“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity OR it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
– Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Opressed)
3 years ago a student wrote me a letter after teaching his class. We’ll call him ‘K’. In the letter he said,
“I know teachers must tell you bad things about me. I want to quit this school. I hate everyone in it, they all have an opinion of me. I like only one teacher and I do not know you. Moreover, I want you to know who I am. I do not want you to know what teachers tell you I am.”
No one told him to write it, and I was surprised to have received it. Later, I found him. He was a lonely, angry, pessimistic kinda kid. I wanted to find out what he meant and give him a chance to tell me. At first, he held tight to an electronic dictionary, barely being able to explain the things he wanted to tell me in the letter. But after meeting a few times, he communicated what he wanted with just a notepad. I recommended meeting every other week to practice English. A lot of people told me not to bother with him, and that he was just an immature negative student who didn’t want to go to college and didn’t care about his test scores. Probably true:) But, during our conversations I taught him grammar, culture, conversational English, and how to handle situations when he wanted to be rude to teachers/other students. He taught me about his typical Japanese family life and the hierarchy of the home, how no one seemed to care what he did, Japanese music, and how it felt to want to quit everything. I really wanted to give him a safe place to talk about the things that were bothering him, under the terms of practicing English conversation.
For the next 3 years we spent most of our time making goals for his life. Mostly short ones, trying to get him to stop skipping classes and being mean to his teachers and other students. Having discussions on how to mold his pessimism to optimism. Eventually, bigger ones to get him into college so he could get the job he needed to accomplish his life dreams. After he graduated, I gave him my email so he could keep me updated on what and how he was doing. We did all this through his broken English, I never used a word of Japanese.
Today, he came to see me.
K: I came to tell you I am sorry for not speaking for a long time. I have studied from 8AM – 8:30PM every day. I wanted to take the exam to get into Hirosaki University. I came here today to talk to Mrs. T and you.
Me: And how did you do?
K: I passed! I’m going to start next month.
Me: That’s so awesome K! I am so happy for you and very very proud.
K: What you said, makes me happy. Recently my greatest pleasure is seeing the happiness on teachers faces who helped me. Your smile is the best one.
Me: Really? Thanks! I mean it though. I am really excited for you, you have been working really hard.
K: Yes, I have. I came today to tell you three things. First, is what I just told you. Second, is my experience working at a music venue in Aomori City for the past year. Did I tell you about this job?
Me: No, you didn’t. I know you were working in Aomori City, but I don’t think you ever told me what you were doing there.
K: OK. Well, I worked at a music venue. There were many foreign people who came to the venue. One day, a foreign woman came to talk to me but her Japanese was very poor, and she had a lot of trouble. So, I thought about all the things you and I talked about after school, and I decided to try speaking! The first time, I could not make myself clear to her, she could not understand me at all. I almost gave up. But at that moment I thought of what you told me! You told me that it is common, when we talk to people who speak another language, we have trouble being understood. But, it doesn’t matter, we should try again and use gestures until they understand. We should not give up. And when we don’t know a word, we should explain that word in another way. Take our time, and people are happy to know we are doing our best. And I DID! And she could understand me perfectly! I want you to know, that I believe I would not have been able to do this without our conversations. When I was in trouble, I remembered your advice about speaking English. Thank you.
Me: (forgetting I even said that) Thank you so much for telling me that story K, it means a lot to me. I am so excited that you were able to use your English in a helpful way!
K: Me too. I see it is very useful for my life. The last thing I want to tell you is about my big goal. It has changed. I have a new goal for my university time. In four years I want to grow up my mind (pointing to his heart). I want to become a man who lonely people want to come to. There are many lonely people. I want to help everyone. I want other people to know that I am here for them. I hope to offer good advice and help them make their own goals. So, that is why I came today, to tell you those three things. I thought you would be in Japan forever. But now I know you will leave in one and a half years. I thought I had a lifetime to tell you things, but now I must think very hard about how I want to talk to you about all those things into one and a half years. This will be difficult, but I will do my best!
Me: Hey K, I’m leaving Japan not the planet.
K: Haha, I know. But distance makes it difficult.
Me: It’s true. Still, I’m here for a year and a half, then after that, you’ll just have to come to Portland to see Kyle and me! It also means you’ll have to email me often.
K: It is true. I am looking forward to the USA! I should go now, my mother is waiting downstairs.
Me: Awww, OK, thanks so much for coming to see me! I loved hearing your stories and your goals.
K: It was my pleasure. OK, I remember you taught me about ‘See you…’ See you soon, see you later, see you again… Because I don’t want it to be long until the next time we meet, “See you soon!”
Me: Haha, yeah, see you soon.
K: Wait, mistake! See you soon, dude!
Me: Hahaha! Later dude!
Lately, I’ve been praying and thinking a lot about what I want to do after I leave Japan and return to the states. Recently, I feel like my questions are being answered, and my decision to go back into teaching again, affirmed. I love teenagers, I love the challenge of the ornery ones, I love coaching, and I love helping people achieve their goals. I rarely get presents from my kids, but I seem to get a lot of stories.
My job is boring sometimes, but mostly, it’s super satisfying.
We never know the impact our words can have on another human being.