Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Away Game

During my first year in Japan, I went to a professional baseball game with two students. A year later, I returned to the bleachers, but this time to watch my students take the field. High school baseball in Japan is like college basketball in America: fiercely local and competitive, and more followed than the professionals. Koshien, a national high school tournament, is like March Madness twice a year.

Shin Gakko has a reputation for sporting excellence. For example, women’s handball is one of the top programs in the nation, and a source of talent for the Japanese national team. The SG baseball machine is also a force on the field. Whereas some Tokyoites I met didn’t recognize the city ward (borough) in which I worked my first year, the name Shin Gakko in the suburbs rang a bell because of their success at Koshien. The potential for my students of today to become the professional stars of tomorrow wasn’t a trite exaggeration. This baseball squad was better trained than some national armies. Year-round practice, sometimes twice daily, cultivated a fighting spirit unleashed on a diamond battlefield.

Loaded bats rested on young shoulders. If the well-stocked trophy cases outside of the principal’s office were anything to go by, sports was the pride of the school, its reputation staked to athletic success. A strong Koshien performance counted for more than the exam scores of the other 2,000 students. Some teachers bowed to these crew-cut stars in spite of less than stellar academics, but I didn’t have to force favorites – their receptive attitude towards English made me an instant fan.

At the beginning of the school year, my enthusiasm still bubbly, I imagined myself being that loyal teacher in the bleachers. Visible and vocal, I’d earn a reputation of supporting students outside of the classroom while gaining respect inside it.

Language and logistical barriers, however, sidelined that lofty ideal. Just pinpointing ever-changing game locations proved a challenge. In space-starved Japan, the school’s only field was a fenced-in dirt patch where handball, soccer, track and tennis teams practiced, often simultaneously. As a result, baseball games were held off-site. Those on the weekend were both hours from home and sometimes beyond the reach of public transportation. And reporting to work every other Saturday only increased my desire for distance from school-related activities. Instead of becoming the regular I aspired, I barely made a cameo.

I wouldn’t have even managed one game without active recruitment from Kijo. The second baseman and I had been talking about the upcoming game against Bunryo H.S. for weeks, at a clip of one sentence per day. A morning update from Kijo was part of my routine. I’d punch in at 8:11 a.m. and change into “indoor” shoes that carried me across the concrete courtyard to an 8:15 meeting. Two stories above the courtyard, the 12th grader leaned out of a window to inspect the flood of uniformed foot traffic clomping towards classrooms. I stood out for my size.

“Gooood morning!” Kijo saluted from above. I signaled a silent response. He then cupped his outstretched hand skyward to detect any drops.

“The weather is fine today,” he concluded with a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial.

Actually, the sky was a miserable grey, but in Kijo’s world the sun was always shining. He had a class president’s persona – affable and outgoing among friends while respectful and studious for teachers. During a year when I struggled to cultivate classroom interest in English, Kijo was a refreshing exception. He initiated conversation in English, and used proper grammar without perversions. From this window we forged a friendship.

If only he had been my student. Those of my own had no appetite for English. Only running the mile seemed to draw longer faces. Yet among the bright spots of talent, lights few and far between, were those with mitts packed among their textbooks.

“Baseball game against Bunryo is in two weeks,” Kijo reminded with a wave before shifting his attention to a teammate below.

He did more than just remind me. He created a color-coded map labeled in English. It highlighted the way from school to the game with times and transfers for a series of trains unfamiliar to me. Yet my confidence in the cartographer faltered at rural Asaka station, the last stop on my map. A distinction between east and west exits was not labeled among the landmarks. Before I bet on one direction, I saw something familiar, but not from the map.

It was a short navy skirt with gray socks pulled up to the knees. Uniforms were required when attending school-related events, even on weekends, a protocol I suddenly praised. I was relieved to run into Manami at the station. Actually, it was more like I ran after her. I followed her familiar uniform from a distance, hoping she would show me the way.

At first I thought she sensed the stalker in me, leading me in circles through the station. It turned out she was just as lost, so I blew my cover to combine our resources – my illustrated map with her native tongue. Although in Kijo’s grade, she didn’t share his fluency. After six years of study she couldn’t string together two words in English.

After walking for 15-minutes in silence, a stadium came into sight. Manami and I entered side-by-side, dropping the jaws of the student ticket takers and drawing stares from parents handing out programs. I smirked off the attention as Manami led the way to our seats.

Inside, school supports took sides. Each section fired up its team with a repertoire of chants, honking trombones and pails of water sloshed on supporters after a run scored. I recognized Shin Gakko students and their band along the third base line. Not sure if off-duty teachers were welcome in the cheering corral, I tagged along behind Manami to the general seating and parent area behind home plate where two of her friends were waiting. The bands blared fight songs to introduce what would be a battle of a game.

Emerging from the dugout in uniforms crisp and white, these teenagers looked like minor leaguers taking the field. A scoreboard flickered to life, and a female announcer introduced the first batter to one-sided applause. Speedy centerfielder Shintaro Nishida stepped to the plate. The hardened looks on players’ faces spread to the spectators. Lines were drawn; everyone dug in.

Shin Gakko knocked in four runs that first inning, but I didn’t recognize any of the batters. Although I taught a number of students on the team, most were sophomores who went through the same punishing drills during daily practice, but watched their elders compete until age privileged them to perform. Kijo, although a senior, seemed not to be in the lineup, but I spotted his white smile around the dugout high-fiving teammates who had scored.

During the 7th inning stretch, players raked the dirt infield. In the stands, mothers busied themselves dispensing paper cups of tea to thirsty supports resting their voices that had quieted since the first inning outburst; we were now down by a run. An offensive reawakening in the 8th inning, however, prompted me to write this column for a newspaper designed for non-native English speakers.

After the game I sought out Kijo to congratulate him on the victory. Before I could get to the throng of players, I bumped into
Principal Ouchy who, in his standard suit and tie, at first didn’t recognize me in a backwards baseball hat and jeans. Elation from the late-inning heroics masked any grumble of disapproval. After all, his school’s reputation was safe for another week.

After recording the final out, Shin Gakko's team (in white, left) rushes to the batter's box where both teams will bow to each other.