Preparing to leave my classroom for three weeks was incredibly arduous. Making up advance lesson plans in the evenings and weekends while teaching current plans during the week can be draining. By the time I was "ready" to leave for San Francisco, I was convinced that there could be nothing worth the time and energy I had already invested.
Immediately upon arriving in San Francisco I sensed how wrong I was. As I met with other teachers from throughout the United States, listened to former participant's presentations, and assembled with my host city group, I was impressed not only by the caliber of the program's organization, but also refreshed by the energy of 200 passionate teachers assembled together to embark on an unknown adventure to a country in which none of us had previously spent time. The enthusiasm I had felt when I first applied for the program quickly returned.
That energy and enthusiasm was heightened once we arrived in Tokyo. We were quickly and thoroughly educated about the culture, government, education, and tradition of Japan. Although there were 200 of us, the setting was intimate - it was as though we had been given a private viewing of a beautiful performance. The busy schedule never felt hectic. Instead, I was like an anxious child eagerly starting each day to learn more about this land called Japan. Each presentation led to more questions, more appreciation, and more respect for a foreign culture.
After our Tokyo orientation I traveled with twenty other teachers to Okayama, my host city. In Okayama, the excitement I felt was matched by the excitement of the city officials, school personnel, and students that I met. It was so refreshing to be in an atmosphere of mutual learning. Everyone I encountered was as eager to learn about my way of life as I was to learn of theirs. Never have I learned so much in such a short time. What was different about the JFMF experience was that the learning evolved. There were no moments of revelation. Rather, a slow understanding developed as each new day brought a new insight about the Japanese way. I made new lifelong friends with my host family. We shared stories of our children and found our daily lives to be very much the same.
Returning to Tokyo, the Okayama group felt a little protective. We weren't sure that our small "family" of twenty was ready to merge again with the larger group of two hundred. The feeling quickly dissipated when we began sharing stories and realized there was more to be learned from other participants whose experiences differed from our own. And there were still more presentations. We were honored to hear from a Hiroshima survivor and a daughter of a survivor. We talked about peace in a time when peace is at risk. I felt hope.
Returning to the US and to the classroom was difficult. It was difficult to leave the energy, the excitement, the friends, the profundity, the stimulation. After two months, I have adjusted. I give formal presentations, but mostly I find that Japan just creeps into my conversations. People want to know, to understand the culture of Japan and to learn of its ways. I tell them that we have a lot to learn from one another, but that our similarities are much more meaningful than any of our differences.
I had never before believed in "life changing experiences", believing instead that it was the culmination of each small experience that shaped our lives. Now I do. My participation in JFMF was, indeed, a life changing experience.