Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Finest Hour

The other day, my daughter and I watched a group of children perform a comedy skit at my husband's school. Four children stepped onto the stage, clutching their scripts. We smiled as a redheaded boy, a blond girl, and a tall brown-haired girl raced through their lines in English that ranged from breathless Cockney to heavily accented near-Turkish.

The first one held the microphone like it was a poisonous snake. The second one yelled her lines into the microphone, making us all jump and grab our ears. The third one tripped up on his pronunciation and had an attack of the giggles. Then we saw there was a fourth boy. He was dark, tiny, and not typically British-looking. He stepped forward with pride and confidence, holding the microphone a few inches away from his mouth. Everyone smiled. But when he delivered his lines in perfect received British English, there was a collective gasp from the crowd. Not only was the kid's pronunciation too good to compliment, he had considerable charisma. As far as stage presence, oratory, diction, and projection were concerned, Winston Churchill could not have done better.

And it took me back...

Over a decade ago, I found myself sitting in a crowd of Japanese parents, impatiently and reluctantly waiting for my eight-year-old to appear in the after-hours group's New Years play.

In Japan, parents are expected to attend every single one of their children's class plays, athletic meets, school festivals, graduation and entrance ceremonies (for every single year of school, including nursery), and school parties. Working parents with children in two schools have it especially hard: not only do you have to go to two sets of events, unless your job finishes before five o'clock, you have to go to the after-hours events as well.

We were working parents with children in two schools that year. We'd already been to the nursery school Christmas party and only got out of the elementary school Christmas party because it had been scheduled for Christmas Day (and don't think they didn't try to change our minds about attending). We'd gritted our teeth through two sports' days, two dramatic performances, two Culture Day festivals, and two jugyo sankans, or class observation days. Going to our oldest daughter's after-hours New Years Party just seemed like punishment. My husband begged off with a cold, but we already felt like we'd won the Crappy Parents of the Year award after refusing to attend the elementary school Christmas party, so I bit the bullet and went.

As I sat on my metal folding chair, waiting, I looked in vain for any familiar faces. The after-hours group included, for some reason, all five schools in the area. Other than a handful of the teachers, I didn't know anyone there and no one knew me. Which meant that none of the people sitting around me realized that I could understand them when they speculated as to why I was there. When my very blonde daughter trotted out on the stage and stood with her friends, waiting for her turn to speak, I felt like laughing when someone behind me hissed, "I'll bet that blonde girl will be the foreigner's kid." Duh.

We watched as a child took the microphone from a teacher and licked her lips nervously. She took a deep breath and raced through her lines, ducking her head. When she'd finished, she passed the microphone to the next boy as though it were a hot potato. The boy took it, blinked, and garbled his lines, staring at his feet. We all smiled.

"What's the foreign kid going to do?" a woman in front of me wondered. "She's not going to be in this, is she?" "Poor thing," her male companion said. "She sure stands out." She really did, too. Not only was she blonde, but our oldest daughter was a head taller than every single child there. "Maybe she'll say her lines in English," someone else said.

The next child grabbed the microphone, grinned at us, and screamed his lines at such a volume that we all winced. He handed the microphone to my daughter. I took a deep breath and chewed my lower lip.

My daughter shook her hair back, flashed us a dazzling smile, and looked the audience straight in the eye. She read out her lines in a voice that was loud and clear. With feeling. And she didn't make one single mistake.

A man in front of me said, in awed tones: That kid was the very best one. That foreign kid! To this day, I will never forget it. In all my time of being a parent, it was truly my finest hour.

Back in the present, I watched as Young Winston Churchill's parents joined him after the show, grinning proudly. I know exactly how they feel.

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29 comments:

Angela Ackerman said...

I hope you turned around to the guy who said that about your daughter and thanked him...in Japanese.

*big smile*

Vijaya said...

I love this story!

I can totally relate to getting a lame parent award this year... I've missed a lot of games, plays, school stuff because of my headaches.

Marcia said...

This is a great story. And I have to second Angela. Unless, of course, you daren't do that in Japan?

Robert the Skeptic said...

I was surprised that as a teacher in Japan, our daughter Amy, also had to attend many of the student's programs and activities even though they weren't a part of the formal school.

I think she was such an institution in town (the only western teacher and very very blond) the town fathers just expected her to be there. Which she did, and usually ended up being posed in the student's congratulatory photographs.

Robin said...

I love this story! It brings tears to my eyes. It might be tears of envy, though, because my kids can barely speak Spanish despite 5 million dollars worth of tutoring, and they fake move their lips during performances. I'd like either the little Winston Churchill or your daughter, please. Hold the relish.

Carole said...

I love this story and am so happy for eldest daughter. No matter what stereotypes are shattered it always seems to be a good thing. Of course without good parenting our kids can't do these things so pat yourself on the back.

Medeia Sharif said...

"Poor thing" turned into "best thing." I'm always surprised by what people say out loud.

This sounds like a beautiful moment of pride.

Jasmine said...

That's a great story. I agree with Angela, you should have said something back in Japanese. That would have shocked them!

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- I usually did just that, but not this time. I didn't have to: it was written all over my face. But after the show, it was IMMENSELY satisfying when my daughter came running up to me and cried out in Japanese, "Mommy, how was I? Could you hear me okay?"

Vijaya -- Just be grateful you're not in Japan! In Japan, you can go to dozens of school festivals, 'volunteer' for the PTA (I put quotation marks around 'volunteer' because it is, in fact, mandatory, even if you work full-time), attend sports meets, and show up for parent-teacher meetings and STILL earn a lame parent award. In America, if you show up to most of your kids' events, they're thrilled.

Marcia -- I did just that at least two or three times a month while I lived in Japan, on many memorable occasions. But at the after-hours New Years party, I was speechless: my smile said it all.

Robert -- I guarantee you, your daughter didn't just have to attend because she was blonde. Everybody who teaches, in whatever capacity, is expected to attend these functions in Japan. The Japanese love and expect events like this, to mark occasions. When they go to study in the States, they're shocked, and in some cases pleasantly surprised, to find that Americans don't have anywhere near as many ceremonies. I never got so tired of going to meetings and assemblies in all my life as I did in Japan.

Robin -- I'll bet if you sent your kids to a Spanish-speaking country for a year they'd come back speaking perfect Spanish, especially since they've already learned the grammar. I had years of French, but one three-day trip to Montreal made a huge difference in my ability. And the ability to BS is a huge advantage for the language learner: that fake lip moving trick will stand your boys in good stead!

Carole -- Thank you for that compliment, but my husband and I had nothing to do with it other than to take our daughter to Japan in the first place. She (with the help of her friends and teachers) did the rest. But we were thrilled that she helped shatter a stereotype.

Medeia -- My pride at that moment was so great that I actually embarrassed myself.

What people will choose to say out loud never ceases to amaze me, but I never paid much attention to this until I lived in a country where I looked completely different from everyone else. I'd like to think that everyone would benefit from this experience, but the sad truth is that the bigots would probably just end up more bigoted.

Jasmine -- I could write a separate book about all the times I had to wheel around and say, "Excuse me, but I can understand you, so you might want to whisper," in Japan. But on this particular occasion, my obvious pride spoke volumes and I was able to keep silent (a rare event).

Charles Gramlich said...

great story. It goes to show that often being a bit of an underdog really helps motivate one. When people don't expect a lot from you, sometimes you rise to the occassion.

Kit said...

Wonderful story!
I'm relieved that we don't have nearly so many school events to attend as they do in Japan, my husband would definitely rebel!

Nelsa said...

What a great story! And good for little 'Winston' and your daughter. That confidence and self-assurance will take them miles...
Nelsa

Charlie said...

LOL at the "blonde girl will be the foreigner's kid." I'm glad she stuffed their bigotry where the rising sun don't shine.

And I would have liked to hear young Winnie too.

Anne M Leone said...

Hah! Love it! As others have said, it's amazing the stupid things people will say aloud. I'm so proud of your daughter, so can't even imagine how you must have felt! =)

Blythe said...

I think this makes a perfect companion to the story about the elderly man who arrived to register for the English class. Upending expectations at both ends of the spectrum...

angryparsnip said...

So enjoyed the daughter story. I bet your smile said it all.

My son who teaches in Japan has to go to all the school events. Teaching last year at a Junior High School the students loved when he joined in on sports day. So far he is young and enjoys it but for how long? the knees are the first to go.

cheers, parsnip

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- There were many kids at the show who wore their otherness (not being Turkish, not being native English speakers) with ill ease and obvious awkwardness. This kid, like my kid years ago, looked as though he would blush and mutter and screw up, but he filled the auditorium with his beautiful oratory and shattered all our stereotypes. I could have hugged him.

Kit -- South Africa has to be an improvement on Japan when it comes to compulsory school event attendance.

I had a Japanese friend who went to the U.K. with her family. Her son was attending school there, and she was amazed at how few events there were for parents to attend. She went to almost all of them and was even more amazed when ALL of the teachers came out at the end of her stay and hugged her for being such a good parent and attending her son's school functions. Japanese parents go to the U.S. or U.K. and effortlessly become Best Parents, while British and American parents go to Japan and quickly acquire Crappy Parent status.

Nelsa -- You are right: their confidence will give these kids a real edge in life. I wish I'd had it myself. Sadly, I was a microphone-clutching, stuttering mutterer.

Charlie -- :o)

Winston and my daughter were a lot of fun to hear, but the reactions they caused were the most fun of all.

AnneM -- I was very proud. My husband has lived to regret the cold that kept him from attending our daughter's show, but he's happy he got to see young Winston in action.

I've been guilty of the saying-stupid-things-out-loud sin myself, but only a time or two. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Blythe -- There's definitely a theme here, isn't there? I love to see people who do things other people are certain they can't do, or who otherwise shatter stereotypes. The final scene of 'Babe', where the pig manages to herd a flock of sheep, has always been one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.

AP -- In our case, the first thing to give was our good attitudes. There are just so many times you can smile your way through 120 pre-school children singing 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing', or take part in the egg-and-spoon race with 200 other exhausted parents. But good for your son, and I hope his knees hold out!

Miss Footloose said...

Mary,

Great story! << A man in front of me said, in awed tones: That kid was the very best one. That foreign kid! To this day, I will never forget it. In all my time of being a parent, it was truly my finest hour. >>

Sometimes they do make you proud!

(And of course never assume people don't understand your language!)

AnneB said...

Who keeps score for the Crappy Parent award, anyway? Teachers or other parents?

Mary Witzl said...

Miss Footloose -- It was all the more wonderful because from this same glib young person I had taken a LOT of lip. She's lucky I'm not posting about that...

AnneB -- Teachers have surprisingly good memories, but fellow parents keep score too. It's understandable. When you're forced to sit through eight drama presentations given by 2- to 6-year-olds, in a cold auditorium, straining your neck for two hours, trying to snap a shot of your 4-year-old in a butterfly suit, you start noticing who hasn't bothered to show up and suffer with you.

angryparsnip said...

Mary...
Japanese son so far has a good attitude but since he is a brand new Daddy we shall see how long that will last !
He is just a overgrown kid himself, so Sports Day is good fit for him.

Hope your summer vacation is still great !

cheers, parsnip

Medeia Sharif said...

Mary - Are you still in the U.K./Near East (as your profile says) or are you in the states? I ask because I'd love to enter you in my contest that you left a comment for.

Mary Witzl said...

AP -- The way you describe your son, I can tell he's a big hit in Japan. Lively people who are good sports about school events are VERY popular. I always felt like I let down the side a little because I lack that enthusiasm. After half a dozen sports days, I was ready to call it quits.

Medeia -- I've left a message on your blog. We're wrapping things up here in KKTC, but should be back in Scotland this summer. As an American resident of the U.K. who sometimes moves to other countries, that 'Location' heading always gives me pause.

Medeia Sharif said...

I didn't know you were an American resident, Mary. Since you're one on paper I'll enter you in my contest.

Medeia Sharif said...

Also - you're all over the place, but it must be wonderful to travel.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Medeia!

I'm an American, born and raised, but until I went to live abroad, I never felt much like one. Now, every time I open my mouth, people remark upon my nationality and I am asked all sorts of questions about America and myself, as an American. So I now feel very American and am frequently in the position of having to explain America's foreign policy, political system, social trends, etc. It is a very strange phenomenon and sometimes I don't feel up to it, especially when I haven't lived in the U.S. for decades and couldn't name the cast of 'Friends' if my life depended on it.

Still, I've never told anybody I was Canadian. Not once. (And I've been sorely tempted.)

Kappa no He said...

Zama mirou! I loved this story. Parents can say some of the most hurtful things just *assuming* you don't know Japanese.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- I'll bet you've been in this situation yourself a few times too! We were usually fine in our own neighborhood where almost everyone recognized us, but once we stepped outside our zone of familiarity, it got iffy. My husband and I were used to it, but the kids weren't. At first, they were amazed when strangers called them 'gaijin' -- "Wow, how do they know we're gaijin?" Which would have been cute if it hadn't been a little sad.

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