Just a Small Town Girl

This story is about a small town girl—from Sumoto-shi on Awaji Island—who had a big dream of winning a speech contest and going to Tokyo with her ALT.

After arriving to Japan in August, my JTE at Suhama Junior High School asked for my assistance to prepare a student for a speech contest. During our first meeting, I asked Emika, “What is your goal with this speech contest?” She simply replied, “I want to win 1st place and go to Tokyo!” I explained to her that it would be a difficult, but I would do everything to help her make this possible, and that she would have to work hard. To her advantage, I was a communications major, and her chosen topic for the speech was her concerns of how technology impacts society. We had a rocky start writing the speech with the language barrier, causing us to have over six drafts until we confirmed it was perfect—serious and relatable with a splash of humor.

With a month before the contest, we began rehearsals.  Three times a week we would meet after school to work on it — even if I was at a different school during the week. Recalling my former speech contest days, I had her focus on pronunciation and delivery. Every week I’d push her harder and harder as she improved exponentially. To my surprise, she soaked up every criticism like a sponge to improve.

The day before the contest, I began watching her become discouraged and frustrated with her performances. I pulled out an award I made her and on the back I wrote this quote by Richard Bach, “You are never given a wish without the power to make it come true.” With the help of my JTE, I explained to her what this quote meant by using the example of my wish to come to Japan and how it came true despite the odds. She lit up and became so inspired that she performed her speech without a single flaw.

On October 8th, we headed to Kobe for the Hyogo Prefectural Preliminaries for the 63rd Prince Takamado All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest. Emika preformed 14th out of the 30 applicants, and it was flawless! She even had the judges laughing. As we waited for the results, other ALT’s and students came to talk to Emika and me. They were shocked that it was my first year, her first contest, and that we lived on Awaji Island. Many had been attending for years and students had been competing since they were first years. Finally the results were announced, Emika Shibata won 1st place and scored close to perfect! Her mother sobbed hysterically with joy, others looked shocked, and we just beamed. Tokyo here we come!

A month and a half away from the semi-finals, we continued her training. Emika practiced by performing at Suhama’s Cultural Day Festival. Everyone was impressed by her performance and she was complimented that she sounded like a native English speaker. I continued to cook up fun and creative methods to train her such as saying the entire speech to me with marshmallows in her mouth or dancing and singing as loudly as I could to distract her. Some days we’d spend more time having a cultural exchange than rehearsing. Over time, we realized that we had a lot in common: our silly personalities, our love for food, and our passion to win.

The day before leaving for Tokyo, I read her a letter I wrote her, this time without the help of our JTE. I wrote to her that no matter what happens in Tokyo, the experience for both of us was worth more then we realize. With tears in my eyes, I told her she would go and accomplish great things in her life and I can’t wait to hear about them.

On November 25th, Emika performed her speech in Tokyo for the semi-finals against 40 other students. She did the best she could, but before announcing the winners, the judge explained they didn’t like excessive hand gestures because it was not the Japanese way. My heart sank.  He then announced the seven finalist and Emika’s name wasn’t called. Disappointed and frustrated, I still managed to give Emika the best speech I could to cheer her up as she cried. I explained to her that it didn’t matter if we won because we both knew she’d achieve far greater things in life than a speech contest and it was time to enjoy Tokyo.

She and I did enjoy our time there, regardless of our loss. Our favorite memory of the trip was spending the day together shopping and sightseeing in Harajuku. She showed me all her favorite Japanese things and I taught her about American shopping at Forever 21. This day alone is one we will never forget and treasure forever.

I didn’t share this story to just brag about my student or myself. I wanted to share the lessons that I (and others) learned in the past three month with Emika. Even though it is my first year, I can’t speak Japanese, or have a background in teaching English, I don’t let any of these odds hold me back. I use my strong suits to make the most of situations. Teach what you know best. I not only taught her proper pronunciation, but life skills. Opportunities will arise and it’s your choice on what to do with them. I encourage us all to look for those doors, open them, and give it your best shot. Don’t be afraid to fail. My favorite motto is, “They get what they get, they don’t what they don’t, but in the end I tried my best and that’s all that matters.” Nobody asked me to work with Emika after school or think of pronunciation drills. I did this all out of love I had for the small town girl with a dream—who now has even bigger dreams.

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