‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” -Albert Einstein
When I left Kimberton Waldorf, I came away with a strong foundation in creativity. Creativity proved most useful for teaching English in Japan. My first job after college was teaching English to kindergarteners, high-school and hotel-school students, housewives, police, and medical residents at the Sendai YMCA, a community center with six schools. Once we covered the required textbook material, we played language games and held freestyle conversations and discussions. We gathered for Japanese food at friends’ homes and sipped tea in traditional tea houses with darling tiny gardens on Ichibancho. We hiked Izumigatake, a gentle mountain (easily accessed by bus!) with fantastic views. YMCA friends and I attended Japanese festivals and traveled by train to see historic places and museums. We performed skits for the YMCA Christmas party. We enjoyed oysters in Matsushima, one of the loveliest places in the northeast. I saw Romeo & Juliet performed in Sendai dialect, as well as a traditional Noh play. In Tokyo I saw the most amazing Hamlet: Hamlet, a woman samurai, sang her soliloquies to a jazz quartet. My friend’s father was a calligrapher at such a high level of mastery, he was known as “a national treasure.” Japanese genuinely appreciate the arts! I spent pleasant afternoons in a Zen temple garden, writing letters.
While I taught full-time at the YMCA English School, I also taught English conversation part-time at Tohoku Gakuin University, the sister school of Ursinus College. In 1991 I fulfilled my two-year YMCA contract and could now teach full-time at Gakuin. Here I did not need to use a textbook! Here I could create my own method of teaching, and I remember the exact moment when I came up with the idea of a learning environment. I was riding in a bus, and I thought—like Dr. Montessori’s method—I could create a whole-language learning environment within which students were free to choose what to learn. I set up my classroom in the university audio-visual center, where each student had a tape player. I provided each student an English-English dictionary. My learning environment included fifty books-on-tape of a variety of levels. There were newspapers and news magazines, as well as Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles. Students listened to the song and filled in the blanks on my worksheet for the lyrics. In the same class I had students who were so shy they could barely introduce themselves to students who had lived abroad and were fluent English speakers. During the class, I was available for conversations with students who were ready to practice speaking. I remember one favorite topic was ghost stories. We also talked about current events and students’ hopes and dreams for the future. The students who were not speaking with me were listening to and following along in a book, writing their questions. I answered the questions in writing and returned papers the following week. Grades were based on attendance and effort, and I deducted points for sleeping during my class. Japanese college students are famous for sleeping during class and learning material just for the final exam. My class was workshop style with no final exam. Everyone worked independently and focused on reading, writing, listening to, and speaking English without textbooks and without Japanese dictionaries.
That was thirty-four years ago. Teaching English in Japan was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I stayed for six years. The memories sustain me and every now and then I’ll look through a photo album. Each time I came home on holiday, I brought some handsome object with me: lacquer ware, ceramics, textiles, iron work. I still exchange letters, birthday cards, and email with Japanese friends. Someday I’ll return to Japan to visit friends and see how Sendai has changed.