English Camp at Gotenba

Fast-forward one week then to Tuesday 17th August, and it was time for Gotemba English Camp. This was my first experience of working with actual Japanese school children and, where the kids at my school are at beginner-level English, these girls (plus around 10 boys) were some of the top students in Shizuoka Prefecture. Only a few of the ALTs get a chance to do this and I felt honoured and excited to have been picked. I also saw it as a great opportunity to get a bit of experience under my belt before I went into the job for real so I resolved to get a good night’s sleep and be up, bright, ready and raring to go on Wednesday morning when we got on the bus. “There’s a festival in Mishima tonight, ay,” said Mark, a new friend of mine from New Zealand. “Great!” I said, “What’s that all about then?”

“Oh you know, just some street stalls and floats and people dancing and stuff. Should be good, ay.”

Now I’m not usually one to turn down an invitation unless I have a shortage of cash, and I’ve got bags of it over here! Sorry, just saying; it’s a fairly new experience for me. Next thing I knew I had pretty much invited myself to stay at Mark’s for the night and we were soon walking through a huge throng of people, all standing around watching taiko drummers performing their elaborate routines on top of intricately carved floats fashioned like mini-pagodas. Brightly coloured dancers and cheerleaders followed loudspeakers in a trance, performing the same rehearsed moves over and over while girls in kimonos weaved delicately in and out of the crowd taking in the sights and sounds. The delicious, hunger-inducing scent of festival food filled the air; yaki soba, seared belly-pork on a stick, mini kebabs, noodles with fried eggs, mashed potatoes, katsu curry, some kind of pastry package which, when chewed open, reveals a filling of sweet, creamy custard. Now, I thought to myself, the Japanese know how to do festivals, as memories of scout parades and baton twirlers came fading much too vividly into view.

All this revelry came, as you might expect by now, with rather a lot of beer and though managed to tear myself away by 2am, Mark was still out singing karaoke and going pint-for-pint with a particularly large Japanese American Footballer until 4am. Fortunately we managed to wake up and get the train and the bus on time and so, after an awkward start, I settled in to a lengthy conversation about brown rice as we drove up the mountain to the Toto Conference Centre.

You may have heard of Toto before. No, not the dog from The Wizard of Oz. They make toilets, showers, baths and sinks and things. This place was owned by them and subsequently, the very first thing you see when you walk in – and I’m not even joking here folks – is their flagship toilet, standing proud, front and centre, waiting for you to walk over and admire it; possibly even to stroke it a bit and go “ooooooh”. So I walked over with exactly that intention, except that just as I was about to, it opened! It actually opened its lid for me as if to say “Go ooooooon, I know you just had one at that service station but did it wash for you? Did it BLOW-DRY? Go on… Let it flow……… Let it flow.” I took a step towards it and could hear – from somewhere outside of my conscience – a voice saying “No, don’t!” but I could pay it no heed, for it was but a flutter of a butterfly’s wings amongst a storm of desire. A step closer to my goal, and I could feel my lips moving but they did not seem to speak; at least not in a language I understood. I measures? No. What was I saying? MY PRECIOUS?! It had been called that once before but not by me, and not by someone of this age.

“BOBBY!”
“Eh? What?”
“You’ve got your own toilet for that sort of thing.”
“Oh, yeah. Er… Sorry.”
“…Jesus.”

I dropped off my bag in my en-suite, air-conditioned room, had the quickest shower known to man and made my way back upstairs.

And so began two and a half days of games and activities with some of the most wonderful, pleasant and well-rounded teenagers I have ever met. The opening ceremony was a bit nerve-racking; indeed, this was the first time I’d spoke in front of 40 teenagers since I had to do a presentation on something I knew nothing about in secondary school. My English teacher back then, Mr. Pender, asked everyone to write a subject on a piece of paper and then put them all in a hat for us to pick out, the idea being that we were learning the skills for presenting and so the subject didn’t matter; you just had to find a way to relate it to your life. Of course that was what he told us then but, upon reflection, he was actually teaching us how to blag. Blagging, above all else, requires confidence, and at that stage in my life I had none to speak of so when placed in front of the class and faced with the subject “My Day Trip Around the Dell” I froze, not only because I had no idea what “the Dell” was (it’s the name of the old Southampton football stadium for those who don’t know. What? Who cares? Yeah, exactly), but also because I was petrified I wouldn’t say the right thing. That “right thing” would have to be funny enough for my peers, clever enough for Mr. Pender and impressive enough for my friends. I’d set myself up for perfection before I’d even begun to speak, and as a result I froze, said nothing, and was eventually sent back to my seat by a doubtless, frustrated Mr. Pender amidst a chorus of abuse and giggles from the rest of the class. Not the best example of public speaking I’m sure you’ll agree.

Thankfully I’ve come on a bit since then, and all we had to do was stand up in front of the class and introduce ourselves before we were assigned to our teams. So I did – with no freezing whatsoever I might add – and then went and stood next to my 4 girls, Kaori, Saki, Nao and Ayumu. After a brief introductory chat we all went to lunch and then off to separate rooms to work on a team name, motto, and a poster to go on our door. After much deliberation, my girls settled on “Happiness” as a team name and “always smile and be cheerful” as our motto, then they created a multicoloured poster with all our names on it and a whole bunch of hearts everywhere. Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t exactly imagine a group of four 15-year-old girls in England sitting down and coming up with that. You’d have one in the corner going “whatever, I ain’t doing it”, one blowing bubbles and twirling her hair clearly wondering why she’d been placed with these losers in the first place, and the other two coming up with rude team names and drawing multicoloured penises on the sheet of paper. One can only imagine the chaos that would ensue. Yet here I was with four, amicable, respectful and outgoing kids that were a joy to work with. First impressions were good.

That was most of the first day in a nutshell. We had a couple of English-based games but it was all fairly quiet as the kids got used to each other and us ALTs. Everything finished at 9pm and then we played a few quiet games of Scrabble with a couple of the more adventurous kids of the group. A quick ALT meeting, then – for me at least – it was bed at 22:30 where my brain shut down as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Thursday arrived all too quickly. Up at half 7, washed, dressed, ate breakfast (bacon, eggs, fried rice, fruit, deep-fried, battered chicken wings and toast – a stranger breakfast I have never seen) and began work on a play. All the groups had come up with a piece of dialogue which they put into a hat, and then one was drawn out (“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”) so it could be included in every group’s play. Off we toddled back to our rooms where we began work on our masterpiece. I say our masterpiece but it was really their masterpiece since all I did was supervise, and point them towards an ending when I realised they were just scripting a chat around a table.

“How can we use ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse’?” I asked, while they were talking about being hot and playing card games (we had to utilise a whole bunch of cultural items they had brought in for another task). “How are we going to end this?”

“Ehhhhhh-toh…..” came the reply – the Japanese version of “um”

When I realised they were having serious trouble with this, I shed my last bastion of self-importance and suggested that I could be a horse. There. I’d said it. No turning back now.

Suddenly their eyes grew brighter as they realised I’d crossed the line from sensible teacher to silly study-mate. The possibilities flew through their eyes, and then through the air in snappy Japanese until they finally decided that I would walk in, pretend to munch on some grass, neigh a little bit, and then be killed and eaten by them. And so as I stood there out of the limelight, waiting for my cue to enter the stage and make a huge fool of myself I had, totally unexpectedly, my first encounter with what it must feel like to be a proud father – that overwhelming need to grab the nearest person and whisper excitedly in their ear “LOOK! They’re my girls up there! Aren’t they doing BRILLIANTLY?!

This bizarre experience happened more than once during the camp, most notably when we played “Jedi Wars”. Each member of the team had to take turns wearing a mask (with the eyes blocked up) then, armed with a long piece of foam, be spun round and directed by the rest of the team to where their opponent from another team was (“turn left”, “turn right”, “hit”, etc.). Except that Team Happiness didn’t really need to use “hit” when they worked out they could just keep swinging the foam as hard as they could and then rely solely on directions in order to get the first hit in, ultimately winning the battle. The other teams eventually caught on, but it was too late. Happiness won nearly every fight. I was proud again.

That Thursday was fantastic. The students had really clicked with each other, and they were also much more confident about coming to talk to us ALTs. We had numerous opportunities to hang out with them throughout the day, playing Uno, Hangman, Scrabble, etc., and after all the official activities were done and dusted a whole load of us all piled into the common room and continued the board/card games until 10pm, when we kicked them all out and got a few beers from the vending machine.

So that was it. On Friday we had an award ceremony for which we had made a load of very fetching rosettes, and then we had our pictures taken for about an hour with every different student, combination of students, and combination of students and ALTs possible. I began to understand how tigers felt at the zoo. One final photo of the whole camp, and we jumped on the bus and made our way back home.

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