From Seminars to Sailing: My Voyage from Professor to Sea Wife

by Meredith Stephens

Years of hard work culminate today. It’s the afternoon of the seminar presentations for the graduating fourth years. My students have been rehearsing for several weeks. Some are so enthusiastic that they rehearse with each other in their free time. Although we hold the seminar in English, their final presentation will be in Japanese. It’s not the occasion to parade their English language skills. It’s a chance for them to promote their research, and if it’s in Japanese the teachers in the audience who are not English teachers will be able to critically appraise their content.

I have taken my lessons on giving presentations very seriously, all the more because presentations are not my forté. I spend up my allocated budget buying how-to books on giving presentations. I now have theoretical but not practical knowledge. I pass it on to my students and they transform it into practice, and master this skill which has eluded me. It all began when I was attending an afternoon of seminar presentations about ten years previously. The students had not made eye contact with the audience, but rather had read their presentation with eyes firmly fixed to the lectern. Some of them wore large spectacles for the occasion, and donned hats, which made it ever more taxing for the audience to have a sense of connection. I must have overcompensated in my quest to have students give effective presentations. My students stand tall and yet relaxed, and maintain eye contact with their listeners, sometimes even walking around the front of the room as they present. The more enthusiastic ones dress for the occasion, one even wearing a very smart suit.

The final student to present is Sven from our partner institution in Sweden. Sven is proficient in Japanese, and towers over the audience, his blond curly hair flopping over his forehead. The emcee is Tanaka Sensei, eagerly holding the floor in English. But Sven delivers his presentation in Japanese, resisting the pressure on someone of western appearance to speak in English. I am impressed by Sven’s Japanese, and confess to feeling a tad jealous. I have lived here for twenty-five years, and yet Sven exudes more confidence speakingJapanese than me, even though he is in his early twenties. At the end of the presentation Tanaka Sensei opens the floor to questions. No-one responds, so Tanaka Sensei asks a question in English. Sven responds in Japanese. Again, Tanaka Sensei asks a question in English, and again Sven pushes back in Japanese. This pattern persists – Sven is justifiably reluctant to be positioned as an English speaker. After all, he is from Sweden.

After the presentations there is a party for the students who have presented. I cycle to the venue on campus in the dark, and enter the room filled with the laughter of young people. There are platters of sushi on the tables. I make my way to the table where my seminar students are standing, and congratulate them on their presentations. They have worked hard, and there is a sense of both relief and anticipation, because their student life will end In April. In less than two months from now, they will graduate and enter the workforce.

After an hour or so there is a call for a teacher to make a speech.

“The oldest teacher should be the one to deliver the speech!” someone quips.

Everyone looks at Tsugawa Sensei, but he is incredulous. He is not the oldest.

“We are the same age,” I say, defending him. 

“You’re joking, as usual,” teases Nakamoto Sensei. 

Tsugawa Sensei is a year older than me, but the pressures of years of leadership in the university have taken a toll on him – his hair is now silver and his brow furrowed. Then Nishimoto Sensei, the teacher of French,  steps forward.

“I’m the oldest person here. I’ll do it.”

Nishimoto Sensei delivers his speech, punctuated by good-natured laughter from the audience, and then I am the first to take my leave. I head home on my squeaky old bicycle, ready to pack my bags for my visit home to Australia. Little do I know that this is the last in-person university event that I will ever attend.

The next day, I make the 24-hour journey home to Australia, catching two domestic flights and an international one. There have been whispers of a new contagious illness, but soon after landing in Australia, this new illness has become big news. Numbers of infected persons multiply. The international borders to Australia close, as do the state borders within Australia, a federation that sometimes acts like six separate countries. In order to return to Japan I must first apply to the Australian government. Permission is granted after the second attempt, but with a caveat: I may leave Australia, but there is no guarantee that I can gain entry back. Meanwhile, my mother is palliative, so I cannot take this option. She is delighted that I am captive in Australia, and that she will not lose me to Japan. She boasts to the doctors of how clever I was to make it home just before the borders closed. I remain close to Mum for her last year.

Meanwhile, my heart is stolen by a widower, a man whom I will always consider to be a boy of nineteen, because that is how I remember him from forty years ago when we were together at university. All the passion that I had poured into my teaching profession has a new target. I decide to retire early, and remain in Australia after the pandemic. Instead of spending my days cycling between university buildings, I join Alan, a sailor and embark on voyages to distant climes, crossing the notorious Bass Strait that separates the Australian mainland from the island of Tasmania, circumnavigating the latter, and sailing to New Caledonia and back. In his boat I discover a book from 1971 entitled The Sea Wife’s Handbook, by Joyce Sleightholme. Instead of studying books on presentations and pedagogy, I now devote my attention to the deck, learning such tasks as operating the electric winch, handling the ropes, and hooking mooring buoys. I learn the vocabulary of sailing, starting with the words for the sails – the mainsail, the jib, and the gennaker. The rooms in the boat are not the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen, and the lavatory. Instead they are the saloon, the cabin, the galley, and the head. Instead of being married to the university (and I do long for it from time to time) I am now a sea wife.