Wednesday, 30 March 2011

An Embarrassment Of Experiences

"I once taught for a whole thirty minutes with my blouse unbuttoned," my friend Karen groaned.

Karen is a retired teacher. We'd gotten to talking about teaching and how fraught our classroom experiences were with embarrassing situations. We were vying with each other to find the most blush-inducing, cringe-worthy teaching incident we could recall. "A girl in the first row finally caught my eye and told me," Karen added, wincing. "Naturally the buttons were in the worst possible place."

"The same thing happened to me, but it was my skirt," I said. "And the student who pointed it out was a boy."

Maybe my long-term memory is exceptionally keen, but after Karen had shared more embarrassing experiences -- knocking over a metal wastebasket with half a bottle of Coke in it, forgetting names while being observed, tripping over a student's bag -- I was still going strong. Embarrassment, we both agreed, was one of the occupational hazards of teaching.

For instance: one of my American colleagues in Japan had learned how important it was to teach culturally related body language, especially things like hand shaking. So on her very first day as a teaching assistant in a large high school English class, she asked all her students to introduce themselves and shake her hand. One by one, the students blurted out their names and thrust out their hands for her to shake. As she made her way through the classroom, she became aware of a strange vibe. A few of the girls were trading nervous looks; boys were giggling and beginning to wriggle in their seats. When she approached the last student, she understood why. The boy mumbled his name and, after a bit of good-natured prodding, reluctantly put his hand out. Which is when she noticed that he was missing several fingers. "All that time, the poor kid was dreading having to stick his hand out," she wailed, wiping her eyes. "I felt horrible, putting him through that!"

When I was teaching at a large preparatory school in Tokyo, our classrooms were so large that we had to use microphones. My colleague and team-teacher, Mr. Ito, clipped his to his shirt. One day after a break, we came back to the classroom to find everybody laughing. "Sensei," one of the girls gasped, "you did it again!" Mr. Ito look down at his shirt -- and blanched. He had forgotten to turn off his microphone. He had treated the entire class to the highly amplified sounds of what transpired in the faculty men's toilet.

The very worst thing that happened to me, though, involved Ahmet, a shy Turkish boy who disappeared for a whole month. When Ahmet finally came to class, I asked him to explain his long absence. "Teacher," he said, looking away, "my mother is die."

Now, this sounds hard-hearted, but the horrible truth is, I'd heard this one before. Two boys had already tried the dead/deathly ill mother excuse before, and on both occasions, I found out they were lying. Several colleagues assured me they had fallen for the same trick. The first two times, I heard this, I'd almost burst into tears. This time, I'd gotten savvier: I wasn't buying it.

"I'll need a letter from your mother's doctor," I told him coolly.

"Okay," Ahmet almost whispered, looking ashen. "Next time, I bring."

I stared at him. Was he feeling guilty? He ought to be! How dare anybody tempt fate by using such an excuse? What if something actually happened to his mother? Would he ever be able to forgive himself?

But as I left the classroom, I had a horrible thought. What if Ahmet's mother really had died? It had happened to me. When I was in graduate school, my own mother died, and I'd gone to my Japanese drama teacher to ask if I could retake the final. "You're the fourth person who managed to miss it!" she'd muttered crossly. "Well, what's your excuse?" When I burst into tears, I don't know which one of us felt worse. Had I just done the same thing to Ahmet?

"I've got a student whose mother died," I told our head teacher. He laughed and shook his head. "Not another dead mother! He's lying, I guarantee you."

"All the same, would you mind checking? I'd feel awful if he were telling the truth."

The head teacher gave me an indulgent look, but he went off to check. He came back white-faced and sober. "He's telling the truth. His father says his mother had a heart attack. She was only 40."

The next time I saw Ahmet, I told him he wouldn't need the letter from his mother's doctor. He pressed his lips together and tried to nod, but I saw that his eyes were wet. I promptly burst into tears.

Like I said, embarrassment is one of the occupational hazards of teaching.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Lost In Frustration

The minute I waded through the first puddle of the day, I knew I was in trouble. My foot was suddenly cold -- too cold. Icy water oozed between my toes. Of all the days for my shoe to spring a leak! Once the wind picked up and it started to sleet, then snow, my wet foot felt all the wetter. And colder.

I kept wondering if anybody else could hear the squelch-squelch I made as I loped along, gamely leaping over puddles in a vain attempt to keep my foot from getting any wetter. I pulled my hood over my head and cursed myself for leaving my umbrella in the car.

But I couldn't stop to do anything about it. I had a student to meet in the morning, at the University of Glasgow. Running late, I had to sprint across town to meet her on time. As she and I pored over her essay on economics, I surreptitiously flexed the toes of my frozen foot to get some circulation back into them. Then I had to rush back in the opposite direction to get to the library. I'd left home without the lesson plan and teaching materials I needed for my next student, and I needed to cobble something together. Perhaps the library would have simple books for learners.

"Do you have any books for beginning readers?" I asked the librarian, trying to wiggle my toes. I was concerned that I was losing sensation in three of them.

She looked at me over the top of her glasses, taking in my wet hair and clothes. "What do you mean by beginning reader?"

"Someone who can read fairly well, but still struggles a bit with vocabulary," I told her, distracted by my frozen toes.

The librarian studied me a bit, then shook her head. "Perhaps a children's book..."

"But she's not a child," I protested, thinking of Megumi, my smart, quick-learning student, a young, busy housewife. "She's a grown woman and very bright."

Another librarian stepped forward. "There are easy-reading books over on that shelf," she said, pointing.

I squelched my way across the room, leaving muddy footprints on the library floor. A few minutes later, my toes were still numb, but I'd found five good books I thought Megumi might enjoy.

As I waited my turn at the desk, I noticed that an EFL tutorial session was going on. Three women in burkas sat huddled with a middle-aged woman with a heavy Scots accent; a young man with a Spanish accent frowned at the book in front of him, trying to copy his tutor's intonation.

I handed the librarian my five books. "I'd like to check these out."

She took the books from me and eyed me, as though trying to make her mind up about something. "You know," she said slowly, "we run free classes for slow readers." She glanced across the room at the EFL students.

"No," I said, shaking my head. Megumi's level was way over that of the library's EFL students.

"Not just for foreigners," the librarian rushed to add, "but for people such as yourself..."

My chin dropped. She meant me! She thought I was illiterate! I'd just edited a hard paper for a graduate student. I have a Master's degree in English. I had a book in my bag I'm supposed to be translating into English, and another to read, with loads of multi-syllable words in it. I'm all over English, reading, writing, speaking -- I teach it myself, for pity's sake!

"These books aren't for me," I said a little too quickly. "They're for my student."

The librarian smiled and gave me a pitying look as she handed me back my card.

I could feel her eyes on me all the way to the door. It didn't help that I pushed the wrong door either -- the one with the 'No Exit' sign on it.

As I shut the door behind me, I could see both librarians looking after me in concern. Suddenly I saw myself in their eyes: a middle-aged American, a slow reader, but -- poor thing! -- in denial. And on top of it all, frazzled and miserable-looking, shivering and limping, wearing a spectacularly unflattering coat. Which was wet.

They say humility is good for the soul. It's a comforting thought.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Too High A Price

In March, 1979, there was a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was living in New York City at the time -- much closer to Pennsylvania than I wanted to be. I chewed my fingernails to the quick, listening to the news as thousands of people were evacuated. In May, I went with a group of people to march in front of the White House. In our youthful ignorance, we hoped our presence in Washington D.C. would help convince President Carter to rethink U.S. energy policy. There was a bit of marching, but mainly, we waited around, hoping that Jimmy Carter would come out to talk to us. He didn't. We yawned and stretched and traded naive platitudes, waiting to hear speeches by Bella Abzug and Jerry Brown. We carried placards reading No More Harrisburgs! No More Hiroshimas!

In late April, 1986, I was living in Sendai, Japan. One morning, I woke up to hear there had been a fire at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, the USSR. It was a beautiful spring day and the late cherry blossoms were still in full flower. Walking with friends through the park, I could hardly believe that halfway around the world, people were being evacuated by the tens of thousands and fire-fighters were sacrificing their lives in a terrible losing battle.

One of my friends at the time was Li, a Chinese PhD student at Sendai's Tohoku University. Li was an engineer who hoped to design nuclear power plants some day. He laughed at my exclamations of dismay when I learned this. "They are designed to be safe!" he assured me. "Only the brightest, most skillful people are chosen for this occupation."

Li was one of the most capable people I've ever known. He was widely read and knew all sorts of things I didn't. He could make great meals from the fewest possible ingredients, his Japanese was formidable, and he was amazingly coordinated. Once, he'd offered to lend another friend a bicycle so that the three of us could cycle around Sendai together. I assumed he'd have to make two trips until I spotted him cycling down the narrow street in front of my apartment, one arm casually balancing another bicycle on his shoulder. When I expressed surprise that he could do this, he blinked and frowned. "You mean you can't?"

Li's confidence was infectious. If a smart guy like him was designing nuclear power plants, I couldn't help think they had to be safe.

Shortly after this, the English school where I taught organized a debate. All of us teachers were strongly encouraged to take part. As a few of our students were nuclear engineers, someone suggested that the safety issues of nuclear power plants would be a good debate topic. One brave man volunteered to argue the 'for' side; I took the 'against'.

This was before the internet was widely used, and I didn't have much to go on. I remembered a handful of details about Three Mile Island -- they went into my speech. I subscribed to the overseas Guardian and they had done a good article on Chernobyl; much of that got dumbed down and written into my debate as well, along with a very good letter to the editor about the Windscale nuclear accident in the U.K., back in 1957. My debate partner knew 99.9% more than I did about nuclear energy, but of course my English was better and I have missionaries in my background -- missionaries who liked rhetoric. I won the debate.

My opponent took it well. He had argued fervently that the design of Chernobyl was old and outdated, that a different type of core was used in Japan, making meltdowns virtually impossible. He insisted that nuclear power was much cheaper and safer than fossil fuel-based energy sources, and much better than iffy new technologies such as solar energy or wind turbines. He made good points, but he got stuck on what to do with spent nuclear fuel; he had good answers, but in the heat of the moment, he could not produce them. I, on the other hand, was in great form that day. When I finished my speech with the line, "It's too high a price," there was a good round of applause and I knew I'd hit pay dirt. "You are a good talker!" my opponent conceded graciously as we shook hands afterwards.

It was obvious that he knew way more than I did, and deep inside, I knew I'd won by default -- that it would have been quite a different story if we'd had the debate in Japanese, not English. But I was still proud of my victory.

I was living with my family in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, when the Tokaimura nuclear accident occurred on September 30, 1999. On my way home from work in Tokyo, I noticed that the trains were backed up. Fellow passengers began to mutter that someone must have committed suicide by jumping onto the tracks. When we got to the station, we heard the news: that untrained workers had unwittingly caused a chain reaction at a small uranium reprocessing facility in nearby Ibaraki Prefecture. We were encouraged to go straight home and close doors and windows -- but many of us had already been out all day.

When I first heard the news about the devastating earthquake and tsunami, I never once thought about Fukushima's nuclear power plant. Quite honestly, I had forgotten it was there, even though I remember seeing it every time I took the train to Fukushima. I remember driving past it when I was four months pregnant with my youngest daughter too.

When I heard that there were some concerns that the earthquake had damaged the reactors, I felt a twinge of fear, but I tried to reassure myself. Smarter, better educated people than I had said nuclear power was safe. That it was wiser to stick with a proven energy source than to develop new ones. They had said this so forcefully, with so much confidence and obvious conviction, that part of me believed it had to be so. A bigger part believed that nuclear energy was dangerous, short-sighted, and not in the best interests of humanity, but maybe that prejudice was inspired by my own paranoia and lack of real knowledge.

It turns out that I was right. And I wish to God I wasn't.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Ring Of Fire

I lived in Sendai for two years, from 1985 to 1987. I taught at a language school in downtown Sendai, but I was also sent to many other places to teach, cycling or walking to get to various schools, factories, and companies.

On Wednesdays, I traveled by shinkansen or bullet train, down to Yonezawa to teach at a girls' junior college, changing trains in Fukushima. I will never forget those train trips. The journey from Sendai to Fukushima was nothing special, but the train ride from Fukushima to Yonezawa, which took precisely 48 minutes,was incredible, especially in the winter. The train wound through a heavily forested valley, a veritable fairyland, where snow lay many feet deep and icycles sparkled in the trees. On Thursdays, I took the shinkansen up to Morioka to teach bored engineers at a large car manufacturing company. Early autumn was my favorite season there: I loved seeing the rice fields full of golden grain, the wind making the paddies wave and ripple.

The students I taught in Sendai were a varied bunch: children, business people, doctors, and housewives. The housewives were my firm favorites. They were quirky and funny and infinitely kind and helpful. One woman, Yoko, the fifty-something wife of a lawyer, used to come to school parties dressed in a Korean kimono, or hanbok. There is a long, complicated history of enmity between Korea and Japan, and this isn't something Japanese people usually do unless they happen to be of Korean ancestry. Yoko wasn't even part Korean. "Aren't you afraid people will mistake you for a Korean?" a classmate once asked her. Yoko raised an eyebrow. "I would be so proud if they did," she said firmly. She kept her hanbok flawlessly clean and got a lot of wear out of it.

Chizuyo, another one of my housewife students had been training to be a math teacher when she got married. She loved her husband and children, but advised all the younger women against getting married. "You have no idea how lucky you are! I am trapped -- trapped!" she used to say gleefully. Chizuyo and her husband went to live in the States for several years. Their first day there, they got picked up by a scam artist at the airport who left them stranded in a remote desert town after relieving them of all their cash. But despite this experience, they had a wonderful time in the States. "I'm finally tutoring math!" Chizuyo wrote in the last letter I got from her. "No more just being a housewife!"

I had many wonderful colleagues in Sendai too, including the head teacher at our school, Brenda, who'd interviewed me at a teachers' conference in the World Trade Center. Brenda intrigued me: a fellow Californian and Japanese-American and she looked exactly like a man I'd studied Japanese with five years earlier, in Tokyo. When I mentioned the uncanny resemblance, it turned out that my fellow student was actually her brother.

My landlord in Sendai was a widower who lived right downstairs from me. I can't get over how lucky I've been with Japanese landlords: three times now I've lived in places where the landlady or landlord lived only feet away from me, but they never caused any trouble. Mr Arisawa was a gentle, kind man -- and a packrat. Every room in his apartment was chock-a-block with the most hideous junk you've ever seen, and he obviously had a penchant for plastic. He had massively chunky plastic clocks, outlandish plastic light fixtures, and a whole selection of worst plastic kitchen items you've ever seen. He somehow lived among all these things, packed in boxes right up to the ceiling. His hoarding must have caused him no end of inconvenience, but he always seemed so happy -- even when I (gently) turned down his offers of plastic light fixtures and chopping boards.

I've lost touch with all of these people. I have no idea how they're doing, or whether they've survived yesterday's terrible earthquake. I was able to contact one friend and find out she and her family were safe, but the rest -- I have no idea. It is so hard to see the images of buildings burning, cars washed off bridges, boats tossed about like Lego toys, and remember that I used to cycle down those streets, buy the fish from those boats, walk past those buildings.

Sendai was one of the calmest, pleasantest towns I've ever lived in. But like all of Japan, it's sitting on a ring of fire.

To donate to Japanese earthquake victims through the Red Cross:

Monday, 7 March 2011

The Way We Were

When I was a kid, my family took a trip to Kentucky to visit relatives and see where my mother had grown up. It was like taking a trip back through time, there were so many things my sisters and I had never seen or experienced. We saw our first well and drank the water from it, ice cold even in summer, with a vague taste of machine oil; we traveled by car from the farmhouse where my mother was born and raised to the schoolhouse where she commuted daily, discovering that it really did have only one room and it really was three miles away; we puzzled over the grindstone in her front yard until our mother told us that it was for sharpening tools and knives.

My father was thrilled with the grindstone. He insisted on a posed photograph with it, to give to his boss. I still have a copy of this somewhere: my father is bending over the grindstone, with his nose just touching it. On vacation, but I've still got my nose to the grindstone, he wrote on the back of the original.

My mother kept shaking her head at everything. "Imagine this being an antique," she said, holding up a washboard. "Imagine anyone not knowing what a grindstone was for."

Late last month, my husband's 96-year-old aunt died. As we went through boxes of her old things, I had a surreal flashback. But this time, I wasn't getting a glimpse of a world I'd never seen, I was traveling back in time to a place where I'd once lived. "This'll need a new battery," I said, picking up a watch and holding it to my ear.

My husband took it from me and frowned. "It just needs to be wound," he said.

Of course that was all it needed -- how had I forgotten? There once was a time when all watches were analog, not digital. And they didn't need batteries.

On the way back to Scotland, I made a list of all the things I can remember which are now as outdated as the grindstone in my mother's yard was when I was young. Here it is, for the benefit of the new generation, including my kids:

Mechanical pencil sharpeners -- You stuck your pencil in these and actually had to rotate the handle yourself. Imagine the toil!

Black and white televisions -- I can even remember these when the screen was about four inches square and the cabinets were huge and bulky. And yet, in our primitive daftness, we still thought they were incredible.

Stationery -- This came in boxes with clear plastic lids and twee little ribbons. There were thousands of varieties, from plain stuff for men and floral nonsense for women. The stationery you chose reflected your personality. I veered between botanically correct floral designs to plain ruled notebook paper. I fancied myself an iconoclast even back then.

Twin tub washing machines -- In Japan, the Netherlands, and Wales, these were what I used, and they were all plumbed for cold water only. You pulled your clothes out of one tub, sopping wet, and plugged them into the other, then pressed the 'spin' button -- and hoped for the best. The one my husband and I had in Wales was a hellish, lethal thing that leaked soapy water and oil. Twin tub washing machines may have been inconvenient, but they absolutely developed character.

Milk in bottles, milk deliveries -- Milk used to be one of the few things somebody would deliver to your house. It came in bottles, in a little metal caddy. As soon as you heard the tinkle of bottles on the porch, you had to get out there fast to take it in -- at least you did in Southern California. When I left home in the seventies, they'd stopped delivering milk door to door. When my husband and I moved to Wales, in the early nineties, I learned to my delight that they were 20 years behind the times. In Wales, you could leave your milk out all day if you didn't mind being known as a lazy slob. Sometimes it actually froze out there.

Reel-to-reel tapes -- Imagine cassette tapes (amazingly outdated themselves) without the cassettes. Imagine if the tape inside them was wound onto two separate spools and always in danger of tangling, snagging and getting generally messed up. Imagine these tapes existing in a house filled with cats. Ah, those were the days.

Manual typewriters -- I learned to type on these. You had to whack down HARD with your fingers, which usually resulted in traumatic arthritis a few decades later, but there were advantages too: when you wanted to emphasize something, you just used more physical force. There was a direct, visceral link between your emotional state and the text you produced. I love my laptop, but I adored my old 1933 Frankfurt-au-Main Torpedo.

So much in our lives has changed, I could go on and on. I still haven't covered record players, iceboxes, stoves you had to light, shoes with strings that had to be tied, cloth diapers, cloth napkins that had to be ironed, or cars. But I'll finish here, with these questions: What out-of-date things do you remember? And what are we using now that you think will be passé within the next few decades?

Some day, maybe I'll see that look on my kids' faces. Maybe I'll see them shake their heads and say in wondering tones: Imagine this being an antique! Imagine anyone not knowing what this is for!

That would be so cool.