An Opportunity

by Joyce Taniguchi 

As I was sorting out, I came across an old desk teacher’s calendar dated 2003.  “Why keep this?” was my thought, but then I started to read through the pages.  My sorting out came to a halt resulting in my house being more cluttered than ever, but I’d been given an opportunity. I could think for myself about teaching and how much working with young people has meant to me.  I could remember my great teachers all the way from elementary school right through universities.  At the time, I didn’t think some of them were great, but I realize that I have learned something valuable from all of them.  The following is a quote from the 2003 calendar:

       To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not

          begin at my birth.  Others have been here before me,

          and I walk in their footsteps…

                                Elie Wiesel

 I owe so much to my parents, friends, and the many teachers who have influenced me in my growing up years especially.   Plus, I am who I am from all that I have read and absorbed from great books, fun books, and books full of information.  Quests are part of who I am as well.  From a child of the Illinois countryside to the shores of Japan, I have been looking for a way to say we can and should be living in a “better” world that is accepting of everyone.

In living in another culture with a different language, I have learned first-hand that words and the meaning of words are quite relative.   One example, the word snow:  from my Illinois experience there is snow, sleet, powdered snow, crusty snow.  In Japanese there are at least a dozen different words for snow, depending upon the kind.  In my work as an English language teacher, I’ve tried very hard to impress upon students that a word’s meaning is very much dependent upon its context.  From where and how each of us learns words, to how that meaning can be extended by experiences and more knowledge, we each must learn to realize that to communicate using words effectively is almost a miracle.  For example, the word, dog.  A child will learn this word perhaps from a picture book, then actually meet a live dog and find out the realities of what dog means.  Perhaps a scary life experience in which that child is bitten by a large, barking dog, can also influence what “dog” means.  For another child, a houseful of lively puppies and a warm mother dog, can give an entirely different “meaning.”  We each of us carry different meanings to even the most common of words.  Therefore, word for word translation from one language to another is seldom an effective way of truly communicating.   Even sharing the same language, we express ourselves and hope that others will share “meaning”, but we need to remember that words and what they mean are dynamic.  I was reminded of this important point from another calendar page:

          A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is

          the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color

          and content according to the circumstances and the time

          in which it is used.

                            Oliver Wendell Holmes

 As a teacher of English in a foreign culture, I realized that the most important thing for me to accomplish in the classroom or even out of it, was to reach students in a way that made learning an act of satisfying curiosity.  I needed to gain the trust necessary to move a student to go forward into unknown territory to explore.  This exploration needed to be controlled by the student, not just by the curriculum or my set of assignments.  I myself had had many such great teachers who left real learning up to me.  Perhaps my “boss” wondered about my ability to follow the curriculum, but somehow, my classes usually did fine work.   Not everyone, did well, for learning is a choice.  It cannot be forced, or if it is, it is not taken in positively.  When I read this quote on the teacher’s calendar, I thought, this man understands what I hope for:

          Each second we live is a new and unique moment

          of the universe, a moment that never was before and

          will never be again.  And what do we teach our

          children in school?

                   Pablo Casals

It’s not easy to answer this, for a student meets a variety of teachers and many ideas go into the school curricula, but the uniqueness of each student is seldom a priority.  There are teachers who try with passion to keep curiosity alive, but at the same time, there are teachers who do the opposite.  To pass entrance exams and/or to score high on acknowledged tests are often the standard set by parents as well as schools.  The fact that some young people learn and want to continue learning is an achievement.  However, by the time students reach university level, they seldom think of themselves as a special unique being.  I as a teacher at this level could not undo the reality of their worlds, but I could stir their imagination, their creativity, and at the same time work on their basic language skills so that they might better communicate.  Not all courses were designed for “uniqueness”, but finding a way to stir their minds became my quest as a teacher.  This, I felt was what I owed the many who have helped me to think and make my choice of becoming a teacher a reality that I truly enjoyed, even as I worked so very hard.  Now, I’m retired and think it’s time to say, “thank you”.