It was the fall of 1995 and I was starting the school year at a new school. As I approached the guidance counselor seated at the long table, I was greeted with the enthusiasm of someone who seemed to have received customer service training at the DMV. Trying my best to ignore the lackluster reception that didn’t mirror anything I’d seen on Saved By The Bell, I tuned out the man speaking to my mother until he addressed me.
“You need to select two languages to complete the requirements for your tract.” Excuse me? Two languages? I was familiar with French and Spanish, thanks to the schools I previously attended. However, I’ll never forget my 7th grade French teacher’s look of disgust when he told me to never take the class again. I gave it a valiant effort, but my pronunciation was garbage. Absolutely, positively garbâge. Yeah, it was that bad. I knew Spanish would be one choice. “What are the other options?” I asked, genuinely curious.
Yes. A language I had very little exposure to, the extent of my knowledge being whatever I gleaned when my 2nd grade class went to the Japanese hibachi restaurant across town. (I later learned it may have been owned by folks who had no cultural ties to the land of the rising sun.)
Sometime that first week, I entered the Japanese class with others my age who had never spoken the language outside of a few half hearted attempts to learn karate. With our varying levels of enthusiasm, we were ready to either learn something interesting or spend time talking to friends.
Due to our Japanese teacher having surgery, the first two weeks of class were spent with substitute teachers who filled in like babysitters. There was no way any of them had any knowledge of the language so it became a class for socializing until our teacher, Mrs. Kelleher arrived.
She had her work cut out for her for sure. There were quite a few students who were assigned the course because there was no other class available. Use your imagination. If scenes from any 90s teacher movie come to mind, that’s pretty accurate. Even in the chaos, my mind seemed to soak up the phrases and vocabulary like a sponge. What started out as undecipherable squiggles on a page, became recognizable phonetic combinations which became everyday vocabulary that I would try my best to incorporate at home. Little did I know that one class would spark an interest that would remain for many years to come.
While I did not have many opportunities to use my language skills over the last 20+ years, my interest in Japanese culture has remained. Each of my instructors fueled my interests in their own unique ways. I’ve lost contact with all of them, but I hope as I make my first journey to Japan in 10 days, that I will make them proud. I pray all the vocab I’ve reviewed with the language apps I’ve been using over the last few months will be retained. I hope the conversational phrases will come to mind just when I need them. I hope those squiggles will be recognizable again.