Friday, November 27, 2009

Piece of Cake

“It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top.
You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it.”
- Richard M. Nixon

The odds were stacked against me. I decided to teach my students slang.

Now, being an elite academic institution, 青森高校 (あおもりこうこう / aomori koko), Aomori High School’s students drown themselves in pride. While their vocabulary reaches into four digit territory, they are painfully はずかしがり (hazukashigari), shy. They would rather pretend they were frozen, as if staring into the eyes of Medusa, than to risk uttering an incorrect response.

Unfortunately, as is the case with most Japanese 生徒 (せいと / seito), students, mine exclusively orate the “hello / I’m fine / see you” package. I find this outrageously mundane. Personally, the conversations are so scripted and boring. Consequently, it’s rumored I now hold the Guinness Record for longest yawn. The students’ robotic lack of voice may fly in Japan, but not in my imaginative world.

While I’m aware my knowledge of Japanese is as if I were a four year old Forrest Gump: by using Japanese スラング (surangu), slang, I surprise and delight the natives. I’ve made it a goal to learn trendy phrases alongside the basics. For example, instead of おいしい (oishii), delicious, I’ll say 超うまい (ちょううまい / chou umai), the trendy way to say extremely tasty. Whenever I utter a ‘slang’ phrase, it has the same effect as a Japanese exchange student in America saying, “Damn son, cheq out dat a$$.” It may not be appropriate, but it’s unexpected, and people stick around for more.

My patented lethal weapon though is へのかっぱ (he no kappa), which translates into ‘piece of cake.’ Which is exactly what I thought it would be to instill the coolness of slang into the working vocabularies of my esteemed students.

Though the process is ongoing, I’m constantly reviewing the long list of かっいい (kakkoii), cool, words and phrases with my students. Thankfully, “hello” is now an endangered species with “what’s up?” and “heya” spreading like wildfire. While “see you” is a stubborn beast, I hear enough of “Have a nice day” and “take care” to keep my faith in the program. Overall, the greetings, manners, and reactions seem to be moving in quite nicely. Though, idioms remain a challenge.

Enter Mr. Fun, a 2年生 (ねんせい / nensei), 2nd year, student in class 2-3. He’s a short man sporting a tan complexion and styled hair that smoothly slopes down his forehead like a pointed spear. I knew he was something out of the ordinary when during 文化祭 (ぶんかさい / bunkasai), school culture festival, he wore a Miami Dolphins jersey. While a common garment of fashion in the states, you’re as likely to see a NFL jersey on a Japanese person as you are to find middle aged men engrossed in a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos at the barbershop. Sure it happens, but you’re delightfully shocked every time. Especially when that student is adorned in the attire of the (てき / teki), enemy, of your hometown favorite Buffalo Bills.

So of course I took notice of this なぞめいた (nazomeita), enigmatic, young man. What I discovered was as uplifting as Reese’s Pieces at the bottom of an ice cream sundae. Mr. Fun was no robot. He was an individual: one who wore his name with a smile.

After exposing students to ‘holy moly,’ he single handily branded it as his class’s catchphrase. Every time I’d walk by the 教室 (きょうしつ / kyoushitsu), classroom, chants of ‘holy moly!’ emitted from random students. While it wasn’t always used properly, I basked in the glory of their efforts.

Though when Mr. Fun became rather fond of, ‘piece of cake,’ concern clouded the glory. No matter what I said, Mr. Fun responded with ‘piece of cake.’

“What’s up?” / “It’s a piece of cake.”
“See you next class.” / “Piece of cake!”

Quickly, I felt as though Mr. Fun was mocking me. “Holy moly,” I thought. I didn’t earn an English Education degree from Boston University, inspire Florida high school students for five years, earn my National Board Certification, and take the time to instill coolness in these robots to inherit a bully. “Oh hell nah!”

Consequently, as the ‘pieces of cake’ arrived, they were met with constructive criticism. “Funny, but that’s NOT when you use that phrase,” I said. It appeared as though his ‘slang-parade’ would never improve. Though as the weeks jogged by, I noticed something: Mr. had lost his Fun. He no longer uttered 'holy moly,' 'see ya later alligator,' let alone 'piece of cake.'

“What happened?” I wondered. While this would have proven a perfect chance for a ‘teachable moment’ I had three messages in my Facebook inbox dying to be read. So I forgot about him.

Until recently, when visiting the downtown library I saw someone. It was him. He sat at a table with two classmates not more than 100 footsteps away. While public conversations with students are difficult due to their shyness and limited oral abilities, I opted to give it a try. Peering down at their papers, I noticed they were studying for an upcoming English exam. “Are you studying English?” I asked.

The classmates were sluggishly processing a response when Mr. Fun looked up, extended his thumb and said, “It’s a piece of cake.” And for the first time, it was.


Christy said...

Nice story, well told.
plus 10

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

good work.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Wonderful idea, but will this really work?