Thursday, March 29, 2007

Best. Photo. Ever.

I’m traveling around Japan with my family right now so I wasn’t planning on updating my blog until after they left. But then my friend Linda sent me a photo too awesome to keep to myself.

That’s Linda sitting beside George Stroumboulopoulos. Linda’s photo is great but the story behind it is even better. Since I’m too busy to write anything right now, I’ll let Linda tell the story in her own words (think of her as a guest blogger while I entertain my family). Take it away, Linda:

I went to The Hour last Wednesday . . . During the shows, I chatted with audience members. At the regular show, I chatted with a couple. They wanted to take a photo with George using their camera phone. I offered to take a photo with my camera and email it later. The guy happened to know how to use a SLR so he said he could take a photo of me with George. I was thrilled because people usually freak out when they find out it isn’t a point and shoot camera or the photo always comes out bad. I hate to admit this, thinking that nobody would know how to use my camera, I was actually going to leave without meeting George.

Your photo/sign: We were at the end of the line. Had there been other people behind us, I'm not sure that this photo would have happened. I chatted with George for a bit about career stuff (he's the real thing and such a sweetie). When it came time to take a photo, I asked if we could sit in the interview chairs. George was happy to do that. After the photo, I said "I think I'll send this to my friend Sarah. She's teaching English in Japan. She'll get a kick out of this." I have no idea why I said that. That thought hadn't crossed my mind, but the words just came out of my mouth!

To my surprise, George asks if I'm referring to Sarah Marchildon. Still surprised, I think I replied with “yes, Sarah from the Suzuki Foundation.” I can’t recall his exact words, but I think he said “Oh, Sarah's a nice girl/lady.” Then a light bulb goes on in his head and he suggests that we take a photo of us holding a sign. That started the search for a pen and paper. After a minute of going around the studio, George comes back with a pen and paper, but he then realizes that pen ink might not photograph well. So, he excuses himself and runs to the back area (to the control room? office area?) in search of a marker. While George is looking for a marker, my "photographer" is busy checking out my camera (he's never used a digital SLR). My "photographer" is itching to try out my camera and he suggests to take several photos of me sitting in George's chair while we wait for George to reappear (BTW, close up, the chairs are not a true red).

A few minutes later, a lady comes out from the back area and asks me if "Sarah is spelled with an 'h'." I confirm that it is and she runs back to tell George. A few minutes later, George (sporting a smirk on his face) walks out with a “Sarah We Miss You” sign. We do a few takes -- the photo I sent you is by far the best one.

After the "photo session", I thanked him for everything. As George was heading to the back area, he shouts out, "say 'hi' to Sarah for me and tell her that we miss her."

(Thank you, Linda! The photo and the story made my day. And, thank you, George. You have officially knocked Claire Martin out of her reigning position as my favourite CBC personality of all time.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Nothing puts the "fun" in dysfunctional like a family trip to Japan

I’m going to Kyoto tomorrow to meet up with my mother, my aunt and my brother who are here for a whirlwind tour of Japan. So exciting!

Our jam-packed itinerary will take us from the quiet temples of Kyoto to the bright lights of Osaka to the rugged mountains of Shikoku. But the real fun will start when the four of us travel to my little town and spend eight days together in my apartment. I can’t wait!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ever wonder what your former high school classmates are up to?

Okay. I admit it. I sometimes google the names of my former high school classmates to find out what they’re up to now. I’m not a stalker. I’m just curious about what the people I spent five of my formative years with are doing with their lives.

Well, this week there was an article in the Toronto Star about a former high school classmate of mine by the name of Rami Tabello. It turns out Rami’s fight against illegal street signs has made him something of a local celebrity. I didn’t know Rami that well back in high school but I loved this quote from the Star article:

Self-employed, he calls himself a "professional speculator. I play the stock market and bet on horses for a living but I don't consider it gambling. I take advantage of inefficiencies in the betting market on horses. It's a systematic financial approach."


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The elusive Japanese raccoon

Apparently, my town is infested with a ridiculously cute species of raccoon. I have never actually seen one of these raccoons but I know they exist because there are lots of road signs warning of their presence.

I’m not sure how accurate the artist’s rendition is. But if the road signs are to be believed, these raccoons must be pretty cute and cuddly.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

I hate saying goodbye

Today was an emotional day. This morning, my school held a graduation ceremony for the Grade 9 students who will all move on and go to senior high school next month.

It was supposed to be a happy occasion but, for me, it felt like a funeral. I knew that after the ceremony ended, I would never see these kids again.

In seven short months, I’ve become incredibly attached to some of the Grade 9 students. I’m probably breaking some sort of secret teachers’ code by admitting this, but I have favourites. These are just a few of the students I will miss the most.

This is Kasumi. I liked her right from day one. My first week on the job consisted of little more than going from class to class to deliver a 20-minute presentation about my life in Canada. Some kids slept through the presentation, others seemed genuinely interested. But no one reacted with as much enthusiasm and curiosity as Kasumi.

She “oohed” and “ahhed” over every picture. She asked so many questions that the other kids started snickering every time her hand shot up in the air. But she didn’t seem to care that they were making fun of her. She had a rare kind of self-confidence that doesn’t come easily to most 15-year-old girls.

Kasumi was bright and clever and hilariously funny but she wasn’t a very good student. She failed most of her classes and had to take the high school entrance exam twice. Still, she was one of the few students who spoke English so well that she was able to hold a conversation with me. Unfortunately, she wasn’t tested on how well she could speak English. She was tested on how well she could memorize and regurgitate the textbook and there was nothing Kasumi hated more than studying.

Still, no one loved speaking English more than Kasumi. We’d talk in the staff room between classes. We’d talk in the hallways. We’d talk while we were supposed to be cleaning the school. We’d talk long after the final bell had rung.

We talked about boys and hairstyles and high school and music. She gave me a huge hug every time she saw me. She told me she didn’t get along with her parents and said she wished I were her mother. I told her that if I ever had a daughter I’d want her to be just like her.

I saw Kasumi for the last time this week. Just before I left school, I pulled her aside and told her she was smart and funny and beautiful. I told her to study hard at high school so that she could do whatever she wanted in life. I told her she would be amazing no matter what she did.

It was the first time I saw her without a smile on her face. She pulled me in for one last, long hug. My chest tightened and I could feel a lump rising in my throat. I knew if I didn’t get out of there that instant, I would dissolve into a sobbing mess.

So disentangled myself from her embrace and walked out the door. I was about 100 feet away when I heard her call out my name. I turned around and saw Kasumi waving at me from a window. I walked back. I gave her a few more words of encouragement. I took her picture. She tried to smile. I turned around and started walking away again. When I looked back, she was still waving at me. And then I rounded a corner and couldn’t see her anymore.

There were two mentally disabled Grade 9 students at my school. Takuya and Yuya had their own classroom and a special needs teacher. The other teachers took turns teaching them regular subjects like math and science and art.

I taught them English with a Japanese teacher a few times a week. Their level was pretty low so we’d usually just play games or do fun activities in English (like the time I taught them how to cook Kraft Dinner). It was a wonderful experience.

Takuya and Yuya were completely dependent on each other and their teachers, so there was a real feeling of warmth and love in the room. This created an incredibly positive learning environment. Unlike the regular classrooms, there was no academic pressure and no discipline problems. With a student to teacher ratio of 1:1, I had a chance to really get to know them.

It took a while for them to warm up to me but once they did their personalities came shining through. Yuya let me into his world of imaginary people. Sometimes when he was stumped on a question, he’d get down on the floor and whisper the question into the ear of an imaginary friend and then furrow his brow in concentration while he waited for a response.

Takuya was the class clown. He was always cracking jokes and Yuya was there to smack him in the head if he ever crossed the line (like the time he pointed out that my breasts were larger than the Japanese teacher’s). There were days when they were completely unresponsive and I wasn’t sure if I getting through to them. But they always seemed happy to see me and I was always happy to see them.

The boy on the left with the white gloves and the tongue hanging out of his mouth is Tomoaki. This is the kid who nicknamed me “nipples.”

I don’t even know where to start with Tomoaki. He made my life both a living hell and an absolute joy. He was the most exasperating kid inside the classroom but he was also the most fun kid outside the classroom.

He was a terrible student. The worst. But this wasn’t entirely his fault. Tomoaki was the star of the baseball team, which meant he could get away with murder. He didn’t have to take an entrance exam to get into high school. He didn’t even have to pass his classes. All he had to do was to show up and play baseball.

This meant that he had absolutely no motivation to do well at school. So he’d spend all his time in class sleeping or talking with his friends or yelling out “Nippluss!” from the back of the room. I’d march over to his desk and ask him to do something and he’d flat-out refuse. He’d wait until my back was turned and yell out, “I want you!”

But once class was over, he would suddenly morph into a sweet and charming boy who would pretend to be sick so that he could sit across from me in the staff room. His English was terrible but he liked to impress me with his vocabulary of swear words and dirty talk. While most of the other students were shy and reserved, Tomoaki would scream my name down the hallway.

After the graduation ceremony today, Tomoaki pulled me aside to shake my hand and say thank you. I was touched. I felt like he was on his way to becoming a mature young man. And then he walked out the door, blew me a few kisses and, with a mischievous grin lighting up his face, yelled out “Nippluss!” one last time.

Sigh. I really am going to miss these kids. Even Tomoaki. School just won’t be the same without them.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

My mom is on CBC Television tomorrow!

My mom is the star of a documentary about Toronto’s mental health crisis response team. It airs on CBC Newsworld tomorrow between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. I’ve already seen it and it’s really, really good. Not that I’m biased or anything.

Here is the official press release from the National Film Board of Canada:

If you have time, it’s worth checking out.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I can't believe I get paid to do this

Now that final exams are over, my classes are becoming a lot more relaxed.

How relaxed? Well, when I proposed a lesson based on little more than eating chocolate chip cookies and reading trashy magazines, my supervisor actually went for it.

So I showed up at school the next day armed with three-dozen cookies and a stack of Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazines.

It was the first time any of these kids had seen an American magazine. They grew more and more animated as they flipped the pages. Most of the text was too difficult for them to read but there was one English word they all recognized immediately. They pointed to the headlines and bombarded me with questions:

“What does ‘sex fantasy’ mean?”

“What does ‘the sex he’ll die for’ mean?”

“What does ‘naughty sex tricks’ mean?”

I have never seen these kids try so hard to read English. Each article opened up a new discussion. The Japanese teacher even got into the spirit of things and volunteered to translate some of the more raunchy paragraphs. I don’t think she was censoring herself either. While translating an article about the “Girls Gone Wild” phenomenon, she kept pretending to lift up her shirt and flash the students.

Why can’t my classes always be this fun?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The decision

After thinking long and hard, I have decided not to stay in Japan for another year. It wasn’t an easy decision to make but it feels right.

I love Japan. I love the people. I love my small rural town. I love my students. I love the food. I love almost everything about this weird and wonderful place. I feel like I’ve been on an all-expenses-paid fantasy vacation for the past seven months. But I think I’ll be ready to move on once the year is up.

Plus, the David Suzuki Foundation agreed to extend my leave of absence until October 1st so that I can travel for two months before I return to Vancouver. It was the proverbial offer I couldn’t refuse.

Still, I’m a little freaked out about my decision. I’m worried I will regret not staying a second year. It’s impossible to know how I’m going to feel five months from now. Will I wish I had stayed or will I be excited to head home? I don’t know.

All I know is that my time in Japan is limited. So I’m just going to focus on enjoying every single moment it while it lasts.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A nice way to spend a Sunday morning

There’s no real story behind this photo. I was just hanging out on the beach with my supervisor’s daughters. We were doing the usual stuff you do down by the ocean. Walking along the shoreline. Skipping stones across the water. Hunting for shells. It was a nice way to spend a Sunday morning.