On the first day of my teaching job in Okinawa, I held a class with my dancers and singers that had nothing to do with performing. I passed out index card-sized construction paper to my bewildered students, and assured them that whatever they wrote on the cards was done with anonymity. No names, no identities.
I think I was supposed to teach English, but I wanted to know what they thought about English to start with. Why did they want to learn it? Did they want to learn it, or was it just fashionable? (After all, it's very fashionable to speak English in Japan.) The theme I gave them that day was, "English".
"Write whatever comes to mind," I said. "I don't care if it's 'English is lame,' 'my parents forced me,' or 'I'd rather be getting my teeth pulled.' Just write anything to tell me how you feel."
Once the students finished writing, they threw their folded-up cards into a small yellow basket at the front of the room, and once the basket was full, I read each and every card aloud.
I got 20 cards saying 'I don't know' and 'I don't have anything to say.' Anything but that, I thought. Aren't you all aspiring dancers and singers, whose work is to tell stories on the stage? No wonder they couldn't capture my attention and illuminate me when they danced.
But I kept that to myself and continued the exercise everyday. I played music and acted like I didn't care whether they wanted to share or not.
There were little breakthroughs everyday. One or two students would actually write down what they thought.
"I'm here to learn English because we're supposed to get better jobs that way, and my parents think my dancing isn't going to amount to anything."
The other students took notice. That was their truth too.
Little by little, something foreign (other than English) that rarely exists in the Japanese classroom began to rear its head: honesty.
I began challenging them with more thought-provoking words like "regret", "beauty", "mother", "alone" as themes for the day's class. I made no explanations, added no sentiment. They entered the room, sat down, heard the word, and began writing down whatever came to mind. Simple but life-changing.
Suddenly, they were hungry for more. Even the gangsta-rap boy with his cap pulled down over his eyes, began setting his hat aside during class so he could write.
Under the veil of anonymity, the students—both the sullen and the overeager—learned they could be honest with me, and with their peers. Publicly, but also with perfect privacy. It was a revelation to them. What began as a 10 minute exercise grew to be at least an hour long practice in writing and reflection.
Before anyone knew what they were doing, they were sharing their lives. Expressing, I told them. That is what you're doing.
They didn't realize that their honesty here would make them better performers on the stage. No one fell asleep, got bored, batted an eyelash the entire time I read. They were mesmerized by their own stories, their own truths.
The students who resisted most were the ones who thought they had us (and the world) fooled, the ones who'd been hailed child prodigies and learned how to put on an act when they were eight or 10 years old. They wrote what (they thought) would 'impress the judges.' Unfortunately, their lack of honesty showed in their body language. There was no softness, no genuine love in their dancing, which meant on the other spectrum, there was no real 'edge' or emotion. Simply put, they were fake.
One day, I came across the story of a student who, years earlier, had been led up to the highway by her mother, hand in hand, a mother whose intention was to end both of their lives. The class fell silent. The handwriting wobbled and smeared in some spots. I remember crying as I read, at her courage to write about this. There was not a dry eye in the room.
She was now thanking her mother for not going through with it. And I knew the class had changed just a little, forever.
For three hours that day, we cried and read, as each student admitted their faults, apologized for all the things they had said and done. We missed lunch. In all my years at the school, "mother" was the one topic we all braced for, as we knew it would break us, and then start making us.
A class that began with 20 students expanded to 100.
Eventually, we learned the center-stage dancer was petrified of his position on the stage, and that he fought with every ounce of pride not to lose that spot. The girl with the emotional eyes carried a past of several suicide attempts. Others who had run away from home, had stopped going to school because their teachers hit them, slept with men twice their age for money, cut themselves for attention, all began to tell the truth. They came clean, and once the demons were out, and the tears had been shed, they began to dance.
What happened in that classroom every single day for years, changed my outlook on Japan. I wrote too at times, about my own heartbreaks and challenges, about not knowing most things most of the time.
For Japanese teenagers, the emotional release was terrifying, and they had to test the waters to make sure it was allowed by their parents, their teachers, and mostly, themselves. I went ahead with it anyway, having them write through to their core, talk it out in a safe environment, act various scenes out.
Their performances began to change. The audience was stunned at the rawness of emotion in each performance.
What happened in that classroom every single day for years, changed my outlook on Japan.
This was one of the most powerful lessons that my students taught me. There comes a moment when each of us, no matter how hardened we've become in our hearts, cannot stop our truths from spilling out. A moment of complete release. Creating these moments in a classroom in Japan, of all places, seemed at once an impossible task. But the walls came tumbling down, soul connected with soul, and we became real, if in fleeting moments. When my students made themselves vulnerable, admitting their fears and inhibitions, they set themselves free. They stepped onto the stage and shared the reality of their voices.
On my birthday last month, I got an email from a former student, a quiet soul who never spoke up in class or interacted with classmates. No one knew what she was thinking, and on the outside, it seemed she had nothing to say. But on the inside...I knew. I knew she was the loudest, most explosive and emotional and eloquent on the page, and there was no stopping her thoughts from flooding out.
She is now working on her first novel. The letter her mother wrote still sits with me today.
"Thank you for giving my daughter her voice back, the letter read. Our family will forever be grateful to you, Yuki-san."
I saw myself in that shy girl. All we're looking for is a little bit of permission.
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