Previously, I wrote of my humiliation at being a grown man taking part in a kindergarten show in front of a large audience. That is still the experience that haunts me most from those days; the one that induces in me small cringing moans of shame whenever I think of it. But, to be honest, I felt out of place at the kindergarten from day one. Whilst not bringing the same level of indignity as the Christmas show, my first day had nevertheless been a tad odd.
My boss had accompanied me to act as general translator and to introduce me to the staff before classes. We were met by the elderly headmistress, a tiny little woman of unfathomable energy and cheer. She led us across the playground and then, outside her office, she said, ‘Please,’ and placed a pair of munchkin-sized slippers in front of me. I take a size twelve in shoe. I gave a small chuckle and said, ‘They might be a bit on the small side.’ My boss laughed and then the headmistress laughed but neither of them suggested that I dispense with the slippers and just enter in stockinged feet. So, in what amounted to little more than toe-guards I went into the headmistress’s office and sat down. One of the teachers at the kindergarten joined us and there followed some polite small-talk, I think, although I could make neither head nor tail of anything that was being said. Except at one point, where I heard my name and then the headmistress and the teacher took on solemn expressions and looked in my direction, bowing, and appearing slightly overawed. I have no idea what my boss told them, but I think it was probably a huge exaggeration of my skills and experience as a kindergarten teacher. I can’t say I blame them. I employed the same trick when my boss initially interviewed me.
Another member of staff entered the room and placed a cup of green tea in front of each of us. The tea came in Japanese cups, which have no handles, and they couldn’t be picked up without the use of an oven glove. Whilst nobody drank the tea the headmistress stood up and began bouncing on her toes, laughing and holding her hand high above her head.
‘You are very tall,’ said my boss in her role as translator.
‘Yes, I am,’ I replied.
‘Encho-sensei,’ (as headmistresses of kindergartens are called) ‘asked how tall you are.’ I said that I was 191 centimetres and they all laughed and then my boss said, ‘Encho-sensei says you have very big feet. How many centimeters are your feet?’
‘About thirty,’ I said. Encho-sensei thought this was hysterical as did the teacher and indeed my boss and they all laughed like hyenas. Then Encho-sensei made a Pinnochio gesture and laughed and my boss said, ‘Your nose is big.’
‘Right. Sorry,’ I said, but they were too busy laughing to notice. Anyway, after the mirth that my physical appearance had caused had calmed down some, Encho-sensei explained via my boss that I would be teaching three groups of kids for thirty minutes each and that I was free to teach as I wished as long as the classes were fun. This, I had already been told several times by my boss. Then, with tea still undrunk, we were taken to meet the children.
We got to the door of the first classroom and Encho-sensei told us to wait just out of sight of the children until she signalled for us to come in. We did so and, as though she had just been struck down with mad cow disease, for some inexplicable reason Encho-sensei started spinning round and round and whirled into the room, all the time wailing like a banshee. I suspected that this was what she meant by fun and my spirits sank to depths unknown. I couldn’t understand any of her wailing until she came to a flourish of a stop and announced in Japanese, ‘Now, I am in America!’ and motioned for me to come in. I can only assume that what she had been pretending to do was perform a magic trick which transferred all of us across the sea, and, it would seem, changed my nationality into the bargain.
I stood in front of lots of little expectant smiles and said, ‘Hello everyone,’ which I suppose was rather disappointing in the circumstances. The children stared silently for a moment, and then one little boy pointed and said in a loud, clear voice, ‘Amerikajin!’ – an American! The staff found this ever so amusing, Encho-sensei so much so that it sent her into another wailing spin! But at least she buggered off after that and I was left to get on with the class.
It didn’t go too badly considering that it was my first time teaching so many young kids, and considering also that my mind was elsewhere. My mind was back in Encho-sensei’s office, where I envisaged her telling her office staff, ‘…and the gullible fool actually wore the slippers! And then we made him scald his fingers and laughed at his big nose and feet and the big dobber just sat there and took it all! And then I did a ludicrous spinning thing and told the kids that I had a big creature coming in and to shout out if they knew what it was!’
Because there really did seem to be some joke that I wasn’t getting.