June 6 came with a lot of anticipation for me as group leader more than for anyone else in the group as we got to visit Hitachi Kita High School. (Kita means “north,” so it’s basically Hitachi North High School.) Birmingham has sent numerous high school groups to Hitachi over the years, but in July, this school is sending the first-ever high school group from Hitachi to Birmingham. Through an accident of fate, I had the opportunity for three summers in a row to teach a high school group from Narashino, Japan, which is Tuscaloosa’s sister city, not Birmingham’s. I always wanted to offer the same opportunity to students from our own sister city, and this year, I finally can, thanks to a lot of negotiation between Hitachi City Hall and the Ibaraki Prefectural Board of Education, the latter of which controls public high schools in Hitachi.
The school took our visit very seriously as they are pioneering this relationship with Birmingham which for them is completely new and unknown. When we arrived, they had us observe a Japanese literature class from behind, then visit an English class where we were asked to stand in front and introduce ourselves. The students just listened, they didn’t talk back, as is normal behavior in Japanese classrooms, so I wasn’t sure how much they were understanding us. However, after those classes and a tour of the whole school and their facilities, we were led to a room where the students going to Birmingham, all 13 of them, were waiting for us. After another formal introduction, all 12 of us from UAB (10 students and 2 instructors) sat down with all 13 of them and ate lunch.
With just 2 or 3 of them with 2 of us at each table, their students could talk to us in English without having the whole room listen to them as tends to happen in English class. The students were very polite, but as I looked at them, I was imagining how close I would be to them in a few short weeks. We would look back on that first encounter and laugh at how nervous we were.
The school had ordered fancy bento lunches brought in just for us visitors. Their students brought their own bento boxes from home. It was another occasion where food fed our getting to know each other. Japanese all study English from seventh grade on, if not before that, but it is rare to ever use English to talk to a real live native English speaker. The UAB students were very good at making conversation in easy-to-understand English. It turns out that the students, all but one of whom are girls, had to go through a competitive test and interview in order to get to go on this trip.
Afterwards, the prinicpal of the school, Mr. Takakura, gave a short speech conveying the hope their school is placing on these 13 students and 2 of their English teachers making the trip to Birmingham. The group will be in Birmingham July 10–24, staying most of the time in UAB’s Blazer Hall, although on evenings of July 18, 19 and 20, they’ll be in homestays with local area host families. I am responsible for their English classes and extracurricular activities, and I am organizing local high school and university students to participate with them so it’s truly an exchange. If you are such a student, or know of any who would be interested in making friends with your sister city peers, please contact me, Tim Cook (timcook at uab dot edu). Next summer Birmingham is planning a high school strip to Hitachi, and anyone who can participate with us this year will have a special reason to want to go to Hitachi next year.