What do you say?

2016 was difficult.

It probably began on 18th Feb when one of my elderly students at an English chat group that I volunteer at, collapsed before me. She passed on the next day.

One moment laughing, the next moment gone. That was it.

Over the course of one year, I think I dealt more with death than I ever have. It was extremely emotionally draining mostly because of the shock…both mentally and physically.

2 students died at my spcial needs school.
Ninagwa Yukio, a director I’d written my thesis on, and even had the luck to meet at an after party, passed away.
My cousin’s grandfather.
Yet another director.

Then, during the spring  break this year, meeting with a teacher from my special school, I was told that Fav-kun might not make it to high school as his condition attacks his muscles and would eventually reach his heart and internal organs.

At age 9, Fav-kun, is my favoritest student of all times. There’s a reason he’s my favorite, and I know what people say about teachers having favorites, but he has so much life, spark and wit in him, it’s hard NOT to like him. It helps that he has an extremely high level of interest in English.

If I’m not mistaken, he has a form of muscular dystrophy. I’d been told before that I was seeing him at his healthiest. I even did my research on his condition and reading the stuff that I did, I had my suspicions. But, being told directly that him dying was a real possibility, gutted me.

I went home and broke down.

A part of this feels selfish. There are people who must be feeling so much more pain. The individuals themselves, the parents, the siblings, the family, his friends, his teachers who see him every single day…in comparison, I myself, am honestly, nothing. And no matter what people might tell me about how it’s ok for me to feel this way, I still struggle with what to feel or do.

Some time ago, Fav-kun started making mentions of death. His face wouldn’t reveal anything and neither would he talk about himself. He’d make mentions of death in English. Grammatically broken, but he wanted to communicate it to me any way.

This year however, it seems he’d begun talking about this more often. Yesterday, during lunch time, we were talking about how I couldn’t eat meat and fish. He seemed really interested to know if I could be hospitalised if I accidentally ate it. I reassured him that I’d feel a little ill, but nothing too extreme.

He then began asking when he could start eating (he has a feeding tube at the moment). The teachers said the request was being considered, but couldn’t give him an answer. It was an uncomfortable conversation for everyone, because EVERYONE in that room wanted nothing more than  for Fav-kun to eat whatever he wanted without thinking twice. At this point though, there are safety concerns and even if he did eat, it would have to be stuff put through the food processor.

He then looks at the teachers who’re eating their lunch with him and asks, “Does your fish taste good?” Felt like a punch in the gut. Really, what do you say?

Some time later, I showed him a video from the Pixar movie, UP, because he’d done a grand job during my English lesson and because he kept bugging me about “Carl Ojii-san”. The video showed perhaps the most emotional scene of why Carl did what he did. It showed the scene where him and his wife couldn’t have a child and how his wife died just as he got them tickets for their trip.

After we watched the video, I was explaining to him that Carl set out on his crazy journey to fulfill the dream that him and his wife had. But, Fav-kun seemed fixated on the death of Carl’s wife. He asked me why she died, and how she died and suddenly had a dizzy spell. We got a little worried for him and while his homeroom teacher went to get a wheelchair.

So while she was gone, I talked to the boy. Asked him what was on his mind. He asked me why the lady had died, and I replied that she’d died because it was her time to go. He asked if she was sick and I replied, “maybe a little.” He asked me what happened to Carl, and I said, “well, he went on his journey didn’t he?” but he pressed on, wanting to know if Carl had also died. I told him, “Well, we all die, no one goes on forever… Carl probably died eventually. I mean, if you try living forever, you’ll become like the bad guy from Harry Potter! You don’t want that do you?” He seemed to perk up a little. “You mean the one with the turban?”, he asked. “Yea, a person who tries living forever won’t be human anymore!”, I replied.

The teacher came back and we helped him onto his wheelchair.

He had my hand in a tight grip as his teacher wheeled him to his homeroom. “Why couldn’t they have children?”, he asked as we were leaving the room. “Well, she had some medical complications. Some people can’t have children.”, I explained. “She died first. Carl Ojii-san must be sad.”, he said.

At this point, I really had NO clue what to say to make anything  better. “mmm, death is sad isn’t it? But you know, we all have bad things that happen to us throughout our lives. We just need to stay positive or our entire lives will be sad! I have sad things happen to me ALL the time!”

“Oh, what kind of sad things happen to you?”, he pressed.

“Well, just this month, I was sick, my laptop broke down and my iPhone was stolen!”, I went on telling him some shitty stuff that had happened in my life and was telling him how I felt devastated when MY grandpa had passed away.

“Oh, you have your grandma?”, he asked.

“mmhmm” I replied, as we entered his homeroom.

A nurse was waiting for him to clear out the phlegm in his throat/lungs. As she did whatever she had to do, I quietly apologised to his homeroom teacher for triggering this reaction in him, but she whispered that it wasn’t my fault and that this was somewhat a daily occurance these days and that he had just reached a stage where the concept of death was setting in.

When the nurse fisnished helping him, we lifted him off his wheelchair to get him to lie down and rest. For the HUGE personality he supports, his frame really looked small and fragile in that moment, leaning heavily on me and his homeroom teacher.

He continued asking me more questions and even as I told him I needed to go to my next class, he asked “what class do you need to be at?” I always have a feeling that he knows  full and well that asking questions keeps people with him. Leaving him is always so difficult because I feel like I have to cut him off and physically remove myself.
By the end of the day, he seemed to have cheered up just a little although he still looked extremely tired. We took him to his day service van and chatted for a while. I even managed to tease him about being a “smelly pineapple” to bait him into squaking “NO!!!!” at me.

Before he was driven off to the day service, he said his signature line “I’ll be back!”

His homeroom teacher and I chatted after he’d left for the day. She’s glad I’m there to talk to him and said that I’m a big help. It’s a little heart warming, and for just a bit, I felt that my presense in the school was worth it. I’m extremely grateful that my special school doesn’t stop me from talking to this boy or think of me as intrusive. In fact, they’ve done nothing but encourage and support me whenever I try to teach new things to the children.

I can’t help feel anxious though. I visit this school once a week. I’m an obvious outsider. I know NOTHING about the kind of troubles these teachers must go through on a daily basis both physically and emotionally to help these amazing children. I worry about overr-stepping bounderies and saying the wrong thing.

At the same time, I’ll do pretty much anything for these people if it means I can help them even a little.

So here I am. This unplesant feeling sits in my chest and I don’t really know what I’m doing. The teachers at my special school always comment on how much energy I have, but the truth is, I get it all from the amazing children. I can smile and do crazy things because I’m met with equal enthusiam and response from my students. And, that’s the least I can give if it makes at least one person’s day better.

Did I think teaching at a special school would come to this? Not at all. But, these children really have taught me to chrish life a lot more than I would have thought possible. And, there’s no way teaching can happen if we look at the students like they’ve got the Reaper standing over them. So, when Tuesday comes around again, I’ll go back in there with all the smiles in the world and give it my 1million percent.




English and Special Needs Education

Recently, I had the privilege of being allowed to teach phonics to some of my students at my special needs school. I can’t express how elated I am now.

One of my students has started reading some of his very first words. ALL BY HIMSELF. Not perfect, but OH GOD does it feel like a miracle.

I also use phonics as a way of oral therapy. Some of my students can’t really speak much, so using phonics is a great way to introduced new sounds to them even if they may be incapable of producing some of the sounds I teach.

Teaching phonics has been so enlightening. I now know how difficult it is to create sounds. I don’t take it for granted anymore and had to go allll the way back to the start and relearn the phonics for myself so that I could teach the material in Japanese.

And then, there are the confusing sounds that I’d long taken for granted. E makes a kind of “eh” sound but at the end of Snake you dont say Snak”eh”. It’s silent. Or the “OO” sound. Moon and book. So different.

How do I teach it to students who study English long after getting used to Japanese which has very standard pronunciations?

I’m coming to terms with all this while teaching at sepcial needs while questioning all I ever learnt as a child. The more I teach, the more I’m in awe of children.

So, at this point, the teachers and I have come up with a phonics dvd. Hardly professional, but better than Katakana English anyday. Honestly, I wish I were more qualified for this… so I try to do research on my end. We’ve called it “Phonics for Life” and it’s meant to have 7 parts to it…with each level teaching a different set of phonics. In between though, we create some “Let’s Read” episodes where I piece together the phonics they’ve learnt, to create words. This way, we feel, the students will start seeing that they have the ability to read more things once they start using phonics!

Slooow and steady.
The risk, at this point, is my desire to teach as much as possible to these students who don’t get much time with me. It’s a risk because, if rushed, students tend to forget the sounds they learnt earlier. So, often times, I have to slow myself down to make sure the basics aren’t forgotten.

All this is increadibly scary. We’re making these 1-take videos filled with my improvisations.  In one “episode” I dropped my pointer and did a little hum to myself. Apparently, this set off a huge outburst of laughter in one of my students who wouldn’t stop trying to imitate it for a LONG time. He asked me about it, the next time he saw me.

“What was THAT all about???” he asked me.
“What was WHAT all about???” I asked, confused.
“That hum thing you did when you dropped the pointer!” he said, accusingly.
“Oh, that! That was all improvised! I mean, come on, give me a break!” I replied to my dissatisfied client.

Sometimes, I try to make-up some funny explanations for the pronunciations. For example, NG. I’ve gone done the unspeakable by introducing toilet humor into pronunciation work with Elementry students. NG, I’ve explained, is the sound one makes when they’re constipated and want to take a dump. Not sure I wanna know how they’ll react after watching it. Apparently, though, some of my students enjoy repeating what I teach them throughout the hallways for an entire week. ._. sorry…it just HAD to be done.

Soon after staging the charity play last year, one of the JTEs at my school approched me and suggested that we could try doing them with some of the Junior High students. The first play we did was fairly simple. The students (2 of them) requested me to write about arm-wrestling and I created a 3 or 4 page drama. Rehearsing it though, took a long time.

Taking things for granted has become a bit of a running theme in my life, these days.

Saying a line should be a quick 5 second job, right?
One of my students battles extreme tiredness in class and has speech difficulties (A-kun) while the other can’t talk verbally and doesn’t have full control of her hands (B-san). Both are also wheelchair users.

So, everything that might take 2 minutes in a professional rehearsal space takes an entire lesson here.

How we tackle this is taking things step by step.
First, we explain the story to the students, line by line.
Then we record my voice and B-san practices selecting the lines on cue.
With A-kun, we practice and try to film him before he sleeps.
Finally, I take the video clips and try to piece them together as nicely as possible. TRY.

With the high school devision, we began a new ‘business’ English plan. I was talking to my JTE one day and was asking him about possibly teaching English that was more practical for them. Most will go on to work in factories, convenience stores or small shops.

He seemed to be really interested in this idea, so we embarked on our project to teach students shop/customer service lingo.

Is it a more stressfull lesson for students? Yes.

Is it also more practical? Most definitely.

I see them push themselves a lot more now and in return my JTE and I try to take the lessons slow.

We show them practical usage of what we teach by doing mock-up shop playacting. The JTE and I are customers and the students take on the role of shop staff.

We’re currently in the process of teaching them how to identify ingredients or what a  product is made of. It’s incredibly satisfying.

Special Needs is not easy. My energy levels shift throughout the day…some Tuesdays are a million times better (or worse) than other Tuesdays. Teaching here however has been most educational and eye-opening and I count myself extremely lucky.