Sleepers are common in the Japanese classroom. Certain students develop an alarmingly regular habit of coming to class and promptly nodding off. Their teachers have various methods of coping with such inattention. These range from the gentle wakey-wakey shaking reminiscent of a mother reluctantly rousing her volatile teenage son, to the more commonly offered oh-he-is-tired-from-studying-so-hard-so-leave-him-be excuse. I used to think that excuse was at least better than being told a student is ‘shy’, but still fell into the camp that it was, at best, utter horseshit. Recently, I have come to think there may occasionally be truth in it.
I teach small groups of students and thankfully don’t encounter sleepers often. I do have one, though. He is a high school boy, far from lazy, but under so much pressure from his parents and teachers to study that he is chronically lacking in sleep. He comes into my classroom and almost immediately closes his eyes and begins nodding like those comical passengers you see on trains here. He strains to keep his eyes open but seems quite incapable of doing so. Instead, he will occasionally wake with a start and apologise as he wipes drool from the table, or blurts out some inappropriate remnant from a half-formed dream. In small classes this is very noticeable and embarrassing for all concerned. I teach mostly groups of about six students and it is very, very obvious when one is snoring or wakes with a wild-eyed stare shouting, ‘Get mum! The dogs are coming!’ You can try to ignore a sleeper but when the slow rhythmic breathing starts, everybody knows he’s gone. Sometimes nobody mentions it but then it’s like when the vicar pops in for tea and farts aloud.
This boy is not in a small group class, however. His is a private lesson. Now, I know he really is tired and I know most of my students are reasonably satisfied with my lessons, but still, when a chap comes to your abode each week and falls asleep the second you open your mouth, it is hard not to feel a little bit disheartened. To speak with his mother or father is to invite their apology and a parental reprimand that he pay more attention, neither of which is really satisfactory. So week after week he comes and I relinquish my role of educator to one of instigator of torture. I turn the volume up on listening activities, shine the lights brightly and do all that is within my power to deprive this inmate of sleep. I question him constantly and loudly even when he drifts off half way through his own answer and I find any excuse to have him stand and move around against his will. We play this game for fifty minutes and then, after a gentle shake, he thanks me and goes home. There he will study until the early hours of the morning.