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Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001

JAPAN LITE

Thank God it's Fwaiday


This morning I taught English at the Shiraishi kindergarten. Nothing like a little chaos for breakfast. This class is so active, I recommend teaching kindergartners as a way to lose weight. Just walking into the classroom, I can feel the calories leap from my thighs as they realize I will soon be engaged in the "Hokey Pokey," "Ring Around the Rosey" and my disco version of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."

This class has improved over the years, perhaps because my herding skills have improved. I used to spend a lot of time retrieving 4-year-olds who had bounced out of the classroom while playing Red Rover. The class used to be like a kettle of boiling water, steaming and whistling. Now I can manage to keep them at the point where they are letting off steam but not quite whistling. This could be because the class used to have 13 kindergartners and is now down to two.

So this year, I teach the kindergarten and elementary school students together. After our exercise session, we usually sit and play games that involve passing objects around in a circle. Though an effective teaching method, in the autumn it makes me nervous. Autumn is the sniffly season. Passing things from hand to hand is conducive to spreading viruses such as colds, which "go around."

We were studying numbers with a deck of cards. Ai was yelling out the number on each card as she passed it on: "Eight!" sniffle, "Two," sniffle, "Five," sniffle. Then it happened. I remember it as if it had passed in slow motion. Ai sniffled, wiped her nose with her index finger, then touched the five. I watched, horrified, as the snot traveled around on the five card from child to child, contaminating everyone. Then "Atchoo!" Midori sneezed on the eight of diamonds! The cards continued circulating hand to hand, contaminating and infecting.

Next we studied the days of the week. What really separates the elementary school children from the kindergartners is their enormous front teeth. Behind these teeth are a battalion of reinforcements, like the Tooth Fairy gone mad, putting teeth back in rather than taking them away.

This forest of teeth impedes the students' ability to produce correct English sounds. The grade school kids pronounce "Monday" as "Fumday," with the front teeth on the bottom lip. They make the second "m" sound with no lip contact at all, but rather by closing the throat as if they're budding ventriloquists.

Tuesday came out "Thooseday" until I told them the pronunciation was the same as the number two. Then they could say "Twosday" perfectly. Although they had come up with "Thooseday," they couldn't reproduce the "th" sound in Thursday, so Thursday also came out as "Twosday," except for one kid who said "Threesday."

The students' teeth are perfectly positioned for the "f" sound in "Friday" but, because of the problematic "r," Friday is always said with an Elmer Fudd accent: "Fwaiday." Wednesday is pronounced "Femsday," as if we're making up names for new national holidays.

I'm not sure that the elementary school students are even aware they have bottom teeth. No matter what I tell them, they refuse to put their tongues between their teeth to make the "th" sound. Some people say this is because Japanese think it's rude to stick your tongue between your teeth. But I don't see how this could be true when they think nothing of hanging their front teeth out over their chin all day long.

After class, Ono-sensei served me her special Italian quadruple chocolate delight. She seemed intent on putting back on me the calories I just lost in heavy English exercise.

Then it happened. I remember it as if it had passed in slow motion. First, I sniffled. Then "Atchoo!" I sneezed into the Italian quadruple chocolate delight.



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