Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Day of Reckoning

Last Thursday was just another day at work for me, but for the crowd of junior high school students who flooded our parking lot, Thursday was immensely important. It was The Day of Reckoning.

A little explanation first. The Japanese school system is structured differently than the American school system. In America, all kids attend their neighborhood public school whether they are Einstein Jr. or more of the ilk of Beavis & Butthead. Brilliant or brainless, all troop to the same school. Not so in Japan. Here, students are grouped by intelligence level — or to be more accurate, by their ability to achieve a certain score on a test. All junior high students must take entrance exams to get into high school, and some schools have higher requirements than others. Joe and I both teach at what are considered to be "high academic" high schools, though Joe's students are more like the A or A+ variety whereas mine are more like a solid B.

It's extremely important for students to get into a good high school. Students at the best high schools get into the best colleges and go on to work at the best companies. Students at the lower-end schools get cut out of that fold. Testing into a mediocre high school can pretty much doom a kid to a life of mediocrity. As Joe would say, "It's like they just failed at life."

On Thursday all the junior high students who applied to my high school as their top choice school came to find out whether they got in. Around 420 or so kids took the test, but only 320 get in. My school printed up these huge signs showing the student identification numbers of all those who were accepted. The signs were taken onto the balcony of the teacher's office on the second floor, tied to the railing and laid on the inside where no one could see them.

Late in the morning, all the kids gathered in the parking lot below the balcony. When the clock struck noon, the teachers picked up the signs and dropped them over the edge. The students crammed together and craned their necks in anticipation, rapidly scanning the signs for their ID number. Almost immediately, screams of joy burst out as students found their number and excitedly jumped up and down, hugging their friends. Others, meanwhile, continued squinting up at the boards, scanning silently once, twice, three times, frantically searching for a number that wasn't there. Reality sunk in and their faces crumpled, tears flowed, hysterical cries rose up. It was a scene of ecstatic joy and crushing disappointment all flowing together.

I felt truly bad for those students who didn't get in. It seemed a horribly humiliating way to learn their fate. It's like applying to school is reduced to the level of going to check the locker room door to find out if you made the cut for the football team. Except, you know, you're finding out if you made the cut for a good life.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

We love kaki!

Yaki kaki (grilled oysters)

One of the things I know I'll deeply miss about Hiroshima some day is the oysters. They are so delicious — and nutritious, so I don't feel guilty eating them. Supposedly the oysters cultivated in Hiroshima are more nutritious than those produced elsewhere.

Hiroshima is actually the leading oyster producer in Japan, cultivating some 30,000 tons per year, and the February/March time-frame is the high point of the oyster season. That means a lot of the little fishing towns along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea have oyster festivals around this time, the biggest one being the Kaki (Oyster) Festival at Miyajima. Joe and I hit it up a few weeks ago hoping to stuff ourselves silly on yaki kaki (hehe...hehehe! Oh how I love Japanese sometimes), but found that at 500 yen for two grilled oysters, they weren't any less expensive than usual.

So I was in for a nice surprise today when Joe and I paid a visit to a little neighborhood market that sells locally grown produce and found a couple guys grilling oysters in front of the store and selling them two for 100 yen. We happily bought a plate, and then one of the guys dished up a couple extra for us, being glad to chat with the neighborhood gaijin, I guess. His generosity paid off for him because we ended up buying a couple bags of the de-shelled oysters to cook up tomorrow for dinner. I left happy as a clam (er... oyster). Try finding that at Kroger!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It's Graduation Day once again

Me with the English Club girls on Graduation Day

March 1 is Graduation Day in Japan. This morning's commencement ceremony was the second I've seen here now, and it was basically the same as last year — very solemn and subdued with lots of speeches and bowing and students looking melancholy. The kids who graduated today were juniors when I arrived in Japan, and since I rarely teach juniors, I didn't have many opportunities to teach most of these kids. A few, however, were seniors in the Advanced English class I taught this year, and the two girls in the picture above were members of the English Club I advise. I'll miss them. The girl on the right is going to major in English in Osaka.

I wish I could say I understood some of what was said at the graduation, but the truth is I couldn't. My vocabulary and listening comprehension still isn't nearly good enough to follow formal speeches spoken at a natural pace. I can pick out words here and there that I know, but I don't know enough yet to tie it all together and understand what's being said.

During the principal's speech, I was, however, able to recognize the beginning of a quote that he repeated from William Smith Clark, an American much loved in Hokkaido. Clark was a Massachusetts professor who lived in Sapporo (where we saw the Snow Festival) for a short time in 1876. While he was there, he helped establish Hokkaido University and, before returning to the U.S., impressed some students by urging them, "Boys, be ambitious!" The slogan caught fire around Hokkaido and remains famous still today. I saw the quote on several snow sculptures at the Snow Festival, which is how I learned about it.

To the graduates the principal recited the full quote: "Boys, be ambitious. Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for that attainment of all that a man ought to be."

Sounds like good advice for new grads.

Sitting through all the speeches without a clue otherwise, I'd hoped to hear everyone sing the Japanese version of "Auld Lang Syne" to break up the monotony, but no such luck. Of course we're all used to hearing "Auld Lang Syne" on New Year's Eve, but in Japan the song is played at graduation ceremonies instead. (Department stores play the song at closing time, too, to tell customers it's time to get out.) My supervisor tells me that about three-quarters of schools play the song at graduation, but my school happens to do a different song instead.

Anyway, the tune is the same but the lyrics are different in Japanese, and instead of "Auld Lang Syne," it's called "Hotaru no Hikari," which means "Light of Fireflies." The words translate roughly to, "We studied hard using the glow of fireflies in summer and by the light reflected through the window by the snow in winter. Now the days have passed and it is a time to say good bye."

Maybe I can convince them to play the song at next year's graduation — my last. Though, I'm pretty sure it would make me cry. Next year the students graduating will be the ones who came to the school shortly before I arrived, so I will have gone through their high school careers along with them.

Speaking of next year's graduation being my last, I guess I ought to mention that Joe and I just renewed our contracts to stay and teach a third year, so we'll remain here until August 2010. It was a pretty easy decision for us. The main reason is that we need more time to study Japanese, but also... I just didn't feel ready to leave yet. Japan is a fascinating place and I'm thoroughly enjoying exploring the country and the culture — not to mention the opportunities we have here to visit other countries in east and southeast Asia. Even after a year and a half it still feels like a great adventure. Though, I wouldn't mind some hot wings here...BW3's better watch out when we come home in April!