My first Private Student
After I’d been in Japan for about a year, I decided that it was time for a change of scenery – figuratively speaking. Not that I hadn’t enjoyed my time spent in Japan up until that point, I just felt that I’d reached a fork in the road and neither branching path would take me in the same direction as I had been heading thus far. The fast-paced work ethic of my current job at the time had worn me out over that first year. It was pretty much time for me to move on. However, I didn’t fancy jumping into another long-term contract without first enjoying my freedom and mulling over my future in Japan.
So, without looking into other alternatives, I quit my job that spring and took a short vacation in Hong Kong, returning to Japan feeling refreshed and thinking more clearly. It was around this time that a friend of mine contacted me with an offer. My friend was also an English teacher, working for one of the major English conversation schools at night and teaching privately during the day. I’d never taught privately in Japan for several reasons. One of those reasons was that any Japanese person that I met around my age, regardless of whether they were willing to pay for English lessons or not, eventually ended up becoming my friend. I had very poor business sense when it came to attracting my own students.
Then again, if you can imagine how difficult it is to keep up a lesson when you meet someone who has a million things in common with you… it probably isn’t too impossible to understand and sympathize with my repetitive situation.
Some of my private lessons would start out pretty regular. Introductions would fly by, job descriptions were self-explanatory, and then… the dreaded topic of hobbies would come up.
Student: “I like anime. How about you?”
Me: “I love anime!”
Student: “Which are your favorites?”
Doom. Total and utter doom.
Me: “Trinity Blood, Weiss Kreuz, Tenkuu no Escaflowne, Legend of Basara, Saiyuki…” I rambled off as many titles as I could remember in one breath.
Student: “You _like_ Weiss Kreuz? REALLY?!” A high pitched squeal would soon follow. “ME TOO!”
And, that would be the end of a beautiful student-teacher relationship.
Moving to San Francisco
So, anyway… when my friend called me up to tell me about yet another potential student, I was less than enthused. However, he reassured me that this time would be different from all the rest. One of his private students had a friend who would be moving to San Francisco the following year. That friend was searching for a reliable teacher to bring her up to speed with North American customs and teach conversational English to her family. My friend explained that he was unable to take this new student because it conflicted with a kids’ class that he taught on Saturday mornings. As for the possibility of mixing friendship with teaching, he told me that this was impossible. The lady was not interested in friendship, just a friendly teacher to get right down to business so that she would be prepared for immigrating to the United States the next summer.
Oh well, what could it hurt? I agreed to meet with the lady that same week, choosing a nearby café as a rendezvous spot.
When Saturday finally rolled around, I woke up earlier than usual and headed over to the café with my folder of English teaching material. I was to be teaching English to a woman in her early 40s and her three children – 8,6, and 4 years old. So, I’d spent a while making up cute flashcards and cutting them into irregular shapes to entertain the kids with. I had also prepared some basic conversation dialogues and grammar tests for the mother so that I would be able to judge her English level.
I arrived first, seeing as how I am always ridiculously early for any appointment, and loitered in front of the café. The area hosted a chaotic terminal for bicycles, some of them lined up neatly along the pathway, others clumped together like a monstrous metallic spider’s web. I was constantly on the move to avoid having my toes run over by cyclists and pedestrians alike. Everyone was in a hurry.
I wasn’t kept waiting long. From across the street, I noticed a Japanese woman pushing a little girl in a stroller. Behind her were two older girls riding their individual bicycles. As they crossed the street, the woman waved to me and hurried over with her three daughters.
Three little girls and their mother
“Are you SJ?” She asked in Japanese, grinning widely with excitement. Her youngest daughter was kicking about in her stroller, saying hello, while the other two held back looking rather shy.
I confirmed that I was indeed and continued on with the greetings in English. She understood but nervously responded in Japanese, urging us to enter the café and get started.
We chose a table at the far end of the café, locked away in a corner, and settled in with our iced tea. Apparently, Saturdays weren’t very popular with the café crowd for the usually hyper lair for the young was deserted.
I spoke with the mother first, going over her expectations and discussing the arrangements of the English lesson. As we chatted, the oldest daughter continued to stare at me, forgetting to blink as she seemed to space out. Her mother apologized and explained that this was the first time her daughters had met a foreigner. I laughed and smiled at the girl, who suddenly looked away. She grabbed her mother’s pen and a piece of paper and rushed over to another table with her sister. I glanced at the flashcards sitting unused facedown on the table and grew a bit nervous.
“Maybe I should do the children’s lesson first…” I wondered aloud, thinking that by the time I finished talking with the mother, the children would have lost their patience for sitting still in order to learn English.
“Don’t worry. They are always like that,” she reassures me, keen on going through one of the grammar quizzes that I’d made up.
Between quizzes, questions and storytelling, I learn that she is a housewife that likes to cook and bake. She also cycles frequently in order to lose weight and has recently been in a collision with another cyclist. She shows me the scrapes on her knee and insists that it no longer hurts but she warns me to be careful on the path underneath one of the bridges.
Is that me?
As she begins to tell me about her husband who is a doctor and a researcher, her oldest daughter suddenly interrupts. She doesn’t say a word but comes around to where I’m seated and places a drawing in front of me. The girl that she has drawn is very anime-ish with big eyes, a small mouth, and insanely long hair. At the top, she has scrawled out ‘SJ’ along with a big fat heart.
I say ‘thank you’ and smile, asking her what her favorite animal is. She looks to her mother for a translation so I quickly reiterate the question in Japanese. She likes sheep so I rummage through my flashcards until I find the sheep that I’d drawn and give it to her. Her eyes brighten up but she first wants to clarify that she can keep the card.
“For me? I can keep it?” She asks.
“Yes, you can.” I reply with a smile.
She rushes over to the next table and shows the sheep to her younger sister. In a split second, her sister is at my side telling me that she likes dogs. I pull out the dog flashcard and hand it to her. She needs no encouragement because she vanishes with the card and one of my markers.
Meanwhile, the youngest daughter grows tired of just watching us and begins to cry. I offer a card to her but she seems to be more interested in getting her hands on her mother’s French fries. Her mother places the paper bag of French fries into the little girl’s twitching fingers and pauses to recollect her thoughts. The four-year-old begins to munch away happily on her newly acquired snack.
After I go over weak points that need addressing in the mother’s grammar and conversational skills, promising to cater the lesson plans to her needs, I call the children over and prepare the flashcards. Before I can start the lesson, a piece of paper sails across the table, in my direction. I pick it up and turn it over. It closely resembles my dog flashcard except that this one is fatter and has misaligned eyes and a lopsided tongue. I look up to catch the middle sister giggling away. It was at this point that I started to realize how different all three girls were in personality. The oldest appeared to be very serious and quiet. The middle sister was a little comedian and more of a tomboy, if her fashion style and rambunctious behavior were any indication. The youngest tended to appreciate being the center of attention and would occasionally scream and yell until we focused on her. And as a bonus, she was the expert on junk food according to her mother.
As we go through the flashcards, the oldest daughter repeats the animal names in English and visibly concentrates hard in order to get as many correct as she can. Her younger sister makes an attempt here and there but keeps snatching the cards off the table to add to her private collection. The youngest laughs triumphantly when she voices her own rendition of the animal names, struggling with the pronunciation.
We take a break for the mother to reclaim my flashcard collection from the middle daughter and refill her tea cup. She mentions that she is very happy with the way the lesson is going because she had previously tried learning English with another method but it hadn’t been very beneficial for her. She urges me to be patient with her children because they have never studied English before and have very short attention spans. And of course she is very worried because they will need to speak English if they are to adapt to their new environment in the following year. Her husband’s new job promotion is the reason for their intended move to San Francisco. He will join a team of medical researchers at a university in San Francisco and need to permanently relocate. Naturally, his family will go with him.
The United States – a great place for snowbirds!
“Is the United States a nice place to live?” She asks me cautiously.
“I’m from Canada,” I remind her, “so I can’t really speak on behalf of the United States.” As her expression falters slightly, I enlighten her on my grandparents’ winter activities. I tell her that not only do my grandparents visit the United States every year, but they also live there 6-7 months at a time in order to avoid the harsh Canadian winters. If they didn’t enjoy living there, they would have stopped their snowbird habit years ago.
She looks amazed at this information, wondering how they can stay away from their family for so long. My grandparents are adventurous and, as much as they miss their family during that 6-7 month period of time, they would never pass up the opportunity to laze about on a beach and hang around shopping outlets at night.
“Maybe San Francisco will be a fun place to live,” she hopes, wishing to be able to speak English fluently before that time. She ends the lesson by handing me a piece of paper with her contact information and gives me brief directions to her home. “Next time, please come to my apartment. It’s much cooler with the air conditioning,” she says. “And thank you for the cute drawings.”
I thank her likewise for the drawings her daughters have given me and agree to meet at the same time next week at her apartment.
We say our goodbyes and head off in our separate directions. When I get home to switch bags and get ready for my next appointment, I pick up the stack of flashcards and think… they seem to be a lot lighter than when I had tucked them away in my folder that morning. It wasn’t until later that night that I realized _somebody_ had sneakily managed to escape with ten or more of my flashcards! And they were never seen again.