As I was writing the last post, one of the things I struggled with was reconciling my memories of middle school with the place I now work. For most Americans my age, only 10 years removed from the braces and body odors of junior high, memories of middle school are likely to be mixed at best and downright traumatic in some cases.
But almost 6 months into my job in Japan, the experience couldn’t have seemed more different, and not just because I’m wearing a tie this time. Where was the teasing? Where the hurtful nicknames? Where were the kids, ostracized and excluded, eating alone at lunch? Where were the girls crying in the bathroom? What was this idyllic school? And why were the students here so much more civil to each other than the ones I grew up with?
Of course, I’d have to be pretty naive to take this all at face value, and there are some practical answers to these questions that need addressing:
First, I’m a teacher now, and the differences don’t end at the chalk-stains on my pants. The students act differently around me than they do in my absence (shocking, I know). There’s a lot going on I don’t see, and the stuff I do see tends to be during class, where the students are generally better behaved and decorous towards one another.
Second, I, uh, don’t speak the language so hot. My deplorable Japanese doesn’t get me too far in normal conversations, never mind the slang-loaded banter that sprays around the room at lunchtime. As I recall, sarcasm–that easiest-to-use of rhetorical slights–was a favorite of bullies at my middle school, but given that it relies on an ability to differentiate based on intonation, I couldn’t recognize it in Japanese to save my life. So chances are there is some teasing that flies right by me.
Third, it’s tough for me to tell which nicknames are playful and which are hurtful. When a bunch of girls tell me to call their classmate “Ojo” (a pun on his actual name), and I find out later it means “princess,” is that teasing? Or is it flirting? At that age, the two are almost identical, so it’s probably only the girls themselves who know. And when a boy refers to his friend as “Right-Angle” (because his head is, well, a little square), is that in good fun? And if the recipient takes the nickname in stride, is he a good sport laughing off a harmless goof, or is he putting on a brave face in front of his peers?
This was hard enough to figure out when I was in middle school and it was all in English, so as you can imagine, it’s more or less impenetrable now.
The last thing that bears mentioning is that Japanese discourse tends to be marked by understatement and omission. In an effort to avoid disturbing the wa (harmony of society), Japanese people go to great lengths to avoid offending people. There really isn’t a need for curse words here because saying something, or somebody, is “the worst” is like saying “Fuck you” in English. (I found this out the hard way when I asked students, during an exercise in class, to give me an example to use in the sentence, “_________ is the restaurant that makes the worst food in Kazusa.” Crickets. Whoopsie.)
So, when calling someone “the worst” is akin to swearing at them, you can imagine the subtlety required to issue lesser insults, and the phenomenal degree of familiarity required to recognize them. Like I said, I’m probably missing a lot.
But, even taking all that into account, it was still remarkable how decent student relations seemed to be. Maybe that’s partly a product of small-town living, I don’t know. But the only whiff I ever got of bullying was when a female student missed class to stay in the nurse’s office. I asked my supervisor if she was okay, and she said, “Not sick, maybe.” Then she paused. “She has problems with friends.” I nodded my head, and in a quintessential example of Japanese understatement, she said, “Girls. It’s hard for them sometimes.”
So who knows? Maybe there have been girls crying in the bathroom all year long and I, for good reason, haven’t been around to see it.
But today, for the first time, I caught a too-familiar glimpse of what middle school can be like. In fact, if I read the situations right, I caught two glimpses in a span of 15 minutes.
The first came when I walked into the boys bathroom during lunch and found one of my students blowing his nose in the corner. In passing, we exchanged hellos, but when I came out of the stall I got a better look at him. He was crying and trying to muffle it with a rag. (Crying in bathrooms–it’s not just for girls!)
Now, bullying isn’t the only reason a student might be crying in the bathroom, so admittedly, I’m speculating. But this was, unfortunately, one of my worst students, someone for whom school is a chore and grades a non-factor. So I ruled out the possibility that this was the result of a bad score on a test (he has, I’m afraid, seen too many of those at this point to be so fazed). It could have been a family issue, or just a bad day, but in general this kid seems rather level, which is why I suspect bullying. Without getting into it too much, my impression is that this student alienates many of his peers with his attitude towards school, since so few of them share it. As a result, he’s probably not as well-liked as he might be, which is really a shame.
This student isn’t one I have much of a relationship with–his non-participation in my classes makes that difficult–so I didn’t think it was appropriate for me, of all people, to butt into his private moment. I did ask him if he was okay (in Japanese), to which he replied, “Yes.” Part of me wanted to tell the nurse or one of the other teachers what I had seen, but my intuition is that if somebody is crying in the bathroom, a lot of attention is the last thing they want.
Minutes later, I left, bringing my lunch up to eat with one of my classes. It is my routine to eat lunch with a different class each day, rotating through all three grades. I sit at a different table each time and (attempt) to chat with different students.
One reason why I’ve never seen a student eating lunch alone is that the arrangement makes it impossible. Students sit in assigned rows during class, and at lunch, the desks are turned to face each other and pushed together to form tables. So, mercifully, no one has to pick a table or search vainly for someone to sit with.
Anyway, I sat down across from a very quiet boy, the kind who is so often a target in American middle schools: shy, small, unathletic, and not terribly bright. During the course of the meal, he made a clumsy move with his chopsticks, and dropped a morsel of fish on the floor, where it sat. A minute later, another boy–loud, well-liked, a pitcher on the baseball team–pointed at the fish on the floor, singled the smaller boy out by name, and then said something else I didn’t catch. He may have told him to pick it up, or reprimanded him for dropping it. I have no way of knowing. But in Japan, singling someone out is rare and an easy source of embarrassment, which is why I am so careful about how I talk to students (see the last post for more on that).
This seems like a trivial enough exchange, but a few of the other boys laughed, and the smaller boy seemed to tear up. He didn’t cry, bu looked down at his lap and ate the remainder of his lunch quickly in silence without looking up. Again, I badly wanted to say something, especially since the cool boys in this class are always jockeying for my approval. But, beyond trying to smile at him, there seemed little I could do (especially in Japanese) that wouldn’t draw more unwanted attention.
After class, I made sure to say goodbye to him during a private moment. This is, of course, a textbook example of too little and too late, though whether that is worse than too much and too soon is up for debate. Finding a middle ground is one of the many, many things I have to improve on here.
As it turns out, dealing with bullying is one thing that doesn’t get any easier when you’re a teacher.
NB: Middle school really wasn’t THAT bad for me. No crying episodes to speak of. So rest easy, Mom.