I guess I’d better get out my Swiffer duster (hah! How I wish I had one in Japan) and clear off this blog. In other words: I’m sorry for letting this go so long without posting. Like many people, I don’t feel that my life is that interesting, and worry that it would be a waste of people’s time to read my blog. But hey, this is the internet! There’s millions of blogs out there. If people don’t like mine, they just won’t read it. So I’m going to do my best to keep this up from now on, even if that means posting more about the little things that I do with my life, like fashion and idols and food, and less posting about Japanese culture and work. There are tons of people out there who blog about Japanese culture and being an English teacher in Japan, right? No matter what I post about though, I’m going to do my best to keep it thought-provoking and interesting!
In the three months since I last posted, one major thing that’s happened in my life is that my student participated in the city-wide English speech contest. For this contest, the participating student must write her own speech in English and then deliver it without reading at the competition. This can be challenging for many reasons (the students aren’t taught much about composition in their English classes at school since composition isn’t on the high school entrance exams and often have a very limited vocabulary; the students tend to be timid and poor at projecting to an audience; the students often are shy and afraid to use gestures or facial expressions to emphasize their speeches, to name a few), but they do usually have the help of an ALT, and so I saw it as my job to try to make up for any deficiencies in my student’s English education so far.
This year’s contest meant a lot to me in particular because of my experience with last year’s city-wide speech contest. When I first arrived in Japan last year, I was tossed headlong into the English speech contest– it falls at a really unfortunate time any time an ALT leaves, because the speech contest student is generally without guidance from when they start practicing at the beginning of August until the second or third week of August when the new ALT starts coming to work. And even then, the new ALT has little idea of what she’s doing, which makes it a little hard to advise. I remember feeling jetlagged, lost, and unsure of what my duties as a teacher would be, and then on top of it all, I was supposed to be helping a student individually with something important. It was scary and overwhelming, and I didn’t know what I was doing.
Last year, my student was really good at English. She wrote her whole speech with very little help, and practiced it on her own. She was able to give it with very little accent and memorized it without any assistance from me. Because I felt timid and unsure in my new environment at the time, I gave her a few comments and corrections, but I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t want to give her the wrong advice. Still, I felt that she was talented and hoped that she could do well even despite my lack of guidance.
Unfortunately, she didn’t place at the contest. She cried the entire way back to school afterwards, and I felt like it was all my fault. I felt like this was a premonition for my job as an ALT. I had failed her by not helping, and now, despite the fact that it wasn’t her fault, she had lost. I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind and put my best foot forward for my job, which was filled with ups and downs (as shown on my blog throughout 2012 and early 2013), but in the back of my mind I was worried that I would fail my student again the next year.
And so this year, I was determined to do my best to help and support whatever student was chosen. The speech contest is in early September, and so as summer drew near, I began holding my breath, until finally, I was informed that my absolute favourite student would be the student competing. This student worked harder than any other at English, tried her best to say her Rs and Ls correctly, spoke with confidence, and did everything in her power to improve her English abilities in class. More than anything, I wanted for her to succeed.
And so I poured myself into the speech contest practices. Despite the fact that again, with only one year of speech contest experience under my belt, I felt lost and awash, grasping for good coaching techniques, I did whatever I could. I spent hours helping her translate her Japanese speech into English, practicing the speech until she memorized it, and teaching her all the tricks I’d used in my youth to memorize speeches for school. I recorded myself reading the speech so that she could copy my tone and inflection, I guided her through translating it back into Japanese so she really understood each word despite how the wording slightly changed in the translation process. I added gestures. I told her where to slow down, where to speed up. I taught her emphasis. And all the while, despite how difficult it was for her, despite how different from Japanese it was, despite everything, she tried so hard to be perfect. And by the end, she was.
And I was happy. As long as she did her best, I was happy, and I knew that if she felt like she did her best, she would be happy, too. But in my experience, when we do our best and some arbitrary authority tells us it wasn’t good enough, that’s the hardest of all, and so I was terrified of the judging. I wrote her a letter wishing her good luck and telling her she’d always be number one to me, but in the end, I knew my opinion didn’t matter nearly as much as that of the omnipotent judges (who have been known in the past to give make judgements that I personally don’t agree with).
I was a nervous wreck on the day of the speech contest. I almost threw up at lunch, and my hands shook as I taught my morning classes. I was so invested in seeing her succeed, in not seeing her crushed the way my student was last year, that I was making myself ill. But despite all my worrying, she delivered her speech beautifully. She didn’t falter once, and she spoke with more passion than I ever could have expected from a middle school student who was speaking a language she had only barely come to understand over the past three years. I cried at the end of her performance, and I was prouder than I’ve ever been in my life, but the worst was yet to come. Knowing that she’d done her absolute best, I couldn’t handle it if she wasn’t rewarded. Last year, I hadn’t known what I was doing. This year, if I’d done everything I could with my year’s experience as an ALT and still failed her, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.
At the end of the contest, they announced the results from sixth place to first. I could barely breathe. With each name that was announced, my hopes dwindled. Last year, I’d been confident in my student and she hadn’t even placed, so this year, it was hard to believe, even despite the difference in my involvement and understanding. When second place was announced and it wasn’t her, I began to cry; I thought it was all over. There was no possibility in my mind that she had won first place.
And then she did.
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my entire life, or at least, not in the same way. I felt like as a teacher I was really able to help one of my students succeed, and that’s been the best feeling so far. Even if sometimes, the job is frustrating, or confusing, or scary, or lonely, and even if sometimes I disagree with what my students learn in class and how English is taught here, knowing I was really able to help one of my students learn, grow, improve, and overcome an obstacle really makes me happy.
…now I just have to keep this up for next year’s contest!