In my time in Japan, no event has taught me as much about this country and its people as the crisis that began on March 11, 2011. I work as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for English at junior high and elementary schools in Shizuoka City, in Shizuoka Prefecture. I was at school when the first big earthquake hit. Immediately after it occurred, I was glued to my iPhone, sending updates to my friends and family through email, Facebook, and Twitter, verifying my safety and any facts I could gather. Simultaneously, I was scanning the news to try to translate what I was watching and hearing on the television screen in the staff room. But most of all, I was observing the people around me.
I’m in love
I love receiving letters and emails from my students. Inexplicably, their simple English and their process of articulating it becomes poetry. I don’t just read their words; I read the effort behind their words, their expressions on their faces as they anticipate my reaction upon delivery of the mail, their hesitations before responding to any questions that I have. I know this for the students who are in my presence because I can see them. For the students who email me from home, I see all of this and more. I see how I am in composing my own email back — thoughtful, careful, worried, inspired, hunched over my computer in unanticipated stress — and I know that anything that I am feeling is nothing compared to what is going on in the heads and hearts of my students.
My students. It is still weird for me to say that, yet now, more than ever, I know that it is true. I used to think that I could never be at the same level as the other teachers, and I can’t deny that a part of me still thinks this. After all, I am an Assistant Language Teacher. I can’t spend as much time with the students because I have to switch schools. I could never be a homeroom teacher or a coach for the same reason. And let’s not forget the obvious: I don’t speak Japanese.
Yet in the pauses that are inevitable when people who speak different languages try to communicate — in the pauses that I experience on a daily basis — there’s that poetry again. The silence has a weight that ceases to be a burden because there’s so much sincerity behind it. And that’s when I know that even though I am an Assistant Language Teacher, I am a teacher. To know that students want to speak to me, not necessarily because I speak English but in spite of the fact that I speak English, is to know love.
And students sure know how to romance me, because I’m in love back.