Okay, allow me to take a bit of a risk here, but I just HAVE to talk about this...
It was near the end of lunch break on Thursday, and I was sitting in the music office at Ye Olde Academy
. Suddenly the door opened, and in walked two 7th grade girls, both of whom were from my home room. One of them was lugging a music department CD player, and the other was thanking Mr. Ogawa for having let them borrow it.
Mr. Ogawa glanced up from his desk and asked, "So, how did the practice go?"
The girls responded by launching into a very emotional tirade. Not only had it not gone well, but it had been a total disaster. In fact, listening to them talk, it sounded like the class's entire effort to prepare for the upcoming Chorus Festival (mumbled, off-key fanfare)
was a total disaster. I had heard that things hadn't been good, but I hadn't suspected the picture to be quite so bleak.
The fact is that something has been very wrong with our class ever since the school's Anniversary Festival last September. Up till then they had been a very bright, spirited bunch with lots of (maybe even too
much) energy and personality. After the festival, however, it was like they'd all gone cold. During home room sessions and classes alike the kids would just sit at their desks dead silent, dark-faced, and distracted. You'd talk to them and, though they were quiet, you could just feel that they weren't hearing a word you said. Getting any kind of response out of them was like trying to encourage a moai
to smile. Tellingly, if you split them up into groups they'd suddenly come alive, returning to their pre-festival exuberance as if nothing had ever changed, but once the whole class was reunited it was like switching off a record player in the middle of a tune (if you have any idea what I'm talking about). It wasn't just me, either; I heard identical complaints from just about every teacher dealing with that class. The ones that seemed the most concerned were Mr. Ogawa and our vocal music teacher. My class was lagging well behind the other 7th grade classes in preparation for the Choral Contest (mumbled, off-key fanfare)
. It was like they had started out by giving up.
Interestingly, however, though the home room teacher herself knew there were problems, she either didn't know or didn't pay any attention to how serious those problems had become. As a veteran teacher who has earned a lot of respect, particularly with regard to student guidance, her indifference to if not ignorance of the situation surprised and disturbed me, but as her assistant I didn't want to overstep my boundaries.
Well, now it was clear to me that things were reaching a breaking point, so I decided to take a risk and take some action. Thursday is my home room teacher's "training day", so she usually leaves the class in my care, as she had on that day. I decided to take full advantage of the opportunity. As soon as lunch break ended I entered a room reservation in the computer. After sixth period ended I ran around to ask some favors from a few teachers, and then I went to closing home room. I quickly called the
kids to their desks, got them to at least pretend to turn their attention to me, gave my closing announcements with record speed, and then finished with a declaration that shocked all the kids out of their dark stupor:
"Today all cleaning details are canceled. We will now assemble in the AV Room for some intense practice for the Chorus Contest (mumbled, off-key fanfare)
. I will conduct it personally. Dismissed."
The kids immediately gathered themselves together and marched off to the AV Room, chattering among themselves in a confused manner. This was something they hadn't expected, and they didn't seem to know how to deal with it.
Once we were in the AV Room I told them to form up as if they were on stage. Most of them did so immediately, but some of the boys went right into horseplay mode. The looks of annoyance on the others' faces told me that that had been a regular problem.
"Look you guys," I said, "is the team going to work together, or are we going to give up and go home? You choose."
The boys told me they wanted the team to work together and fell into their ranks.
"Great," I said with a smile. "Now, where are the accompanist and the conductor?"
Gasps. Looks of bewilderment. "B-but sensei, we haven't gotten that far yet! We can only sing along with the CD..."
I shook my head. "I didn't bring you here to listen to a CD. I brought you here because I want to hear what you
can do. Where are the accompanist and the conductor?"
The accompanist and conductor for the compulsory piece sheepishly came forward, and the kids performed it. Actually, it wasn't what I'd expected at all. The kids sounded pretty good and, amazingly, were very much in tune! The problem was that they were singing the whole thing stuck in pianissimo mode (i.e. a couple of crickets and a medium-sized housefly could have overpowered them). It sounded like only two or three members of each section were singing while the others just pretended. I called them on that. I also led them through some warm-up exercises that my high school a cappella choir used to use. I'm sure most of the kids found it all bizarre if not amusing, but they participated, and we actually had some fun with it. After that they actually managed to coax a bit more gusto out of their singing.
The accompanist for the free piece was missing, so we used the CD, and I conducted. It was a more difficult piece, but now the class seemed a bit more fired up. The boys were still far weaker than the girls...though they outnumbered them...but they were sounding better. I was still amazed at how nice and IN TUNE
they sounded, though I knew the lack of power would hurt them in the contest. By now the members were starting to trickle away as bus and club schedules started to conflict, but I was surprised at the number of students that stayed and wanted to continue practicing long after I'd declared the session over...and even shut ME
down when I
started horsing around a bit! All in all we got a good hour and a half of solid rehearsing in, far more than I'd expected, and the change in the kids' demeanor already seemed dramatic to me.
I went back to the staff room to find the regular home room teacher there. I told her what had happened, and her reaction was difficult to read. It was kind of a combination of "Good job," "You did WHAT,
" "Why bother," "Why did YOU
do this," "I'm fed up with the whole thing," "Yeah, whatever. I'm busy," "You didn't need to interfere," and, "The kids actually did that?" I wasn't sure whether to feel good or even more disheartened, but I had put my hand on the bridle, and I wasn't going to be letting go.
Cut to Friday. The home room teacher was in, so she naturally took care of the class while I concentrated on my own lessons and chores. After school, however, I decided to take advantage of yet another opportunity. You see, ever since the Anniversary Festival ended and the strange problems in my class began, I had been determined to find out what was wrong, but I kept coming up empty. I had tried talking to students about it, but they'd always made it clear that they didn't want to discuss it. However, perhaps the most trustworthy girl in the class had joined the music club only a couple of weeks before, and now I just happened to see her coming out of the music classroom saying she was on her way to her class's chorus rehearsal.
"Excuse me," I said. "Can you give me a minute? I'd like to ask you something."
We proceeded to the nearby English department office, where the girl immediately gave me the whole story. It was like she'd been waiting all along for a chance to talk about it, and now it all came pouring out like silver dollars gushing out of a slot machine. I hit the jackpot, and I now had all the information I'd been hoping for: what happened during the preparations for the Anniversary Festival, the mistakes that had been made, the conflicts that had arisen, the soured relationships, the factionalism...
The girl didn't stop there. Still excitedly chattering like a tape player set at a high speed, she went on to describe how the class had tried to practice during lunch break again that day, but the same problems as before had arisen. Apparently thanks to my rehearsal and pep talk the day before, the other kids were now far less tolerant of the horseplay, but the troublemakers had responded by turning up the heat of their resistance. The leader of the alto/tenor section had wound up in tears, and the conductor of the free piece was saying she wanted to quit.
I sighed heavily and longed for a good, solid tree against which to bang my head.
"But sensei," the girl went on with a smile, "it's not all bad! After that happened, everyone sat down and talked about what we could do to make it better! It's sad that the one conductor wants to quit, but now the class wants
to practice! You should see the picture we drew together on the back blackboard! It's a symbol of our new sense of teamwork! It's so moving! Come and see! They're practicing now in the classroom, and [the home room teacher] is leading!"
My jaw dropped open. Even without the other things, that last bit was surprising enough. The home room teacher had made it clear, especially the day before, that she'd had no intention of intervening in the choral rehearsing and wasn't exactly appreciative of my interference. She'd wanted to leave it, as well as the solving of the problems, entirely up to the students themselves.
"Come and see!" said the girl again, now excited in a much more sparkling way. "I know everyone wants you to! Don't follow me back, though, because they'll be suspicious, but if you come down the hall I know they'll invite you in!"
Well, I did, and they did. She hadn't been kidding; it was a beautiful sight. The home room teacher was leading the rehearsal, and the kids were really into it. They sounded really good, too, though they still didn't have a whole lot of power. Of course, I couldn't help noticing that the most notorious screw-offs weren't there, but the change in the overall atmosphere was nothing short of dramatic. I have to say point blank that some of the most worrisome kids in the bunch were now proving to be an asset, putting their energy into teamwork rather than conflict. What was perhaps even more moving was the appreciation they expressed both to me and the home room teacher for (finally) getting involved. I get the impression that they'd all believed we didn't care. I hope we can continue to prove that assumption wrong...and actually have some real good come out of this. At least there's cause to hope now.(Sigh...why does my life keep seeming like an afterschool TV movie?)
And now for something completely different...and a WHOLE LOT WEIRDER...
We celebrated my father-in-law's birthday today. As usual, we got the whole family together for a dinner party followed by a cake and presents. Oh, and also photos. My father-in-law really likes his cameras. That was why my wife and I had decided to give him an Epson portable digital photo printer as his present this year. It turned out to have been a very good call; he fell in love with it immediately. You see, he had filled the compact flash card in his better digital camera (he has a few of them) with pictures over the past few years but, it turns out, he had never bothered to have them printed up. He has his own laptop and printer now, and I'd shown him how to connect his camera to it, but it was too complicated for him to bother with. He also wasn't willing to shell out the 20-30 yen per image cost for professional printing. Now he doesn't have to. The little Epson printer is quick, easy, and prints out nice-looking photos. I'm sure he would have happily printed up the entire 200+ image contents of his compact flash card if we hadn't talked him into doing just a few dozen tonight and saving the rest till tomorrow.
But that's not the weird story. That happened after I took my turn in the bath this evening.
Right after I'd left the in-laws' house, turned off their outside light, and headed toward my house, I glanced back and saw something strange. In the dark, I could see something small and white zip out from under a nearby stack of cement blocks and zig-zag quickly along the path toward the storage shed. My first impression was that it was probably a mouse; it was about the right size, and I'd seen mice there before (and Tora has caught quite a few of them!). However, all the mice I'd seen had been dark gray, and this thing was white. In fact, it was pure
white...to the point where it almost seemed luminous. No, it didn't give off any light per se, but it stood out plain, clear, and white even while moving through shadows under a cloudy night sky. It also moved in a very smooth, flowing manner at a constant speed without making any sound at all.
I watched it thinking, "Woah, is that a mouse, or what?" Then my mouth dropped open in surprise as the object all at once rose up about a foot (30cm) into the air and abruptly vanished
Needless to say, I went into my house very quickly.
For the record, I'd drunk one
can of beer about three hours before the experience. No, I'm not in the habit of hallucinating. Maybe it was a clever mouse with a penchant for optical illusion. Maybe it's time to give the neighbor dog a cheese sandwich. Maybe I'll keep Tora indoors tonight.