Friday, November 9, 2012

Pet Names, Nicknames

I am very lucky to spend my time entirely at one school. I go to the same place every day, see the same teachers and the same students. On top of that, my school is so small that we only have about 200 students. In TOTAL. On a good day I see half of the entire school. On a great day I see the entire school. We have 3 grades (6/7/8) with two classes each. So that’s 6-1,6-2,7-1,7-2, and so on. There are six periods in the day so it works out that I can see everyone in one day.

While I don’t have many students, learning their names is actually kind of difficult. The reason for this is that, despite the fact that everyone wears nametags, their names are all in kanji. So I can pick out the few kanji I know, but that’s nowhere near enough to piece together all these names. And since we don’t take roll, the only time I hear student’s names is when they answer questions. Even then, the teacher usually says the name so quickly I can’t quite figure out where it begins or ends. So it’s sort of like this:

“Who can piece together this sentencespencerdoyouknow?”

So is my name Tenspencer? Spencerdoyou? Pencerdo? I don’t know enough Japanese names to always know where to draw the line, even if I COULD hear clearly.

So what’s the solution? I need to know their names. Being unable to associate a name with anyone was driving me crazy. So I just kinda made up my own for the time being. Each nick/pet name corresponds to some trait that each student has. And don’t worry; I haven’t come up with awful names for my children. Not only is that terrible, I don’t think I could come up with any even if I wanted to, because by and large they’re little angels. And the some of the sweetest angels get the nicknames. I’d like to share a few with you now. 

All the angels lined up in the Angel Array. Gettin' they sangin' practice on
Sunshine: Sunshine is a second year (7th grade) who is always super cheery. She has the bowl cut that is popular among girls now, and she is always smiling and laughing. She speaks Japanese with the tiniest lisp, not even so much that you notice it at first, but it just serves to make her even more adorable. I named her Sunshine because, after all, who wouldn’t be happy to see someone like that? She also tries hard to speak English, and always studiously (and did I mention adorably?) does her work. Today she was sick, so she came into class wearing a purple rug. Well, one side sure looked like a shag carpet rug. So she was easy to pick out, especially since everyone wears uniforms. In a sea of conformity, one girl seizes her purple rug and wraps up for individuality.

Buttercup: Buttercup is another second year. Buttercup and Sunshine might be related. They look similar and I see them coming to school together from time to time, but I’m not sure. Buttercup and Sunshine are very similar in the fact that they both have assertive but polite personalities, are not shy and are adorable. For a time I struggled with which nickname to give to which student, but upon much meditation and study, Buttercup just felt right.

Wild Thing: Wild Thing is a first year. She earned the nickname Wild Thing because of her boisterous, somewhat unpredictable personality… and because she is the only student in the school with wild hair. I mean, like, unkempt. It's clean, but she takes a page out of my own book and just lets it dry and leaves it untouched by any civilizing combs. Wild Thing marches to the beat of her own drum; she doesn’t conform to the hairstyle norm, she is in turns quiet and then answers questions loudly (a girl answering questions loudly is surprisingly unusual), she quickly understands the English and can often be the first to answer questions. She is Wild Thing—untameable spirit, untameable hair. Also, adorable. (Are you noticing the pattern here?)

Little Firecracker: LF got her name because of how she acted when we used to clean the genkan (shoe taking off front area) together. She could become very loud very quickly, would drive other students off with furious broom swats, and regularly tickled and paddled the office staff. I know it sounds weird, but really it isn’t. Swatting at someone with a broom isn’t quite as bad as paddling I guess. Anyway LF has since moved on to clean the bathrooms, so my afternoons aren’t filled with the musical swish of broom battle quite so much anymore.

Wednesday: Wednesday got her name from Wednesday Addams from (obviously) the Addams family. Wednesday is a third year girl who is very somber and serious and hardly smiles in class. Recently though I caught her laughing a few times, and she gave me a big smile when I saw her walking home. She is mostly just serious and somber in class, I think. She’s also very small. But when her face lights up, it’s just… well, you already know what it is. They’re all adorable.

Let’s not forget the boys, either. But many of them don’t have names yet. I’m still waiting for the right one to strike me.

There’s the “cat grave” 2nd year, who, when his cat pencil case ripped, eulogized it by writing Cat Grave on his ruler. He’s very smart and also usually likes to talk in English if he can. He’s SUPER polite, observing many of the trivial courtesies extremely enthusiastically. He’s patient, too, because the kid sitting next to him in class is always pulling on his arm or borrowing his stuff—injustices which he suffers easily.

There’s the “OK Kid”, who is a third year boy who punctuates most of his sentences with OK, but it sounds more like, “OWUH KAYYE” or sometimes “urKHAY”. With the occasional “Great!” for variety’s sake.

And lest they go unmentioned, who could forget The Swift Mare, Pocahontas, and The Joker(s)?
Chizu middle, where I spend most of my days

Let me take a step back and close with an observation. The point of nicknames isn’t for me to make up a bunch of ridiculous nicknames which I then use to snigger at my students behind their backs. The point is for me to make a frame of reference upon which I can build an idea of the student. After a certain point, “That kid from class 3-2” just stops cutting it. Interestingly enough, nicknaming my students has made it easier for me to associate their real names with them. Building a connection with your students is absolutely important if you wish to enjoy your work. Bridging the gap between being a scary foreigner and being an interesting person your students want to be around helps to build that connection. Believe me, having meaningful interactions through a language barrier is hard, especially after your newness wears off, but it is not impossible. The easiest way for me to begin jumping the hurdle has been to take an interest in and engage with my students. And who wouldn't want to be surrounded with such characters?
Literally EVERY student in the school.


  1. Hey Spence, Kiwi Steve here. Thought it was about time I got to reading your blog since I am too lazy to write my own. I hear you on the nicknames front. I am literally taking an age to learn names. That means I have taken the nickname route to a certain extent. I shall entertain you with one of my favouites, Funny Boy, the Japanese comedian. I'll start by saying this kid is a very good English speaker. He can hold a conversation! But that won't hold water with funny boy, oh no! He uses Engish to say random stuff to see how the ALT will react. For example, the first time I remember meeting this kid he marched up to me in clas and said "Packer-sensei. I am very very fast". And with that he strolled off casually without waiting for a repy. Other funny boy gems have included "girls hate chairs", "no, thank you me" and "Packer-sensei woud like to go dancing with us". He makes ni-nensei classes on Friday absolute gold.

    1. Hey Steve!

      That sounds fantastic. He also sounds weirdly good at English, which is refreshing! I can only relate on one level-- I had a ni-nensei boy who flipped me off once, I guess to see what would happen. I didn't have time to react, because he dashed down another hallway. He never did it again though. With that said, this same student can be seen photobombing the undoukai group photo by FLYING the bird proudly right next to a teacher. Like a BOSS.

      Also, I'd like to hear your take on things too! Ever considered writing a blog?