My first day of teaching broke early and hot, but I was already up. It is a habit with me, to wake before my alarm, the morning of momentous events. I sleep restlessly, waking several times during the night with the fear that I have missed my alarm, missed the event I have prepared for so much. I have never actually missed a single such event, but this perfect track record doesn’t help ease the fear that this next time will be the first. That morning I woke five minutes before the two alarms I set in case I slept through the blaring of one alarm, or in case the power went out and the electric alarm got reset.

I had a quick breakfast of corn flakes — it seems corn flakes are universal — and a banana before my supervisor, Murahashi-sensei came. He also was early that morning and sat outside my house in the little car owned by the town office, a white Toyota that couldn’t go much faster than forty up the mountains so small was the engine, politely waiting three minutes before he got out and jogged to my door to ring the doorbell at exactly seven ten, the appointed time. I squeezed into the front seat beside him and we shuddered away. “Oh!” Murahashi-sensei let out a nervous laugh, something I would soon learn he would do when he didn’t understand my words or when he felt uncomfortable or embarrassed. I smiled and patted my tie.

Murahashi-sensei brought me to the closest elementary school, an old brick building four stories high and fronted by exquisitely trimmed bushes. Rather than starting me off with the smallest school in town, one with only thirty or forty students, easing me into the flow of teaching, they instead brought me to a massive school filled to the brim with excited little Japanese children. I was quickly informed that the first class would be in the gym with all the students. About 120. Wonderful! My stomach lurched. Let’s throw the young foreigner in with the sharks and see if he swims!

I love the idea of kids. They are cute and adorable and so full of life. When seen from afar or when you hear parents talk about their children, in movies, in pictures. But put me around them in real life, up close and personal, and I am rather nervous. How does one act around little kids? What does one say? I am rather large and they are rather small. What happens if I drop one by accident? Will he or she break? Do I act like a kid or should I be a parent figure? For some, being around kids comes naturally. For me, it was like trying to use chopsticks the first time. I know what its supposed to be like, but in practice, it’s rarely so simple.

I said a little prayer. “Lord, help the day to go well, and help me not to have to get the runs in the middle of class.” I am reduced to such prayers when my nerves are jumpy. Pray for the best and prevent the worst.

Inside the school, before being led to class, I first had to meet the other teachers whom I would be working closely with over the next several months. They all stood the moment I stepped through the door. I repeated my practiced Japanese introduction, bowing before and after my speech and then again as an added politeness in case I had mispronounced one of the Japanese words that were still unfamiliar to me. The teachers scrambled over each other to give up their desks for the day so that I might have somewhere to sit. Two clerks and the school nurse glided over with Japanese tea and a small cake shaped like a leaf.

The teacher who could speak English the best was appointed my guardian for the day and prepped me in the teacher’s room that the kids would be very curious. “Just smile lots,” he said helpfully. Then we walked up the stone stairs to the second floor where the students were waiting in the gym. I saw kids craning their necks to be the first to catch a glimpse of me. I saw big smiles and wide eyes. Some of the students giggled, others looked at their friends and poked them. They wore little uniforms, black pants or skirts and white shirts, my own little army of penguins. The teacher quickly called them to attention, to which they snapped straight and tried to lose their smiles, but they didn’t have pockets big enough.

Thankfully, after my introduction and some blown up pictures of where I live, my house, and my family, we fell to playing games. I am good at games and it saved me from having to pretend to be an experienced teacehr. We played a little tag, some musical chairs, we played with colored hoops and learned how to say blue and green real loud while looking for the color.

I quickly learned what students liked. They liked to be picked up, to be chased around by the tall lanky foreigner, and at last to be swept up in a bear hug. They liked to measure their small hands against my larger ones, and arm wrestle the giant, especially if he deigned to lose — at least against the girls. Elementary school kids loved the similarities. They loved when I dropped a piece of chicken from my chopsticks onto my lap during lunch, or when I tried to fit my body into their little desks and broke the chair. I too made mistakes and got frowned at by the teacher just like them. They loved to catch me in tag and the boys loved to see me fall to my knees when they punched me between the legs. More than anything they loved to be picked up and twirled around.

During lunch, one little girl, hair swept up in pigtails, came up to me to my mini desk and said “You have a tall nose,” in Japanese. She touched it with her small finger. It set off a wave of laughter and I grinned like Santa had just named me the lead reindeer by account of my shiny red nose. Only it was tall. She grinned and gave it a good twist to see if it was real. Once my eyes stopped watering, I saw that she now wanted to shake hands and introduce herself. “Hello. Mayonaise (My name is) Aya. Nice to meet you.”

It was as simple as that. Connection. Despite my fears, being around these children was as simple as being there and joining with them for whatever came next. I soon had a line of children wanting to introduce themselves.

When the day was over, I bowed to the students. It was a good day. The students were on the road to mastering their self introduction and my instincts around children were beginning to show. “Goodbye,” I said.

The students bowed in return, and then released from the order of class, burst from their seats like little cannonballs. They crowded around me, trying to give me one more hug before I slipped out of the classroom, shouting “goodbye,” several times, even after I was halfway down the hall.

I was addicted already. I was Superman and mom and dad and a teddy bear all rolled into one. The little Japanese students loved me and I loved that feeling. It was a good thing there were five days to the school week because I wanted more.

© Seth Crossman