A Good Day to Die

Chaos in Print

Did you ever feel like you were born a few centuries too late? Or too early? In my high school, there was a bit of a recurring joke about me. It finally came to my attention partway into grade 11. One day, in Math 20, the class strayed off topic and the discussion started about what we were all going to do after graduation. When the teacher asked me what my plans for the future were, a grade 12 student — I think his name was Dean — spoke up. “We all know what Mark’s going to do,” he said. “He’s heading off to Starfleet Academy!” The class erupted into laughter, but I couldn’t help but wish things were that simple. Head off to the Academy, and from there, to a position on some starship, exploring vast, uncharted worlds. Or even to have been born in the past, when I could have signed aboard Christopher Columbus’ expedition, and out across the sea to another vast, uncharted world. But no, I was born now. If I want to do some exploring, I have to take crazy, unwarranted risks. Like applying to one of these outfits that teaches English as a second language in Japan.

Teaching was a profession I was always leery of getting into. My mother served on a school board for 15 years. I personally saw the statistics spread out on my kitchen table. The average teacher being churned out by the education system is always, most likely, an honor student. Throughout their lives, they have known nothing but school and a devotion to learning. When school ends, they are suddenly at a crossroads. Fearful of what a future outside of school might mean, they become teachers, and thus recycle themselves back into the education system. They go through their teacher schools with a bright optimism. “Every student is like me,” they think to themselves. “They are there with an open mind and heart filled with nothing but a dedication to learning. Just like I was. Teaching will be easy, because every student is just like I was.” So, these young teachers get their B.ED., and step into a classroom for the first time. Here is where the real world comes crashing in. Every student is not like them. There are students who would much rather be doing other things than sitting in school. This rookie teacher will run into countless frustration as he/she constantly tries to reach out to the average and below average students, until this rookie is worn down. Burnt out and disillusioned, the teacher will quit after doing it for one year. Looking at these statistics, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d be giving up on my dreams if I were to become a teacher.

About a year ago, when Chuck and L revealed to me that teaching was something that they were going to get into, and that perhaps I should do it too, I was offended. What was it about my friends that made them think I was ready to give up? They tried to explain it to me. They weren’t going to just become math teachers at some little high school. They were going to go teach English as a second language in Japan. They weren’t going to do this because they were giving up. They were going to do it because it had it’s own unique set of challenges! They were going to do it because they could explore a foreign country! They were going to do it because they wanted to see parts of this world that they only dreamed of! (Plus, the money wasn’t too bad, and they figured they could pay off their student loans within a year.) As much as they tried to win me over, I would always say no. At the end of the day, I’d still be teacher. I’d just be another honor student afraid to face the real world. Chuck and L applied to do it, got the jobs, and shipped out late last year.

With my two best friends gone, and the loneliness starting to set in, I couldn’t help but see some of the things they told me in a new light. Here I was, wanting to get out and explore the world, but always lamenting how fate and money conspired against me to keep me from doing it. What would be so bad about doing this, then? Yeah, it’s teaching, but it’s in Japan! This is a culture I’d only seen in documentaries and read about in books. And this is an adult education setting. I’m not teaching kids against their will. I’d be teaching adults who had come out of their own choice. I’d be teaching people who want to be there. As I looked around at my small room in my parents’ basement, and considered my menial job as a glorified cashier, I realized that I simply had nothing to lose. When 2002 began, I fired off an application to the company that Chuck and L worked for, if for no other reason to at least see if I was as good as my friends.

As January progressed, I was in a happy little denial. With the application gone, so were my hopes of getting any kind of position. I just began going about my life, secure in the knowledge that nothing would come of what I did. Then, about two weeks after I mailed my application, I was home alone for the evening. I was making a dinner of Japanese noodles, coincidently enough, when I got a phone call. It was the recruiter for the company. They had gotten my application, and wanted to know if I could fly out to Vancouver for an interview. Somewhat stunned, I blurted out a yes. The interview was to be in three weeks. I had that time to get a plane ticket, find accommodations, and prepare a sample lesson plan. The plane ticket was easy enough. After checking out some motel prices, I finally decided to swallow my pride and ask L’s parents if I could stay with them. They were more than welcoming. That just left a lesson plan.

I had never written a lesson plan before. I immediately jumped online and began looking for English as a second language lesson plans that I could emulate. I found several, but that wasn’t enough. I needed someone I could talk to and fill in some of the blanks. I tracked down one of my old university friends who had become a teacher, and we spent an evening on the phone going over lesson plan structures and how a lesson should flow. Several days, several drafts, and several ideas later, I had finally made something that looked like a lesson plan: A Night At the Movies, in which I’d attempt to teach some of the more common phrases used at the movies. I spent quite a few hours rehearsing it in my room. From when I took German as my second language in university, I remembered that languages are best taught when the students constantly practice it, so I attempted to create a very interactive lesson that relied heavily on student volunteers. As I practiced in my room, the only volunteers I could find were my dog and cat. Try as I might, I could not teach them English.

The three weeks seemed to fly by. It wasn’t long before it was time to go. I packed my things very carefully. To look my best at the interview, I got my suit pressed and spent hours selecting just the right tie. I threw my walkman into my carry-on bag, along with tapes containing some of my most relaxing and best confidence-boosting music. And then, I reached into the little jar on my dresser, and pulled out my lucky Star Trek pin. It’s a half-size Next Generation communicator pin that I picked up at a Star Trek convention 10 years ago. I wore it to every final exam in high school and university, and I attribute my honor student status as much to that pin as I do the late nights studying. With the pin safely pinned to my carry-on bag, I was ready to go.

A quick hour and a half later, I again found myself in the Vancouver International Airport. I thought I wouldn’t be seeing that town again for a very long time. By sheer coincidence, my arrival gate was the exact same one from when I went to visit Chuck and L back in September. It all seemed so familiar, yet so alien. After waiting for about half-an-hour, L’s mother met up with me, and we walked out into a typically cloudy day in Vancouver.

My evening was a nerve-wracking one spent in L’s home. After going over the bus schedule with L’s mother so I could get to the interview on time, I tried to settle down somewhat by watching a little television. The best I could do was a rerun of Touched By An Angel. It’s not my favorite show, not even one I’m a casual viewer of, but I needed something, anything, to get my mind off of the pressures of the next day. Just as I was getting wrapped up in the plot, L’s mother came into the room. She said that there was someone on the phone who wanted to talk to me. Being a typical mother, she was making her weekly check-up call to her offspring. It was high noon in Japan, so that meant she had gotten Chuck and L out of bed. For the first bit of our conversation, L was barely conscious and it took her about five minutes to realize it was me. She passed the phone to Chuck, and for the next few minutes they took turns on the phone, recounting some of their adventures in Japan, giving their thumbs-up to my lesson plan, and giving what they felt was the most important piece of advice they could give: “Just relax, and you’ll do fine.” When we were done, and I let them start their day, I went for a walk in the cool night air.

When I got back from my walk, I knew I should perhaps do some preparation. I went up to my room and unpacked my lesson plan. I strapped on my walkman, and began rehearsing my lesson to the sounds of Star Trek: The Astral Symphony. I read and re-read my lesson plan while pacing though my room. Occasionally, my mind would veer off and I would find myself muttering out loud as I threw out a possible interview question and came up with a response. I had trouble focusing. Until Ilia’s Theme came on. This sweeping, romantic theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the closest that Star Trek has ever come to producing a love theme. When it began, I stopped everything, closed my eyes, and just let it take me away. I was no longer worried about the next two days. I was no longer worried about my motivations for doing this. I was drifting among the stars. It was time for bed. Tomorrow would be a big day.

I hardly had any breakfast that morning. The butterflies had taken up all room in my stomach. The first day of the interview began at 1 PM. Since I was still unfamiliar with this public transportation system, I wanted to allow myself lots of time to get lost and find my way again. L’s mother drove me down to the bus station, and I hopped the express for downtown Vancouver at 10 am. I tried to relax on the bus. I stretched out in my seat, and just watched the buildings go by. Ilia’s Theme was stuck in my head, and I occasionally found myself humming it as the bus continued on its course. I kept glancing at my watch — a nervous tick of mine — to make sure I’d be on time. Some of the buildings looked familiar from my previous visit, others seemed new. The buildings started getting larger and larger. I knew I was getting closer to downtown. I started keeping my eyes peeled for street signs. The stop where L’s mother told me I had to get off soon came up. I pulled the rope, and soon found myself on the streets of Vancouver’s downtown core.

The bus stop was right in front of a large office building, with a fountain in front. I knew I’d need all the luck I could get on this day, so I reached into my pocket and removed a penny. I tossed it into the fountain, and began my walk. I had recognized the building I needed to get to from the bus, so it was easy enough to find my way. I just had to head west until I got to the waterfront. The tall buildings on either side of me soon ended, and I was looking out at the Pacific Ocean. Directly to my right was the place I needed to be: Canada Place, and the luxurious Pan Pacific Hotel. When I stepped into the lobby, I again glanced at my watch. It was a quarter past 11. I was an hour and 45 minutes early. I had time to kill. I whiled it away by exploring Canada Place. Chuck and L never brought me down to this area when I was visiting them, so it was mostly an undiscovered territory to me. I wandered around a bit, starting wistfully over the ocean. There was a McDonald’s nearby, and the butterflies in my stomach had settled a bit, so I had a lunch of Chicken McNuggets. With my explorer’s curiosity satisfied, I found a comfy chair in the lobby. I had another half-hour still, so I pulled out my lesson plan and again went over it.

At this point, I had an amusing distraction. Sitting next to me in the lobby was a group of attractive young women. I won’t lie, my gaze did linger on them for a while. Soon, another woman came up to them, most likely the leader of the bunch. She whipped out a notepad and began issuing instructions. “OK, I jut got off the phone with them, and they charge this much for this kind of tour and this much for this kind of tour. They claim that they offer service in French, Japanese, and Spanish, so I want you to ask about it in French, you in Japanese, and you in Spanish.” At this point, I was still gazing at their beauty, and my look became a somewhat puzzled one. The leader locked eyes with me, giggled slightly, and began to explain what was going on. “Oh, don’t worry, we’re not weird or anything,” she said. “We’re university students, and we’re working on a project. We’re seeing how many of these tour companies live up to their promises.” I nodded in understanding. Satisfied that I knew what was going on and that her team had their assignments, the group of women moved out, and I was again alone with my lesson plan.

I tried to focus on my lesson plan for a little longer, but I couldn’t. There were no more insights I could get into teaching by staring at that sheet of paper. I closed my eyes, and took a few deep breaths. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was a full 10 minutes before the interview. If I wanted to be my usual, punctual self, I thought, I’d better head on up to the interview. I placed my lesson plan back in my briefcase. I took one more deep breath, and muttered to myself the now-famous Klingon battle cry: “Today is a good day to die.”

I drifted on up to the hotel’s conference level, where the interviews were being held. The recruiter I spoke to on the phone greeted me there, and escorted me into one of the conference rooms. Even though I was 10 minutes early, I was the fourth one to arrive. Day one of the interviews was working like this: all of us hopefuls would be given a lecture by the recruiter about what the company does, what it stands for, how their contracts work. Essentially, we’d be told exactly what the hell we’re getting into. Then, we each get up there and teach our sample lesson, with the rest of the hopefuls being our class. Since we were still waiting for people to arrive, the recruiter put me to work doing what the rest of the hopefuls were doing: a quiz, testing our grammar skills. Immediately, I panicked. I wasn’t an English major like Chuck, or dating an English major like L. It had been a while since I needed to test my grammar skills. But, not wanting to back down from the challenge, I jumped into it. Some of the problems had fairly obvious solutions, other problems were more difficult. I have a simple rule with grammar. Say the sentence out loud. If it doesn’t sound right, then it probably isn’t.

When the rest of the hopefuls showed up, it was time to begin. The recruiter launched into the lecture, telling us about the company and its goals. Again, I won’t lie, I tuned out for most of it. When the recruiter began talking about what holidays we got off, pens around me started wiggling as the other hopefuls began recording when they could go home to visit their loved ones. But not me. I just struggled to keep my mind on her lecture. Holidays aren’t important unless you get the job. Then, she showed us a recruitment video, giving a tour of one of the schools and a day in the life of a teacher. There were also some of their current TV spots on Japanese television, with their current spokesperson, Ewan McGregor. When that was all done, it was time for us to give our sample lessons. The recruiter announced that we’d be doing them alphabetically, and since there were no A’s or B’s, she’d start with the C’s…and Cappis. I smiled at the irony. Everyone had told me, “Mark, if there’s a large group, at least you won’t have to go first.” We convened for a short break, but I took out my lesson plan and began prepping myself. One of the other hopefuls asked aloud, “Is anyone else here as nervous as I am?” I said a very loud, very honest, “Oh, yeah.”

When the break ended, it was time for me to put on my show. Taking a deep breath, I walked to the front of the conference room/classroom and began going through my lesson. I asked for my two student volunteers, and two readily jumped to the fore. I gave them my carefully prepared cue cards and started giving them my instructions. Things were going smoothly though my lesson until one of my student volunteers said the wrong line. I panicked. I had run off an older draft of the cue cards! OK, I thought, this is salvageable. I brought things to a halt, pulled my pen out from my suit pocket and jotted in the correct line. I then had my volunteer read the correct line, and launched into a lecture within the lecture explaining the reasoning behind the change. Things then went smoothly, until the my five minutes was up, and I nervously blurted out, “Is that 5 minutes yet?” The recruiter then quizzed me on some aspects of my lesson, and I was done. Time for someone else. As I marched back to my chair, I heard one of my volunteers mutter under his breath, “Oh, God. I’m not as well prepared as that.” It made me feel a little better.

The others came, and I was able to relax a little more as the hard part was now over for me. Someone did pretty much the exact same thing as myself, only going shopping was the subject, rather than going to the movies. I was one of her student volunteers. Another did a plain old lecture on past tense. One, who had geared her lesson towards preschoolers, did shapes and colours. The most well-thought out and well prepared lesson was on slang terms. When that was done, we were given some time to finish our grammar quizzes, and then told our times for our interviews the next day. Mine was bright and early at 10 am. That afternoon, I walked from Canada Place to the bus stop with only one thought on my mind: relief. The hard part was over.

I made it back to L’s folks OK, and I was fully able to relax and unwind that evening. As far as I was concerned, the hard part, the lesson, was over. I’d been through job interviews before. This one would be no different. I plopped myself in front of the television and lost myself in the latest episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. Just when I was planning on calling whither and setting up something for the next day, she called me, and we made plans to hook up at 11:30 and hang out. I crawled into bed that night with a calm I had not known in weeks. The haunting melody of Ilia’s Theme once again floated through my head as I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning came, and with it the butterflies had returned to my stomach. They weren’t as bad as before, but still enough to keep me from having a healthy breakfast. I made due with a piece of toast and a glass of milk. Just like the morning before, L’s mother drove me down to the bus station, dispensing all kinds of motherly advice along the way. I made the bus on time. It was only the second day, but already it had become routine. I settled into my seat and drifted off. Ilia’s Theme continued to haunt me. This time, there was no fear over getting off at the wrong stop. The bus stopped in front of that fountain, as before. I threw a penny in, as before. This time, though, as I came up to the fountain in front of Canada Place, it, too, got a penny thrown into it, and another wish for luck. Better safe than sorry. I glanced at my watch. Now that I was more confident in the Vancouver public transportation system, I arrived a much more reasonable half-hour before the interview. As before, I paced through the lobby of the hotel to keep myself calm. When it was quarter to the hour, I headed on up to the office level.

I walked into the waiting room to find one of my fellow hopefuls from the previous day. He hadn’t quite finished his quiz, so he was taking his time to complete it. We exchanged pleasantries, and I couldn’t help but hit him up for information on what was in store for me. He warned me that it was very hot in that room. I asked how he thought he did, and he said he wasn’t sure. At this point, the recruiter came around the corner and saw I had arrived. “Oh, Mark,” she said. “You’re here early. Are you ready to do this now?”

“That depends,” I asked. “Are you ready to do this now?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

“Then let’s do it,” I said. She led me though a maze of hallways to an office with a huge window overlooking the Vancouver skyline. It was awfully hot in that room, as the morning sun was beating right through that window, turning the office into a greenhouse. I could feel the sweat begin to bead on my forehead as I took my chair. I had to lean forward slightly to keep the sun out of my eyes. It probably made me look more attentive than I really was. And then the game began.

It started with the standard interview questions. “What’s your complete work history?” “What’s your education in?” As always, I brought up my dual degrees in physics and math, and that led to the most unusual question of the interview. “Well, since I’ve got a guy with a technical background here, I wonder if you could help me with something.” She got up, and led me to controls of some sort on the wall. “I know it’s ungodly hot in here. Are these controls for the air conditioning? If so, how do I turn it on?” After fiddling with them for a few seconds, I determined that they were for nothing but a circulation fan. She turned it up on high, and we hoped that it would cool things down a little. It didn’t. Literally and figuratively, I had to see if I could stand the heat.

We resumed our seats and resumed the interview. There were some rather difficult questions thrown out, like how would I deal with culture shock? I said I’d do my best to stay busy; work through it. Another one was if she were to talk to my friends, what 3 adjectives would they use to describe me? I chose shy, reflective, and sensitive. This, then, led into some more job-specific questions like how would I reach out to a shy student and how would I deal with a student who’s thinking of giving up? I had to draw on my past experiences and remember what my favorite teachers did to a shy student like myself, and I attempted to relate that to the recruiter.

Then, she did ask what my hobbies were. Naturally, I said writing (I boasted about having started my first novel), and going to the movies. She asked what kind of movies I liked, and I said sci-fi. She said she could tell, and pointed to my lucky Star Trek pin, still on my collar. I rubbed the pin self-consciously when I sheepishly said, “Yeah, that’s my good luck charm.”

At this point, we started going over my lesson plan from the day before, and what things I would do to improve it. She even brought out the company’s textbooks and went over exactly what things I’d have to add to make it a real lesson. Apparently, I did a great “middle section.” I just nodded and tried to learn, just in case I got the job.

From here, she then turned the tables. She asked if I had any questions for her. The first thing that leapt to my mind was, “Is it worth it?” She said yes. Secondly, it was, “Well, I see that a workday doesn’t start until noon. What is there for a morning person like myself to do?” She suggested many things. Then, once again, letting my short-sightedness get the better of me, I asked, “Are the majority of North American films released to theaters dubbed or subtitled?” She said subtitled, but also warned that movies cost about $25 CDN to go, so they are a rare and special treat.

The interview ended with, what I think, was the most optimistic sign. She asked if I personally had a problem with getting my work visa processed in Edmonton, and I said no problem whatsoever. From there, it seemed that things were done. We got up, shook hands, and she said I’d know in two weeks. I found my way out through the maze of hallways and back down to the lobby.

It was over. The weeks of planning and preparation, and it was over. I was now loose on the streets of Vancouver with only one thought on my mind: food. The butterflies were gone, and I was starving. I went to the McDonald’s across the street and got a cheeseburger. When my belly was full, I began reflecting on everything that I had just been through. There were no worries over what I should have done in my lesson or interview. There were no regrets over what I didn’t do. There were no fears over how well I did. There were no worst-case or best-case scenarios playing out in my head of where my life would go from here. I was just…calm. I was overcome with a serenity. I just knew that I did the absolute best I could, and that there was nothing left for me to do. I was…satisfied. I again began exploring Canada Place. There was an hour to kill before I met up with whither. I went out the farthest I could and stared out at the ocean. I couldn’t help but think of what was on the other side.

I was truly born a few centuries too late. What would have it been like to set sail on a tall ship and head out across the sea in search of new lands? I was truly born a few centuries too early. What would it be like to board a starship and head out into space in search of new life and new civilizations? But I was born now. There are still places for me to explore. There are still undiscovered countries I can voyage to. I just have to put a little more effort into it. There is no safety and security of a Starfleet Academy. There is no captain like Christopher Columbus for me to put my faith in. My safety, security, and faith must come from within. I was born in my time, and in the end, there is no more exciting time than your own.

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