Yes, we can, can’t we?


I came home the other night and turned on the genkan light, which recently has taken to long pauses of darkness before deciding to come on. So much for the speed of light.

I now wait in the hallway while the light goes through a routine of flickering on and off, a light show of indecision, which eventually results in a willing glow. But I am patient. Because, I am an English teacher.

All day long I stand among the same flickerings of indecision among my students. When called on to answer questions, for example, it can be 15 seconds or more before they answer, if they answer at all.

It’s always hard to know how long to wait for a student to answer because every student is different. Unlike a light where you know how long the response should be when you turn it on, no one has yet determined the speed of English. The mathematical formula for the speed of English is beyond even the brightest mathematicians.

Students who lack confidence, for example, can take a longer time to answer, even when they know their answer is correct. They may have even written the correct answer in their notebooks, but verbalizing it in front of their peers can sometimes prove impossible. Other times, I can see the student’s lips moving but no sound is coming out. What do you do then?

How long do you wait? Fifteen seconds? Half a minute? And when do you decide to stop waiting? It’s these smaller units of time that I often ponder. If you took all those minutes and put them into an English teacher’s basket, we’d have a few extra years at the end of our lives — albeit very quiet ones.

That’s when I got to thinking maybe students just need some inspiring slogans to help them get through English class. Although I would prefer Nike’s “Just do it!” for most of my students, the phrase that every Japanese knows these days is “Yes, we can!”

I’m not talking about changing an entire country, or the world, like Obama is. I’m talking about changing those smaller units of time that make you pause and think, can’t we push ourselves to do a little better, to jump over those barriers? C’mon students, Yes, we can!

With a new English textbook out in Japan that highlights Obama’s speeches and teaches students grammar patterns based on “Obamaspeak,” why not take advantage of “Obamania” to try to inspire other small changes in Japan?

Why is it, for example, that some Japanese computers cannot reproduce a proper “r” in English? If your name happens to have an “l” in it, you know what I mean. Someone whose name is “Anabela Citronela,” for example, when she receives her telephone bill will receive an envelope addressed to “AnabeLa CitroneLa” with a large “l” surreptitiously inserted in place of a small “r.” Isn’t it time for change? Can’t we get this right Japan? Yes, we can!

And why is it that express mail envelopes in Japan do not have a “sticky back” or self-sealing closure so you can drop it into the nearest post box? How many of us, especially when we’re in a hurry, carry around a glue stick to seal envelopes? C’mon Japan, isn’t it time for a new beginning with self-sealing envelopes? Yes, we can!

Or how about that antiquated method of using black shoe string to tie together record books in the office? A carry-over from the way legal documents used to be bound, you’ll find this method used even in Japanese high schools to bind attendance books together. Each time you want to add a page or take one out, you have to first take out the shoe laces, then painstakingly re-feed them back through all the holes in all the documents to rebind the book.

C’mon Japan, must we settle for more of the same? Isn’t it time for a change to binders? Yes, we can!

Which brings me back to that indecisive light bulb in my entranceway. Come to think of it, that bulb has been in there eight years. Eight years is enough. It’s time for a change. Yes, I can!