Saturday, September 02, 2006

First day of school

I’m happy to report I survived my first day on the job as a junior high school English teacher.

Fortunately, there weren’t any classes so I didn’t have to teach. Unfortunately, I did have to give a three-minute speech in Japanese in front of the entire school at the opening ceremony. Have I mentioned that I don’t speak Japanese? Right. You can probably guess how this is going to go.

I was given a week to write, translate and memorize my speech. A very sweet, old retired teacher who keeps showing up at school in a shirt and tie every morning despite the fact that he no longer works there took it upon himself to help me with my speech.

The first day of school finally arrived on Friday. I showed up 20 minutes early but I was the last person to arrive. I sat down at my desk, which is conveniently located right next to the kitchen (“kitchen” meaning “smoking room”), and silently ran through my speech.

At 9:00 a.m. I was ushered into the gym for the opening ceremony. Most of the teachers were carrying an extra pair of shoes to wear inside the gym. I, of course, did not bring an extra pair of shoes and was told to take off my slippers before entering the gym. This meant that I was now barefoot. As if I wasn’t self-conscious enough already.

I joined the other teachers in the back of the gym. All 350 students lined up in rows near the front. There were a couple of military drills. Attention! At ease! Bow! And then all the students sang a song while the music teacher accompanied them on the piano.

The principal walked up on stage and gave a long, drawn-out speech in Japanese. And then suddenly, I heard three familiar words: Sarah Denise Marchildon. All heads turned towards me. I just stood there and smiled until I caught the principal gesturing wildly for me to come to the stage. But in order to get to the front of the gym, I had to squeeze my way through the students first. There were a lot of eyes looking down at my bare feet.

Up on stage, I set my cue cards down on the podium and adjusted the microphone. I started my speech with a big smile and an enthusiastic “Hello, everyone! Nice to meet you!” The response? Absolutely nothing. Not one smile. Nothing but a sea of blank stares.

I was caught off guard but I forged ahead in badly accented Japanese. About halfway through the speech, I asked if anyone liked English. The response? Absolutely nothing. Not one smile. Nothing but a sea of blank stares.

I pasted on a big smile and mustered an enthusiastic-sounding “Please raise your hand if you like English!” The response? Absolutely nothing. Not one hand in the air. Nothing but a sea of blank stares.

Sensing that I was floundering, the principal tried to bail me out. He jumped in front of the first row of students and starting yelling frantically while waving his hands wildly in the air. One or two students grudgingly raised their hands.

I was so rattled I completely forgot the second half of my speech so I ended up reading it off the cue cards. And then I got the hell off the stage. They may have applauded. They may not have. I honestly don’t remember.

After the opening ceremony finally ended, the students headed back to their classrooms for exams (yes, exams on the first day of school) and I went back to my desk in the staff room, mistakenly believing the worst was over.

That’s right. The humiliation didn’t end with the speech. That was just a warm-up. At 3:15 p.m. one of the teachers came running over to my desk and said it was “cleaning time.” The teacher said I should help out because it’s a good way to chat with the students one-on-one.

She ushered me into a classroom and handed me a rag. She told me to join a group of three girls who were crouched down on all fours, cleaning the floor. I kneeled down on the ground and tucked my skirt between my legs in order to avoid flashing the group of teenage boys who were pushing brooms around the room.

After about two minutes of crouching on all fours, polishing the floor with a rag, I noticed that the boys had stopped pushing the brooms around. Instead of cleaning, they were standing the corner, elbowing each other while staring at me with ear-to-ear grins on their faces. That’s when I realized that they could see straight down my top as my shirt fell forward away from my chest as I leaned over to clean the floor.

If I had known all it took was a little cleavage to get them animated, I would have worn a bustier for my speech.

By the time school ended, I was craving a stiff drink. Fortunately, the teachers invited me out for dinner, drinks and karaoke. Over dinner, a few teachers went out of their way to tell me my speech was “great” and that the students were shy but they’d warm up to me in time.

As the night went on, and the teachers became more rowdy and uninhibited, I started to feel better. Funny how a few drinks and karaoke can do that. The principal even invited me to climb Mount Fuji with him next summer and I think I’m going fishing with the 22-year-old PE teacher in a few weeks.

It was so much fun that I’m actually looking forward to going back to school on Monday.

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