Monday, 21 October 2013

A Special occasion

I was informed early on that I would be going to a special school (to teach durrrr). I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve never worked in that sort of an environment before. I’m not even sure of the politically correct name for such a place, or for its students. I thought that the term ‘special’ was considered to be offensive but I really don’t know.

There was a big meeting for all the prefectural JETS a few weeks ago. We were given a talk on visiting special schools as many JETS have been assigned to them in the area. Some schools are for the deaf, or blind, some for the physically handicapped, some for the mentally handicapped (am I using the right terminology?).

I was informed that my school would be for the mentally disabled, but that the severity of their disability was low. In fact, I might find some of them to be more intelligent than some of the students at my regular high schools – so I really wasn't sure what to think. Actually, I thought of that movie ‘Rain man’ and then felt really perplexed. I didn’t really think too much about it after that – I knew that my predecessor only had to make a visit to the special school just once, so it didn't seem like a big deal.

However, before going in for my first trip, I was informed that they in fact wanted me to go in four more times and that the dates had already been arranged. This made me a little nervous – one time is fine, go for the experience, see what happens, doesn't matter if you totally hate it - but multiple trips means that I have to really have my A-game on – make lasting impressions and not do or say something completely offensive or stupid without thinking. I was worried that I would secretly despise going to the special school, maybe I’d find the whole situation too overwhelming or immensely stressful – or that I’d act overly sympathetic or apathetic towards the students. You just don’t know.

My first visit was on Friday, I arrived at 8.20 as instructed. I was greeted by one of the nicest ladies I've ever met – a very sweet and pretty teacher who resembled an anime character. This woman had that look where she could have been anywhere between 18 to 40 years old. I later found out she was 37 – I cannot believe how well Japanese people age. As always with a first day at a new school I was rushed into the school office and made to sign a million little slips of paper, sign loads of things with my hanko (personal name stamp), bow at loads of people and meet the principal (and of course bow at him too in a really accentuated manner). I was then led to the morning assembly where I had to introduce myself to the whole school – this kind of thing doesn't make me nervous anymore, you just pretend to be one of those people dressed in a mini mouse costume as part of a choreographed dance parade at Disneyland. Smile a lot and pretend that no one notices you from behind your mask.

From the moment I watched the students participating in their ohiyo goziamas routines – bowing to each other in lines – laughing at the teachers speeches and laughing with each other – I knew that I would have a great day, they were clearly very sweet and happy kids. It’s too longwinded to describe every detail of the day – quite frankly typing this much quickly becomes exhausting, especially on a post-birthday hangover. So I will try summarise some of the stuff that happened/ things I learnt:

  •   Everyone was insanely nice - Everyone at the school had an amazing sense of humour, especially the students and the teachers….so yea, everyone.
  • The students at the school had such a great energy that the lessons were a total joy.
  • I found out that this is one of the very few special schools where the students actually had to sit an entrance exam to get into. The kids at this school are capable of getting jobs after they graduate. The have normal lessons where they do Japanese, English and maths, but they also specialise on life-skills courses. So the students learn how to do easy task jobs – working in a café, working in a kitchen, cleaning, warehouse work, home economics…. You get the point.
  • One of the kids had grown up in America (with Japanese parents) and had moved to Japan 3 years ago, so English was his first language. He seemed very intelligent. I had to eat lunch in a posh meeting room with him, the headmaster and some of the other ‘top students’. It was one of the most bizarre meals of my life. The American kid was acting as a translator. I was asked a mixture of questions, some quite serious and normal from the principal and some pretty odd ones by the students. The conversation took many strange paths – but generally we all enjoyed a chuckle, some great food and one kid showing off his Michael Jackson moonwalk impression.
  • In one class the students had to give a tour of the school – the whole idea was for them to use direction language, like “go left, go up the stairs” and so on…. The students would be given a place in the school to guide me to and we would walk together as they did so. I made the same joke repeatedly where if they told me to turn a bit too early or late then I would pretend to walk into a wall or door….. 90% of the students absolutely loved it and about 10% got really upset thinking that I had a genuine accident. One girl came up to me afterwards very upset to apologise, I tried to explain that it was a joke – but it was obvious that she didn't understand. This made me feel slightly bad, but the teacher told me that this was very normal behaviour.
  • In each class I had to go round and shake the student’s hands. They each had to tell me their name and something about themselves, this was my favourite part. Some of the stuff the students said was so weird and hilarious. Some of the students told me about something they liked, like ‘cats’ or ‘computers’ or whatever, many of them got incredibly excited when I said “me too” – also some students were so incredibly shy and nervous that they just completely froze, or giggled hysterically, it was so cute.

All in all my trip to the special school went very well, I am happy to say that I am genuinely excited to be going back in a few weeks time. When I left all the teachers walked me to my car and waved me off like at the end of a movie.

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