It is the singular irony of my life that I chose teaching for my career and thus ended up spending my whole adult life in school. As a child, I hated school.
It started in the kindergarten. I hid behind Mother on the first day and ran after her when she started to go leaving me there. Probably that is not unusual. For a good number of days, she had to stay with me in an effort to get me acquainted with the teachers and other children. I managed to be left behind. But for weeks, so the family story goes, I would curl up on the lap of one gentle elderly teacher and slept the morning off to avoid participating in the activities with other children. I have a vague memory of the woman's comforting lap and of my opening the eyes ever so slightly to sneak a look at other children having a good time. I was undoubtedly a bit envious but had no courage to join them. Eventually, I succeeded in breaking loose. But I had no success overcoming my shyness.
The first day in the grade school was a trauma all over again. I rarely spoke in or out of class. I was terrified of being called by the teacher to answer a question or to stand up and read aloud. I learned to read early on my own, and I always liked to study. If I had to stand up to read, I would have been able to do well. So far as I was concerned, I could read and did not have to prove or show off that I could. It seems, as I remember, that I somehow never had to stand up to read through the entire first year, or I may have done it but suppressed it from memory as soon I had done my duty.
In the second grade, on the parents' visiting day, Mother stood behind the class with other parents, and the teacher pointed me to stand up and read; and I did so without a hitch. Mother was incredulous. She told me later that she was taken totally by surprise because she never saw me open the textbook at home, least of all read aloud. She never imagined that I could read fluently since she never saw me practice reading.
I could write, too. But I never wrote for the class, probably for the first three years of school. The teacher would give us a topic, and we start writing a composition on the topic in class and then finish it at home and bring it in the next day. I always wrote the title and then my name. When the bell rang, that was all I had. I didn't know what to write, and the reason I couldn't think of anything to write was, as I know fully well in retrospect, the fear of having to read aloud what I wrote in front of the class. I knew I would faint just to stand there with all the watchful eyes focused on me. Moreover, placing on public display my private thoughts was to me like stripping naked for all to see. So, every time we had a composition to write, I handed in a nice blank composition just with the title and my name. To this day, I have no idea how I passed the course or finish the grade; but I did. The teacher perhaps knew that I was capable of writing even though I never wrote anything. Bless him that he did, though I have no inkling how he knew what I could without a shred of proof. This is forever a mystery to me. By the time I was in the fifth grade, however, I knew more Chinese characters than most adults, and I was reading modern literary classics. I liked to study, I knew how to study, and I studied well.
The English speaking school to which I was transferred, at my obstinate insistence, instead of proceeding to the Japanese middle school, undoubtedly liberated me. Speaking in another language was a performance in which I could stand behind the performer and protect myself from exhibitionism. I began to speak up actively in class, ask questions, and engage in discussion. Going abroad to study and staying on to live in an acquired language apparently changed my behavior.
Presenting oneself to the public for general inspection was a pain that hampered my school life. But the public life that school imposed on me was another hardship in going to school. Mingling with other kids was never a special pleasure for me; and this outlook continued well into adulthood.
So, here I am a college professor, and by consensus a successful one. Life abroad changed me. But I can still say, after nearly forty years of teaching, that while I love teaching, I am still ill at ease in collegiate socializing.
T. Kaori Kitao, 01.01.01