This is an essay I had written over a year ago for the JET Essay competition. Almost forgot all about it.
A Very Special School to Me
I shield my face from the harsh winter wind as I make my way toward the large sliding gate. Balancing my laptop case and handbag in one hand, I press the intercom and in my best Japanese announce myself.
“ALT desu. Nadya to mooshimasu.” This concludes the polite Japanese I have retained since arriving in Japan.
“Hai” says the voice from the other end. I hear the gate click so I push it forward and enter.
Just 15 minutes before, I had taken the wrong road and found myself surrounded by rice fields. Eventually I found my way, after retracing the instructions on my map. By now my nerves were all over the place. But today I was visiting a special place and I needed to be calm and composed so I collect my thoughts and begin walking.
Beyond the gate there is a paved path slanting left. Straight ahead the road widens and I assume that it leads to the entrance. It then splits and I see a large stop sign erected in the centre. This is the only sign that I’ve understood since arriving and I hesitate for a second, thinking it may be a sign from God. To the left the road then curves to reveal a large marble slab amidst immaculately manicured trees. Carved into it are the words “Tsuyoku akaruku ganbarou.” I stop to admire the craftsmanship, oblivious to its meaning. Another gush of cold wind sweeps me towards the entrance. The front doors are flanked by colorful flowers. I smile, take a deep breath and then enter.
In the weeks leading up to this, my first visit to Kushikino Yougo Gakko (Kushikino School for the Handicapped), I had several meetings with the teachers about the proposed schedule. The teachers could barely speak English and my Japanese level was very basic. Making small talk in basic Japanese comprises of three things, namely your hobbies, your age and the weather. After that, the conversation droops, ending in awkward chuckles as it struggles for resuscitation. Despite these circumstances I managed to keep the lines of communication open between myself and the teachers. Somehow we were able to agree that I would do my self-presentation using PowerPoint with the Senior and Junior high school students and then I would be reading an elementary class a story in English. I promised them I’d do my best but secretly I was nervous, I didn’t know what to expect. Nevertheless, I spent hours reformatting my original self-presentation, making it as simple as I could because I didn’t know the English level of the students and I wouldn’t have a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) with me to do explanations. I also created a fun activity for the elementary students then I wrote down a few key words and phrases I would need to know during my lessons. By the time the day had come I was still nervous but much more prepared.
At around 8:45 AM two large buses pull into the school gates. I stand by the school doors beside the Principal and Vice-Principal for morning greetings as the students walk pass. Upon seeing my face, I register an array of reactions. Some faces light up, others convey confusion. A few students even run up and sing their loudest “Good Morning!” I smile and wave as I reply, interchanging between “Good Morning and Ohayou Gozaimasu.” I feel an instant boost of confidence as they head off to class, glancing back at me while heartily waving and smiling.
When I get to class, the projector is already set up in the recreational room for my first lesson with the Senior High School students. I hook up my laptop and get my presentation ready as the students file in and take their seats on the floor. They are all wearing their gym clothes along with their name tags. A few students have pictures above their names and one class even has the Jamaican Flag; I am so proud. While they wait for the class to begin some fiddle with their pencil cases, others stare, all eager to learn about this new stranger. A few are distant, pacing around the classroom. Each class requires at least 5 teachers to control the students. At first I am a bit worried that the students would become too much to handle. I am still unsure of what to expect, and as one child springs up and begins bouncing around the room I know that it is going to take a lot to hold the attention of the students for the entire class. It starts off slow at first, as I tell them my name, my age and about my country. I gesticulate often and speak slowly and clearly, hoping that my photos would give a clearer understanding of who I am and where I am from. They all sit in silence as I work my way through the presentation. I stop intermittently to check their understanding.
“Wakarimashita ka?” (Did you understand?)
No answer. Fearing that I have lost them mid-presentation I skip to the end. I had made a fun face recognition game on PowerPoint called “Which One is Nadya?” Instantly there is an outburst of laughter as the students stare at ten pictures, five of my family and friends and the other five are me, one in which I am wearing a multicolored clown wig and the other, a Rasta hat with fake dreadlocks.
I see a glimmer of hope so I ride on this new high. With the assistance of the teacher I begin asking,
“Can you tell which one is Nadya Sensei?”
They are all skeptical at first, until one young girl shoots her hand up, she’s confident that B is Nadya. She runs up to the screen and points excitedly at the photo. Simultaneously, I click the photo on my computer; it spins and recoils to reveal four words.
YES! This is Nadya!
The entire class is in an uproar, cheering for the one brave student who took a chance and got it right. We continue until all the “Nadyas” are revealed and the class is lively until the end. It is possibly one of my most rewarding classes thus far and I make a mental note of the students smiling faces as they leave the room, waving and shouting their individual good-byes and thank yous. Although exhausted, I am eager to do it all over again.
After school lunch, I make my way to the elementary school, excited about the activity I had previously prepared. The class has 3 students with various disabilities. My seat, entirely too small for my adult body, is positioned directly in front of them as they sit patiently at their desks. I open the book and begin an animated illustration of a very hungry caterpillar that eats just about everything.
While I read, my students are coloring their butterfly wings. By the end of the class I tape the wings to their backs and watch as three of the happiest butterflies I’ve ever seen flitter around the classroom to music. My heart swells as I see just how successful the lesson was and I don’t want the moment to end. I revel in their youthful exuberance and I know that this too would be a lesson I would never forget.
My visits to this particular school are few and far between. So it was not until winter had long since passed and the air was thick with the summer’s humidity that I was invited to visit again. During this visit I choose to do a presentation on Jamaica’s performance in the Beijing Olympics. Most teachers are already familiar with the name ‘Bolt’ from the news and this in itself heightened my nationalistic pride. Additionally, in a preliminary conversation about the lesson, to my astonishment, I learn that the Vice-Principal is a fan of famous Jamaican sprinter, Merlene Ottey. I marvel at how my people are capable of captivating audiences world-wide.
On this particular visit, I eat school lunch with Kenji, Shingen and Naoki and their teacher, Aya. I help them to put on their aprons and masks; then we gather our things and walk together, hand in hand, to the cafeteria. Aya explains that Naoki doesn’t like the noise of the cafeteria, which is why he covers his ears while he eats. Sitting beside him, I decide to help him out by holding his ears for him. He is annoyed at first with my interference but eventually he begins giggling and we turn it into a game. Kenji is very smart and has great English pronunciation as well as a vast vocabulary for his age. He loves asking me random questions, and I love answering them. Shingen loves to smile. After we finish our lunches, I teach them the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’, carefully showing them the hand motions while I sing the song. Shingen loves the song, especially “out comes the sun and dries up all the rain” so now every time he sees me he does the hand motions, signaling that he would like to sing the song again and every time, I oblige.
On every occasion that I visit this school I find it harder to leave, two days just doesn’t seem like long enough to interact with everyone. However, my final visit was particularly difficult for me.
One morning, as I stood in front of the school for greetings, shielding myself from the sun’s glare, a young girl runs up to me and gently places a folded piece of paper in my hand before she runs off to class, waving to me behind her. I open my palm to reveal a letter, written in pencil on pink note paper, completely in hiragana. I read it carefully. In the letter she thanks me for coming to visit the school and goes on to tell me how much she enjoyed my class and would like me to visit again. At the end she signs her name and draws a heart beside it. I try to control the tears as they swell in my eyes.
I am overwhelmed that although months had passed since my last visit she still remembers me and, anticipating my return, took the time to write me a letter. So that evening I go home and reply to her letter. In my best Japanese, I thank her for her letter, encouraging her to do her best studying English and implore her to continue writing to me. The next day I present the letter to her along with a piece of candy. To my surprise, before the day is over she hands me another letter and I feel a pang of regret that I won’t be able to give her a reply as this day would be the last of my two-day visit.
On that last day, I stand outside the buses waving to the most special people I have ever had the opportunity to meet. I truly cherish the two days I visit Kushikinko Yougo Gakko. In fact, Yougo Gakko not only translates to “School for Handicapped” but also “Special School” and this is right on so many levels. As they wave back to me framed in the windows of the bus, I reflect on how remarkable and resilient these children are. Those I have met and those I have yet to meet. Then I recall the sign carved into the large marble slab at the front of the school and finally understand its meaning, “Strongly and Brightly, Do your Best” and in that moment I consider their strength. I consider how brave they are to make it through each day. More so, I consider how honored I am to have the opportunity to teach them English and just then I realize that this school is not just a special school for them. Truth be told, this school that I visit merely twice a year is, and will always be, very special to me.