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ACE Freshmen 2003

Teaching at universities in Japan was considered, among my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances,  to be the apex for English language teachers. Especially, those who worked at so-called private English conversation schools. Teaching English at these schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s provided non-Japanese with an adequate income and the necessary sponsorship for them to apply for a visa. Some teachers considered teaching at these schools as a stepping stone for getting a position at a university.  A few would go to any lengths to reach that goal.

For a short time after I quit Saint Joseph College in 1977, I taught full-time at a English conversation school. The hours were long — 9 to 5 — six days a week. One night a week I taught evening classes. I enjoyed teaching, but the long

hours gave me little free time to spend with my family. I considered my employment at the school as a temporary arrangement until Immigrations approved my application for a change of status to a spousal visa. My plan was to switch to part-time teaching and to devote more time to freelance writing.

There were many dedicated teachers at the school. From the smiles on the faces of the students, I could tell these teachers were putting their hearts and souls into their lessons.

One of my fellow teachers, who I will call Niles Corbett, hated his job. He had graduated with a BA in Economics from a small private college in Idaho. “I like teaching,” he insisted. “It’s the hours I can’t take. Hardly any time off. Short summer holidays. It’s like working in a factory tightening bolts on screws. One class after another.”

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No argument there, I thought.

“University teaching. That’s where the money is.” Niles said, his sleepy blue eyes shone. He had a bald head rimmed by black hair. The thin strands of hair covering his pate resembled rake marks in white sand. “Teach two or three times a week. Long vacation periods with pay. And you have status. Now that’s for me.”

“But you need an MA degree, Niles. Otherwise, no university will consider you.”

“Got one,” he said and pulled a folder from his briefcase. Inside the folder I saw an official looking certificate.

“MA? University of California at Berkeley?”


“But you never went to UC.”

“Nope.” Niles returned the ersatz MA certificate to the briefcase. A Cheshire Cat smile formed on his face and revealed highly polished teeth. “But the small universities in Japan aren’t going to be checking my records. Besides, I’ve got an ‘in’. A professor at a small women’s college said she’d introduce me.”

I shook my head. “It’s dishonest.”

“Maybe you like to be stuck in this dead end job. Me? I’ve got ambitions.”

I pointed out legitimate methods he could follow. “Apply for graduate schools.”

“Too much time. Too much money.”

No use arguing with him, I thought. He was determined. He offered to forge a certificate for me. But I declined his offer. “I already got a bone fide MA.”

Niles succeeded in finding a full-time position at the women’s college. Over the years he established himself as a scholar. He wrote academic treatises on teaching English as a Foreign Language in Japan. He joined associations of language teachers. Soon he gained the attention of professors from major universities in Tokyo. Within five years, he parlayed a position at a prestigious university. And he became a familiar figure on NHK Education TV programs.

But as Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, . . . .” At a faculty party, Niles, well lubricated with Japanese sake, trumpeted his abilities as a creator of spurious documents. The head of the department put two and two together and Niles got booted out of the university. The police and immigrations took an active interest in him. But Niles was spared the humiliation of arrest. He died of an aneurysm. Only a handful of friends attended his memorial service. No one from the prestigious university came to pay their respects.

My entree into the university was far less dramatic, or should I say, devious. In 1980, I was working as a writer of newsletters and brochures at a major manufacturing company in Tokyo. My editor was a woman with a sharp mind for producing catch phrases and for rooting out extraneous words.  One day as we were going over the copy for a brochure, she received a phone call from her friend. The friend turned out to be the wife of a professor at Meiji University. The foreign teacher who taught English composition had quit without warning, she said.  “My husband needs to find a teacher immediately. Do you know anybody?”

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My editor looked over in my direction. “Yes, I do.”

At first I hesitated, but then relented. I could not refuse her request. I cobbled together a resume suitable for Meiji University and prepared myself for the interview with the wife’s husband, who I will call Professor “Toshio”, the chair of the Arts and Letters Department.

In his office, he sat behind a desk piled high with books, newspapers and student papers. He was a person in his late 50s. He had thick salt and pepper hair in need of combing. His thin white face was punctuated by mirthful brown eyes. Dandruff flakes dotted the shoulders of his dark blue suit coat.

From my chair in front of his desk. I had to peer around a stack of newspapers in order to maintain eye contact.

“Ah, you are a writer,” he remarked. He looked over the top rim of his glasses.

I nodded with puffed up pride.

“And you taught English composition at Saint Joseph College.”

I added a smile to my nodding.

“Good.” He said and placed the resume on top of the stack of student papers. “You’ll start next week.”

Surprised by the swiftness of his decision, I sat rooted to my chair.

“While you’re here,” he said and picked up another sheet of paper, “would you mind checking the English. It’s an article I wrote for the Japan Times.”

Today, I would have to go through a more rigorous screening. But over thirty years ago I had an ‘in’. What better person to introduce me than the wife of the chair? (Now I have an inkling to how Niles wheedled a position.) Moreover, thirty years ago foreign teachers, in my opinion, were like auto parts. When a spark plug no longer served its purpose, it was replaced. I was the spark plug replacement. Had Meiji University truly wanted a foreign teacher to instruct students in the techniques of writing, the staff and faculty would have assigned me a class with a manageable number of students. But when I walked into my first class, I was overwhelmed. In front of me sitting in rows of desk were 125 students.

Over the years at Meiji University, I witnessed many improvements in teaching conditions. Fewer students in classes, modern classroom equipment, and the hiring of Japanese and non-Japanese language teachers who are better educated and trained in teaching English as a foreign language.

Toward the end of my career, I realized I belonged to an older, outdated era of language teaching. I saw the handwriting on the wall. Time for Meiji University to replace a worn out spark plug.