by Michael Camilleri

I quit school.

In the last post I said that I planned to do something with a little more impact at the end of the month and that was it. Sort of.

There were two options I was debating: one of them was to quit and the other was to go until the end of the term (which would have been tomorrow) and make a speech at the graduation ceremony criticising most of the students at the school. For reasons of fear and circumstance, I chose to go with the former.

First, some background is in order. Last year, my wife and I decided to get divorced. This wasn’t an easy decision but it seemed like the right one. We had been together as a couple for more than ten years and deciding to end all of that was disorienting in a way that I find difficult to put into words.

As part of a strategy to reorient myself as it were, I decided to quit my job as a lawyer and try to become proficient in Japanese. While I didn’t have a lot of money saved up, I figured I had enough to support myself if I were to study full time. I’ve been learning Japanese in an on again/off again fashion for almost as long as I’d been together with my wife and clearly that hadn’t worked. I wasn’t sure that formal schooling was necessarily the answer but, in contrast to it seems every creative person to ever give a magazine interview ever, I’ve always enjoyed structured learning environments. My plan was to try to get to a very high level of proficiency in 12 months. I told everyone at the time that I recognised the plan was unrealistic but I was concerned that without an ambitious goal, I wouldn’t work as hard as I could.

So, in January of this year, I began studying at a language school in Osaka run by the Japanese YMCA. The school fees weren’t as expensive as those of a university and from what I could tell, most of the students would be from non-English speaking backgrounds. In my few experiences of studying Japanese in a classroom environment, I had come to the conclusion that it was too easy to fall back into English if you knew the other students understood it. Surrounding myself with people with whom I would have to speak Japanese seemed like the perfect solution.

Initially, things went well. My first class had two students from South Korea, one each from India, Brazil, Hong Kong and mainland China and a smattering of Taiwanese students. Plus me. It was an eclectic bunch and, as I had hoped, Japanese was the lingua franca of the classroom.

In addition to the level of the fees, one of the things that had attracted me to the school was its flexibility. It was possible to enter the school at the beginning of any term (terms lasting approximately 3 months) and to come in at any level. What this meant was that as the year progressed the composition of the class changed as old students left, new ones join and some continued on. By the last term of the year, of that original group, only I remained.

Unfortunately, the balance of students didn’t stay quite the same. By the end, the students were mostly from Taiwan with a couple from Hong Kong, mainland China and Korea. While everyone’s proficiency was much higher than it had been in that first term, it felt as if Japanese was rarely used. The Chinese-speaking students spoke to each other in Chinese and the Korean students spoke to each other in Korean. When communication between people who didn’t speak each other’s native language was required, Japanese was the fallback, but that seemed reserved primarily for in-class activities rather than anything else.

All of which contributed to a growing sense of frustration I felt. To be fair, this was but one component of that frustration.1 But a component it was nonetheless and I resolved to say something about it. I decided that, as awkward as it might be, I wanted to do it at the graduation ceremony. Usually during the ceremony, the students who are finishing in that term stand up and thank their teachers and their fellow students. I didn’t feel honest thanking my classmates when I was frustrated at them and so I started thinking about using my soapbox to remind all the students that it was in both theirs and their classmates’ interest to speak Japanese as much as possible.

I was nervous about using what a thank you speech to lecture other students on their behaviour. But, as awkward as it felt, I kept telling myself that doing anything of any significance was always going to feel awkward and that, in the broader scheme of things, this was hardly that radical a suggestion (indeed part of my frustration came from the fact that the students were told not to do this when they entered the school).

As I said at the top, though, I didn’t give that speech. Despite getting divorced, for this year I have continued living in the same house while I studied. However, with a full-time job beginning in January of next year, I had the means to move out and have been endeavouring to get that done before the end of the year. Moving house is a time consuming task, moreso in a country where you don’t speak the language perfectly, and as I looked at the time it was going to take to hunt for an apartment, organise the paperwork once I had settled on one and then get everything packed up to move, I decided I just wouldn’t have the time if I kept going with the course. That and I really was afraid of giving that speech.

And so, last week, I quit. I did still want to say something and so while it was not to the entire student body, I gave a little speech to the students in my class. It was gently chastising. I don’t know if it had any effect. I’m not even sure I said it in a way that was intelligible.

And so now I’m getting read to begin a new life. I will have a new place and a new job. I don’t quite speak a new language yet but I guess two out of three ain’t bad. I’m hoping I don’t have to quit anything more for a while.

  1. The major cause is my own frustration at failing to reach my goal (unrealistic as it may have been). One of the things I feel this course has given me is the experience of not succeeding at something I put my mind to. Indeed, I have begun to understand why all those creative people giving all those magazine interviews said they hated school.