Saturday, June 13, 2009

Too Close for Comfort

I grew up in house of red pens. My was dad a college professor, and my mom a high school teacher. From those years until even present day and an ocean away, I felt that the whole world either had one of them in class or certainly knew them, or at least of them. On a rare occasion a student would call for one of them at home and it would silence the house. Shocking. American teachers and students alike tend to keep, and rightly maintain (for fear of their lives) a safe distance in their student-teacher relationships. When I finally grew up, I became a teacher too. A year out of college I found myself teaching and coaching at a high school in Ohio. I found it harder work creating that distance on what was only a handful of years of an age gap between my students and me than actually teaching. I pretended to not know, let alone care, what happened on Beverley Hills 90210 the night before or what song was #1 on the top 40 countdown that week, and rather than blushing, I kept it to myself that I occasionally caught Melrose Place too, preferring to turn a blind eye to the fact that my "kids" were watching and discussing what was in those pre anything goes days as-racy-as-it-got-parental-guidance-suggested-programming.

The move to Japan shattered my rock garden solid belief system of what the proper distance between student and teacher should be. I started out by naturally judging protocol here against what I knew from teacher exposure in my home, teacher-training in the College of Education, as well as teaching experience in American high schools. State-side, we kind of sat on our side of the Pacific and imagined those diligent Asian nations to be nothing but respectful to authority. Well, that's pretty much the case, and it has helped me enjoy teaching as many years I as have here. However, the recipe to creating that perfect bowl of respect calls for a completely different set of ingredients on this side of the pond. The lack of distance teachers keep from their students was a true shock to me, and although 14 years in I've traded in my Heinz ketchup for soy sauce, It still humbles me on a daily basis while I'm trying to relearn what truly defines a respectable teacher.

You can't judge a professional by her footwear. In New York, you see women in suits power walking through their metro commute to work with heels in hand. The assumption is that they get to work, then change into the more "professional" attire upon arrival at the office. In my first awakening at the elementary and junior high schools in Japan, I found my colleagues were dressing up for their commute, impressing the other passengers on the train with their professional attire, and dressing down for work, depressing this particular colleague. Once they arrived, they would change into casual "jerseys," (the Happy Santa brand line was a big, year round, fashion hit) as well as indoor shoes, often sneakers. The students had a similar ritual. They had an outdoor uniform that they wore from their homes to the school entrance. The boys wore black suits with shiny brass buttons and the girls plaid pleated skirts, white shirts and bow-ties. When they got to school, they changed their shoes to indoor classic Keds-like sneakers and uniform jerseys, which resembled the style of sweat suits I wore for gym class in the early 80s, except I didn't have my student number and name in kanji in bold across my chest. The ready for a pick up game class atmosphere left me feeling like we were bringing the professionalism (or what could classify as American level of intentional distance or chill factor) down a notch.

Each teacher had a desk in a common "teachers' room," which cannot be compared to the elusive "teachers' lounge" in US schools. When I was in high school, the teachers' lounge was surrounded by mystery. You dared not disturb a teacher in the lounge, no matter how urgent your inquiry. The closest you got was on a lucky day when the door opened as you passed by in the hallway and you got a glimpse of the smokey dome. Japanese students walk freely through the teachers' room, communicate with teachers, escort them to their next class, or come in just to give a teacher a quick shiatsu shoulder massage between classes. It was a message and massage room, and took my whole 3 years in the junior high to adjust to, or at least somewhat accept, the concept. Students would approach teachers in a casual tone, patting them on the arm in a teasing fashion. There was a closeness that I just never expected, and only to a point could I play the part. Accept a shoulder rub? Well, I blended in eventually. Put a jogging suit on to teach the past predicate? Never.

The student-teacher closeness continues as students advance up the ladder of education, as does the student-teacher level of common activity. When I started working at a junior college, I found students asking instructors openly about dating advice--personal, hands off type talk that would have potential law suit don't go there written all over it in America. Sporting and cultural festivals play a significant role in every level of Japanese education, and teachers get their hands dirty right along side of their students during the planning, prep, execution and celebration stages of these events. One year a student group wanted to sell tacos at a food stand at the college fair. My colleagues invited student groups into their homes to coat the plan with salsa and spice and everything just a tad too nice for me. When a successful event or a term came to a close, professors would, on the light side, take their class out and would have a few beers over a meal with their (legal aged 20 year old) students, or more elaborate planning would take some on a day trip to a ski resort, or to an overnight at a hot spring. My value system has danger zone red flags all over that, and my social system just wants to keep students at school, and free time at home, on the slopes or at the Inns.

When I moved on to the university from the junior college, I did my best not to disturb the "Wa," or group harmony, and I took the active roll expected of me starting at orientation. First on the agenda was the annual, nationally mandated health check administered on campus. All university students, faculty and staff visit the mobile home like hospitals that pull up and stake camp for the first 2 days of orientation. On day one, I found a little plastic container with my name on it in my school mailbox. Relief #1 was that at least I can do that test in the privacy of my own home. Unrelief #1 came on the next day, when I was greeted by student volunteers working the collection site. I swallowed my privacy laced pride and (in vain) discreetly handed over my "sample" to the cheerful sophomore scheduled for my 2nd period class on Wednesdays.

The eager student volunteers were manning the scales, height charts, and everything that required simple data entry as opposed to the advanced tasks requiring a certified doctor or nurse. I would have drawn the line at having a student, even a senior, draw my blood with anything more than crayons and construction paper. All employees were undergoing the health check tests along side of the students, so I kept reminding myself, "when in Rome, do as the Japanese do." Unfortunately, that proverbial pep talk didn't prep me for what was to come next: the chest Xray. Confident that a technician, and not a pre law student would be taking the films, I entered the Xray mobile home and took a seat in line next to the 2 girls on a bench built for 3. The attendant peered from behind the curtain and, unlike the Great and Powerful Oz, gently asked us to prep for the shoot. Prepping didn't mean touching up with lipstick or running a comb through the hair, rather, it meant removing our shirts and waiting together on that bench in our bras. That was phase two of my orientation to tightening that distance leash between teachers and students.

Having survived the closest you can get to a pantie raid on a campus without a Fraternity hazing culture, I eased into phase 3 of my orientation: the road trip. Armed with clipboards, the faculty checked the freshman class into one of 6 tour buses for the off campus orientation. My previous exposure to faculty clad Ho Ho Happy Santa sweat suits prepared me for the Levi look my coworkers sported to fit in with the travel theme. I took that in stride, and admit that these qualified teachers commanded respect Armani or not, yet nonetheless, I couldn't bring myself to blending into the part completely. I met them half way by donning a denim skirt, a choice that maybe only Gloria Vanderbilt would give me higher than a C+ mark for. We loaded the Hakone hot spring resort bound buses for the final phase of orientation. The goal was for the students to get familiar with the university, each other, and get in touch with nature in a peaceful setting. The getting to know each other part of the agenda was checked off the list quickly. Yes, lesson one of off campus orientation was from the book of Hadaka No Tsukiai, or, "naked communion," which is Japanese virtue speak for "breaking down barriers and getting to know one another in the relaxed homey atmosphere surrounding an onsen," or hot spring.

I didn't expect to be grateful for the eating humble bean curd pie lesson learned the previous day by easing on my distance rule when I stripped down to my undergarments with 2 freshmen girls the day before, until I found myself having to nonchalantly pull off getting naked with 30 of them at a time in a common tub. Though this was post millennium modern Japan, I caught myself once again uncovering a lesson from the Romans, this time Ancient Rome, and dipped in the public bath with more of the "student body" than I had ever dreamed. No wonder these professors start their teaching careers with a Happy Santa fantasy. They have mystical powers to maintain the level of respect they do with a skin-tight relationship with their students, and they snuck their way into my boundary lines with the gift of allowing me to let my guard (and not to mention unmentionables) down. The physical health check results came back with gold stars from that orientation week, and I was working on erasing all the red pen marks on my mental weakness chart from my decades old misconception that the suit makes the (wo)man. I was learning that those mobile home hospitals were going to follow me through my career in Japan to keep me some healthy state of mind and body, and that the presence of that Xray vision would always keep me in line. Next holiday season I'm going to visit Happy Santa, fully clad, and thank him for bringing me down to the respectable all too bare basics on the role of distance, boundaries, and bathing in teaching.

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