Thursday, February 06, 2014

My experience with Japanese 6th Graders

So, I can't start this story without telling you another one first.

I went to El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif., graduating in 1994 (Yes, my 20-year reunion is this summer. Yes, I feel old.).  This seems irrelevant until I tell you that I met a Japanese national at the base Easter Egg Hunt last spring who also attended El Toro High School, but graduated in 1993. Her name is Junko, and we have mutual base-related friends. Here is a photo of us last spring:

We got to talking and, it turns out, her parents still live just a few miles from mine in California. It's amazing how small the world really can be. Junko returned to Japan over a decade ago when she got married and is raising her four kids in Japan. Our high school graduates more than 800 students a year, so, while we did not know each other back then, this would not be unusual. Personally, I only keep in touch with two of my high school classmates. That should make the reunion either really interesting or really boring. I'm not sure which yet. I did find Junko's senior photo in my yearbook and she hasn't changed much at all.

I have remained friends with Junko on Facebook and a few months ago she let me know that there was a public school in Hikari, about an hour from Iwakuni, that was looking for a group of English-speakers to come visit the school for the day as an English enrichment project for 6th-grade students. Did I know anyone on base who would be interested? Uh, yeah. How fun!

So, I took on the responsibility of recruiting people for this day with 6th graders. These people had to be outgoing, couldn't really have a 9-to-5 "real" job (we would be doing this on a Friday) and might need childcare (kids were not invited.) I also had to be able to stand their presence in a car for two hours and they had to be friends with me on Facebook so I could easily spread the word. I could also only take seven because I needed to be able to fit them in the van I rented (which the school reimbursed me for). Fortunately, the school only asked for six, so the seventh would be a bonus!

I did get seven... and we met Junko at the school. There was also a male English teacher as the ninth English-speaker, and he was a wealth of information about how the school worked. Here is the group of ladies, with our oversized name tags, right before we headed to the school gym to engage with more than 80 6th graders:

Ashleigh, Donna, me, Katie, Jenny, Junko, Kelle and Jessica.
We were asked to bring photos of our families and home towns, which we did, either in printed form, or on iPads and laptops, since rarely do photos get printed any more.

I have been asked by the school to limit the photos I post online of the children; one of the children's parents had yet to sign a media consent form. So, I had to eliminate some photos, or fuzz faces out. Not the ideal situation, but you'll get the idea of what the event was like, anyway.

Upon entering the gym, the students were seated in neat rows on folding chairs. Our chairs were in the front, facing the students. There's nothing quite like 80+ pairs of curious eyes on you. We were welcomed to the event by select students, who spoke in Japanese, and then we introduced ourselves, in English.

Once we were done with introductions, we played a game called "Telephone." Basically, you write an alphabet letter on the back of the person in front of you and then they have to guess what it is and write it on the back of the next student, until you get to the end and the last person writes it down. We did this twice and each time it spelled something: the first time was "welcome" in Japanese, the second was "wonderful" in English.

The letter I was assigned for the second round of the "telephone" game.

We broke up in to smaller groups to show the students the photos of our families and hometowns. I showed them the Oakley sunglass factory headquarters, which is in Lake Forest, but they weren't all that impressed, not having heard of Oakley before. Each of the nine students "assigned" to me gave me cards with pictures they had drawn and information about themselves in English.

Although they were in the 6th Grade, like my oldest son, Will, they were all born the year before him, in 2001. Japanese school years end in March and then, after a 2-week break, begin in April. Students also get about three weeks off in August and another 2 weeks for the holidays  at the end of the year.

We played another game, similar to "Mother May I." I think it was "What Time Is it Mr. Wolf?" and it involved running and tagging. And we were in our socks, so that made the game even more interesting as we slid around and tried not to break our necks. The event organizers remarked on how competitive we all were. Uh, yeah... this was like an Olympics I could compete in... 9 adults versus 80 12-year-old? Bring it on!

After the games, the students broke in to teams and hosted a different cultural activity for us to try. I tried to hit them all because the kids were so excited and wanted us to try theirs. We did origami, played card games, drank green tea and ate mochi, or rice cake. The kids themselves cooked the rice cakes over tiny open-flame barbecues with little supervision. Can you imagine that happening in an American elementary school?

There isn't a cafeteria, so students eat lunch in the classroom. Lunches are prepared and provided by government workers. It is first cooked in a community kitchen and then delivered to the schools. We were given a traditional Yamaguchi prefecture lunch, I was told... complete with a crispy dried-out fish chip. The milk tasted amazing... there's something to be said for drinking it out of a cold glass container. The bottles are then collected to be sterilized and refilled. We also got a sweet egg cake, tofu soup and rice with strips of salty seaweed you could add to spice it up. I ate everything except for the head of the crispy fish. I just couldn't do it.

This was the group of kids I sat with. We talked about pets.

Below, in the foreground, is what is wheeled in to the classroom at lunch time. In the vat was more rice. Once the kids were given permission to start eating, a few of the boys ran back to get extra scoops of rice. Behind the rolling table is the students' cubby holes with backpacks. These leather backpacks are required and can cost anywhere from $400 to $700. One of the teachers told me that they are usually a gift from grandparents. The backpacks are used by the kids from first through sixth grade.

The figurines on top of the cubbies were made by the students and each month parents are required o send money in for project like those, Anywhere from $40 to $50 each month. Computers are also not used often in this school, which surprised me, although friends of mine who have children in Japanese public schools say that their children do have computer labs they use regularly.

Japanese schools generally do have a PTA, but fundraisers are limited to a fleamarket/garage sale once a year. One of my Japanese friends looked at me strangely when I asked if they sold wrapping paper or frozen cookie dough. All schools in Japan require school uniforms for the kids, both summer and winter uniforms. I know that one girls' dress for yochien, or kindergarten, costs more than $100. There is a lot more financial responsibility placed on Japanese parents (and grandparents, apparently) so, keep that in mind next time you buy school supplies and write that $5 check to join the PTA.

This was a unique experience that only a handful of Americans get to enjoy. I was honored to be a part of it and would do it again. The event was very well organized and the students were curious and eager, as were we. Thank you to the ladies who traveled with me - it was a lot of fun! And, thank you, Junko, for inviting me.

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