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Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008

JAPAN LITE

A classroom with altitude


When I taught English at a Japanese university, I struggled with how to get the students to think outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, they would speak perfect English, yet once they went out into the real world, they froze up and couldn't speak at all. Now I know why.

For most students, there has never been a place "outside the classroom," because for their whole lives they have taken the classroom with them wherever they go. For years they have done everything with their classmates, from school to sports, club activities and juku after school classes. Even trips they have taken have been school trips.

I shared an airplane with an entire classroom the other day on a domestic ANA flight. It was quite a shock to realize, at check-in, that I would be one of only a few people over 16 years old on the flight. Luckily, the students were well-behaved, and the only thing I had to worry about was that they might try to hijack the plane to Hogwarts.

They students seemed normal — well, at least as normal as teenagers can be, and the only crime they had committed so far was fashion-wise. Don't get me wrong — they were all in their school uniforms. The boys wore the standard Prussian-style black uniform with the brass buttons down the front, and the girls wore sailor-style uniforms with a wide collar, looking like little female Popeyes.

But high school students have a way of making even the coolest thing uncool, because uncool is cool. And when you think about it, it's only natural that they should think this way, since we have taught them in mathematics class that two negatives equal a positive.

The boys were all dragging their feet, with their baggy school pants hanging down way past their bums in perfect slum fashion. With their shoulders slumped way over, it was almost as if they were trying to disappear down into the ground. In contrast, the girls were trying to lift up everything as far as it would go. They walked tall, thrusting their chests out, and their skirts were hiked up as far as they could go to look as sexy as possible. It makes me wonder, though, with brand names being such a big deal in Japan, where are Chanel school uniforms when you need them?

I've never heard anyone complain about girls hiking their skirts up, but I have heard complaints about how boys wear their pants down below their bums. (See how directionally biased we are?) But the boys could easily be corrected of this slovenly habit if people, in passing, would simply yank down their pants all the way. It would only take once to correct the problem.

Even the dragging of the feet could be remedied, for example, by giving the boys roller skates. Otherwise, it's just a waste of friction.

Someone obviously has not taught these boys about friction. Don't they know that dragging their feet like that through the woods could start forest fires?

I think the school should at least insist the boys put their friction to good use. As a school project, for example, they could send the boys out to the countryside at planting time so they could walk through the farmers' gardens to help make the furrows in the soil.

The more I considered these kids' fashion, the more I realized I didn't need to worry about the students taking the plane to Hogwarts. Their minds had already been hijacked.

When we were all on the plane, I was happy to see that ANA had the sense to separate the students from the other passengers. The students had the entire back of the plane. They were so far away from me, I could hardly even hear them.

Until the plane took off down the runway, at which point there was a very strange sound coming from the back of the plane. I couldn't quite place it at first, but it was one of two things: Either the Beatles had just arrived in the back of the plane, or I had mistakenly boarded a roller coaster instead of a plane and we were about to descend a large hill.

I had never heard high school girls scream so loud or for so long. With the lungs that true sports fans only dream of having, the screams only abated when the plane finally reached cruising altitude. Imagine. Every time there were was turbulence, a mighty roar arose from the back.

When the plane finally descended for landing, the screams hit their peak, as if orchestrated and practiced to perfection in that classroom in the sky.



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