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Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008

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Taming lions with laughter


"I'll be OK," I reassured myself before walking into the lion cage. Textbook secured under one arm, I walked in with confidence and closed the door behind me. The door made that definitive "click." Just 50 minutes, I told myself. Fifty minutes of screaming commands at the top of my lungs, 50 minutes of cracking my lion tamer's whip. I'd be OK.

Then I remembered Siegfried and Roy. They weren't always OK, and they were magic! You never know when a cat will lunge.

"Sensei! HELLO! HELLO!" the lions roared at me, sure that I must be deaf. It's not entirely their fault that they think all teachers are deaf. In Japanese kindergarten, students learn to shout everything at the top of their lungs as if they are trying to talk to their ancestors up in heaven. Students never quite lose this ability to shout at the top of their lungs, even now in high school.

As I start the class, a girl stands up on her chair and mocks what I am saying. She is trying to impress me. The other students erupt in laughter.

I sigh, resigned to the fact that as a teacher, you are destined to teach students who are just like you were. It's called revenge. All those little yous out there, full of energy, spunk and defiance. So what if you didn't actually stand on top of chairs. There were times you put your foot forward. God remembers.

I suppose that's what makes teachers so resilient, a term that until you become a teacher is reserved for fabric. Wool is resilient, for example. B-a-a-h.

Opera singers often get lung cancer from straining their voices. Teachers strain their voices too, but the notes come out full of anger, impatience and edginess. Like bad opera. These high school students need constant yelling at.

Later, I can blame them — you gave me lung cancer! They'll really feel bad then. If I were in the U.S., I could even sue them. Imagine being in a courtroom full of high school students. The judge wouldn't even be able to start the trial. He'd be sitting there all day banging his gavel saying "Order!" and the students would continue chatting away on their cell phones, passing Hello Kitty notes and reading manga.

At this moment, it occurs to me that I have never seen a student stand on top of her chair before. She doesn't look bad up there, really. At least on top of the chair, she can't doodle or do her homework for another class.

And most importantly, while she's there, she can't move very far. Only down. That cuts out all the other directions in an otherwise 360-degree circle, a "Symmetry of High School Student" a la Leonardo da Vinci, if you will.

This is the space that students claim as their own and where they can pass notes and glances, and give hand and foot signals. Inside this circle is the high school student's world — a world of little hearts and cherries drawn next to their names, anime kids drawn with hood-winking eyes, book bags adorned with Snoopy baubles, cell phones totally Hello Kitty-ized, and stuffed animals doubling as pencil cases.

Not that I am complaining. I suppose it's better than the adult Japanese world of doilies, frilly tissue box covers and white driving gloves.

Meanwhile, the parents have no idea their little kittens turn into lions for eight hours a day, a part-time job the students take very seriously.

I've seen how Japanese people treat their pets, so I can imagine how they treat their children. The parents probably fawn over them fixing their dinner, brushing their hair, bathing them and putting out their night clothes. And before they leave the house in the morning their mother says, "Here little kittens, don't forget your mittens."

Which is why I'd like to propose video sankanbi for high school. Sankanbi (parental observation days) for some reason stop after elementary school. Video sankanbi would show parents videos of their child in previous classes. While their children acted like lions and stood on chairs, I'd like to see the parents turn red, squirm in their seats and hide under their sofas.

I think the only reason schools don't do video sankanbi is that all the parents would abandon their children on the steps of the school after that. Forget the baby hatches at hospitals. We'd have to have high school student hatches.

Meanwhile, I realize I must confront the student standing on the chair. I walk over to her, my lion tamer's whip in hand just in case she should lunge.

But rather than yell, for some reason I start laughing. The girl immediately steps down off the chair. After all, this was her joke. I wasn't supposed to be in on it. I wasn't supposed to get pleasure out of it.

And from then on, I never yelled at the students again. I didn't need to. I had tamed the lions.



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