Few things force you to think on your feet like teaching. As an ALT, it is not only the children that can put you on the spot; teachers will often expect you lead on lessons, activities or projects with very little notice and even less direction. This included the annual English Speech Contest, in which a small number of students from each junior high school competes voluntarily (though I expected some are coerced) against others in the district. The winners from this initial stage perform again at a wider regional contest, I presume until national level. These later competitions are no more than foggy legend to me, as the students from Nichuu did not progress far, at least under my instruction.
My involvement began on 8th July, when I was asked to stay after school and help to judge some of the potential entries. There were three candidates from the second year, Nakano-sensei explained, but only two places available. The auditions took place on the third floor, in an unusually lengthy classroom, ideal for judging performance at a distance. I had never ventured into this part of the building before, and was fascinated by this haggard, modest lecture hall. It had an outmoded haze to it, like a grandparent’s front room or an office from the 1980s. Just like the classrooms, all the technology belonged to yesteryear; but here there was an added sense of remoteness from the rest of the school as a living entity.
I sat, uncomfortable with both the heat and my social position, next to Nakano-sensei and Amai-sensei on plastic chairs at one of the tables arranged in rows rippling back from the blackboard and lectern. We watched two girls and a boy read short stories while I wondered exactly what it is was I was meant to be doing. The pronunciation and delivery of the girls was far from exemplary, but the boy, sadly, was a train wreck. I recognised him from 2-1, Nichuu’s nightmare class. After my first lesson with them he had approached myself and Amai-sensei and had a brief, amiable chat in Japanese. His audition reading was barely intelligible, given with downcast eyes. Once the three students had left, Nakano-sensei pulled a kindly but strained expression to indicate that there was really no decision to make regarding the candidates. When we finally exited the room, I saw the boy’s script paper on the ground; torn, crumpled and discarded in frustration.
Coaching for the speech contest took place over the summer holidays; a symptom of that infamous Japanese societal masochism. With my stomach problems still causing me grief, I was often weighted with fatigue during practice sessions, and struggled to keep my eyes open on some days. The practices were usually repetitive and draining, while I desperately worked out how to best help the students to improve, having received no training or experience in speech coaching. Nichuu’s English Speech Contest offering comprised of seven female students: Mikako, Ayane, Haruna, Nana, Momo, and two girls called Ruka.
Mikako, Ayane and Haruna were first years performing a skit together. At my first meeting with them, the troupe also included a boy, but he dropped out for reasons I can only guess at. Their play, “A Pot of Poison,” was an illustrated story from their curriculum textbook about two mischievous novitiates and their temperamental master. The master leaves one day, commanding the boys to guard a pot full of poison that he keeps for undisclosed reasons. One fatally curious boy examines the contents of this pot and tries a sample. Upon discovering that it is in fact sugar, the two boys are overcome by gluttony and devour the lot. Having consumed it all, they come to their senses and finally consider the bollocking they will inevitably receive. The fool-hardy boy who got them into this mess without warning snatches a beautiful vase and hurls it violently to the ground, much to the dismay of his timorous companion. When the master returns to see his home decor scattered in shards, he is livid. Grovelling at his feet, the apprentices explain that they preemptively administered punishment upon themselves by ingesting the poison they were otherwise responsibly guarding, and dramatically claim that the icy claws of death are tightening around them.
The last line, ambiguously, is the master saying “Well.” It is difficult enough for a native speaker to deliver this monosyllable in a tone that connotes a kind of reluctant defeat and deflating anger, all with an effective comedic punch. For a Japanese child it’s impossible.
Their teacher, Takeda-sensei, is one of the best and certainly most charismatic teachers I have ever met, and with such a strong thespian streak, he was an inspiring and motivating director. The girls themselves had a great deal of energy and they clearly understood the meaning of the words they were reading. All three were studious and lovely, and worked hard to memorise the script. As well as working on pronunciation, intonation and gestures, I encouraged them to be as hammy as possible, and to bring out the (admittedly sparse) humour of the play. I found it difficult to explain all my directions in Japanese, but gesticulated my way through. Takeda-sensei gave incredible demonstrations, with his expressive face and cheeky grin. Unfortunately, one of the girls was painfully self-conscious, rendering her acting awkward and stiff. Her fellow performers and Takeda-sensei were hearteningly supportive in giving her direction, though I did find myself growing inwardly frustrated at her perpetual nervousness. It was a great shame, because the other girls were doing so well. Towards the end of the practice month, she did start to improve, however, and I wondered if Takeda-sensei had bullied it into her, in the nicest possible way.
One day I was working with the first years in a slightly odd-shaped assembly hall on the ground floor when the girls suddenly started peering through the door and making noises of surprise. I moved closer and saw a bride and groom entering the building with three people carrying camera equipment. To this day, I can’t understand why they had come to a rural middle school in full Western wedding gear, and even Takeda-sensei wasn’t sure if it was a real marriage or not. This incident has nothing whatsoever to do with the Speech Contest, I’m just still bewildered by it.
Meanwhile, I was helping a second year called Momo present a speech she had written about her grandfather. Entitled ‘Thank you, Grandpa!’, in it she expressed her gratitude for his tuition in shodo, Japanese calligraphy. With his teaching she had become a talented calligrapher and had even won prizes. She recounts, however, that the pressures of accomplishment made her fearful that she could not better herself, and for a while she withdrew from the practice. The script unfortunately did not convey this well, and hearing a fifteen year old talk about ‘falling into depression’ at eight years of age had a hyperbole to it that made me wince. Admittedly, I was largely accountable for the peculiar phrasing in the two original speeches from Nichuu. Early on in the holidays I had been asked to edit the scripts which had quite clearly already been heavily influenced, if not totally written, by Nakano-sensei. I dutifully made them more natural in flow, but it can be surprisingly easy to forget standard vernacular when you communicate so often with non-native speakers. In conversation, once you understand the gist, it is more conducive to allow grammatical errors and unusual phrasing slide; which is great if you want to make friends, but not a particularly professional habit for an English teacher. Moreover, the scripts were handed to me very close to home time, and in my fatigue and impatience I rushed to finished them, rendering the language technically correct but remaining awkward and stilted.
Momo herself was a sweetheart, with an open countenance and broad, dimpled smile which she wore often. She seemed optimistic and studious, and pretty robust, after her nose had suddenly started bleeding in the middle of practice and she didn’t seem fazed. Her pronunciation and flow needed work, which we might have been able to address had she memorised the speech in time. As the weeks wore on, I felt increasingly exasperated by her inability to recite the speech she had supposedly composed, and I worried that she would choke on the day.
These concerns, however, paled in comparison to Ruka, the other second year with an original speech to deliver. In a far more emotionally charged essay, Ruka explained how she had contracted leukaemia at three years of age, and has battled cancer, rheumatism and asthma her entire childhood. Entitled ‘Be Positive,’ the message was one of gratitude towards the Gold Ribbon Network, a charity supporting families of children with cancer, and her mother, who inspired her to be brave and optimistic. It’s the kind of story that makes your skin pebble and your heart numb. Regrettably, Ruka’s delivery was not inspirational.
Ruka was a nice girl, quiet and well behaved, though she rarely smiled. Every time I thought critically of Ruka, I would berate myself for being insensitive about a child I knew had serious health problems. And yet every time I worked with her I would struggle to bring out a good performance from a student whose English level was poor and whose oration skills were worse. There was no warmth in her face or voice, her body language was uncomfortable, and she failed, for whatever reason, to memorise the script even up until the last practice session. Nakano-sensei worked hard with her to include gestures and commit the words to heart, but I was left biting my nails that the contest was going to be a car crash.
The other Ruka (who, being older, was referred to by Nakano-sensei as ‘Big Ruka’), meanwhile, was an adorable third-year student, cheerful and shy, who worked extremely hard on her speech. Her pre-written piece was a short ghost story called ‘A Mujina.’ In an allegedly haunted place called Kinokuni-zaka, a man finds a young woman weeping alone at night. A well-meaning but misogynistic old chap, he considers this no place for a well-bred woman to be by herself and attempts to console her. Eventually the lady lowers her long and elegant sleeves to reveal a featureless countenance, as faceless and pale as the winter moon. Understandably startled, the man sprints up the sinister hillside through the suffocating darkness, without pause or backward glance. In the distance the warm light of a soba noodle shop shines as a beacon of safety. Shaking and breathless, he collapses at the feet of the soba-seller, incapable of verbalising his ordeal.
“This young lady,” the soba vender enquires, “Did she show you something like this?” In the laminous shadows of the shop lanterns, the shop keeper steadily moves a wizened hand across his face, wiping away his features to reveal an unbroken expanse of velvet skin. At once, the orange flickering lanterns extinguish.
While Big Ruka struggled with sounds that do not appear in Japanese phonetics, particularly the word ‘woman,’ she tried incredibly hard to improve, and to deliver the story in a dramatic fashion. I hoped she would do well, but suspected her pronunciation errors would prove problematic.
The last of the contestants from Nichuu was Nana, who consistently impressed me. She was slender with bobbed hair that seemed to conceal her face in shyness. There was a bright intelligence to her, and despite having no greater access to examples of native English than her schoolmates, was able to speak without the distinctive Japanese ‘katakana’ accent. Although not native-sounding, and certainly not fluent, without my help she effortlessly read Rs and Ls and THs, and didn’t break up words unnaturally. I was stunned by her high level, and Nakano-sensei commented that she hoped Nana would ‘win a great prize.’ While I was pleased and confident in Nana’s speech, the recitation that she was working with was so poorly written that it made me angry.
With literally zero context, the story launches straight into the self-piteous exclamation of someone called Terry that life is meaningless because they are unable to dance. A character with the ludicrous name of Calvero then responds that it is imperative to fight, and implores Terry to consider the power of the universe and the beauty of life. In the next second we are told about a dream Calvero has of performing with Terry on stage, and the following second some vague amount of time has past and Calvero has bombed in front of a real audience. There is then a brief exchange in which Calvero claims he’s ‘finished’ and Terry in turn encourages him to fight. Suddenly Terry (who we finally find out is female) screams that she’s walking, and we discover that ‘her legs were well again,’ having never been informed that they were ailing.
In another sudden gear change, Terry has returned to the Empire Ballet (we never knew she left) and is proposing to Calvero, who refuses on the grounds of their age difference (which we also didn’t know about). Calvero absconds that night, and we are told he is found years later after being recognised by the manager of the Empire Theatre, and that ‘Terry was very happy.’
Repeating the vague phrase ‘Some days later,’ which we heard only minutes before, we are told that Calvero performs with great success, only to have a heart attack after the curtain falls. Allegedly ‘Terry was shocked,’ but after some encouraging words from Calvero, she prances onto the stage to dance. While Calvero closes his eyes for the last time, Terry ‘was beautiful in the limelight.’
There was something about just how badly this narrative was written that made me suspect it was a condensed version of something longer. A casual Google search at the time revealed it was a black and white film, but my investigation went no further. It wasn’t until I started to pen this account, three years later, that I determined to educate myself on this disjointed plot. It was a Charlie Chaplin film, produced in 1952 but set in 1914. I was to discover that the reason the reading had been so infuriatingly fragmented is because the themes of alcoholism, suicide and, to a lesser extent, prostitution, had been whitewashed out. The protagonist names, also, where swiftly contextualised and made palatable. Terry ceased to be a bizarrely masculine name for a ballerina, and instead became an endearing contraction of Teresa. Similarly, Calvero was no longer a pretentious pseudo-Italian name, but an appropriately grand stage title for a world-class clown.
After a dramatic orchestral serge, and lilting classical music over some written exposition, we see a drunken white-haired Chaplin stumbling home to find his young neighbour unconscious in attempted suicide. Teresa, played by Claire Bloom, had given up hope after suffering from rheumatic fever, but once her demise is interrupted, she is nursed back to health by the aged performer.
“Why didn’t you let me die?” she moans.
“What’s your hurry?” asks an intoxicated Calvero. “Are you in pain?”
Terry weakly shakes her head.
“That’s all that matters,” he tells her firmly. “The rest is fantasy. Billions of years it’s taken to evolve human conscious and you want to wipe it out. Wipe out the miracle of all existence. More important that anything in the whole universe,” he muses by the window. “What can the stars do?” He demands, “Nothing! But sit on their axes.”
He wonders uneasily to her bedside. “And the sun,” he continues, “shooting flames two hundred and eight thousand miles high. So what? Wasting all its natural resources. Can the sun think? Is it conscious? No. But you are.”
Calvero points a sage and unsteady finger at Terry who has fallen asleep during his lecture. She lets out a snore. “Pardon me,” he shrugs. “My mistake.”
The charming and naturally funny Calvero convinces Terry that life is worth fighting for, even scolding her at times.
“My dear girl, I was given up for dead six months ago, but I fought back. And that’s what you must do,” he wags his finger at her assertively.
“I’m tired of fighting.”
“Ha! Because you’re fighting yourself. You won’t give yourself a chance. The fight for happiness is beautiful.”
“Happiness?” she repeats soullessly
“There is such a thing.”
“Listen,” he says firmly. “As a child I used to complain to my father about not having toys. And he would say this,” he taps his forehead, “is the greatest toy ever created. Here lies the secret of all happiness.”
“I’ll never dance again. I’m a cripple,” Terry weeps.
“Pure hysteria, you’ve made yourself believe that.”
“It isn’t true!” She insists.
“It is, otherwise you’d fight.”
“What is there to fight for?”
“Ah, you see! You admit it. What is there to fight for? Everything! Life itself, isn’t that enough? To be lived, suffered, enjoyed! What is there to fight for? Life is a beautiful, magnificent thing! Even to a jellyfish. Huh. What is there to fight for? Besides, you have your art, your dancing.”
“I can’t dance without legs!”
“I know a man without arms who can play a scherzo on a violin and does it all with his toes! The trouble is you won’t fight! You’ve given in, continually dwelling on sickness and death! But! There’s something just as inevitable as death, and that’s life, life, life! Think of the power that’s in the universe, moving the earth, growing the trees, and that’s the same power within you! If you’ll only have courage, and the will to use it!”
The movie features scenes of Calvero’s stage performances, the highlight of which is a final double act with Buster Keaton. This was the first film to ever make me both laugh aloud and cry actual tears. It probably helped that I was drunk and depressed at the time, but I still wax lyrical about the genius of this motion picture, and its resonating philosophy:
“That’s all any of us are. Amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”
Which certainly summed up my relationship to the speech contest, which finally took place on 28th August.
I walked to the town plaza and met the teachers and students outside at 8:20am. We were some of the first there, and the building was not yet open. It was quite novel to see the other ALTs on a workday, and refreshing to have fluent conversations. We laughed a lot together, and I worried that my cackling would come across as unprofessional. There was another ALT there who none of us knew; an American guy who worked in schools farther afield that had been assigned to this region for the competition. This was his third contest and he seemed quite bored of them already.
The panel consisted of five judges; three local Japanese English teachers and two American ALTs, one of which I befriended later that year. The lead Japanese judge, a man perhaps in his late thirties with a kind face, had surprising poor spoken English, although perhaps not particularly unexpected given the famously ingrained shortcomings of English language study in Japan, particularly in the more rural districts. The occasion conformed to the rigid scheduling and etiquette that I am fascinated by academically and enamoured with practically. Events as little as ten minutes apart were itemised in a thick A4 booklet that we each received, containing the transcripts of each entry.
Takada-sensei had been tasked with giving the opening and closing addresses, which he unexpectedly asked me to write on the day. I eagerly went to task, apparently a little too enthusiastically, because he trimmed the formality and changed the wording, telling me later that the kids were probably exhausted by English already.
The first round was the recitations, with Big Ruka going sixth and Nana going twelfth out of twenty students. Big Ruka did well, though as I expected her pronunciation was her weakest point. Nana also gave a good performance, if a little on the quiet side, but she was unfortunately in the middle of two identical readings (eighth and fourteenth), the first of which was delivered with much more dramatic flair.
At 11:40 we broke for lunch, and all the teachers and ALTs retired to a tatami room to eat pre-ordered bentos, while I munched on my own gluten-free packed lunch. An hour later the eighteen original speeches began, with Little Ruka and Momo performing sixth and last respectively. Neither of these second years had their speeches fully committed to memory. During the lunch break Nakano-sensei asked me to help them practice, which myself and the students clearly weren’t thrilled at the thought of. We went through the speeches once; Little Ruka remembered far more than she had the night before, but Momo forgot a great deal. Having worked with her for weeks, I was prompting her entirely from memory, and she may have been able to read my frustration that I knew her speech better than she did.
Some of the original speech performances were actually quite good and even inspiring; all of them full of wishes for world peace or gratitude towards their families or dreams for their bright futures. Little Ruka managed to get through hers, though in keeping with the previous month, the delivery was flat and unengaging. Momo did not remember her speech, but rather than choking, she subtlety pulled the script out and read the latter half.
Lastly, ten groups performed skits, which were mostly comedic, or at least intended to be. One, which had been written and directed by an ALT who had moved back to America during the holidays, I can only describe as two full pages of pure mindfuck. In it, two boys and a girl enthusiastically acted out the incoherent ramblings of an intoxicated hallucination. It is not possible to write a synopsis of the verbal insanity, so I reproduce the script exactly:
S: Who me?
G: Yea you! With the face!
S: OH, Hey Gakuto. What’s up?
G: Nothing much just chilling like a villain.
S: So, where are you going?
G: I’m going to the candy store!
S: Oh?! You too??!
G: Let’s walk together!
G: Let’s go!
G: OH! Shouya. What’s with your face!?
Sh: OH!……..Hey Gakuto & Sara.
S: You’re almost out of breath!
G: Relax!! Breathe son, breathe!!
Sh: Ok….ok…. one second.
S: ……1 second has passed..
G: …..Now 5 seconds….
Sh: Hey!!! *gasping*
S: 10 seconds and counting down….!
G+S: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 …………………………….HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
G: Geeez!!! Shouya, You’re so slow!!!
S: Like a turtle!!
G: Turtle turtle!!
Sh: …..You guys are so strange…
G: Hey! At least I’m not a slow turtle!
S: So….. what’s the rush Mr. Turtle?
Sh: ……Let me change that to …. VERY strange.
G+S: But you love us!!
Sh: ….Guys please my sanity….
Sh: OH NO! I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!!
G: Where are you going? Wonderland??
Sh: No! I’m going to the doctor’s. *cough*
S: Oh, you’re sick?!
Sh: I think I have influenza. *cough*
G+S: Oh my god! Ewwwwwwwww get away from us!
S: Sick turtle!!! Runnnn awayyyy!.
G: Shoo, go on, get outta’ here.
Sh: I think someone opened a window at home because in flew Enza!!
S: …. Did you really just use that joke?….
G: You’re so lame…..
Sh: Hehehehee *cough* hehehehe
Sh: Where are you guys going? *cough*
S: We’re going to the candy store, its next to the doctors.
G: Let’s walk together!
Sh: Letsa’ go! *cough*
S: By the way, who’s your doctor?
G: No, who?
G: …..Doctor who???!
Sh: Who!! W.H.O. Who! *cough*
G: Wait what??
You mean the World Health Organization is your doctor!???!
Sh: What!? Noooooooo *cough*
G+S: …….Them.who! Doctor WHO??!
Sh: Just call him the doctor ….. His name IS Dr.Who!!!
G: Why didn’t you just say that!
Sh: I did!! *cough* I said it like 5 times! *cough*
Sh: Ha HAAAA!!… Who’s the turtle now!! Turtle turtle!!
Sh: OH MY GOD! I’M LATE!!!
Sh: Time to blow this popsicle stand! See you guys later!
S: Bye bye! *cough*
G: Did you just cough!!?? *cough*
S: It was youuuuu!! *cough*
G: Whyyyy turtle whyyyyyy! *cough*
S: How could you!? *cough*
G: I thought we were friends!! *cough* It’s game over man, game over!! *cough*
Sh: *cough* HA HAAAAAAAAAAA Who’s the sick turtle now!! Turtle turtle.
You might need to lie down at this point. Particularly when you remember this was written and performed for a competition run by adults and probably funded by taxpayers.
The discursive discourse was delivered with energetic choreography and joyous volume. I was so confused, I attempted to read along to make sense of it, more fool me. Nichuu’s group, performing seventh, while not the most theatrical or well vocalised, did me proud, and even made the audience laugh. Unfortunately for us spectators, their play was followed by two identical performances.
With the tournament complete, the judges needed time to deliberate, and the ALTs were tasked with leading an activity involving all sixty-seven children. I heard about this assignment not from Nichuu or Communicat, but from Jared who had received an email on everyone’s behalf. As such, he was the one who designed and lead the hybrid game of Pictionary-Shiritori while we helped to provide instruction and manage the chaos of many children queuing in front of a single white board to draw a picture based on the last letter of the English term for the preceding drawing. Two of the four teams won in a tie and were rewarded with sweets.
At 16:15 the winners were announced. I was deeply saddened that Nana only won fourth place, an award following Gold, Silver and Bronze known as an Honourable Mention. No one else from Nichuu won anything, and in retrospect my instruction had not been as good as it should have been. While I tried hard, I did not know enough about the contest to understand what mattered to the judges.Most of Richard’s students won something, and deservedly so. With a trained actor as their coach, these students had the best brought out of their speeches. I saw one of his students in the aftermath clutching her silver trophy while crying. I had assumed that it was a rush of emotion that caused her to weep so openly, but according to Richard it was because she had failed win Gold. Unbelievably, the crazy skit received the Gold trophy. To this day I am still baffled as to how this drivel managed to hoodwink the judges, and I left quite bitter about that particular category. I had learned a valuable lesson, however; that gesticulation carries far more weight in an English language competition than verbal ability, and the students that I coached the following year, therefore, did much better.