It was exciting, yet nerve-racking at the same time, to attend my very first English as a second language class at a college in Maine. It was about 15 years ago, but I still remember the feeling clearly.
Surrounded by students literally from all over the world, I was unsure what to expect. I looked around and exchanged greetings with my classmates, but our limited English barred us from having more extensive conversations.
That’s when my ESL teacher, Bart, who somewhat resembles Col. Sanders, came gliding into the classroom smiling. His breezy, soft, yet confident attitude told me not to worry.
Azeri, Bambara, French, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, and several more languages were spoken in the classroom. Each student had a different background, but had the same goals in mind — to master English and broaden our horizons.
Since the first day, Bart had not only taught us English and American culture, but he had also given us strength of mind and confidence in our own abilities. His dedication helped countless students accomplish their dreams; thus his former students are now playing active roles in many fields all over the world.
A few weeks ago, I learned that he will be retiring after 25 years of teaching. He is an extraordinary teacher and also a mentor for life. I became a writer because he showed me the beauty of writing. I became who I am because he introduced me to writing as one way to express myself.
His many years of experience in teaching ESL students English allowed him to know where the students were from by just reading their English writing. Mine was no exception.
After giving me a D on my first essay, Bart explained why. “The sentences were choppy, the essay was indirect and roundabout, the conclusion didn’t come ’til the very end, and prepositions and articles were all messed up. This is the typical writing style for Japanese students.”
He said it was obvious that I composed sentences in Japanese in my head, and then translated them into English. My response was, “Of course! Because Japanese is the only language I have that fully functions. My English vocabulary is too small to write an essay.”
He then handed me an English-English dictionary and said, “If you want to learn natural English, stop translating in your head and forget your native tongue. Start to think in English, speak in English, listen in English, understand in English, read in English, and write in English.”
That actually made sense because that’s how children would learn foreign languages. But putting this into action wasn’t that easy.
One day, my homework was to read a two-and-a-half-page short story and write an essay on it. I am not exaggerating: it took me the entire weekend to finish reading. I couldn’t get to the writing part.
I don’t remember what the story was about, but when I encountered a word that I didn’t know, I used the English-English dictionary to find out the meaning. Then I found more new words in that description of the first word.
I held those pages by sticking my fingers in between pages to come back to later. By the time I had used all five fingers to hold pages, I’d forgotten the first word I was trying to understand.
Bart’s teaching technique was not particularly focused on grammar and composition; it was more on how to express ourselves naturally in a foreign language because writing is a tool for self-expression just like dancing and singing.
It was good news for me — I have such a poor sense of rhythm, I can barely dance Tanko-bushi. I was finally able to find a way to express my feelings without humiliating myself in public.
Bart’s focus on creativity also felt very fresh to me. Schools I had attended in Japan were full of rules and regulations, and most of activities were based on group harmony. There wasn’t much emphasis on creative self-expression when I was growing up. So sharing my thoughts in English gave me a sense of freedom and pleasure.
When I learned about Bart’s retirement, I brought up an idea to create a photo book containing pictures past and present as well as congratulatory messages. Fifteen former students joined this surprise project.
Their photos and heartwarming messages clearly show that Bart was more than just a teacher; he was a mentor, father, uncle, and friend to international students.
We have become artists, entrepreneurs, teachers, engineers, medical residents, and more. In many different fields, we have been able to utilize the lessons Bart taught us.
Bart opened the very first door to introduce us to infinite possibilities. Now it’s time for us to open another door to let him watch us grow.
Ryoko Nakamura is a reporter for the Japanese section of The Rafu Shimpo and can be contacted at Rnakamura@rafu.com. Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.