In Japan, teachers are referred to as "Sensei." A word that roughly translates into "teacher or Doctor" in English, Sensei in fact means a great deal more. The term describes a respected scholar of great dignity. To be a Sensei is be a person of knowledge and skill in an honorable position. Even as they are humbled by their learning, Sensei are generous. They see themselves as conduits for their learning and they desire to pass on their wisdom. To receive knowledge from a Sensei is a privilege.
The same attitude does not exist in the West unless, maybe, the teacher is a well-published university professor. Sadly, the teachers of our children are not held in esteem. And yet, their roles in society are of utmost importance. Often, we burden teachers with our own failures as parents. Most teachers are sincere in their desire to teach. And it is not an easy task. Teaching requires patience, tact, expertise, experience and hours of preparation time. Last but not least, a teacher must posses the ability to inspire.
My father was a teacher.
Throughout his decades-long career my father was a high school science teacher. I am biased, but I think that my father was an exceptional educator.
I remember my father dazzling his physics classes with the infamous "monkey gun" experiment, complete with pith helmet and appropriate jungle drums.
The storeroom area of my Dad’s science classroom was where all the "toys" were kept. What a wonderful place that was. It was packed with things to build, things to rip apart and with things of endless fascination. What a collection: Jacob’s ladders, oscilloscopes, microscopes, aquariums, domesticated rat cages and specimen bottles.
My father’s final teaching position was at Westlake High an educational facility in a planned, upper-middle-class community just a few miles northwest up the freeway from Los Angeles. Westlake Village is an exclusive, upper-income oasis tucked away from the real world. Surrounding an artificial lake, Westlake Village has everything, golf course, clean shiny malls and its very own California Highway Patrol office! It’s all very nice… the bespoke American Dream.
I can’t recall the year. It’s been decades. I was still living at home. First semester testing time came and went. Grading science tests is fairly straightforward. Answers are either wrong or right. There are no subjective answers. My father handed in the final grades to the school administration, which proceeded to send home report cards.
However, to the consternation of one parent, his son’s science grade was seriously unacceptable. The student in question had received the shamefully low grade of… B! Imagine that. Disgraceful. A lawyer by profession, the parent wanted to know why his son did not receive an A.
The angry parent stormed into the principal’s office and objected in strong terms to this injustice. A meeting was convened. Answers were demanded. Calmly, my father pointed out that the student in question had scored Bs on all his tests and quizzes. The tests and quizzes were produced in evidence. The parent insisted that this was not possible, that it was unacceptable! He demanded that the grade be changed to an A.
But, the student had not earned an A. No matter! The parent insisted that the school fire my father and award his little urchin an A or there would be litigation.
My father refused to give in. The threats went on for about a week. The spineless principal tried in vain to get my Dad to change the grade. My Dad stood by his honor. Sarcastic twerp that I was, I suggested he give the kid an A— and then award all his other students grades of A+. Of course my Dad was not about to do this.
Rather than surrender his dignity and change the grade, my father resigned. To this day, I wonder if the school principal allowed the parent to bully him into changing the grade to an A.
What a ghastly way to end a dedicated career. My Dad’s work was of importance and value to society. My father was punished because he remained faithful to the truth and to the dignity of his profession.
My father received no award or thanks. Neither was there was a gold watch nor was there a plaque to hang on the wall. It was just over.
I have never told my father how proud his decision makes me… I never told him how privileged I am to have been raised by a real Sensei… until now.
Elizabeth Gyllensvard edited this story.
Tom Chartier [send him mail] played lead guitar in legendary Los Angeles punk band The Rotters for 26 years until their final appearance in January of 2004. He has lived in Tokyo and Los Angeles. Currently he resides somewhere in the Caribbean.