Talk About Dying (Good Lessons Gone Bad)

As I mentioned earlier this week, it is community eikawa season in my sleepy Saga City-outskirt town. I always look forward to these classes - mostly because they’re so much fun (and refreshing) and also because everyone is there because they want to be, which is more than half the equation.

One of the most challenging aspects is that there is no textbook or syllabus to follow, so I always create the whole course sequence from scratch. Normally, I evaluate the students the first day and find out what they want to learn. Each class is different, as is each student… so what works and what doesn’t varies from class to class, day to day. Sometimes lesson plans hit the linguistic nail on the methodological head. Other times, nothing works. And other times, not only does nothing work, but I go total tits up in front of my class - dying a slow, miserable death while my students stare back at me with looks of utter dismay, partial pity and varying degrees of confusion, wondering – in Japanese, of course - "What the hell is wrong with our teacher?"

Standing head and shoulders above all other of my lessons-gone-bad is a lesson I taught early on: The Legendary Lesson On Loss Of Life.

Death is a part of life – in any culture. So when my cat, Luna – of 17 years – passed away, I got the notion that it was a great opportunity to teach my class how to express sympathy over the loss of another. After all, I know from my own experience in the past when there has been death in the family of Japanese co-workers and friends, I’ve wished that I had known how to express my condolences (and at the onset, what the socially acceptable response was.)

I was inspired - full of ideas. I would teach phrases like, "What happened?", "I'm sorry to hear about _______." and "Take care." The more I thought about it, the more excited I became... "What a great idea!", I thought... What a wonderful teaching opportunity!... "What a 'real' and 'useful' lesson!"

But, of course, caught up in the throws of educational enthusiasm I ended up going too far, losing track of the Golden Rule: "Keep it simple, Stupid!". I made an exhaustive list of 'death cause vocabulary' like 'heart attack','Cancer', 'SARS' (how topical, at the time)and a handful of other things that'll kill ya. I also included varied phrases such as, "died from _______", "died of ______" and "died in _________".

So imagine me in front of class going though the following list of phrases as nine adult Japanese students repeated after me:

"She/he died from a heart attack."
"She/he died from Cancer."
"She/he died of SARS."
"She/he died of old age."
"She/he died in her/his sleep."
"She/he died in a car accident."

And to close out my multiple-mantra of morbid Death Sentences, my unfortunate class repeated the following phrase (twice):

"He/she committed suicide."

(Talk about dying!) I could see the faces of half my students glazing over one by one. Others were looking at me with expressions somewhere between befuddlement and concern, nary a smile. The mood was palpably edgy, to say the least. But, still, everyone repeated the phrases faithfully in unison, which I later interpreted as some sort of reverence to my own personal loss.

And looking back, I guess that’s exactly what was going on - as I played the starring role in my one-man black comedy of errors - coming to terms with my grief in my own misguided way.

Realizing that I had led my class down the wrong path, I pulled it together and segued as quickly as possible into a lighter and airier language item (there was plenty to choose from considering how far I had lowered the bar), reviving the mood from the brink of death.

So, yeh... lessons don’t always work out the way you envision them. And some lessons that sound brilliant on paper (and maybe not even there) end up unfolding into living nightmares.

But... as I was packing up my stuff after class, carefully stacking my magnet-backed Death Sentence flash cards while mulling over the extent of psychological damage I had inflicted upon my class, asking myself,"What was I thinking??" and wondering where I could find a therapist, one of my students came up to me and said,

"I'm sorry to hear about your cat."