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 school

jugatsu 8 (oct)
I spend my working days at Otsuma Women's University, Tama campus, in the green Tama hills west of Tokyo. It's not far from Fuchu as the crow flies, but there's no direct route by train. The circuitous journey requires three trains, about 10 minutes on each, with confusing transfers for a novice. Door to door, it takes a little under an hour.

On Friday, traveling with the two other foreign teachers at my school (one Australian, one British), we got turned around on the first connection and ended up right back where we started, in Fuchu. By the time we got to the second train, the expresses had stopped so we boarded the local, which painstakingly paused at every little stop. There are five levels of stops, from Local to Special Express, with varying numbers of stops on each. As a result, two of us missed our first class and had to reschedule. On Monday, with good intentions of getting there on time, we arrived at the station to find that the trains were running a half hour late due to an accident. (Most of these train accidents are reputedly caused by suicides, someone jumping in front of the train.) When the car doors opened, stressed people piled in, smushed together tighter than sardines. The young British teacher dropped her lunch bag en route and it disappeared, hopelessly lost in the crush. There was no room to bend over and pick it up. If you lost your balance with the train movement, bodies held you up. Even on a normal day, the first train ride is packed because we're in the stream bound for Tokyo, so I start the day sandwiched between suits.

The sleek silver buildings of the Tama campus flank a tree-lined tiled walkway that climbs the hillside. It rings with the clip-clop of high-heeled girls and their laughter. In the evening, it sings with the song of a thousand crickets. The first three days, a gentle rain fell. Walking up the hill, with all the young women, overlapping pastel umbrellas moved up the walk like so many round flowers. That Thursday, the sun emerged and the dappled walk was patterned from the shadows of leaves overhead.

On the first morning, we were introduced in the office and the entire staff stood at attention and bowed, saying "ohayo gosaimasu" or good morning. We have our own separate space: four classrooms and a teachers' room with a couple of computers. I alternate between two of the classrooms for the junior and senior classes. Although I teach the more advanced students in this school, the highest level is just Pre-Intermediate, which was the lowest level I taught in Prague. Japanese students study English for six years in middle school and high school, but have little spoken practice, so their vocabulary and grammar is dormant and it's often a struggle for them to apply it. The curriculum is predominantly conversation based, with some TOEIC test preparation, the English test used primarily for business communication, often required by international companies. The lesson plans are already written and support resources are available; we can add our own variations and style, but the preparation time is minimal. And no papers to grade at night!

I teach an average of six 40-minute classes per day, plus an English conversation period where any student can come for unstructured, open discussion. There's a maximum of twelve enrolled per class but mine are usually from three to ten students. These classes are electives, so the students are, for the most part, eager and interested. There are some regular English junkies I have gotten to know quite well already in just a week and a half. Learning the names has been a real challenge, however. For example, I have Yuka, Yayoi, Yuina, Yukako, Yumi, Yoko, Yuka, three Yukaris, and four Yukis. Yikes!

There are three cafeterias with various hot dishes, and a green tea dispenser that I frequent a few times a day. This afternoon I felt a tremor that felt like a dizzy spell and looked over at my tea to see it swaying in the cup. Minor earthquakes are common here but the buildings are built to absorb the shock, so the students just giggle and take it in stride.

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