A few short months ago we said goodbye to the new JETs as they set off for their Japan adventure. The JET Departure Orientation and Departure Reception was graciously hosted by Miami’s Consul General of Japan at his residence. At the orientation, JET Alum and JET Coordinator Abigail MacBain along with alumni volunteers provided support and orientation for the JETs as they prepared for their departure the following day.
All of the speakers and speech were wonderful at this years event, but I’m honored to have the privilege to share the motivational speech given by Dr. Mary Watt of the University of Florida Department of Literature, Languages, and Cultures.
Remarks for JET (delivered August 3, 2012 Coral Gables, FL)
Copyright 2012 Mary Watt, University of Florida.
I would like to start by thanking consul general Kawahara for inviting me to share in this event. It is a privilege and an honor to witness such an auspicious moment for you are all on the threshold of something very exciting, and frankly, very inspiring.
In the fourth century St. Augustine said that the world is a book and he who fails to travel fails to read it… but in my own life I have come to believe there is a corollary to that .. namely, that each life is a chapter in that great book, one that we write ourselves, such that each day becomes your opportunity to read the chapters that others are writing just as you pen your own. As teachers of language, you will have a unique opportunity to contribute not only to your own story but to the stories of those whom you meet and those who will be irrevocably changed by your contact with them. For in giving them another language you will be giving them part of your soul. And make no mistake, you too will be changed by such contact – to teach or to learn a language is to engage in a mystical exchange, where thought is turned to sound and sound is in turn transformed into image, images shaped by the length of time you take to pronounce them, by your tone of voice and even by the look on your face. For of course, language is much more than words: a gesture, a hesitation a smile or a frown can all affect the way in which your thoughts are purveyed and how your thoughts are perceived. I say this not to intimidate you but to make you aware of the majesty of the task of the teacher and to remind you that a kind word and a smile can take you places no passport can – into the heart of another human being.
Your task will be difficult. Those of you who have learned another language know the pain and frustration of the inability to communicate your excitement, your disappointment, your pleasure. Let’s be honest, if language learning was as easy as purchasing a computer program in a big yellow box we would all speak several of them. But that is not the case. It takes human beings and the splendor of the human creation to forge this bond, to be vulnerable and to accept the vulnerability of the language learner and treat it as a delicate treasure. On those precious occasions where I am asked to address students and teachers of language I cannot help but recall the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel – a wonderfully archetypal tale in which human arrogance is punished by the inability to understand one other. I dare say that much of the discord in human history can be attributed to arrogance leading to misunderstanding and vice versa. And so the steps you take today constitute an exercise in reconciliation – a journey towards healing the rift of Babel.
As such you represent, and I do not exaggerate when I say this, the greatest hope that we have for international understanding and therefore, global harmony. And for this I salute you. It is one thing to walk a mile in another man’s shoes – it is another to travel thousands of miles to do so, for just as your students will learn from you, you will learn from them. Your voyage will be a transformative exercise, one in which new sounds, tastes and sensations all add to the making of a new person. As you experience Japan you will become more than who you are today … not less. For this I urge you to be gracious and above all thankful to your students for contributing to your growth as well.
As a final thought I would ask you to have empathy for those you encounter along the way on this journey and throughout the journey of your life. After all, as the great poet Dante Alighieri said – we are all just pilgrims, fellow travelers on the road, doing the best we can in a sometimes difficult world. And with that I would ask you to join me now in a toast as I wish you a safe journey and success in Japan. Godspeed.