Thursday, March 22, 2012

The most difficult time of the year

Think back to when you were in high school. Imagine if this was your senior year: By March, your “classes” had ended. You still went to class and had "class" but all you were doing was preparing for tests – which happen to be the rest of your life. The tests for private colleges (which could be either super high end schools or your “we’ll take anybody” safety school; there’s a market for the latter, as you’ll see) start in April; and in June, just before graduation, you go take the tests for the big public university you want to go to.

You sweat and study and cram in as much as you can for these standardized tests. It’s everything – everything rests on this. You can take a couple different tests, and finally, relief. They’re over! What’s done is done. And then a week later, it’s graduation. Finally! Time to walk across stage and get your diploma and celebrate.

Oh, remember those tests? The ones that are (almost literally) life and death? The results come in the day after graduation. And you start college a few weeks later at the beginning of July.

Thus is school life in Japan at this time of the year. Change the months around a little and you have the schedule I’ve seen the past few months here. And those tests aren’t just for graduating high school students, they’re also for graduating junior high school students for their high schools; in that case it’s almost more important, as what high school you attend will often help determine what college you could potentially attend in the future.

It’s been fascinating to see how it all plays out. To me and my American sensibilities, it seems like so little time to prepare — not just from the tests to high school but also for college, too. The long summer break between school years is an institution in the U.S., and for better or worse, it lets you prepare for the next school year with more than ample time. I had almost three months to work and plan for my freshman year of college, I couldn’t imagine having just two or three weeks for that preparation. Never mind having to find a new place to live...

This has become a very bittersweet time. I’m not sure if that’s the perfect description, but it’s what comes to my mind the easiest. It’s sad to see the awesome kids I’ve taught move on – but having experienced all that myself before, I know it’s onward and upward.

The other bittersweet facet of this time is regarding the teachers. I’m not 100 percent sure about other prefectures, but I know in Nagasaki, teachers rotate every few years. The idea is to ensure teachers are out on the semi-isolated islands, but regardless, those changes also happen right at this time of the year. Teachers usually stay at a school at most 6 years, and a couple of my favorite teachers are moving schools next year.

It's proving to be bittersweet - today we had the closing ceremony for the school year, then a ceremony thanking the teachers who were transferring to other schools. There was no shortage of tears. Plus that time-frame issue is amplified — if you have a life in one of the towns here, husband or wife working full time, and kids in schools, what are you supposed to do if you’re assigned to an island? Dread the thought.

I wished all my graduating students well and I've spent this week since Monday (the day when all the teachers get the news) finding out what teachers, principals and school staff are switching to a new school from April. It has definitely been bittersweet. I'll miss many people for sure, but it also provides the chance for new faces.