Just Move ‘Em Along

Back in early July I attended an after school meeting at a junior high other than my own. The meeting was held by the JTEs and ALTs in preparation for the citywide Interactive English Forum competition. I rolled up to a junior high school that looked like it was straight out of Beverly Hills. Seemed like the most affluent neighborhood in Ryugasaki also had a nice school to match.

After the meeting the ALT working at the school offered to take me and a few others on a tour of the place. The grandness of the facility itself wasn’t the only thing that made this school different from my junior high. The whole vibe was different. Instead of kids bullying each other and picking fights, they were having normal conversations. The after school programs practically ran themselves without coaches. All the students were kind and open. Not a ヤンキー/yankee in sight.

Ten minutes southeast from this utopian school was my oft out-of-control junior high. Back in Philly you could easily spot a good school from a not so good one. Gentrification told it all. An urban landscape is dynamic; transforming block by block. The poor lived in a noticeably poor area, while the rich lived in an expensive area (or one that was soon to be expensive). When I drive around the city of Ryugasaki, the economic disparity is not as easily recognized. There are no “hoods”. Housing architecture varies from high-rise apartments to homes with their own driveways; all in the same neighborhood.

Even though the differences in social class are difficult to notice here, they do exist. But not in the ways one would expect. The deeper one goes into the countryside, away from the downtown area, the cheaper land gets. The houses get larger; families may even have enough land to grow a small rice paddy. But the people living in these areas tend to have jobs of a lower-income bracket. Mechanics, construction workers, farmers, single mom households, very young families, etc. A stark difference to the area around the junior high I had the meeting at. In this neighborhood, homes have fathers who work in Tokyo or another major city. They almost always make enough money so that the mother doesn’t work (not by choice, but women labor “laws” are a whole different story here).

In the more wealthy households, the parents have typically graduated from high school and college, so there’s pressure for the children to do the same. Or more an expectation. Like how your parents might have expected you to go to college because they also went. In the area where my schools are (the junior high in particular), things are somewhat different. Since high school isn’t compulsory in Japan, parents in skilled-labor jobs may have never finished high school. So for some students, there’s not much expectation for them to pursue higher education.

Like senior year in American high schools is the year when students make their first major life decisions, the third year in Japanese junior high is the same. Where students decide if they want to take academia seriously, or carve out a different path into adulthood. My trouble maker students are always the ones on the latter path. In fact, they’ve been on that path since they entered junior high. Doing everything they possibly can to rebel against the extremely ordered world of Japanese schools. I don’t think any of these students have passed an English exam; if they were even in class to begin with.

There’s been countless occasions in the teacher’s room when I overhear a sensei on the phone with the parent of one of these children. Although I can’t say parents are not encouraging the child to take school seriously, there’s obviously a disconnect at home. And considering the neighborhood, there may be little motivation for the student to strive for better.

So why aren’t these kids left back? Made to repeat a grade and correct their previous wrongdoings? It’s difficult to tell. If the parents aren’t giving support, I can say for certain that the teachers are. And maybe for a little while the kid might get better, for a few days or so. But he never stops. Day in and day out, he’ll always find a new prank, a new kid to pick on, a teacher to fight. The school never gives up on these kids, but they just move ‘em along. By their third year they have their mind made up, and some just stop coming to school altogether. The path of academia just isn’t for them, right now.

*Sidenote: A much as of a nuisance these students might be, I still have so much respect for them. And most of them share that respect for me. They aren’t unintelligent, they just are probably going through a lot of things in Life. More importantly, they feel everything around them trying to keep them in line and orderly. They don’t want to be controlled or boxed in by the constructs of society. Their dyed hair is a bold statement against a school filled with uniformed, black-haired students. They are the rebels. And I know exactly how they feel. I’m going through it right now.

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