One of the inevitable problems of teaching English to people who don’t speak it already is that it’s hard to scold them with any amount of specificity. Thursday is the day when I have lots of shithead students. Five and a half shitheads, to be precise. The half-shithead is Masanori, who was a decent–though oddly quiet–boy who has lately been altering his own personality to fit in better with his shithead peers. Soon he will be a bonafide pure-breed with a gigantic soft-serve swirl of the Brown Badness resting atop his neck. I give him another two months.

Last Thursday, after a tiff about nothing at all with my girlfriend, I went to work in a less than jolly mood, which is no kind of mood to be in when Christmas is around the corner and you’ve got decorations to make. Also, my first class on Thursday is a small flock of zany kindergarten children, all of them shaped like potatoes. They aren’t shitheads, but some of them have shithead moms who think it’s okay to drop their kids off half an hour in advance so they can get back to applying product after product to their devastated horse-hair (which sits on top of the shit, of course) that much faster. But you don’t want to disappoint those potato children since they’re Thursday’s saving grace. So I faked a happy face for awhile until I was actually happy, because the upside of working with kids is that the good ones will take your mind off everything else.

Then the second class rolled around. Enter the first two shitheads. Since Christmas is coming and we were making decorations today, I told them up front that if we just get through the first twenty minutes of lesson, we can spend the rest of the time doing fun Christmasty stuff and they won’t get any homework or anything. But lo and behold, being shitheads, this was too much for them. Without going into too much pointless detail, the class progressed like a nightmare and ended with me gritting my teeth. The downside of teaching English at a cram school is that it’s an extra class at an extra school and the parents are paying money for it, so if the kids aren’t enjoying it the parents just pull the kids out to save the money, and then it’s our ass. That, and, for some reason there’s a sort of double-standard for the English classes where they have to be both educational and “fun”, whereas the cram school’s main unit (we are a somewhat autonomous branch) actually prides itself on the motto, “Strict but Understandable” and the teachers can be heard screaming at their students from outside the building. As an English teacher, you can really only scold a kid to the extent that he himself thinks he deserves, otherwise he’ll bitch to his bitch mom and she’ll bitch to my boss who is actually not a bitch at all but who still bends to the formalities of Japanese society. Here’s how that conversation would go:

Shithead mom: “You said learning English was fun, and now my Hiroshi tells me Greg-sensei yelled at him for being a shithead?”
Boss: “Oh my, I’ll have Greg apologize to you right away. Please take this free gift as a sign of our deepest regret for trying to run a class instead of a funhouse for spoiled shits.”
Shithead mom: “Not good enough. I want that Jew deported.”

The second class shitheads are bad, but they’re still pretty young, so they’re only bad in a Calvin & Hobbes or Dennis the Menace kind of way, like you know, I’ll be saying something like “Okay everybody, M says M-M-Monkey!” and they’ll be jumping out of their seats and talking over me. “This is boring! I wanna play the game where we throw wads of wet tissues at the board and don’t speak any English!” All of their problems are born out of selfishness and can generally be culled with candy or the promise of candy to come.

The third class shitheads, on the other hand, are at that tender age just before middle school where it becomes in vogue to actively seek out and destroy other human beings through unprovoked barrages of verbal degradation. In the classroom environment at this age, there is never just one shithead and a bunch of normal kids; there are the Shitheads (the majority) and the Targets (the minority). In this class’s case, the Target is one Kôtarô, an athletic, always cheerful boy who proves to us all that ignorance is bliss. Clearly he has a mild learning disability that affects foremost his ability to “read the proverbial air” (I wrote about that a long time ago) but still allows him to study English in the same class as the shitheads. Accordingly, it wasn’t long before Arts and Crafts Day had become Have Loud and Obnoxious Conversations in Japanese While Bashing Kôtarô’s Soul into Oblivion Day.

I always found it fascinating (revolting) how people, when desperate to look cool, will mindlessly do whatever they’re told, as long as the number of people doing the telling is equal to or greater than the number of those desperate. This is why students won’t listen to me when I tell them to study, but they will listen to a group of ten-year-olds who claim you’re not hip unless you be listening to thinly disguised Christian rock and gambling with cardboard milk caps featuring pictures of the muppet babies, to use the example set by my own generation. The fact that what’s hip changes so drastically and so dependably is a phenomenon that’s just as fascinating. In this particular case, I mean in my third Thursday class, we had a group of video gamers yammering openly about how many hours they had put into inane fetch quests in what games. When Kôtarô, a boy who prefers baseball and track and field, admitted to not owning a Wii, the other students treated him like a heretic. I know I’m the last person who should be saying this, but what is the world coming to when you’ve got gaming nerds bullying slow-witted jocks? This is oddly upsetting to me. I always imagined that if I lived in a world where I was respected by my peers, I wouldn’t let it get to my head, but here we have a group of geeks who, by some twist of fate, have become socially accepted, and have subsequently proven themselves no more righteous than the jocks who would’ve abused them in another time and place. And ultimately, a geek with a cold heart is essentially just human garbage. Quote me if you must.

It’s amazing how some things change entirely while others don’t change in the slightest. I’m just waiting for the day when Kôtarô realizes he’s physically stronger than the lot of them and all they need is a good backfist to end the madness. But technically it’s probably against the rules for me to tell him.

There’s a wall in my mind and in the minds of most adults, standing between cool-headed perception and white hot judgment. It’s a wall whose bricks are sulpted from the Benefit of the Doubt and cemented together with the mortar of Denial. It’s a wall that, on rare occasion, needs to have a giant hole bashed into it with a sledgehammer. After a whole hour of listening to my students’ unwarranted abuse of a good kid, coupled with the intense, perfected brand of materialistic discussion only produceable by the priviliged and pre-adolescent, I could feel those bricks start tumbling down. But therein lay a challenge. How do you yell at shitheads who don’t understand English? I could’ve used my top secret Japanese powers, but how convincing can a foreigner really be when he’s not speaking his own words, regardless of how much homework he’s done? Ever seen Jackie Chan yell at someone in one of his Hollywood movies? Ever not laughed at it? And he’s essentially a living weapon. You’ve got to use your own words. Especially when in theory, these kids are supposed to understand some English. The problem is trying to say it simply enough that they know why they’re in trouble (whether its feigned ignorance or the real thing, kids in trouble will always look surprised) while still sounding angry.

In the end, they definitely knew I was angry because it was pretty much the first time I’ve ever genuinely been angry at that class. Not sure how well they got my point though. It went something like this:

Kensuke (dare I say, the LEAD shithead?): Candy, please! (normally we reward students with candy at the end of class)

Me: Why in the hell would I give you candy?

Shitheads: (Shitheads gather) Candy, please!

Me: No! Because you’re bad students.

Shitheads: (Grow silent)

Me: How do you act to Kôtarô? Are you nice? No. You’re shit.

Shitheads: (Sheepishly divert eye contact)

Me: You. Change. Today.

Shitheads: (Half-heartedly nod)

Me: That’s a promise. (Make each of them do the pinky promise thing)

Not the coolest way to tell someone off, but looking cool and teaching ESL to kids never really mixed to begin with. Hence, this. Also I think they understood it too, because afterwards my assistant translated everything. Heh.

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