Blowing Steam

Blowing Steam

On Saturday I spent nearly all of my voluntary preparation time trying to figure out a new way to teach the same things to a low-level student who came in three times a day and somehow never improved a whit. Blight has a total of ten lowest-level lessons, and he’d done all of them at least five times to little avail. Along with Stagnant Man, I had a junior high school girl who’d been coming since she was a Kids student, but whom I’d never met.


When I got to the classroom, Stagnant Man wasn’t there. There was only the junior high school girl. Now, conversation in the lowest-level group is pretty limited to begin with, and it’s a toss of the dice whenever you open your mouth, but you can usually expect them to be able to say a thing or two about themselves since they have to do English introductions every time they meet a new student.


“Hi! I’m Mike. What’s your name?”


Pause. Mumble.


“Okay! Good! What grade are you in?”




“What grade?”








A problem with the Blight system of teaching only in English is that you often can’t ascertain whether a student isn’t responding because they don’t understand the question or because they can’t think of the words to formulate an answer. To complicate matters, students are often too shy to give you any hints, so I broke a rule and posed the question in Japanese:


“Gakko no nan nen sei?”




It was lucky that Stagnant Man showed up when he did, because I’d considered walking out of the room. She clearly had no interest in being there. So Stagnant Man sat down and I joyfully made the girl somebody else’s problem, effectively threw my lesson plan to the wind to accommodate her tooth-pulling rate of response, and finally got her to crack a smile by putting my books on my head at the end of the lesson.


Thereafter, I wrote the following file comment: “Do something to get her ENGAGED—light yourself on fire, ANYTHING!”


Another teacher told me she’d once come close to slapping her.


In Voice, a new student surprised me by stating that we were meeting for the first and last time. She’d seen the posters I’d put up, although I don’t think anybody else had. She then mentioned that she was considering working for Blight when she graduated university, and I told her to look elsewhere. The staff were generally unhappy or evil.


Because I’d spent so much time designing a useless lesson, I didn’t have my evening classes planned, so I needed my dinner break to prepare. But when I came back from Voice, I found one of the staff pensively eyeing my schedule.


I asked her if she was going to ask me to do a level check during my break.


She said, “I’m sorry” in the standard, completely ineffectual way the staff always did when they completely ignored the rules and mangled what little semblance of planning we could actually achieve in a day.


This was the third time the staff had asked me to do an unpaid level check.


The second time, they’d actually scheduled me a day in advance—which was a total crock since they could easily have allocated a proper lesson slot if they’d had a day’s warning—but that student had cancelled anyway.


Level checks are vital for the staff. A level check is the second step in the sales process, and the staff are generally evaluated based on their sales. The girl who’d asked me to do the first unpaid check had actually since been moved to another, smaller school because of her poor sales.


This time, however, I wasn’t alone when the staff asked me to do something that was blatantly outside my contract. The other two teachers were both behind me, and the instant they saw me giving the matter legitimate consideration, they started urging me desperately, “Don’t do it!”


The simple fact of the matter was that if I did the level check and planned my lessons I wouldn’t physically have time to buy food. So, with my compatriots screaming over my shoulder, feeling like a traitor to my own kind, I told the girl that I would do it if she bought me dinner. She asked if McDonald’s was okay. I said fine. The other teachers threw up their hands in exasperation.


I was actually angrier about the complete inanity of the staff’s planning than about anything else. Voice had already been cancelled during my break since I would be the only teacher in the school, and afterwards I had a single Voice lesson that was virtually guaranteed to be empty. The staff could have just asked me to take a late break instead.


So I did the level check, gave the new student a positive impression, and spent all of my empty Voice session fuming. The staff had indeed bought me McDonald’s, but given that a hamburger set costs about 600 yen and the overtime for the level check would have cost them 1200 yen, I figured they’d gotten off easy.


When one of my students failed to show up for his lesson, I went downstairs to make sure he really wasn’t in the building and to ask if I could be put in room E for one of my lessons on Sunday. Room E had a plug socket, and I wanted to use the tape player to show one of our notoriously stagnant very-high-level students this unintelligible sound he unconsciously made whenever his speech faltered. I didn’t feel like buying batteries for the tape recorder.


But when I asked the staff if they could put me in Room E for his lesson and foolishly told them why, Staff Member 1 told me in English that they couldn’t do that.


I asked them why not in Japanese.


“If not private lesson… not use special materials,” said Staff Member 2.


I told them that if this guy didn’t listen to himself, he was never going to improve. We ran an English school, right?


“Someone maybe sign in,” added Staff Member 2.


I told them I wouldn’t use the tape player if that happened.


Staff Member 3 said it would be too noisy.


I told them there was no way it could be louder than Mr. Boom. Mr. Boom was a radio announcer in his spare time, and had a stentorian voice that filled all the classrooms when he spoke. He also used the tape player in his TOEIC lessons.


Staff Member 1 said hand-wavingly that it was a Blight rule.


“And? So?”


Staff Member 2 added that the other students might ask for similar special treatment.


I reminded them that I’d used the tape recorder before without incident, and told them they could just tell anyone who asked that I’d screwed up and they’d known nothing about it.


“I’ll call the staff manager and ask her,” offered Staff Member 1.


“No. She’ll say no. Just put me in the room and pretend you know nothing about it.”


“We ask Head Teacher tomorrow,” said Staff Member 2.


“No. He’ll also say no.” And then I reminded them that they owed me one: “He also would have said no to the level check during my break today.”


They all looked at each other.


This was infuriating! They were trying to pass the buck!


I had to ask Staff Member 3 to repeat herself because I was positive I’d heard her wrong. She repeated in Japanese, “It’ll be noisy.”


My broken Japanese said, “That’s not the real reason,” but my intonation said, “Bullshit.”


They all looked at each other, and Staff Member 2 came up with the following response:


“It’s a Blight rule.”


At this point I pretty much lost it.


I was partially irritated with the characteristic Japanese reluctance to make risky decisions, partially irked because I seriously doubted that this particular rule was actually written down anywhere, and mostly agog that I had bent over backward ignoring rules for these people and yet they weren’t going to be decent enough to return the favour for something so miniscule.


I had two more days to go. There was nobody else in the building. There was no reason to hold back. I tore into them.


I asked them where in the bloody hell they got off asking me to work outside my legally binding contract at 5:00 and then turning around at 8:00 and telling me they couldn’t do something so incredibly simple just because of an insignificant Blight rule. I took full advantage of the fact that I could use all of my Japanese while they had no choice but to limit their replies if they wanted to be understood. My grammar is terrible and I have no vocabulary, but I can speak with as much speed and vehemence in Japanese as I can in English. I think they were a little stunned.


They shrugged apologetically and reiterated that it was a Blight rule.


I told them the Blight rules seemed only to apply when they were convenient, and if they impeded sales they could be ignored—but when it came to helping a student, they were steadfast.


They said, yeah, Blight’s like that.


I kept going. I’d had this pent up for months. I told them that the first time they’d asked me to work unpaid, I’d considered quitting. I told them that every time they’d done it, I’d considered quitting. I told them it was because they thought it was okay to do this to me that I was, in fact, quitting.


They told me they were all quitting.


That caught me totally off-balance. I asked them when.


They said, “As soon as we can.”


I calmed down in a hurry.


They understood. They knew where I was coming from, and they understood. They knew the company was a profit-hungry monster that just ate people up and spat them out again. They all hated it, too. I’d just never known.


After that, we had an amazing thirty-minute conversation, and finally, after months of lacking the opportunity or reason to ask, I found out and remembered their names.


We discussed the problem of the division between the staff and the teachers, and how we were always fighting because we didn’t know anything about each other. We acknowledged the language barrier, and A-chan (Staff Member 1) and K-chan (Staff Member 2) were surprised to discover that I was serious about learning Japanese. I also learned that S-chan (Staff Member 3) had only been hired to do sales, and thus spoke no English, which explained why she was never able to communicate anything to any of the other teachers. They also hadn’t known about my kabuki or where I was going to go after I quit, and I realized that I hadn’t actually told them a single thing about myself. How could I have expected them to think of me as anything other than a resource to be exploited?


But I also told them that I certainly hadn’t worked outside my contract out of any love for the company. I’d done it because they—the staff—had seemed to be in trouble and I knew how imperative sales were for them. I’d done it because they were people who’d needed my help, and it was important for them to recognize that the teachers were people, too.


After hearing all this, they told me they thought I’d made right decision by quitting. And somehow, although everyone else I knew had told me this without any impact, hearing it from them had meaning. It was an honest opinion from people who knew nothing about me and had no reason to be concerned about my well-being. It was real.


I think that was the best thing I ever did while I worked there, and I think I needed to be leaving to be able to say it all.


Afterwards, with a finger to their lips and the word “himitsu” (“secret”), they agreed to give me the room.


Then we couldn’t find the tape recorder.

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