The Power of a Droplet
Solid confession: I have never enjoyed math. I have never been good at it, and those unfortunate to have seen me try to split a bill know that all too well. I barely slid out of high school and college with the most basic requirements for graduation, and I remember the semesters where I never had to take a math class again. It was fantastic! While there are certainly other subjects which involve math that I have an interest in, my overall feeling of the subject is still one of disgust.
Having said that, I was one of the “bad students” in the math classes. Not that I caused trouble per se, but rather that I never really studied, never really applied myself, but also never really made any progress even when I did have to buckle down. Now I often wonder how much of a bother I was to the teachers: having that kid who actively hated your class with the bonus of never seeming to “get it.” Granted, they probably don’t remember me at this point, but I’ve thought about it retroactively.
Now being on the other side I see plenty of my past self in my students.
While I am here to help, between the bureaucratic beasts that loom around, societal aspects that are far larger than me, and questioning the willingness of the students themselves, I find myself frequently asking the all too familiar questions: Am I really needed? Am I making a difference? What would or would not change if I wasn’t here? I could go all day as to the arguments on both sides of these questions, but talking in hypotheticals can get a little moot at points.
One time when I was talking to a veteran ALT friend, and he began with a metaphor that I think best solidifies this quandary. Something along the lines of a “is the cup half-full or half-empty?” kind of thing. And that is to ask “How much do you believe in the power of the droplet?”
There’s no question given enough time, water falling on a rock will change its form. We see this from the smallest caves to the greatest canyons through the process of Weathering. Of course this process has occurred over billions of years with many of our familiar sights being fairly recent given human history.
In that, one could say one rain droplet did fairly nothing to change the rock’s form; It was the progress over many generations with varying degrees of water, wind, and other natural elements that resulted in that eventual change. In the same way with the JET program, it is not just one ALT, CIR or other foreign residents long before the existence of the program who influenced any change, but rather the continuous exposure of those non-Japanese that have changed the minds of Japanese people since the era of “Sakoku” (the era from roughly 1633 to 1853 in which Japan locked its borders from those leaving and coming in).
So I understand it is not just me that can change a system, but rather a process of those before and after me who have and will contribute to the change. But how can I know this? How do I know if I am actually contributing? Many days it’s hard to even think that any change can happen, when I see teachers focusing more on finishing the textbooks and teaching to the test than I do see them implanting linguistic skills in the students. While there are plenty of days I feel in-tune with the people and general universe around me, other days, I am reminded how small I am. Often times, it feels like the later has a greater grasp on me than the former. And after all the anecdotes I’ve heard of proposals to change responded with “this is the way we’ve always done it,” I can’t help but wonder if it’s a rock that is perhaps fighting back a bit.
However, speaking of the topic like this makes it sound like Japan is some sort of object that we as other people need to change. “They *have* to learn English, they *have* to think like I do, they *have* to be more accommodating to me.” And that way of thinking, while a bit exaggerated, can be dangerous. I like Japan because of the things they have created, their culture, and ideas. To make it more what I was born and raised with seems problematic. As much as I like America, the things it provides, and how we think things through, it’s not as though I need them to survive here.
To then question the droplet, is it trying to change the rock into a formation more suitable to its own liking? It’s hard to say because rain is not a sentient being and we can’t cross-examine the water cycle to find out the true intentions.
It’s easy to come into this program and think that, as a droplet, I am somehow more influential than the rain that came before or or will come after me. When I first arrived, I thought “Of course I am going to influence all my students to learn English, get excited about foreign cultures, have them go abroad, and make a more globalized society! All because of me!” While I was able to fit my head through the door with that huge ego, I did honestly have some of those thoughts. But realistically that is not and can never be the case. I’m sure as much as my middle and high school teachers wanted me to be entrenched in Math, there’s nothing they could have done to change my attitude towards the subject: I have always struggled with Math, as much as I’ve wanted to understand it more recently. It’s just a subject that I have never been able to grasp. I guess one could say that’s mainly why I studied under a writing profession.
In that same light, I have now come to understand that I can never influence every student I teach: Some will always just have struggles with language and some will have no need nor want to learn it in the first place. At some point I have to accept that because not every subject is for everyone, as much as public education says that should be the case.
While I know a droplet cannot form an entire canyon, I should be grateful that I have been able to influence some individual rocks: One student of mine has excitedly told me that he is taking the Eiken, Japan’s national English test; I’ve had other students tell me they want to study abroad or travel more after seeing my travel logs; One student of mine (who I’m thinking of writing an entire post about) has improved his English to an absolutely exceptional level because of the notebook program I do, even though I was told my first year teaching him that he “has issues.”
It’s those little things that does make me more confident about what I’m doing. Focusing more on the individuals (inside the school or otherwise) I’ve been able to reach as opposed to the whole has made me far more optimistic. I can only hope that I have touched a few more through my existence here, even if I may never know about it.
Sometimes it’s just re-realizing the size of my drop, and hoping my splash can reach as many individual people as it can, rather than thinking I can influence a whole area. It may be a generational process, but it’s one that I can at least say I’ve helped contribute too. Even after I’ve evaporated.