Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Rougher Path

It was 1993.  My friend Jeff, who was teaching at an international school in Tokyo, had given me an unexpected request.  He had been asked to be the Scoutmaster of their BSA troop.  However, not only did he have no Scouting experience, but he wasn't even American!  I, on the other hand, was American and an Eagle Scout.  I was asked to be the troop's Assistant Scoutmaster, and I jumped at the chance.  Unfortunately, time and distance constraints kept me from participating very much, but I was at least able to be there for one very important event:  the Iditarod Survival Sled Race (cheesy synthesizer fanfare)

The race was actually held in the mid-winter snow of Camp Tama at the base of Mt. Fuji.  Each patrol of each troop had to prepare a sled and equip it with whatever gear they thought they'd need for a snow trek.  As they took their sled along the race course, they'd encounter various stations, each one of which gave them a situation which they had to resolve using their skills, whatever they had on their sled or persons, and the local environment.  It was a challenging and very interesting event.

There were several Japan-based BSA troops participating, but we were the only one not from one of the American military bases.  In fact, only two of our boys were even American.  That made for some pretty awkward situations, since the military parents accompanying the other troops weren't aware of the special rules for non-Americans our kids had to follow (e.g. standing at attention at the flag ceremony but not saluting).  Some of their boys also had issues with the fact that our boys spoke with various accents.  I had to defuse a number of tense situations.  However, the most inflammatory encounter was yet to come.

Once we were settled in our respective campsites and our tents pitched in the snow, the leaders were told to gather in the HQ building for a briefing.  Jeff and I went, and as soon as we entered the corrugated metal building, we were hit in the face with a barrage of loud 4-letter words.  There was a man there, imposing, built like a brick wall, and obviously of some importance to the event.  He was clearly military, but his branch and rank were uncertain.  However, his state of total inebriation was abundantly clear.  His constant, slurred abuse pretty much filled the room and made any kind of rational discussion out of the question.  The rest of us tried to talk about the next day's race while he loudly insulted us and urged us to help him drink the beer.  The other leaders quickly melted away; it didn't take long before Jeff and I realized to our horror we were the only ones left in the room with the soused soldier...which meant it was the hardest for us to escape.  Long after we'd left him alone, we could hear the man bellowing obnoxiously from inside the HQ.  We were pretty shaken up by the time we made it back to our campsite.

The next morning they tried to have the briefing again and were a bit more successful.  We were given our job assignments.  It turned out that Jeff and I would be manning one of the race stations together with one of the senior leaders from the Council.  We got our gear together, hiked out to the indicated location, and...(any guesses as to where this is going?).  There, eying us levelly and looking even more imposing in a Native American wig and sergeant's drill hat, was none other than the scary guy from the night before.  As we drew close and answered his greeting (trying not to look too nervous), we wondered what short end of what stick we'd somehow drawn.

Actually, as it turned out, the guy was AWESOME!   I mean, seriously!  Not only was he just a blast to hang out with and talk to, but he was a veritable fountain of knowledge, all of it the result of good, solid experience.  He had a good supply of anecdotes which he was able to deliver without it wearing thin.  As the race went on and the patrols started showing up, Jeff and I were only too happy to defer to his judgment and back him up as required.  He explained every point as we went, and he didn't hesitate to pounce on me (with good humor) when I said something inaccurate to a Scout.  (After that I said, "I'm a schoolteacher.  Can you tell?"  We had a good laugh about it.)  He was firm but fair with his judgment, giving praise when it was earned or criticism when it was due and making damned sure the Scouts left our station a bit wiser.  Actually, Jeff and I learned a lot.

Afterward, Jeff said it was too bad we hadn't taken him up on his offer of sharing the beer the night before.  He'd definitely more than made up for the unfortunate first impression.  In fact, I'd say he'd made a solid impact on our lives.

Which is why first impressions should NEVER be our sole measure of a person's worth.  Sometimes the most unlikely of characters, the most obnoxious, or even the scariest, can turn out to be the ones with the most to offer.  The path to wisdom is often a very rough one, and that can include the souls we come across along the way.  If experience is the best teacher, then those with experience are a very close second...and experience can tend to leave people a bit weathered, after all.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Recreation or Non-Creation?

"Okay," said the grade chief.  "Next we need to choose the duty assignments."

I perked up as best I could in my half-zombified state.  Meetings have never been my forte, especially when they're all in Japanese, especially when one person drones on and on and on (as someone just had), but this was important.  Grade 8 Outdoor School (uncertain fanfare) was only a month away, and we had to choose who would be in charge of what.  The fact that I'd never taught grade 8 before, let alone participated in the yearly Outdoor School, meant that it was yet another new challenge.

Most members of our grade staff either already had a clear choice in mind or were the obvious choice themselves, so I kept my mouth shut as they went down the list.  Most of those assignments weren't anything I wanted to deal with, anyway.  But then something interesting rolled by.
"Shikiten?" asked the grade chief.  "Who wants to do it?"
"What's that?" I asked.
"All of the ceremonies," I was told.  "The opening ceremony, morning greetings..."
Potential!  "Let me do that!" I cried.
"Okay.  [Moody], shikiten.  Next..."

I was pleased.  I still had plenty of memories from my own Outdoor School, Boy Scout, and International Camp experiences.  There were so many ways I could spice up those otherwise stuffy ceremonies without any trouble.  At any rate, it was a good chance to have a bit of fun!  But then...

"I'll do shikiten," said Ms. GN, the home ec teacher.
 My dancing spirits froze in their tracks.  Ms. GN was always a very strict, by-the-book type.
"I've done it before," she went on.  "I still have the timetables and scripts from last time."

Oh, no...

"Very well, Ms. GN," replied the grade chief.  "You can be in charge.  [Moody], she knows what to do, so just leave it to her and give whatever support she needs."
"Okay," I replied with all the enthusiasm of a lump of coal.

After the meeting, as the grade staff returned to the staff room, I went to Ms. GN and, without much hope, offered, "I have all kinds of ideas.  I've done lots of camp events over the years, and there are some things I'd like to try to make it more interesting!"
She gave me her characteristic, totally-unreadable expression and replied in her characteristic, totally-unreadable tone, "There's no time.  The whole Outdoor School will be on a tight schedule from start to finish.  We have to follow the plan.  There is a script.  You can get a copy of it from the teacher who did it last year.  That's what we will do."

Any enthusiasm I might have had for the damned thing disappeared faster than a beetle in a bullfrog tank.  The other teachers clearly read that vibe, because Ms. HE then said, "Look, if you want to be creative, you shouldn't do shikiten.  Tell you what; I'll help Ms. GN with that.  Why don't you help Mr. WF with recreation?"
"The campfire!"
Ohhhh.....  "Yes!  Yes!  Let me do that!"
Mr. WF seemed only too happy to oblige.  He told me he'd let me be in charge of managing the campfire events, and he'd take care of the other activities.  Once again my enthusiasm came back with a sonic boom.

Not long after that, they chose the student reps for the different duty roles, and the first meeting was held to discuss the campfire program.  For some reason, nobody bothered to tell me.

"I forgot you were doing this," said Mr. WF sheepishly.  "Everyone thinks you're doing shikiten."
"What about my suggestions?" I asked.
Mr. WF pursed his lips.  "I wasn't sure, so I just suggested the students follow the usual program.  They do pretty much the same thing every year, and I figured that would be easier..."
He showed me the tentative Program of Chronically Unoriginal Lameness, and I looked at it with dismay.  It was bad enough that it was just a list of very patronizing, "Okay, children, let's do this!  Okay, children, now let's do this!" It was worse that there was nowhere near enough to fill the entire hour without dragging things out to death.  It was horrible; a nightmare.
"Look," I said, "I have years of experience with campfires.  Why don't we try a little bit of American style?"
He shrugged and asked what I meant.  I offered some ideas.  I told him about the funny "claps" we did at Scout Camp.  Maybe an easy call-and-repeat cheer.  I suggested that each class choose members to do a skit or song.  He reacted with both intrigue and disbelief at my descriptions, but he finally said, "The next meeting is on Wednesday.  Why don't you discuss it with the student reps then?"

At the next grade staff meeting, I told my idea to the other teachers and was met with almost open hostility.  "We're too busy!" they railed.  "We don't have time for anything new!  Besides, the program should be made and carried out by the student reps, not opened up to the classes!"  I told them Mr. WF and I would discuss it with the student reps on Wednesday, and left it at that.

Wednesday rolled around, and Mr. WF wasn't at the morning meeting.  Other teachers told me he was out for the day.  I was also never told when and where the meeting with the students reps was supposed to be taking place.  Stumped, I figured I'd try to collect them after school to discuss the issue.  But then, after lunch break, Mr. WF suddenly came into the English room!

"I've been here the whole time!" he insisted.  "Anyway, I met with the student recreation reps, and I told them your plan as best I could, but..."
He clicked his tongue and sucked air through his teeth, which is Japanese for, "This is probably going to piss you off, and I really don't want to have to deal with you, but..." and he said, "They think your idea is too much trouble.  It's easier just to follow the usual plan.  If you want to talk to them yourself, that's okay, but...they really have their hearts set on following the usual plan."
I sighed with disgust and contemplated launching into a tirade about how we didn't need committees, assignments, or people with brains, just instructional videos and trays to collect the drool, but I left it at a very black, "Got it."

There was no mention of it at all at the next grade staff meeting despite all the misgivings the time before.  Either Mr. WF had worked it all out with them in advance or everybody just figured it was only natural that my silly, foreign ideas were ignored in favor of the "proper" plan.

Anyway, I have resolved to have nothing whatsoever to do with the campfire, and it doesn't sound like I'm needed, anyway.  My job will be managing the fireworks they're insisting on doing on the first night despite the objections and the injuries that happened last year.  Mr. WF won't be there for that, so that responsibility is on my neck..