing to the floor.

Perhaps following his lead, a girl with a black kit on her desk threw tweezers, eyebrow clipper and eyelash crimpier to the ground in apparent frustration. The girl sitting behind her remained cool, and continued straightening her frustrated friend’s hair with a turquoise comb.

This teacher is sensitive to some classroom salon treatments. Seiko and Maki bring tears to my eyes when using hair spray on each like they’re in a shaving cream fight.

“This room smells funny,” I remarked to the Japanese English teacher after walking into another class. He sniffed and agreed. This time it’s not hair spray; it’s nail polish. I scanned the room for the culprit. A girl with a pink hair clip was painting her nails at the expense of my nostrils.

To avoid confrontation, the teacher asked her not to stop, but to instead do it later. She pleaded for one minute more, and of course ignored the clock and his empty threat. Class began, and so did rawness eating at my throat. Disrespect had crossed the line into physical discomfort.

I mulled an appropriate response. I, too, didn’t want to cause a stink, and realized that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. She didn’t look up when I towered over her desk. I silently stuck out my pinky and received a glittery coating. The Japanese teacher followed suit.

Meanwhile, a misguided boy was working on his own version of nail care. He super glued his thumb and index fingertips together, and raised his hand for me to hail his accomplishment. I gestured back. As long as he wasn’t eating it, everything was relatively OK.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I is for Impunity

Near the bottom of Tokyo’s public educational barrel, Kanokita School appropriately sits in the shadow of the regional garbage incinerator. Toxins must seep into the water table, too.

I share a bus ride from the nearest train station with a disturbing number of mentally disabled adults. They are the only ones naive enough to sit next to a foreigner, although my knees do jut into the adjacent seat, sometimes the last one available.

An otherwise routine trip was once enlivened when one such man boarded with a bottle of brown “English tea.” Drinking on public transportation is frowned upon, but that didn’t dissuade him. He was audibly slobbering on the bottle. How refreshing to have the other passengers furtively eye someone else for a change.

While the bus was in motion, he leaped up and lunged across the aisle to slide open the window, dripping tea on an elderly passenger. He ejected the bottle from the window. Plastic rattled onto the pavement. The engine drowned out stifled reactions.

However small, it was a rare breakdown in order here. Well, rare if you’re a stranger to Kanokita. If D is for Delinquency, then I is for Impunity.

A pack of wild girls runs down the hall feeding off disorder it incites. Like a car with squealing brakes, Seiko’s shrieks can he heard down the block. First, she’s in the hall. Next, the fire escape. Then she’s yelling upstairs to Maki from the flowerbed in the courtyard, her uniform snared by branches. An old custodian lady pleads her not to trample the greenery.

A teacher told me that the outdoor pool is the only one in the ward to freeze in winter because it faces west and receives no direct sunlight. This distinction would qualify for an achievement at Kanokita were it not for the students who nearly fell in after treading on thin ice. Others kept their distance from the safety of fourth floor windows and pelted the ice with Mandarin oranges from school lunches, now a free meal for the crows.

Sometimes their boldness is welcome. Students freely adjust the classroom thermostat, which often works to this sweaty American’s favor. I silently cheer when a student pumps up the a/c. During spring rainy season either I’m getting soaked from above or sweating from underneath.

A tradition dating back to temple schools from the Edo period, students are assigned daily after school cleaning tasks. A rotating wheel of chores keeps track of who is sweeping where that day. Kids arm themselves with hand brooms and washcloths as chirping music sounds over the PA system. The tune mimics what’s heard at a closing department store. Chairs are raised, desks pushed to the side, and dust balls and spilled rice grains swept up. Others rub washcloths along the banister or wipe the linoleum stairs. At Kanokita, however, there’s no music – only the huffing of teachers carrying cleaning supplies.

The only thing that students who don’t want to learn have learned is that they don’t have to learn if they don’t want to. When students wield more power than teachers, threats are hollow and discipline is unenforceable.

Such antics wouldn’t go unpunished in U.S. schools. There are principals to lay down the law and detention for those who flaunt it. In Japan, principals are powerless and detention is a foreign concept. It’s the fundamental right of students to attend class. Kicking kids out would be to deny them this right. Students hold the ace of spades. Except for when after class began I broke up a poker game on the grounds that if I wasn’t dealt in, then nobody was playing.

While sometimes I use outsider status as leverage to encourage good behavior, specialized Japanese “cowboys,” as I called them, are the only hope of containing problems. In the absence of respected authority, cowboys patrol classrooms and hallways to prevent rebellious teens from taking over the ranch.

Chief cowboy Koutoro is a cool 30-something friend to the students and ally to the out-of-touch staff. His hairstyle matches his eclectic taste in fashion. The kids liken his stringy bangs plastered to his forehead to pubic hair. They have a point. He began as a volunteer five years ago, and now is the longest tenured member of staff.

The student-teacher ratio in one class was 3:1. Two English teachers, two cowboys, and one other man were on hand to lead and observe class. The problem was trouble itself. These 8th graders were perfectly behaved.

Although not (yet) as treacherous as their sempai (elders), the youngest students influence classroom life. I suggested dividing into groups to play a game that worked well with elementary schoolers I once subbed for. A 7th grade class at Kanokita has about the same English ability. The Japanese English teacher rebuffed the idea: “This class doesn’t do groups. If we try, one or two groups won’t participate.”

We’re teachers. Time to show ’em who’s boss, right? To the contrary, the mischief only gets worse….