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Drawing Pictures and the Foreigner Dusted with Chalk

Not to toot my own horn, but I was the best artist in my first grade class.

For every student’s birthday, our teacher, Mrs. Wurstefer, would have the other students draw pictures in their honor, and collect them in a personalized book. But some kids didn’t want to draw, or couldn’t - they wanted to skip right ahead to coloring.

That’s where I would come in.

Any time our teacher asked us to draw something for class, kids would line up at my desk, and ask me to draw things for them.

“Can you draw a rabbit?” “Can you draw a dog with a birthday cake?” “Can you draw me riding a horse?“

So I’d draw their picture, and the kid would scamper back to their desk to color it. It happened without fail every time, to the point that I’d sometimes spend most of the class drawing for other people and wouldn’t have time to work on my own contribution until the very end, if at all. There’s definitely a few compilations of birthday drawings from Mrs. Wurstefer’s first grade class that simultaneously are filled with my work and have nothing in them with my name attached.

I remember when it stopped. In anticipation for another student’s collection of birthday drawings from their first grade classmates, students started eyeing me from their own desks like jackals waiting to leap at a weak deer. Some students were already halfway out of their chairs, aimed for my desk, and I felt the impending sense of dread that I’d once again spend another class drawing for other kids until my wrist cramped. Then, Mrs. Wurstefer delivered a line I’ll never forget:

“You have to do your own drawings from now on - no more letting Rachel draw for you and coloring it in.”

The whole class erupted into groans and grumbles and cries of “that’s not fair!“ But from that day on everyone drew their own birthday gifts. Thanks to Mrs. Wurstefer, I was finally able to concentrate on my own art after that - and also thanks to her, I didn’t get carpal tunnel at an early age.

There have been a few classes, usually with the 3rd and 4th graders, where the kids are tasked with “writing” a few sentences or in some cases even a paragraph.

I say “writing,” in quotes, because, well… it barely qualifies as that.

The elementary school teachers, for the most part, don’t speak English. From grades 1 to 6, all subjects are taught by the homeroom teacher, which means they need to have a working knowledge of everything at their particular grade level. It works for the most part, but there are certain subjects where the students need specialized help.

That’s where the ALTs come in.

The teachers teach what’s in the English textbooks. We fill in the gaps. Usually the gaps are small. Sometimes they’re big. These “writing exercises“ have a way of making the gaps feel like sinkholes.

Usually the writing exercises follow a clear model - “My name is ______, I like the color ________,” etc. It’s easy to answer questions like “How old are you?” and “What’s your favorite fruit?” But as the kids get older the questions become more complex, and the more complex the questions are the more gaps form, and the harder they are to fill, especially if you’re an ALT who speaks little to no Japanese.

So when 6th graders are answering questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?“ And the teachers themselves aren’t sure how to answer these questions, it becomes a sinkhole.

I finally realized that using Google Translate does a little of the work when trying to bridge the gap, but even that’s not perfect. So, when the 6th graders are answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” One student wants to be a farmer. Okay, got it. What do farmers do? The teacher can’t explain it in English to the student - that’s cool, let’s type it into Google Translate. Oh, here you go, 6th grade student! Here’s what you should write. I check to be sure, and-

“Seducing vegetables” 

Oh… oh no.

I give another suggestion (“Sensei, maybe he could say ‘I want to grow vegetables’ instead?”) and keep going, holding in my giggles.

The rest of the class is similar - kid doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say in English, Sensei doesn’t know the word, Sensei types it into Google Translate, Google Translate isn’t perfect, I respond with “here, write this-“ and write the sentence for them to copy, until the board is covered in scattered English sentences:

“I want to fly a big plane.” “I want to be a candy maker.” “I want to be the CEO of a big company.” “I want to take care of children.” 

Fourth grade is writing about their morning routine, and it plays out the same way. “Sensei, how do you say this in English?” “Oh I don’t know, let’s ask Rachel-sensei.” “Sorry Sensei, I don’t know Japanese. Let’s try Google Translate - oh, this doesn’t sound right - here, write this instead…” Resulting in another blackboard of scattered translated sentences:

“I wake up.” “I style my hair.” “I rinse my mouth.” “I play soccer.” “I make my bed.” 

Third grade, lather, rinse, repeat. I spend the whole class with a piece of chalk in my and, and by the end I’m covered with a fine layer of white dust after once again covering the board in writing.

“Blue.” “Round.” “Small and wide.” “Bumpy.” “Thorny.” 

My friend and fellow ALT Emma thinks she may be allergic to chalk. I didn’t think about it much, until after a few days like this, I notice the skin on areas of my hand that gripped the chalk are cracking, and I’m tempted to agree.

I’m learning a lot about these kids. But mostly, I’m realizing that I’m back in first grade, drawing more pictures.

“Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” 

I wonder if I would have been better off, twenty years ago, teaching those kids how to draw, so they would stop pestering me to do the work for them.

I’d like to think that what I’m doing in these tiny classrooms - writing the sentences for the kids to copy - is teaching them how to write in English, but since they barely understand what the English characters of the alphabet are yet or what they mean when strung together, at this point, they’re more or less just drawing pictures that they hope will form words. On my best days, it’s just part of life. On my worst days, it makes me feel like I'm not much better than Google Translate.

But my job as an ALT isn’t to take the kids from zero to sentences - that’s for the teachers. My job is to be enthusiastic, to get them excited about what they’re doing and the possibilities that learning a new language can unfurl for them.

And if getting kids interested in a new language means I get carpal tunnel from writing on blackboards all day so the students can copy and misspell everything I write, then so be it.


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