Take care of your students. Please.

On the very last day of school this year, we held the closing ceremony for the school term followed immediately by the send off ceremony for all the school staff who wouldn’t be returning for the school year. To say good-bye and thank you to the teachers who were leaving, many of the 6th graders who had graduated in last week’s ceremony came back with their parents to give gifts to and take even more photos with these and other teachers. I sat off to the side, watched the speeches, and at one point got a tap on the shoulder.

A round faced girl who had just graduated handed me a small envelope. “Thank you!” she said. I’d given here a small gift, a copy of the original Winnie the Pooh stories in English, as a graduation present.

It was mostly a gesture, rather than a reading recommendation. Her English isn’t native level. But, her sister’s was.

Normally, I give students who stand out small tokens of my appreciation when they graduate. But, those are typically letters and stationary. I’d only given this girl the book because she’d mentioned, over a year prior, that her among elder sister’s prized possessions was a set of books I’d given said big sister nearing her own graduation years prior. I’ve been at this school for almost half a decade. I’ve seen many siblings grow up and graduate. I’ve called big brothers by their little brothers’ names by accident. Kids come and go, but this girl’s older sister is a girl I can never forget.

It was my first year at this school that I met her. I instantly took notice. For the first part of the year we held English class in a side room near the music room instead of in the regular classrooms. Each class, students would bring their books and pencil cases and sit at long, college style tables. Unlike the assigned seating of a regular classroom, kids got to sit wherever they wanted in English class. Boys clustered near the back, girls in their cliques. But one girl, one round faced girl with a very pink wardrobe, always seemed to sit alone.

I know she wasn’t entirely alone in her school life. She had friends. Maybe it was just English class. She was what they call a “Returnee” or “Kikokushijo”. She’d spent a formative part of her life abroad and spoke native English. She was a regular Japanese kid, who was also a regular American kid. And, when she first made small talk with me, her American accent was like birds song to my ears.

It’s easy to guess that her level of English was intimidating in English class. But, she never resented coming to class. I tried to dote on her, to praise her, to thank her for her participation. I felt like nothing I did was ever enough. I wanted to give this poor girl the world. But, I settled on a handful of notes, a few books, and once, a pack of gel pens. It was a hard year for me. The school’s curriculum and scheduling were all over the place. I did not give her or her class the same level of teaching that I am capable of now. But, she was never critical. She was always kind. She always played the games, did the activities, and joined in the conversations.

But that was years ago, right?

It wasn’t until her little sister mentioned it that it even occurred to me that the memory of me might have stayed with this girl. Her sister was too young during their time family’s time abroad to have the perfect bilingual tongue big sis had picked up. But, she had the same gentle nature and round face. I waited to open the letter she’d given me after the ceremony was over and the students had gone home.

The stationary was appropriate. AnnaYuki! With my pale skin and braided hair, I’ve been compared to Elsa from Frozen since the film came out in Japan. The gift was appropriate, too: A pack of pencil lead in a case with my favorite character from the anime the 6th graders were all into this year. I did that magic trick where, despite being an adult, I was able to name all the characters on the nerdy girl’s folder that one time and from then on they knew. Teacher is one of us!

But the letter hit me like a ton of bricks. The top half of the page was sweet, simple Japanese from little sis thanking me for the book. The bottom half was big sis, basically on her way to high school, chiming in.

The last line of her note was:

Please come to my school!

I mean it’s a joke. It’s a silly teasing line. Lots of kids come back from the endless busy work and spelling tests of junior high English class and tell me they miss my classes where all we did was chit chat about ourselves using the grammar pattern of the day. Not quizzes! No homework! Awesome!

But it made my heart ache. She graduated years ago. She’s a teenager now. She’s well on her way to her awesome, adult life. But, she still had it in her to grab her baby sister’s note to teacher and teasingly invite me, the bumbling teacher who never did nearly enough for her, to be her teacher again.

And then I thought about the other, sweet girl who I had given a graduation gift to. Her family hadn’t spent time abroad, her family was, at least in part, foreign born. I had done the same for her. She had written me letters to practice her language skills, and I had always quickly, joyfully written back. The first time I heard her name, so different from her peers’ names, I praised it’s beauty and uniqueness. She repaid every bit of kindness with kindness of her own. And I hope that in three years, when she, too, is on her way to high school, that she can look back and say she had a nice teacher. I hope she, too, can look back and say she had a teacher who saw her differences for the strengths that they were. I want so much for them and their futures.

I beg of you. Take care of your students. Especially the different ones.

I’m the foreign teacher. Students who are touched by “foreignness” always seem to be shoved toward me by their peers, whether they choose it or not. I have always and will always give them the praise, adoration, and reverence they deserve. You should, too.

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Full Disclosure

It’s March which means lots of new AETs/ALTs are graduating college and getting jobs in Japan. You may be getting ready to fly out now! But, while there’s lots of vague information out there about the transition, specifics can be hard to come by. So, to let you know what you’re financially getting into, here’s a break down of what I make and what I pay.

I work full time hours as an ALT/AET, but my contract is for gyomu itaku; an  outsourcing or dispatch contract. For this work I make full salary 8 months out of the year, and a reduced salary for four months covering winter break, spring break, and summer break.

Yearly Income: 2,600,000 yen

Rent: 62,000 yen per month

Internet: 6,000 yen per month, paid to two different companies

Smart Phone: 10,000 yen per month

Power, Water, and Gas Utilities: 30,000 per month in winter, 18,000 yen per month in summer

Health Insurance: 15,000 yen per month for 9 months each year

I have never received a raise at any of the places I have worked in Japan. In order to increase my salary, I have had to leverage my experience to get a better job at a different company. Initially, I worked multiple part time jobs to pay the bills, but I prefer one regular job to several more lucrative ones with irregular hours. Also, it is much easier to make ends meet while sharing a living space with someone else.

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Treat Yourself

Pro-tip: Get a chalk holder. In winter especially, the feeling of chalk dust on my fingers is just disgusting. It gets all over my clothes and my hands and I just accepted that horrible situation for years. But, there is another way! One of the third grade teachers had one of these. I grabbed it and used it in class and was blown away. Not only does this puppy have a thick, pen-sized barrel, but the cap has a powerful magnet to stick it to the chalkboard when not in use. Never have to hunt for scraps of chalk on the fly ever again! I carry this in my regular pencil case. No mess! I got mine at Tokyu Hands, but they sell it on Amazon.co.jp for pretty cheap, too.

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The 6 Kids I Have in Every Class

It seems like every class has these six kids.

Justice Kid

Justice Kid can be identified by their favorite word: “Zurui!” Everything is, “No Fair!” Before every game, the Justice Kid must ask at least five questions about all possible contingencies to make sure that all possible rules are written in stone. Justice Kid will then make sure every kid follows those rules on threat of death. Justice Kid will call out for teacher to settle all disputes because Justice Kid is always right. Justice is on Justice Kid’s side, after all. Justice Kid will not settle for fun. Justice Kid demands it be fair.

Meme Kid

Meme Kid knows what’s hot right now. Meme Kid will tell you what’s hot right now. And, Meme Kid will not let that Meme die until the next Meme is in full swing. Meme Kid is the kid who has to sing PPAP in every lesson. Meme Kid is the one who knows Koi Dance backwards and forwards. Meme Kids of years past wanted to know “WHY JAPANESE PEOPLE???” and they wanted to know it when? “IMA DESHO!” Meme Kid is like the internet, but in a tiny kid body. At least Meme Kid keeps me on my toes in terms of pop culture.

Future Television Personality or Career Criminal

I can never tell which one this is. In another generation, in another country, I’d maybe call this kid the class clown. But, they’re more than that. Really, Meme Kid is more of the class clown. This is the kid who can do Crazy Eyes at you. This is the kid who gets in your face without fear. Last year, this is the kid who waltzed into the principal’s office and pretended to BE the principal. For the most part, this kid is a boy. And, for the most part, this kid is entertaining. And then they do that one thing that makes me wonder how long it will take before this kid is in jail.

Same Jersey Everyday Kid

Before meeting a small army of Same Jersey Everyday Kids I used to think that anime series where the main characters never changed their clothes were unrealistic. They are not unrealistic. There really are kids who just wear the same clothes all of the time. I can’t tell if most of them do so because mom has given up, or if mom tries that much harder. It’s seldom Same Tshirt Everyday, either. It’s almost always Same Jersey Everyday. Most of these kids are sporty kids who have one super expensive Under Armor shirt or official Barcelona FC jersey that they never take off. Occasionally it’ll be a girl with a pop culture shirt. Hell, in one first grade class it was a girl with a My Little Pony rainbow tutu dress that she wore everyday. But, it’s almost always a dust covered jersey.

The Hidden Twin

I have never spotted a set of twins on the first day. Same with nearly identical siblings of different ages. Sometimes, it isn’t even actual relatives, just besties that dress alike and wear their hair exactly the same. It’s like being in the Matrix and seeing that glitchy deja vu cat. In every class there’s a kid that I could have sworn I already saw today. Oh, right. That’s because I had your brother in second period. Oh right. That’s because I saw your twin in the hall. Oh right. That’s because your best friend owns the exact same set of hair clips and tshirts.

The “Eigo Wakannai” Kid

Eigo Wakannai Kid doesn’t have to speak English, duh. Eigo Wakannai Kid is Japanese. Japanese people don’t speak English, duh. Hell hath no fury like an Eigo Wakannai Kid who learns about WWII in history class.

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Red String

Some of these kids are just dangerous.

In one of my wild school’s 6th grade classes there’s this sweet faced boy who hasn’t had his first big puberty growth spurt yet. Most of his friends are taller than me, this kid is like four inches shorter. He’s got shining innocent eyes and fluffy hair. He’s what the internet would call a cinnamon roll.

He’s also deceptively impish. This junior Loki or Pan or what have you came up with the genius idea of bringing a pack of red string (well, red embroidery floss) to class. I asked him about it and no, there were no craft projects. No, there was no other reason. The kid had just brought red string to school to tie around other kids wrists to cause mischief.

You see, a red string of fate is a thing that exists out here. An invisible red string connects those bound by fate. It also pops up in the recent movie “Bakemono no Ko”/”The Beast and the Boy” where the boy ties one symbolically around the wrist of the girl he likes. Well, our little evil genius had his seat mate tie one around my wrist and cut me a second length to give to my love. I just tied it to my work notebook because… Because.

He then went off to recess to sow the seeds of anarchy in a bunch of 12-year-olds’ lives. The best to you, kid. You will go far in life.

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There’s no such thing as Half.

For a white person who grew up with some serious white privilege in a predominantly white city with a history of segregation, the problem of Japanese racial discrimination of children isn’t one I have any real vocabulary or experience to deal with. But last week I had something of a classroom break through. It came from the Japanese language itself.

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