Part 4: "I just exchanged messages with your head trainer, and he has confirmed there's no way you can pass training after today."
My room mate arrived the next day after I had spent hours upon hours of scrubbing my hands bloody and raw trying to remove the slick layer of grime from the apartment.
Among being Australian, tall and similarly aged, Stephanie had a head of short, bouncy brown curls, and dark-oak eyes which were lit with enthusiasm as she explained her reasons for coming to Japan. Turns out she was a well-travelled expat who had jumped aboard a plane the moment she graduated university, and had experienced teaching English to second-language students in countries I hadn't heard of.
When I pointed out I had spent the day cleaning the bathroom, she had enthusiastically asked, "We have a bathroom? I haven't seen one of those in months!"
I liked her easy-going nature, and a friendly face was what I sorely needed in a time of life transition. Our Australian traits complemented each other, and we were quickly up to mischief once training started; cat-calling each other during presentations, diverting every conversation to characteristics of drop-bears, and - if time permitted - daring each other to eat mysterious food during lunch (or ganging up on our American fellow teachers in training to try snacks we knew to be down-right awful).
Training was every bit draining and torturous as people had described; we were expected to be at a training classroom on the other side of Nagoya city by eight o'clock every morning (though, by day two we were arriving before seven-thirty - a five o'clock wake-up without breakfast), lunch was a combini (convenient store) scramble as we woofed down onigiri and bread in order to rush off to observe afternoon classes, and train transits were spent catching up on sleep instead of doing the pages of reading we were supposed to complete every evening. We easily clocked-in sixteen to eighteen hours a day of training, homework, and teaching.
While the majority of my training sessions and observation classes with veteran teachers in their schools were not too demanding (most of the veteran teachers were laid-back, very kind, and often joked about their cultural mishaps), there was one session which truly pushed me to the edge.
In that session, I was to teach two classes and observe one. The school was in the middle of whoop-whoop, and without internet or a smartphone it was a test of hoping one of the kanji on the train schedule matched with where I was supposed to be going.
I arrived two hours before classes were due to start. Beyond a wall of textbooks, toys, and alphabet charts, a squat woman with glasses and a messy ponytail typed away on a smartphone, her long, decorated nails clicking away at the glass screen. Her lips sucked and smacked noisily as she chewed a piece of gum, wafts of peppermint and tropical deodorant filling the cramped space.
It had been several days since I had contacted my family back in Australia, and I was tempted to ask her if I could send a quick email to let them know I was alive.
"You're almost late," she declared in a thick New York accent as soon as I peeked around the makeshift wall. Her attention was focused on the phone.
I was about to explain about the difficult train schedules and kanji signboards when she continued, "Look, I've had a really rough week - there's a hole in the screen door of my balcony screen and mosquitoes keep buzzing into my room at night." She laughed suddenly, and then rolled her eyes, her gaze not once leaving the phone screen. "So you can teach all the classes, 'kay?"
I hesitated before pointing out I had been scheduled to only teach the first two classes.
Her head snapped from the phone, her lips faltering mid-chew. "I am really, really tired right now. I hate summer. I hate mosquitoes. This isn't even my school - I'm just subbing today."
Clenching my teeth, I tried to reel in my irritation. I hadn't had a full night of sleep since the night before arriving in Japan, I had been living off combini meals (which was chewing into my almost non-existent funds), my family and friends were across an ocean, and I was being assessed and evaluated every day. I also smelled similar to sushi which had been left out in the sun for two days, so I wasn't willing to do an ounce more work than needed.
"I don't know the curriculum of the third class," I pointed out, holding back on snapping a few choice words. She was one of the teachers evaluating me that day, and I was trying not to ruin my almost-perfect score.
She heaved a hefty sigh, her eyes narrowed in disapproval. "Fine. Get the Lesson Plan Book and write in your activities."
The Lesson Plan Book was a heavy folder which the native teachers and Japanese teachers used to write out their class activities and goals. Every school had one, and every class had to have a documented plan and a few sentences of feedback about the students for the next teacher.
After a quick glance around the room, I realised the book wasn't in sight.
When I asked the woman (we hadn't exchanged introductions) where the book was, she let out another frustrated sigh and glanced around the room from her seated position.
"I'll ask Tom," she stated, lifting the phone to her ear. She shot me a dark glare as if daring me to ask who Tom was. There was a feint click of someone answering the call before she snapped, "Tom, where's the book?"
Her expression fell for a split-second before her eyebrow furrowed to form layer upon layer of lines, her lips pulled back to expose small teeth in an animal-like snarl. "What the fuck do you mean you have the book? Fuck you! It has to always be in the fucking classroom, fucker! If I get in trouble for this, I am going to kick your fucking ass!"
Her voice reached a ear-ringing, shrill pitch before she clicked a button on the screen and tossed the phone onto a dishevelled pile of flashcards.
Our exchange was minimal for the rest of the duration before class. I wrote my lesson plan on scraps of paper to be placed into the Lesson Plan Book later, and she resumed clicking away on her phone.
The first boy arrived two minutes before class. He was wearing a dark-blue soccer uniform caked in scraps of dirt and grass from a recent training session. A layer of sweat clung to his skin, and every movement released a powerful wave of body odour. Judging by the level of exhaustion, he could have been anything from eight to forty years old.
I asked him for his name, and he responded with a grunt. The woman was sitting at the side of the room, suddenly professional with a scrutinising glare and an evaluation sheet. She was already writing notes while shaking her head.
The atmosphere didn't improve as the rest of the class sauntered in at varying stages of late. Every time a student wandered into the room, I would stop an activity to say hello and ask for their name. This received a scornful 'tsk' from the woman, so I changed my greeting to a brief head nod and a gesture to a vacant seat. The change received a sharper 'tsk' and more furious head-shaking. I couldn't win.
Hands shaking and hyper-aware of the vigorous scratches of pen on evaluation paper, I did my best to ignore the constant 'tsks' and head shakes. Pushing through the activities with a class of three boys and two girls who looked like they wanted to bolt from the classroom as much as I did, it wasn't until fifteen minutes into the lesson that the woman suddenly erupted.
"What are you doing?" she demanded in a shrill voice as I told the students to put their books away.
I jumped in fright, my throat numb as I turned to face her. She had marched from the side of the room to the table's side, arms crossed tightly over her chest as a snarl thinned her lips.
"Phonics!" she hissed venomously. "You're supposed to do Phonics and then move onto Vocabulary!"
I blinked stupidly. "I'm sorry?"
The students' gazes flicked from her to me, and then back again. One of the girls giggled and nudged the other with a smirk.
Sweat beaded my forehead as a red-hot heat swept over my face and neck. "I was going to do Phonics after Cultural Point--"
"Oh, were you?" Condescension dripped from each word. "And then when were you going to do Pronunciation?"
Another round of bewildered blinks. "Aren't they the same thing?"
"I better speak to the head trainer. There is no way you can graduate training without knowing the difference between Phonics and Pronunciation," she stated with a pointed eye-roll.
True to her word, she grabbed her phone and began clicking away in a message.
Well, fuck you too, I thought nastily.
She wasn't finished.
Every activity and instruction were quickly followed by interjections, pointing out flaws, safety concerns, and 'this isn't how you do it - I'm going to talk to the head trainer'. Each time she interrupted, I would lose the momentum of the activity, and the students learned not to invest attention. The only students who showed the slightest interest in any of the activities were the girls - though, I suspect they were only curious as to what the woman would try to chew me out for next. I tuned all of my effort into trying to encourage these girls to interact in English, my last hope at possibly passing this round of evaluation.
It was to my horror that when the lesson finished, not one of the students left. It turned out the next lesson was a follow-on grammar class; twice the work with half the potential for fun activities.
The woman was already poised on one knee, ready to interject at the first instruction.
My hands shook, my throat was dry, my nerves were shot, and my patience was non-existent. I had used all of my energy fighting back the urge to scream every obscenity and curse available in my vocabulary, and now I had nothing left. There wasn't enough energy to sob, let alone teach a lesson.
That hour lesson felt like sixty. Luckily, the students who had any ounce of energy used it to do the writing activities while the other students - the majority of the boys - slept on the table. I didn't care enough to reprimand them.
Luckily, the woman seemed to have become tired of her interruption game, and had settled on scribbling a few scrawled words on a notebook (she had completely filled both sides of the evaluation paper with notes), and clicked away on her phone.
"I just exchanged messages with your head trainer, and he has confirmed there's no way you can pass training after today."
The woman's voice had adjusted from a menacing snarl to poorly-masked patronising false sympathy as the students filed out of the classroom. I leaned against the whiteboard, my expression sombre with bitter acceptance.
Just like that, I had failed training. Two weeks of hell and torture for nothing.
The woman's lips perked into an amused smirk as if sensing she had hit a nerve. "Your lessons are just too dangerous. You had jumping activities too close to the table; any student could have accidentally fallen and hit their head. Did you know there are scissors in the teacher's area? What would you have done if a student ran back there and cut themselves?"
Even in my brain-dead state, I knew she was grasping at straws.
"No company would ever hire a teacher who doesn't consider the welfare of their students. I have already spoken to your head trainer, and he has confirmed he has serious concerns for you to continue training--"
I stopped listening after that. The woman's students were arriving for the last class, and I was rehearsing what I was going to say to my parents upon my sudden return home. I could only imagine the disappointment.
I turned away from the arriving students as tears welled in my eyes. To add insult to injury, the woman had left the evaluation paper on the floor; all of the checkpoint categories of 'safety', 'fun', and 'care' marked as failed. Around the borders of the checkpoint categories she had listed the negative points of my lesson.
Spent too much time greeting students.
Didn't show enough attention to arriving students.
Didn't write lesson plan in Lesson Plan Book.
Didn't consider student's safety (let them jump near table).
Didn't know curriculum.
Didn't care about student learning.
The list read like an overwhelmingly negative novel with not one point of positivity. Every scribbled letter nudged me closer to the precipice of sobbing my eyes out.
At the bottom of the page, she had scrawled over a printed sentence from head office, but not enough for me not to be able to read it.
We would appreciate it if our training teachers filled out an evaluation sheet for the veteran teachers they are observing.
We encourage your feedback.
Just then, a flurry of movement from one of the students caught my attention. A broad-shouldered boy with a buzz-cut suddenly grabbed the head of another - smaller - boy, before a stomach-turning crunch filled the room as he smashed the smaller boy's forehead on the corner of the table.
Silence filled the room. The woman faltered, her hand paused in mid-air while playing a game of Old Maid with a group of girls. Seconds passed before the woman sniffed distastefully and turned her back to the boys, instead asking one of the girls in Japanese, "Is it my turn?"
A smirk tugged at my lips as I grabbed a pen and a fresh evaluation sheet.
This was going to be fun.
- - -
Strangely enough, my head trainer didn't pull me aside in the morning to deliver the devastating news of my training termination. It wasn't until I had arrived at the observation classroom in the evening that I received a worried phone call from my head trainer.
After a few small-talk statements about the weather and how training was going, my head trainer hesitated before saying, "I received your evaluation sheet from yesterday..."
My knuckles turned white as a I clasped the phone and fought the urge not to sob or beg not to be sent home.
"... you filled out for your veteran teacher. Is it true she ignored student-on-student violence or that she played 'Old Maid' for forty minutes of her lesson?"
I paused, the angel and devil arguing on my shoulder as to which moral path I should take - try to protect the woman from being fired for workplace negligence, or push her into the flames.
I made my choice. "And she only spoke Japanese to the students, although she did mention something about stress from a mosquito bite..."
"I am so sorry you had to witness that," my head trainer said with a regretful sigh.
"No, I'm the one who's sorry," I answered quickly, remembering her message exchange with the head trainer during my lesson. "I fumbled my lesson, and I'm sure it must have been frustrating for you to be talking to her during your classes yesterday."
The stir of electric crackles filled the line as the head trainer fell silent. "Talking to me?" he finally said.
"Yesterday with your message exchange with her," I responded, my heart pacing faster as I rushed to regurgitate word-for-word what the woman had told me during my lesson.
When I was finished, I was met by stunned silence.
It turned out she had never contacted him or filed an evaluation paper about my lessons.
"I think it's about time we addressed this veteran teacher in a conduct review meeting. Thank you for telling me everything."
There has a click of the handset as my head trainer hung up.
Hiding from Japanese Ghosts
Ghost stories are the least frightening thing about Japan when facing culture clashes, mystery food, language barriers, and - scariest of all - marriage.