TESL PTSD Leaves Me SOL

Long ago I was a conversational English teacher in Japan. It was my first real job, and killed any idea of my becoming a teacher. By my count I taught roughly 7,000 lessons between April 1992 and February 1997 with a year away in Africa and a three month break in the US waiting for my work visa to clear. Even though my last lesson was 16 years ago, in my dreams I often find myself in a crowded teacher’s lounge, struggling to find the manilla folder containing the student’s record, my heart sinking to learn that I’m stuck with a 7C – the least capable of students. It’s then off to find the blue edition of American Streamline, a book that I have memorized. 16 years later I can still recite Lesson 25, prepositions of location: “Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late.” The bell-tones sound and I see the high middle school student forced to take the class by her mother waiting for me. Her face shows a smile at first then her eyes fall ever so slightly as she realizes that handsome Greg or Steve are not her teacher for today, but me. It’s going to be a long 40 minutes “man to man.”

Worse, I’m back in Japan and inevitably have a pocket full of American cash that I need to change to Yen. How am I going to get to a bank when all the trains and buses take yen only? In fact, what the hell am I doing here anyway? Wasn’t I married with a kid living with a passel of dogs, cats and chickens in the rolling hills of North Carolina? Where is my passport and my return ticket? And why am I living in this disgusting gaijin dorm anyway? I thought Norwegians were a clean people, so why am I smelling one in my dream?

I wake up sweating to find myself back in reality. Dr. Wife believes I have a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and the dreams are part of it. The level of PTSD does not rank up there with that suffered by servicemen and women, or refugees fleeing terrors of their home country. But anyone who has lived in Japan and taught “eikaiwa” at a conversation school knows where I am coming from. I suppose there are all types of stressors that can lead to PTSD, and my experiences while living 4 years in Japan must contain some of them.

It has been 16 years, but every few nights I find myself back In Country, in a lonely jungle filled with the bored faces of my students, teaching the exact same lessons I’ve taught hundreds of times before, in a land where I struggle to communicate, am a foreigner and unwanted.

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