My sometimes boring job as an English teacher in Japan is punctuated with extreme moments of joy and fulfillment. Its like a reflection of my life and personality; ups are skyrocketing elation, and lows feel like earth-shattering despair. One student with the same disposition asked me recently how to put this into easier words, and here’s what I said:
“When I’m happy, I feel very happy. But when I’m sad, I’m very sad.”
It’s simple yet true. But usually I try to focus on the good, because I find it to be more productive and uplifting than complaining.
Last week, I had one of those moments, when I felt like I was in the right place at the right time, and I was contributing in an important way. It wasn’t in a classroom. It was on a shady road outside of my small visiting school, when I was getting ready to run with my students.
Located in the mountains and just 10 minutes from the sea of Japan, my visiting school only has 36 students. Since the number is so small, I’ve made it my goal to learn their names. I have more than half, now, and when I go there every Wednesday, my brain is churning trying to remember.
So in that moment, I was surrounded by the 15 teenage girls, collectively gathering our courage to push ourselves, and – for once – I was feeling completely included. For a moment, I felt really appreciated. Teachers were impressed and surprised that I had asked to join students for their race, and students had welcomed me into their circle of friends, which had previously seen like an impenetrable obstacle.
At that moment, just before the 3.6 kilometer race for girls, a group of three boys approached me and begged me to run with them. “Amber! Run with us!” They pleaded in a mix of Japanese and English. It felt good to be wanted! I had about 10 seconds to decide to go with them or the girls, but I knew that the boys were too fast for me and would leave me in the dust. So I stuck with my initial decision to run with the girls. And I’m glad I did!
I made a new friend, too; an ichi-nensei (first year) student named Meika* who I never had the chance to connect with before. She asked me, “Hashiru ishoni?” (‘Let’s run together,’) and I happily agreed. During the race, I trailed her. She was just a little faster than me, so it was a good challenge for me to keep up with her!
The 3.6 kilometer race was in a valley surrounded by rice paddies next to their school. When I stopped panting long enough to look up, I felt in awe of the natural beauty of the scene before me. The rice paddies are filled with water, so they reflect the mountains above. After a heavy rain the day before, the sky was perfectly blue, with only a few fluffy clouds.
Meika is the younger sister of a boy who I worked with closely last year for the English Speech Contest. Even though she doesn’t know much English yet, I can tell by the way she looks at me that she is interested. (This is a common pattern; if I notice a student looking at me, unblinkingly and without hesitation, I can tell they are interested in English and foreigners, and I try to make more of an effort to talk with them.)
In that moment, running with her, I tried to forget my negativity about my job. I tried to let go the feelings of isolation when people ignore me, and I tried to focus on the beautiful scene that was taking place before me. It was almost like an out-of-body experience; This is my life, I told myself, as I eyed the finish line.
I’m sure Meika slowed down a little bit for me; she kept glancing behind her to make sure I was still there. Huffing and puffing and sweating profusely, I managed to tail her until the end, when we both started sprinting when we saw the finish line. All the boys were waiting there and cheering: “Ganbare!” (“You can do it!”) and “Fight-o!” (“Fight!”) They were so genki! (excited!) and adorable.
Out of 20 runners, she was number 14. I came in shortly after her, so I guess I was 14.5. One of my goals was to not be the slowest runner, so I achieved it!
I want to take this experience, put it in a bottle, and open it again when I feel down or underused. Running with the students, and talking with them after the race, seeing them approach me and make small talk, this is why I came to Japan. I hope that I’m helpful when I repeat the textbooks, or say the words “thirteen” and “thirty” over and over again so students learn the difference, but when students realize that I’m human – tired, sweaty, and wanting to connect and be included – this is when I am making a real impact. When students see me as an equal – not as an authority – outside of the classroom, I feel like I’m making more of a difference. I want to be a good teacher, but I also want to be their friend. When I play sports with them, or connect with them in a non-academic setting, I feel more connected.