Je m’en vais toute heureusement à l’enfer

This March, after a two-year hiatus, I went back to my company’s annual Tokyo training session as an “assistant-trainer-in-training.” I took the train up to a training centre in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, where I was quite surprised to encounter someone I had neither seen nor heard from in two years: a soft-spoken American named Coby, with whom I had spent a post-training evening two years ago wandering about in shabby clothes trying to find a 5-star hotel that would let us use their pool. I think we were each surprised to see the other back as a trainer.


For a company that relies on a foreign supply of teachers for its business, training is always a tricky time. People are drawn in from all over the world, many of them leaving home for the first time, and there are always a few who realize they’ve made a mistake and simply get back on a plane and head home. It can be very important to make people feel as comfortable as possible in those first few days.


In this objective, Blight, my original employer, failed operatically. In his “inspirational” opening speech, my area manager described the role of the Blight employee in the same manner as one might describe the role of cattle in beef production. I was a breath away from quitting on the spot.


Following six months of Blight’s creative strangulation, my training with Company B had been a breath of fresh air, a free and open environment with scads of time for questions and comments and chances aplenty for the new teachers to explore and expand their boundaries.


It seemed, however, that things had changed in my absence.


The entire first day of training was dedicated to forced consumption of The New Corporate Line. Valvalis of the Wind, the head of training, reported that while we had achieved a net gain in teaching contracts this year, we had also lost many of our old contracts to other companies who had undercut us. However, she proclaimed, we would prevail over our competitors because we would provide “Quality” that other companies could not, and this “Quality” would be brought about by strict adherence to the principles of the guy who invented the term “downsizing.”


This is not how you inspire people to give their all for your company. 


A month before, when I was still debating my options for this year, I had an interview with recruiters from another ALT company. In the two hours we spent talking, I found myself overcome with a wonderful sense that theirs was an inspired vision of the future, with ambitious levels of integration between company and client. All the work was well under way, and now was a truly exciting time to join their team. They, in turn, were so visibly excited that I had been independently developing materials that complemented their own that they seemed prepared to bend over backwards to bring me on board. I’d felt welcome, trusted and appreciated, and it had been with great regret that I’d finally decided to turn them down.


Within one day of training in Tokyo, I had been so thoroughly slighted and belittled that I was convinced that my company hadn’t the slightest interest in my abilities. That first evening, I was a breath away from handing in my resignation.


This feeling largely stemmed from Valvalis, the face that our company had chosen to present to its new employees. She seemed to be of the opinion that questions were a lot like killer bees: dangerous, distracting, and to be crushed at all costs. Despite my genuine intention to help, she quickly decided that I was her deadliest enemy. When handing out our training packages, she responded to my immediate question, “May we write on these pages?” with a curt, “I’ll get to that later,” and it just went downhill from there. 


In the training room, Valvalis led the session with our hundred or so trainees, with a trainer-in-training attached to each group of eight. Here, too, questions were greeted like assaults, with Valvalis giving pre-emptive responses before sentences had been fully formulated, and very seldom hitting the mark. The trainees soon gave up any hope of getting answers that matched their questions. I just tried to keep my group happy and get them to stop cringing.


When sreturning assignments, Valvalis came upon a sheet without a name, In classic Nightmare Teacher mode, she read the essay answer aloud in a mocking tone until the trainee responsible raised his hand—then continued to read to the end anyway.


I'd been keeping my head down for the sake of peace, but after this I decided that it was time to confront Valvalis again. I took heart to note that Coby, too, hung back a little when we broke for lunch. He even stepped up first.


Echoing my own thoughts precisely, Coby described the wonderful openness and energy of our initial training session two years before, the general sense of enthusiasm and encouragement he’d felt, and how it contrasted with the demoralization he was sensing from our new troops.


“Well, that’s why I need you guys here,” Valvalis replied. “To do damage control.”


It would be a lot easier without you up there damaging everything, I thought.


“They’re afraid of getting yelled at,” Coby said delicately.


“But I haven’t yelled at anyone!”


While this was true, the actual words Coby and I had overheard were, “I don’t want to get my head bit off by that bitch.”


At this point, I stuck my neck out—or rather, stiffened it in preparation for more impacts. “Yes, but it’s the tone of voice. For example, that assignment you read…”


“But I praised him after it was done!”


Yes, she had. After finishing her snarky recititation, she said, “Yeah, actually, that’s a good answer” and lamely tried to elicit applause from the shocked and frightened masses.


Finally, a calm, even voice toned in from behind Valvalis. “You’re treating them like children,” it said.


Valvalis turned around. Picard, chief of our entire department, the boss of every last person in the room, was on our side. In fact, upon consulting with the other trainers, it seemed that just about everyone had approached Valvalis with concerns at some point. I guess I was the only one who’d taken his beating publicly.


From then on, Valvalis put on a happy mask. She didn’t make things any better for herself, but she stopped making them worse, aided in large part by the fact that much of the remainder of the session was covered by another trainer.


After that, I was finally able to enjoy things a little, though the breakneck pace and total lack of a fixed schedule never let the buzz of my stress-o-meter fall below a low hum. I met a lot of good people, including several trainees who could easily teach me more than a thing or two, and the other trainers were all fantastic.


Among the trainers was a Montrealer who was so impressed that I knew the Quebecois meaning of “tabernacle” that he proceeded to teach me such creatively vulgar French expressions that they even gave him pause when I spat them back at him. We used to call each other for no reason just to greet one another with the words, “Ça va… fils de pute?”


You can look that one up.


At the training session I also met an Australian with platinum-blonde hair who was taking over a new contract at the north end of Izu. Upon learning of my familiarity with the area, she immediately asked me, “So… where’s the beach?”


I laughed.


“No, really. Where’s the beach?”


I begged Number Two to put the girl in The Village. She would have been surrounded by beaches, and everyone would have loved her.


No such luck.


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