Mar 19, 2014

My Favorite Elementary School

Two Tuesdays a month I get up a little earlier than usual because it's Takashina Elementary School day. I drive down the one-lane highway and through the plains of countryside ride fields to reach a three-story building built in the 80s, nestled into the curve of the road with blue-topped mountains in the background.

As I pull into the parking lot, I wave to the principal who is dressed in a yellow reflective jacket, helping the kids cross the road. I pass the copper statue of a boy and girl at play, and walk into the school to cries of "Pato-chan, Pato-chan!" Sometimes I don't have time to change to my indoor shoes before the kids are pulling me away to play. I pick them up and hug and twirl them while they scream in delight.

I go upstairs to the teacher's room and slide the door open. I say ohayō gozaimasu and everyone replies with "good morning!" It's such a rare and gracious thing to be greeted in your native language outside the classroom.

The morning announcements are accompanied by English translations. I go to the radio room, dodging tickle attacks from a 4th grader who can't stop laughing, and give Takashina my own morning greeting in English. This is the only school I've heard of that allows it's assistant language teachers to speak on the PA.

Afterwards, there's the daily morning teacher's meeting whereby the vice-principal and principal gives short announcements and words of encouragement to the energetic teachers. Then the principal comes to talk to me, eager to practice his English, and I receive my day's schedule, usually involving classes with the 1st and 5/6th graders. Takashina is so small, there is only one 5th grader, so she studies with the grade above her.

The class I share with the dozen 1st graders is PE. There's one boy who follows me like a puppy; he likes to hold my hand and say kekkonshita! ("we are married!"). I notice he's getting taller and there's less baby fat in his cheeks. We all jump rope and run around the freezing gym together.

In 5/6th grade, I teach from the HI FRIENDS textbook. These fourteen kids are brilliant, so it doesn't take them long to figure out the lesson and run with it. We play games and memorize vocabulary. Sunlight comes in through the windows with a view of the green forests beyond.

At lunch everyone sits together in a cafeteria, which is not normal for Japanese schools; they usually stay in their designated classrooms to eat. All 56 students and 16 staff members fit into neat, narrow rows in the cafeteria. We wait for everyone to be served, then press our hands together once saying itadakimasu ("thanks for the meal") and begin to eat while different students go up to the front to relay more announcements, or to play a story on the CD player.

After saying gochisosama deshita ("I appreciated this meal") in unison, there's clean up and teeth brushing before the main event: hiruyasumi ("lunch recess"). I play tag/twirl/tickle with everyone. We play until I am exhausted, which is right when the bell rings for next class, and I go back to the teacher's room smiling and sweaty.

Any time I'm not with a class, I sit in the teacher's room making school projects such as book recommendation posters for the library, or my New Year's Wish for the Dreams board. Usually I write in my journal and watch time pass until I'm with the kids again.

At 4 p.m. I'm packed up to go home, and the staffroom thanks me repeatedly for coming. I exit the school with the kids waving and calling out to me from the club room. I wave back, get in my car, and drive back through the mountain-lined road, filled with a happiness that makes me shine with light. I'm already counting down to the next visit.


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