Please Join Me in Welcoming to The Stage, Joe Sensei

Japan Journals Nov 01, 2019

As the head teacher gestured for me to take her place at the front of the classroom, I felt every student shift their full attention to me. The sounds of my customary indoor shoes striking the floor were like roars of thunder against the complete and utter quiet. The sliding door of no return had long been closed. It was time for my first lesson.

Japan Foot Commute by Banter Snaps on Unsplash

I'm afraid of a lot of things.

You could probably even say that I'm afraid of most things. Death, disease, snakes, various insects and arachnids, flying, nuclear war, asteroid impacts, imprisonment, and balloons popping when I'm not ready for them to - are just a small drop in the bucket of concern that impacts my quality of life on a daily basis.

However, there are quite a few other seemingly terrifying things, that for some reason I can't help running towards - instead of away from.

In particular, I've always gravitated towards public speaking in one way or another. Or perhaps more accurately, being the center of attention.

I could play armchair psychologist with myself, and theorize about all the ways in which I've needed to seek out the validation I didn't get throughout childhood and adolescence. But frankly, I find it insulting to simplify one's entire existence down to such a boring textbook explanation - and I'm trying to be nicer to myself.

The point being, is that I've never really turned down any opportunity to be loudest one in the room. I've made genuine efforts in my life to find success in bands, standup, YouTube, and perhaps the most cringe-inducing of all, improv. And while all of these at one time or another have certainly given me a case of the jitters, I've never felt a true fear of, or aversion to, really any of them.

ucb theatre chelsea manhattan nyc joe trubenstein
Backstage at the now defunct UCB Theater in Chelsea. A fish truly does not know it's wet, and I was swimming in an ocean of cringe.

But none of these endeavors could have truly prepared me to face the crowd that now sat before me.

I stepped up to the slightly raised floor, and stood behind the small wooden podium overlooking the class. Staring back at me in the deafening silence, were the faces of 30 Japanese high school students.

Absent were any and all of the lifelines I had taken for granted throughout the performances of my 20's. No drunken friends to encouragingly heckle me in between jokes, no guy in a Cannibal Corpse shirt ready to rock regardless, no UCB hopefuls giving their obligatory applause.

I was going to have to face this one alone.

I had to fill just under 45 minutes with an English lesson consisting solely of me introducing myself to the class, with no real guidance other than to just "speak freely." The head teacher was confident that whatever I had in mind, would more than suffice. As for whether or not I felt the same way, I'm not so sure that I shared their confidence in me. None of that mattered now anyway.

It was time.

I paused for a brief moment, looked around the room, and began.

Rife with nervous anticipation, I extended my arms in greeting, and finally spoke.


The class responded in unison. I couldn't yet distinguish whether this participation was voluntary or simply a result of their much higher level of discipline. Either way, the wheels were up now, and there was no chance of going back.

I needed to get in character, but I didn't know what character to get into. It only - just now in this moment - had dawned on me that I hadn't the slightest idea what a teacher was supposed to look like. I never really paid enough attention to any of mine to remember. I suppose in that sense, I probably deserved for this to go poorly.

I started going through my repertoire of films and TV shows that I enjoyed.

Should I do a Doctor Cox?

No... That won't do...

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman?

No, even farther off. I needed to think of something fast.

I decided to roll the dice with crowd-work.

I knew I was taking a risk because I had no way of measuring the room's level of English proficiency, and early on I did see a few confused expressions as I made references that were perhaps too obscure. And yet, why was this feeling so familiar? Where had I just recently encountered the frustration of trying to express myself without a common language? My god, I had the answer all along.


Less than a month before my departure I had pitched a pantomime no-hitter in my friend's living room. Now it was time to bring my act to the major leagues.

Over the next couple of minutes I had successfully gotten laughter and applause (albeit light applause, but applause nonetheless) for my renditions of;

The Statue of Liberty, Pokemon Go, The owner of Sushi Zanmai, One Punch Man, Michael Jackson, and about five different characters from Dragon Ball Z.

Japanese indoor school slippers by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Before I knew it, I was getting the nod from the head teacher, signaling the end of this portion.

It was now time for the Q + A session, something which I had either forgotten about, or had been unaware of up to this point.

Probably due in part to the fact that I may very well be the only non Japanese person living in my town, I was told the students were decently excited to have me coming in as their new teacher.

I assumed they were curious to hear all about what life was like in New York - and thusly I had expected to be asked about things like Broadway plays, Yankees games, and concerts at Madison Square Garden. I stood ready to answer as best as I could, and called on the first student to raise their hand.

Do you have a girlfriend?

Everyone laughed, much harder than they had laughed for me.

Oh no.

The class clown had emerged. Was this my comeuppance about to finally arrive?

I considered retorting as one might when confronted by an actual heckler, but I quickly remembered that this was not after all, a comedy club, and redirecting the roast towards this student could very well end my new career before it really started.

I instead diverted back to the universal language of physical comedy, and feigned an exaggerated expression of embarrassment. This went over well. I then deflected by pretending to be about to answer before finally saying that it was a secret. However, I think it was probably clear by the charades that I definitely do not have a girlfriend.

At last, the bell rang. I had survived.

And after only ten minutes to walk to the next room, I proceeded to do the same thing four more times that day, each time feeling just a tiny bit more comfortable.

I wondered if maybe I wasn't going to totally suck at my job after all. It was still a bit early to tell, but I felt like I could allow myself to at least have that thought, given how far down this rabbit-hole I now officially was.

After a brief chat with the rest of the staff, I got my things together and of course, apologized for leaving work.

I exchanged my slippers back for my outdoor shoes and headed out the door.

It was time to do it all over again tomorrow.

Joseph Trubenstein

Software developer, English teacher, and aspiring Enka singer