|Purple clouds for an emo post... sometimes I think I'm not even trying ;)|
I’ve been teaching S since he was nine. I was told that he was “abnormal” but, as is typical, no one seemed particularly interested in the specifics of his needs. I have a number of friends on the Autism Spectrum and both my mother and sister work with special needs children, so I’m fairly confident in guessing that S is an “aspy”, but it is just a guess. He loves English and has always been better than his classmates at constructing sentences, but English classes are difficult for him. They are typically noisy, high-energy and in elementary schools always a little chaotic. These issues were compounded for him by unfortunately having a home room teacher who insisted on playing karuta as the main activity every single lesson. In (English) karuta the students sit in a circle with vocabulary flashcards scattered face up in the center. The ALT says a word and the students smack their hands down onto the right card. The first person to touch it keeps it, and the winner is the student with the most cards at the end of the game. It is competitive, almost always involves screaming and kids fighting over who touched the card first, frequent scratches and bruises and S could not cope with the situation. Every class would end with him kicking over a chair or desk and running from the classroom in distress. I asked the teacher to alter the plan to an activity where S could participate more easily, but he refused. He lacked confidence in English teaching and wanted to stick to an activity he was familiar with (and that didn’t require him to use any English).
S is now finishing up his first year of junior high. His grade is the most out of control and unpleasant I have ever taught, and he is in the worst class of the whole bad bunch. For the first time ever in my ALT career there is bullying and exclusion occurring in front of me. In this unfortunate situation S is struggling, and his vile classmates have made a hobby of taunting him. In the general atmosphere of yankii-ness (it seems every boy in that grade dreams of being either a member of a bikie gang or a yakuza), they have taught S violent posturing. If he shoves another boy in the chest and yells something along the lines of “who are you fucking with, punk?” the other kids cheer and egg him on. If he raises his hand and answers a question correctly they shout abuse at him. When they are bored in class they provoke him into a breakdown and while the teacher tries to calm him down they laugh and jeer. I feel like I am describing another reality, it is so unlike any behaviour I have ever seen from kids in Japan. The girl who sits beside him was kind to him once and the horrid boys immediately began with “Are you S’s girlfriend? If you love him so much why don’t you marry him?” In her desperation to avoid being bullied herself she now won’t even look at him, and refuses to do pair work activities in class. He doesn’t understand why she suddenly hates him. He doesn’t understand why the other kids keep talking when the teacher says “stop talking” or why they all start yelling when he stands up to answer a question. When a fight breaks out he needs the teacher to tell him who was in the wrong, and he can’t understand why he is always told to just sit down, be quiet and let it go no matter what they do to him (I don’t either). And when it gets too much, he sits on the floor under the black board and hides his head in his knees or bangs on the floor, and either way the other boys mock him. One particularly bad day he became violent, kicking over chairs and desks and swinging punches. The teacher restrained him but every other kid was screaming at him at the top of their lungs and several boys were running around behind the teacher to poke his arms or kick his legs. I lost it completely and blasted the kids, dragging one boy back to his seat by the ear and making it very clear that my fury was real. I’ve never thought of myself as a violent person, but I was very close to lashing out that day.
After the class S came to see me, looking exhausted and sad. “I’m sorry” he said in English. “I’m bad. I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK” I said. “They are bad. Not you. I understand. It’s OK. I understand.” He blinked at me uncertainly and walked away. I went back to the staff room and sat down to read an email from a friend who was backing out of an important commitment she had made months before, for no good reason. I felt tears welling up in my own anger and frustration and sadness, because in some ways I feel like S. I don’t understand people at all. I don’t understand how people can be so selfish and self-absorbed. I don’t understand how someone can promise orphans that he will come to their Christmas party and then not show up because he has a hangover. I don’t understand how someone can join a charity bike-ride without raising any money for the charity, or leave a box of kittens in a school playground. Hell, I don’t even understand how you can say you’ll be somewhere at nine and then not show up until a quarter to ten. I genuinely cannot understand it; I feel like I live in a different reality and my inability to drag the people around me into my reality leaves me feeling impotent and alone. That is how I feel sometimes. I don’t feel like that all the time. I can find people who understand me and empathise with my frustrations. I can express how I feel and I have control over when I put myself in environments where I will be vulnerable to having these feelings. S can’t. We can’t even move him into another class, because they are all bad. I can tell him that I understand, but I only have a flicker of similar experience that allows me the presumption to tell him that I know how he feels. He is such a smart kid, with the ability to do so much if only his environment were appropriate to his needs. There are many many things I love about the school system in Japan, but I hate the way it lets down the students who most need support.
After that horrible day, I called my mum and she gave me some really useful advice on small things I could do in class to help S. I started slipping him a note with the lesson plan on it. He could check what was going to happen, and without the uncertainty (game? Quiz? Silent reading?) he was a lot calmer. I altered the rules of the warm-up game so that he wasn’t put in an awkward situation that often arose. I added a baseball or soccer question to every lesson because his knowledge of sports trivia is astronomical and I wanted the other kids to see him shine. All small things, but they seemed to make a big difference. Our classroom experience improved dramatically.
Then I was scheduled at other schools and didn’t come back for a long time. When I came back, S wasn’t in class. I asked the teacher if he was sick, but she told me that they had decided to send him to the special needs classroom. She apologised for his “disruption” of class, as though all the problems were his fault. It was devastating. I visit the special needs room when I can, and he seems happier and more relaxed there. But he isn’t learning. The special needs room is essentially day care. They draw and play bingo. The teachers have no specialised training and often don’t know the specifics of a student’s disability, illness or disorder: these are all lumped together; in one special needs class I taught a girl who was just there because she needed to a large piece of medical equipment that didn’t fit in the classroom, a boy with ADHD, a girl with Down’s and a girl with a severe cognitive impairment. These kids were being “taught” as one class. I’m happy that S is under less pressure and is away from the bullies, but he is intelligent and capable and I feel like his future is narrowing further and further every day because of choices his teachers have been making.
It isn’t fair.