My school had no moral mortar holding all its crumbling bricks together. They were far intent on results to care so much about how they achieved them. That usually meant one of two things: raise exam grades, or raise money.
The French department was suffering; grades were low and popularity had dramatically dropped, even with myself. French had stopped being fun the moment it became all about tests and speeches. So the French department went into overdrive to boost scores and improve lessons. French nationals flocked in, both main and assistant teachers to help encourage conversation and interest in culture. Although I’m not entirely sure about the culture; as far as I remember the assistant teacher Bruno only wanted to talk about Marvel comic characters and how great porshe sports cars were. Oh and these teachers often appeared in the Japanese lessons too to try their hand at it. French culture at its height. But I can’t complain because my French started to improve dramatically after they came. Following this were a bunch of school trips and day trips to France, with the intention of buying as much cheese, bread and macarones as possible (this was literally the selling point when the French teachers explained the trips to us). There was however one more thing that the department really pushed. French exchange students.
The search for host families was slightly different with the French department. Somewhat suspiciously so. They handed CVs of a sort, from every French student visiting including their basic information, opinions and a small message to us, all in English for us to read before they came. Each CV had a photo of the student in the top right corner and quite the surprise to us, they were all girls our age. Where were the male French students you might wonder. I wonder too because last time I checked, France doesn’t really do single-sex schools. My suspicions only grew when our French teachers introduced these CVs with lines such as ‘isn’t she pretty?’.
“Ok, now your turn. Write your CV in French with a short message so that these students can get to know you before they arrive”
“Do we need to go get photos of us too?”
“Oh no, don’t worry about that. We already sent your photos to them so they can help match you together”
Excuse me!? The only thing required to find a suitable host partner for now is our photo? Suddenly ‘match up’ sounded like we were being pimped out. Which we were. I wasn’t joking when I said my school lacked any moral propaganda.
It did work as planned however. Shockingly, everyone suddenly wanted to improve their French as soon as they had a French girl living with them for a week. I can’t imagine why. Most test results in French classes soared shortly after. The French students were allowed to request which British students they could stay with based on our CVs, shared interests (or photos) and that helped improve curiosity. I wasn’t chosen to host anyone, which was great because I like my space and privacy. And I had better things to do such as play video games, or watch films. Or do my homework. I was glad I didn’t have to be on guard at home. I wasn’t bitter nobody chose me. Not at all.
The Spanish department, after seeing the success of the French teachers, tried the same trick on us. The CVs came in with the photos but luckily things were a bit more even this time around. Half were Spanish guys and potential romance was not nearly as implied as it had been before. Underage drinking however was a different case. Think of all the parties, the music, the booze. If you want to have a good time, surely it’d be better if you understood what everyone said? this was not ever explicitly said but the hints were there:
“Oh, Spain has so many festivals. And open bars”
“You’ll get to spend time with all the students at school, at home and maybe even at nightclubs”
“Oh Spanish kids. They’re as notorious as the British youth when it comes to late night socialising”
Subliminal messaging much?
With much fewer numbers, there was no issue with not finding an exchange partner this time around and I went to Valencia for a week before putting up my partner back home. In that time, the suggestions and hints with regards to festivals and parties continued and we ended up at more than one open bar. As someone who doesn’t drink, this was both enlightening and socially challenging (a polite way of saying, I was the weird kid who didn’t drink and therefore didn’t fit in with everyone else, but got to see everything with sober eyes). It did present a few reactions that differed to everyone else. When a friend decided to throw up out in the hallway after one tequila too many, two people rushed up to help him while the rest worried.
“Oh God, do you think he’ll be ok?”
“Maybe we should let him sleep here tonight?”
“Make him eat something first though”
And then me:
“Oh God….I hope he missed my shoes”
Sarcastic Poncho; humanitarian in training.
No gathering seemed to be complete without some kind of party but I managed to inflict my own tastes on the group in order to break from the constant drinking. Who could complain about the cinema? (no, I didn’t choose the film before you accuse me. None of you have any faith in me). For some reason we ended up watching a documentary on the great barrier reef narrated by Liam Neeson because somebody must have been incredibly fascinated by sea life. Somehow. Afterwards some Spanish students approached me and asked if I was enjoying my time in Spain. I heard instead, did you enjoy the time in the cinema.
“Oh God, it was terrible! It was so boring, I thought I was going to fall asleep. They promised it would be exotic and that was a complete lie. What a waste of time and money. I just can’t wait to leave and get out of here”.
I think I heard the sound of their hearts stopping, echoing out from their gaping mouths. I was too busy feeling proud at myself for expressing that in Spanish to notice the full extent of their shock. So it came as a bit of a surprise when a bunch of them approached me and asked how they could help me cheer up.
Back in the UK, Spanish results did not soar quite so much as it had with French. Shockingly excessive alcohol consumption didn’t inhibit Spanish fluency in spite of all the slurred multilingual conversations over those weeks. But I don’t see how anybody could have predicted that.
There was only a single Japanese teacher in the school and she was also the only one in the whole county. It wasn’t a high demand subject. So she needed a way of recruiting followers into her miniature clan. First came the letters to every student, not just in my school, but in every neighbouring schools in the area. A few answered, including me but we still numbered less than seven students in total. Next came the trip; 1000 pounds for 10 days in Japan, starting in Osaka and moving east until Tokyo. A few more came. She sent out the trip notice again and this time, conveniently forgot to add the price. Suddenly the class boomed. The teacher obviously had a promising future in politics; not lying but certainly not telling the truth either.
Every year in my hometown we had the Miura Anjin festival, or ‘William Adams festival’ in English, to celebrate the first British person to visit Japan, and my teacher saw this as the perfect recruitment opportunity. Unfortunately that’s not what we were told. Taiko drumming, Judo, Kendo, Yukatas, sushi, anime; all of Japanese culture wrapped up into conveniently sized stalls, fulfilling all the clichés and forgoing all the authenticity. But the history was there at least, if you could find it behind the actors dressed as sailors and the British playing with fake Katanas. Why wouldn’t we want to go with our teacher? If we came with her, we could try all this out too.
Except we weren’t exactly taken to experience Japanese culture. Rather, we were taken to lift it. A bit like when the Chinese people lifted communist party into power and kept asking ‘are we allowed into the Utopia you’ve promised yet?’. Soon, peasants. Soon. We worked at her stall, building the tent, propping up her posters and leaflets and finally, speaking to the general public. Before I realised it, I was being given salesmanship advice in order to improve how I described the lessons. The whole day trudged on and we were stuck in sales positions. Telling the teacher we would leave would be difficult; she was very good at guilt-tripping us. The best slaves are the ones who feel guilty for dreaming of freedom.