Monday, June 30, 2008


Recently my back has been giving me problems, and since I do not have time to swim (to strengthen it) I bought a balance ball. Since buying it I have been falling off it regularly, and I think it is helping.

Today, down at the little river, a turtle sympathized.

I helped

Yesterday The Man finally, FINALLY, passed the kidney stone that has been plaguing him off and on for the last couple of weeks.

Perhaps I should knee him more often.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

You love me

Sometime last night while I was sleeping I kneed The Man in a sensitive place. He shouted and complained, which woke me up. I apologized and then (according to him) giggled.

This morning he mentioned it again.

"I'm so sorry," I said. "I remember that. I felt really guilty."

"You giggled," he said.

Then he made me giggle again by adding,

"You love me. You kneed me."

(The Man doesn't have to be fully awake to make puns.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Not fair

Today I bumped into the boss who thinks I'm funny. We exchanged greetings. Then I said,

"There's something I've been meaning to email you about."

"Yes?" he said, smiling expectantly. He seemed to think I was about to come out with something hilarious.

"Will it upset anybody terribly if I fail twenty-one out of forty students?" I asked.

His smile faltered.

"Um... that's a lot," he said.

"I could probably make it fourteen out of forty," I said. "Or maybe, if I really push them in the last two weeks, and juggle the numbers, ten."

"Wha– wha– that's still a lot!" he said, so I explained the problem.

He listened, asked a couple of questions, and thought about it. Then he made my day by saying.

"Well, if your other classes are doing all right, and you can justify it with evidence, then sure, go ahead. I'll back you up. Sounds like they deserve to fail."

"I've kept every test they've written, and every bit of homework they didn't write," I said. "You've just made my day. I'm allowed to apply some standards! Yay!"

Then he got a funny little grin and added,

"At least you can be sure your repeater class next semester won't be cancelled for lack of students!"

I gaped at him.

"Oh shit," I said. "I'd forgotten about that."

And it was true. I had forgotten. The two courses I teach in that department, which are required, are in the first and second semesters. Let's say they are called English 1 and English 2. They are in the first and second semesters respectively. But the repeater class for students who failed either of them the first time (in anybody's classes in that department), which I am also teaching, have been scheduled so that English 2 is in the first semester and English 1 in the second, so that students can repeat immediately after failing. And THAT means that any students I fail will come back to haunt me next semester. Not only that, I'll have them in TWO classes, because they can do English 2 at the same time they are repeating English 1.

I said a very rude word.

"THAT'S NOT FAIR!" I shouted after my boss as he took off down the corridor, laughing. "THERE SHOULD BE A LAW AGAINST IT! YOU SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED TO SIMULTANEOUSLY MAKE MY DAY AND RUIN MY YEAR!"

I suppose I should be reassured that my boss still thinks I am funny, but I'm not feeling very reassured. That laugh sounded more like an evil cackle to me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


There's a fat, fluffy little sparrow that has been sitting in the tree outside my room for the past couple of weeks. It spends most of the day there, chirping. Here's what it seems to say:

"Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep! cheep! cheep! Cheepcheepcheep! Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheepcheepcheep! CHEEP! CHEEP! CHEEP! CHEEPCHEEPCHEEP! Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep. Cheep."

And here's what it's REALLY saying:

"Mum. Mum. Dad. Dad. Food. Food. Food. Mum. Dad! Dad! Dad! DadDadDad! No, wait, that's not Dad. Dad. Dad. Food. Food. Mum. Mum. Mum! Mum! Mum! Food! Mumfoodfoodfoodfood! FOODFOODFOOD! Thanks. More? No? Mum. Mum. Dad. Food. Dad. Dad. Dad. Food. Food."


Who would be a parent?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Yesterday I had my very low level students at the women's university writing answers to some questions in the textbook. One of the questions was,

Do you like your house? Why or why not?

One girl had written.

No. Because fleg.

This was puzzling, and I asked what she meant.

There were a lot of fleg, she told me, then switched to Japanese. They were EVERYWHERE. They were clinging to the screen doors when she came home. When she had a shower, they were often in the bathroom, and sometimes jumped and surprised her. They even got into her bedroom, and into cupboards, leaping out when you opened the doors. They said kero kero all the time. It was kimochi warui, she told us, dramatically, and the rest of the class shuddered and agreed.

Eventually, when she had finished her story, I told her the correct word in English.

I never did get around to asking her where she lives, but I'm told that this problem is quite common in mountainside areas. But I don't think they are kimochi warui. I think they are cute. We get them in our garden.

Besides, I told her, they probably eat mosquitoes. That makes them her FRIENDS.

My students think I'm weird, and I think they are unnecessarily squeamish.

Monday, June 23, 2008


What do you do with students who are determined to self-sabotage? I spent a depressing weekend entering test and homework scores into the computer, and seeing what popped out. In one Friday morning class, twenty-one out of thirty students will fail if I stick to the guidelines I gave them. There are two reasons for their failing: the low test scores on the braindead tests I give at the beginning of each class (which were supposed to give them an easy thirty percent of their grade in exchange for turning up on time, and in most other classes that's how they work), and the homework scores. Fewer than half of the students handed in any homework at all, despite being reminded weekly for the past five weeks.

If I drop the worst scores from the tests, then the nine good students score almost 100% and the number of failing students drops to fifteen.

What on earth is going on with this lot? Every week, when I tell them about the test the following week, I tell them what the questions will be, AND the answers, and they all write them down. In the last few weeks I have been begging them to remember that there will be a test, and to revise for at least five minutes before class because they have been doing so badly they might fail. I have asked if the questions are too difficult, and they laugh and say that they are not. But the next week, at test time, at least half the class panics. "TEST?" they gasp, and look shocked and betrayed. Why am I springing surprise tests on them?

How can they forget something that happens every week?

Many of the tests are error correction questions that we study the week before, in class. I collect common mistakes and write them on the board, and the students correct them, as a class. They get them right at that time, and don't have any difficulty seeing what is wrong with, say, She name is Susan., and correcting it. They write it down, sneering at the silly mistake. The next week, in the test, they correct it to She's name is Susan, or something equally ludicrous.


I wonder if I'll get in trouble if I fail half a class?

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Why couldn't today have been Friday? My day would have been much easier if it was. Turning up for my Thursday classes with my Friday teaching notebook and roll books and other materials was no fun at all. Also, if today was Friday, that would mean tomorrow is Saturday. Wouldn't everybody be happier that way?

In fact, I can't think of a single good reason why today had to be Thursday. I think it was all a great big mistake.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Yesterday I turned up well prepared for my morning classes. Actually I turned up well-prepared for all my classes, with a short test, except that I'd forgotten that I had promised not to give the test in the afternoon classes. I'd promised to do it next week, because three or four students had already told me they would be absent this week. They were worried about the test and I told them that I'd shift the date.

This meant that in fact I was unprepared for the afternoon classes. It was during one of the morning classes, while I had the students marking each others' tests and going over the mistakes that I found the note to myself in my teaching notebook. The note said,

Do something different for afternoon classes. Test next week.

Before lunch I thought about what to do in the afternoon classes, and decided to use the handout I have about fashion. My students always find plenty to interest them with that, and seem to enjoy it. I find fashion boring after five minutes or so myself, and somewhat depressing (what's it all ABOUT? Do I HAVE to keep up?), but that isn't the point, really. The point is finding something that will interest my students.

At lunchtime I was thinking about the first class after lunch, which is one of my favourite classes of the week. Science students are funny and interesting even when their English is rubbish. They try, and they make progress. Also, they are mostly guys, and at eighteen/nineteen guys are jumpy bundles of hormones, easy to tease even at my advanced (to them) age.

When I went to photocopy the worksheets about fashion I found myself thinking, Nah, how boring, I'd rather teach them how to say diarrhea. I put the fashion worksheet away and fished out the 'aches and pains' worksheet instead.

It was a good choice. My science students thought diarrhea was the most interesting English word they had ever learned, and had a lot of fun with that worksheet.

While I was teaching the vocabulary by demonstrating hiccups and dizzy and so on, one lad sitting near the front was gazing at me with his mouth open, fascinated. After I'd finished nausea and everybody had made a note I asked him if he had a question.

"You're a very good actor," he said, admiringly.

"I practice a lot," I told him.

He stared a bit longer, then added,

"I love you."

"I love you, too," I replied, and wondered whether he was always inspired to love by the sight of a woman apparently just about to throw up. He blushed, and his classmates hooted. He tells me he loves me quite frequently, and I usually pretend not to notice. I don't know what came over me yesterday.

Then, after class, the two bad boys of class (who aren't really very bad) came up to me while I was packing up my things. One wanted to tell me that he HADN'T gone to the toilet to have a smoke as I'd teased him for doing. He'd had a STOMACHACHE, a word he'd just learned.

"Maybe you ate a lit cigarette," I suggested. "That would explain the stomachache AND the smell of smoke."

"I love you," interrupted his friend, and I replied, abstractedly,

"I love you, too," I said. (I was feeling particularly mellow yesterday.) Then I said sternly to the smoker, "That was REALLY BAD TIMING. You should go to have your smoke when you don't have a partner waiting to start an activity."

He stared at me disbelievingly, then turned to stare disbelievingly at his friend.

"What did you say?" he asked.

"I love her," said his friend, smugly.

"See?" I said, wagging my finger. "Takayuki loves me, and he never causes trouble for his partner. He's a GOOD student. You should learn from him."

They cracked up. The idea of Takayuki being a good student was, apparently, wildly funny.

Then they left.

Those two both missed the first class of semester. They turned up loudly in the second week, apparently determined to be shocking and outrageous. So far they have been shocked and outraged on a regular basis. It is enormous fun shocking and outraging them.

I finished packing up my things. Was that sexual harassment? I wondered. And if it was, who was doing the harassing? I probably should be careful about this sort of thing. I could get into trouble.

In my last class of the day, of mostly girls, one bunch of students was rather distracted for most of the class, but I was feeling too mellow to care much. All was explained when class was over and one of the girls approached me as she was leaving, surrounded by her friends.

"Sensei! Sensei!" she said, full of news she just had to share and so happy her feet were barely touching the floor. "I have a boyfriend!"

"Oh, my goodness!" I said. "When did that happen?"

"Yesterday!" she confided.

She blushed and giggled, and I could get no more sense out of her. Her friends, however, told me that this was her first ever boyfriend, which explained her excitement. I wondered how she had suddenly acquired a boyfriend. Did he suddenly come up to her and say, "Will you be my girlfriend?" I don't know how these things work these days. Did he get one of his friends to talk to one of her friends, and sound her out? What? I wanted to ask, but I was tired and also wanted to go home. I decided to ask her next week, if her new boyfriend lasts that long.

I congratulated her. They left, giggling and happy, leaving me to worry about it. What if he's a lout? I thought. That cute little flower could end up with a broken heart!

But there's no point worrying, really. There's nothing I can do about it.

And anyway, she might end up happy, like me.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Big Brother is measuring you

"I had my annual physical last week," my friend told me. "They measured my waistline, and apparently I have metabolic syndrome. Everybody in my department has it. We've all been given medicine."

I'd love to know what this medicine is. Diet pills? Is half of Japan going to be speeding from taking too many diet pills? How exciting! (Or have diet pills changed since I was a university student and I knew people addicted to them?)

'Metabo,' or 'Metabolic syndrome' is the new politically correct word in Japan for 'fat.' Metabo is a huge thing right now. The government has launched a campaign against it. My friend is lucky she is not being sent to reeducation classes.

My friend is not fat. She is a slim, healthy person who walks a lot. The required waist size is not adjusted for height or body type, which seems odd to me. Can it really be true that every woman should have the same waist measurement? We decided that this whole thing was a giant plot by the pharmaceutical companies and the government to make money from a non-existent problem.

According to what I've read and heard every employee has to be checked. I have not been checked, however. Perhaps this is just another of those things where part-time workers (about a third of employees in Japan, I think) are going to slip through the net. No health insurance benefits, no national pension, no holiday pay, and no getting waistlines measured. For once I am pleased not to be included. (I just measured my waistline myself and I'm well under, but STILL. My waist measurement is nobody's business except my own.)

But I'm wondering – if you are a full-timer, and metabo is classified as such a huge problem, can you take time off work for it? 'My metabo is playing up' would be a lovely excuse for a sick day.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Campus cat

This is Taro, the campus cat, waiting for the elevator in the science building.

(He doesn't actually take the elevator, you understand. He just waits for it.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fluffy bottoms

"Mum? What's the proper way to behave when you get head-butted by a carp?"

"You depart in a dignified manner, as quickly as possible."

"And you hope the carp doesn't follow because it's hard to be dignified with a carp's head up your bottom."

"I think we're safe now."

Hee hee! Fluffy bottoms!

Monday, June 09, 2008

What was in it?

When I was a child some of my favourite picture books concerned people or animals that set off on a big adventure. When they did, they never carried a suitcase. Instead, they carried a stick over their shoulder, and at the end of the stick was a cloth bundle.

I always puzzled over this, and last night I realized that I still do not know the answer to the question that kept me staring at the picture when I was little: What was inside the bundle?

I thought it was one of those things I would know automatically when I grew up, but I don't. It is still a mystery. Last night I decided that the bundle probably contained spare socks and underpants (if heroes wore underpants in 'once upon a time'), mittens for cold weather, a spoon, and a cheese sandwich. But that can't be all. What else was in there? And why was it always so nicely round?

Any ideas?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Excuses that don't work

One of my students gave me two wonderful moments today. Depressing, but wonderful. Moments that made me want to laugh, cry, and scream, all at the same time.

He arrived at class on time (for a change) to fail yet another five question test I had given the answers for the week before. After the test, I announced that I would collect homework. This caused a general panic, but when I got to him, he told me, smugly,

"I was absent last week."

(Why do students think that being absent releases them from the requirement that they do homework?)

"Don't worry," I said kindly. "There was no homework last week. This is the homework I gave you two weeks ago."

He jumped. Then he clutched at his textbook and turned to the student beside him.

"What homework?" he whispered, urgently.

A piece of paper fell out of his textbook, and I picked it up and handed it to him. It was the homework assignment I'd given him two weeks ago, with the due date written at the top in his own handwriting. He had not even started it.

That was the first wonderful and depressing moment that student gave me today.

I wish I could say he is unusual, but unfortunately he is not. In that class of thirty students, three students had remembered the homework.

(Not all my classes are like this. It is just that one department at one university. The other departments are not great, but at least it's generally a minority of students who do not hand in homework on time. I wish I did not have to end the week with these particular classes, feeling like a total failure as a teacher.)

At the end of class, the same student stayed behind and wanted to know what the numbers were that I had written on the back of his name card. Because he was absent last week he had missed my explanation.

I told him that the 4/34 meant that he had so far managed to score a total of four points out of thirty-four on the tests.

He stared at the card. He also stared at the dates that were written there with numbers beside them. The numbers represented how late he had come to each class, and were mostly 15, 20, or 35. He did not ask me what they meant. He already knows, because every time he comes late I check the time and write the number of minutes before handing him the card, so he knows that particular routine. He is one of the few students in those classes who is failing the tests because he doesn't arrive in time for them. (Most of the others are failing the tests because they think that being there for them is enough, and that remembering the answers I gave them the week before is unnecessarily hard work.)

He then asked me how much of the final grade the tests were worth. (He asked all his questions in Japanese, and I answered them all in English.) I told him that the information was written on the handout I had given everybody on the first day of class.

He told me, somewhat triumphantly, that he had lost the handout. Instantly, I gave him another one. I have learned to keep a supply handy.

"Please read it," I said, and added, optimistically, "Again."

I always give the students ten minutes to read the handout on the first day, and they always gaze obediently at it, but I have always wondered whether they are actually reading it.

He stared at the handout for a few minutes, frowning, as I packed up my things. Then, when he saw that I was about to leave, he looked at me and made his second mistake of the day. He whined (in Japanese),

"But I can't understand English." He waved the handout at me. It was clear that I was supposed to accept that his not understanding the handout was a valid reason for failing tests. How was he supposed to know what was important if he couldn't understand the course information? How unreasonable!

"Are you sure?" I asked. "Did you REALLY TRY?" I am afraid I may have injected a little sarcasm into my voice as I heaved my bag over my shoulder, and I think he noticed.

"Yes!" he said, indignantly. "I just can't understand this! I don't know what it says! How was I supposed to know about the tests?"

"Why don't you try again?" I suggested, and when he opened his mouth to protest I started to walk past him to leave the room. But then I stopped to look him right in the eye and add, quietly,

"And this time, try HARDER. It's written in Japanese."

And that was the second wonderful and depressing moment that student gave me today.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Recycling my brain

I've been going through some old teaching notebooks. I should do this sort of thing more often. I keep old teaching notebooks because I might forget some brilliant idea that I used successfully, and keeping the notebooks means that I can recycle the contents of my own brain, so to speak. In fact this almost never happens. The reason it never happens is that I never look at the notebooks again.

The most usual way for me to rediscover brilliant old teaching ideas is not from old teaching notebooks. What usually happens is that I panic in the teachers' room and ask around for ideas for what to do in a class. Some kind soul gives me some fabulously helpful handout, and when I ask where they got it, they tell me that I gave it to them. This has happened several times.

"Really?" I ask. "I made this? Oh, yeah, it looks kind of familiar . . . "

"Yes. It's a good one! I've been using it for years, now. The students love it!"

This is always a little embarrassing. I came up with something the students loved and then I never used it again? Why not? How disorganized and forgetful can you get? Why would I forget something that made my life easier?

But I do, frequently. That is why I have to be so inventive about new things to use in the classroom. I keep forgetting the old things.

And that is why I am currently going through my old notebooks, looking for something I can use in a particularly difficult class tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Yesterday the loopy professor came to see me before class, to tell me that she would probably not be able to teach next week, as she has been invited to attend a lecture given by the Australian Prime Minister at Kyoto University. She asked me if I would mind teaching both classes together.

I said that would be fine, and complimented her on her new haircut. She glowed.

Then she told me that in the last class, in July, I would not have to teach the class at all, because she had arranged a special lecture about how to explain, in English, the method of putting on a kimono, for those students who will go abroad to study in the summer. The lecture would be for all the students, though, whether they were going abroad or not.

That made me happy. A morning off!

At lunchtime she came back to the teachers' room, told me the same things again, and also wanted to arrange when I would do the oral tests for the students. By this time the teacher had arrived with whom I share the afternoon classes. She was looking harassed and anxious. I knew she was finding these classes a real trial. The loopy professor micro-manages the Japanese-taught classes. The other teacher is far more qualified and a better teacher than the loopy professor, but is constrained by the loopy professor's bad ideas and ridiculously overoptimistic syllabus. Last year (her first year there) the other teacher was keen and dedicated. This year she has been flagging. The students don't like her classes, and she knows it. She knows what to do about it (give the students something challenging they can actually do instead of something they can't understand at all) but can't. She is becoming more and more cynical, especially since learning we are not allowed to fail anybody.

She is a very nice woman and a good teacher, at least from what she tells me about what she would do in the class if she was allowed to.

I decided to try for a little extra something. The loopy professor and I are not the only ones who need a break, and if she wanted me to teach her class for her she owed me something in return.

"Let me make sure I understand properly," I said. "Next week I will teach both classes together, and I will need to do the oral testing in the first two weeks of July because of the public holiday. I do not need to teach the last class of semester at all in the morning, but I will need to come in for the afternoon classes, right? The afternoon classes are not getting the special lecture, are they?"

The loopy professor stared at me, smiling uncomprehendingly. I had asked a negative question and confused her.

"I mean, the special lecture is only for the morning class, not the afternoon classes. Is that right?"

"Oh!" she said, as she finally arrived at the point I was ever-so-subtly trying to get her to. "Do you think the afternoon classes should have the lecture as well?"

"Not necessarily. Only if it's useful for the students," I said, innocently. "Is it only students from the morning classes who are going abroad?" (I knew it wasn't. We handed out the information leaflets about the study abroad program a couple of weeks ago, in all our classes. It hadn't occurred to the loopy professor because she wasn't teaching in the afternoon. She had arranged the special lecture to give herself a day off, not us.)

"No, some are going from the other classes, too," she said. "Oh! Of COURSE they should all have the lecture! I could ask the lecturer to do the afternoon classes as well." She frowned. "What do you think? Do you mind?"

"I'm fine with it," I said. "I think it's a good idea. I nodded over at the other teacher. "But you had better ask the other teacher."

The loopy professor bustled over to the other teacher, and a hurried conversation ensued. The other teacher nodded seriously. She told the professor the special lecture sounded like something the students would appreciate, and that she could adjust her teaching to compensate for the missing class. She tried not to look too overjoyed.

The bell rang, and the loopy professor left. The other teacher stared disbelievingly after her. Usually when the loopy professor wants to talk to her it is to set more ridiculous requirements, or to complain, or to demand even more detail in the already detailed two-weekly reports she has to submit about her classes. I have a lot of freedom in my classes, but the Japanese teachers have almost none.

As we were walking over to class, I noticed that the other teacher was looking less harassed and anxious. Also, she had developed an extra little spring in her step and could not wipe the grin off her face.

"Isn't that nice?" I said. "A whole day off at the end of semester!"

"Yes!" she said, emphatically. But then she looked a little embarrassed. She is new, still. Some of her ideals have not yet been completely erased by the loopy professor's sabotaging of her classes.

But I am not embarrassed at all to have nabbed an extra day off for her (and for myself). In fact I'm quite proud of myself.