Mike had been reading Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets and, quite taken with its light and delightful narrative style, decided to write his missive in kind.
Upon his return from the northern lands of Akita, Mike learned that something unseemly was afoot at his school. His first warning came from a new employee who had just finished a meeting with the Head Teacher.
“Here," Newby said helpfully, “I think this is yours. The Head Teacher accidentally gave it to me.”
Newby handed Mike a sheet of paper he had never seen before. He glanced it over, slightly confused. He then became slightly concerned. The sheet of paper was a form authorizing a shift change that would have him working Thursday evenings beginning in the month of March.
The last time Mike had gone away for a few days, he’d returned to find that he’d been moved to a different school and his working schedule had changed. He was beginning to get the impression that the message was, “Don't leave—and if you do, don’t come back!”
Thinking back, Mike recalled that the Head Teacher had asked to speak to him if he had a moment later in the day. Pretending that nothing was wrong but mind whirring, he thanked Newby and went back to work.
Thursday evenings were particularly important to Mike. They were one of the two days a week he was able to attend kendo practice. He also taught private lessons on Thursday once a month, skipping kendo much to his own displeasure. But his greatest concern was that he had, two months before, agreed to perform a scene of kabuki in the
Shizuoka Cherry Blossom Festival, and the rehearsals would take place every Thursday evening until the performance on April 7th. He had already arranged for another teacher to cover his private lessons while he attended rehearsals, and resigned himself to attending kendo only once a week until April. But the chance to act in a public cultural event was worth it.
In Akita, Mike had experienced a small taste of his adopted Big Sister’s life as an ALT: she worked in collaboration with other teachers to plan lessons they presented as a team, talked happily with her students when she encountered them at the department store, and took part in cultural events of all sorts, all while improving her own language skills.
Mike bitterly recalled the furtive glances he’d taken over his shoulder when, by chance, he had once met a pleasant student on the corner in front of his school. He wasn’t allowed to talk to students outside of class. He also wasn’t allowed to speak Japanese inside a class, although he occasionally broke that rule when he thought it could help. And while his fellow teachers were generally pleasant, they never really worked together; they just happened to plan lessons in the same room between classes.
The day seemed to be looking for ways to remind Mike of the divide between what he did and what he wanted to do. He tried to speak to the administrative staff in Japanese, but quickly realized that they were generally quite busy, and important matters could usually be settled most easily by pointing to numbers and class schedules. One student gave the knife a little twist when he mentioned that he’d just recently met an ALT who surprised him by speaking perfect Japanese, while Mike's Japanese had barely improved since he’d arrived in Japan. It seemed to be his misfortune that all the Japanese people he DID meet outside of school happened to speak excellent English. And while he had once thought that talking to people all day was just like working with them, as his mind wandered and he started mentally plucking off a droning student’s arms and attaching them to his ears, he realized that he was just humouring them half the time.
The kendo dojo was one of the few places where Mike really got involved in anything related to the local culture. Nobody at the dojo spoke much English, so he had to use Japanese if he wanted to be understood. Although most of the conversations went something like, “Should I do this?” and “No, no, do that!” at least it was something.
He was concerned that, even after the festival was over, he wouldn’t be able to return to kendo more than once a week.
By the time the Head Teacher sat down to talk with him, Mike was quite disillusioned with the entire prospect of working late on Thursdays. His school was taking away the single most important night of his week and giving him nothing in return.
“Well,” said the Head Teacher, “l’m sorry you had to find out about it as you did, but we’ve had to rearrange the schedule a bit to cover for a resignation." F, a rather pleasant teacher Mike decided he was quite going to miss, had decided to travel abroad and then return to university rather than teach part-time on weeknights. “But once we’ve got some new teachers, perhaps you'll be able to apply to get your old schedule back in April.”
In APRIL? The festival would be over in April! Mike's eyes grew wide as he tried to express his concern without sounding outright displeased. “Um, I’ve got this kabuki thing I’m doing for the Spring Festival" He didn’t explain about kendo or the private lessons, but the matter of the festival seemed enough to make the Head Teacher reconsider. He agreed to call the area manager and see what could be done.
When Mike returned to work the next morning, he found another sheet or paper on top of his lesson plan binder. There were several other sheets attached to it with a paper clip. It was a note from the Head Teacher:
I’m afraid nothing can be done about the shift change for now, but here are the schedules for some of the other teachers in the area. I’ll be working at another school on
Thursdays until April, but maybe you can arrange a shift swap with someone else for the month
Flipping though the attached package of teaching schedules and shift swap forms, Mike realized that he would have to go outside his school to get someone to cover his shift. He felt quite distinctly that a hot potato had been dropped in his lap. He would have to go through the complicated process of rearranging the schedules of several teachers because the area manager had taken the simple solution of pushing him to a late shift on Thursday.
When Mike received the finalized rehearsal schedule for Kabuki that night, he realized that his troubles were far more complicated than he had imagined.
One of the rehearsals was, in fact, on a Friday evening. Mike worked Friday evenings. Another rehearsal was at 1:00 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon because it was a public holiday, but Mike didn’t get public holidays off. And the final rehearsal and the performance itself were on Sundays, when, naturally, Mike worked.
While he had expected to apply for a holiday on the festival Sunday, he hadn't foreseen all the other difficulties. Mike couldn’t help but smirk ironically as he considered that, before he moved schools, he’d worked early on Fridays and had Wednesdays and Thursdays off. But now he also needed to rearrange a Friday and get a Thursday off on top of regaining his early Thursday shift. To make matters worse, he realized that his friend The Rover, who had planned his trip to accommodate Mike’s former schedule, was arriving in Tokyo on a Wednesday right before the holiday Thursday rehearsal and leaving on the Thursday before the festival. Mike needed at least two more days off if he was going to meet The Rover and send him off again. He had also hoped to take some days off for travelling while The Rover was in town.
Mike arrived at work on Saturday three quarters of an hour early as usual, still mulling over his sudden schedule problems. He usually came in early to prepare his lessons since Blight only allocated ten minutes of planning time between classes. In ten minutes, Mike could just barely write all the file comments for his previous class before grabbing his materials and hurrying off to the next.
As he went to clock in, one of the staff members asked him if he would be willing to perform a level assessment on a prospective student before he started work. The staff were below their sales quota and the fiscal period was nearly over. All the other teachers were already booked in lessons. She needed his help.
She was asking Mike to give up most of his planning time, which wasn’t supposed to be company time to begin with. Normally, Mike would have immediately and, perhaps foolishly, said yes. But he’d been feeling that his agreeability had been rather rankly abused of late. He had agreed to transfer to this new school, even though he knew it would complicate The Rover’s arrival. He had also agreed to develop a syllabus for a business English course to help a student get a bilingual job, taking several hours out of his own time, and he’d spent a night precisely transcribing one of their taped conversations to show the student some of his weak points. He always came to work early and frequently worked through lunch. One day when a teacher failed to show up for work, Mike had volunteered to take all the students from two classes and do a combined oversized lesson rather than turning some of them away. Then when Mike returned from the double-class he’d found that his schedule had been rearranged and his only free period had been given to another teacher, who still had two periods free. And now the company was taking away the most important day of his week while he desperately scrambled to postpone the theft.
To show the depth of his displeasure, Mike didn’t say yes until the girl finished explaining exactly why she was desperate for his help.
Mike was growing to thoroughly dislike the fact that his extra efforts always seemed to feel more punishing than rewarding. He also considered that it was only in his increasingly imposed-upon free time that he did anything he had actually come to Japan to do in the first place. And all the while, he kept thinking of Big Sis, who was achieving half of his goals simply by going to work every morning.
Mike began the arduous process of trying to convince his fellow teachers to disrupt their schedules for him. He cautiously approached Teacher A and asked her if she would be willing to swap one of her early Fridays for his late shift.
“No," she said firmly. “I work late on Saturdays, and I prefer to have the early Friday beforehand."
The way she said it made her answer sound final, and Mike decided not to argue. Teacher A scared him a little. Instead, Mike approached Teacher B, a friend from his old school, and the only other person in the area who could cover the Friday swap. Teacher B told Mike that he wasn’t sure, but he’d see if he could reschedule one of his private
lessons. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t able to reschedule the lesson in the end—that he had been willing to try was kindness enough, and Mike resigned himself to the fact that he would have to miss one of his rehearsals. He resolved to work doubly hard to memorize his lines for the next week to make up for it.
He did, however, manage to get the free Thursday and the three other late shifts he needed. He still needed a Wednesday, but as he would have to talk to Teacher A about that, Mike decided to postpone the matter for a day or two.
All in all, he decided that it was quite a lot of work for a problem that wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t been bandied around like an agreeable badminton birdie.
Mike had been abstractly looking for other work, but he had resigned himself to being tied to Shizuoka until after the festival. However, the events of the last few days had made him reconsider: if he could just get two Sundays off, he could travel from anywhere in Japan to do the performance.
Mike distantly hoped for an ALT job. He understood that the excitement he’d seen at Big Sis’ school had been unusual, but he also saw that the underlying structure was exactly what he was looking for: collaboration. Community. Consistency. And furthermore, he would be the only foreigner in a school full of people who needed to communicate in Japanese every day.
Late Monday morning, his first day off since he’d returned from Akita, Mike's phone rang. He didn't recognize the number. He thought it might be Blight’s Foreign Relations department, calling to ask if he wanted to work overtime again, so he considered just letting it ring. He quickly regretted being a little curt when he answered.
It was a woman calling from a company he’d applied to a month ago, a company that had positions both as ALTs and in business conversations schools. His online application had been mangled into an unreadable glorp of ASCll, so he’d almost given up on any possibility of hearing from them. He immediately perked up.
They talked very pleasantly together, and after trying to feel out his willingness to relocate, the woman finally told Mike what she had available: a position teaching at a junior high school and three elementary schools in a small fishing village on the Izu Peninsula, a region of mountains and hot springs less than two hours from Shizuoka. There was one other foreigner in the entire town. Everyone would know who Mike was and what he was doing.
The woman asked tentatively if that sounded acceptable. He told her it sounded perfect.
Mike hung up the phone freshly armed with an interview for the next Monday in Hamamatsu, a city about an hour from Shizuoka. He was so excited that he nearly forgot there was still an entire month between now and April. But his private lessons were largely covered. He could still come back for kendo on Saturdays if he wanted to. There was no better time for him to move.
His only problem would be securing holidays at the beginning of April, when several other teachers would be relocating to new schools.
The outcome of that particular uphill battle, however, remains to be seen.