The most unforgettable teacher of my childhood was a blue-eyed American, Miss Florence Boynton. At first she was my Sunday School teacher. But in the fall of 1935, as I was about to begin sixth grade at the American School, Miss Boynton became my daily classroom teacher as well.
A good friend of my mother's had started an informal school in her home to educate her children in English and to prepare them to go on to college in the United States. Tuition at the American School was expensive, and my mother decided that I would get more out of studying with her friend's children.
At first I didn't enjoy the change from the only school I had known, which was small enough, to the even smaller Nishimachi school, named after the district where my mother's friend lived. But classes were entirely in English, and in that sense, I continued to live on an American island.
Miss Boynton was the principal of the school. A large woman with white hair and beautiful blue eyes, Miss Boynton defined herself as an educator, one who educed - led out - what was already inherent in her pupil.
I always knew where I stood with Miss Boynton. I can still hear the music of her laughter and feel the sting of her rebuke. She shaped my view of the world beyond Japan and of my place as a world citizen, not just as a Japanese.
Miss Boynton had been principal of a small primary school in Belvedere, Calif., when a friend asked her to come to Japan to tutor her children. It was her first experience of the Orient, of Japan, and she fell in love with it, staying on to teach English after her friends had returned to the United States.
Miss Boynton introduced us to Shakespeare - not just Charles Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare," but the actual plays, notably "The Merchant of Venice." She had us memorize Portia's great speech beginning, "The quality of mercy is not strained," and told us a true story about it.
For a number of years, Miss Boynton had taught at the First Middle School, Tokyo's most prestigious government school for boys. Graduates almost always went on to Tokyo Imperial University, the Japanese equivalent of Harvard or Oxford. One day, Miss Boynton noticed her favorite pupil was glowering at her, and asked him what was the matter.
"You teach Mori Ritsuko," he spat out. Miss Mori was Japan's most celebrated actress, and had just co-starred with a leading kabuki actor in the first Japanese production-in-translation of "The Merchant of Venice." Actresses were then novelties in Japan.
For more than 100 years, the feudal government had banned women from the theater, and all roles in plays, including female ones, were taken by men. The taboo was removed by the modernizing Meiji government, but women were slow to take advantage of it. Miss Mori was one of the first to become a prominent actress. Though widely acclaimed, she was still considered to be little more than a prostitute in some parts of Japan's male-dominated society.
Apparently, Miss Boynton's student could not bear the thought that the person who was teaching him was also tutoring a socially despised actress.
"Oh," said Miss Boynton sweetly. "Have you heard of Sarah Bernhardt? Have you heard of Ellen Terry? In my country, we consider it a great honor to meet a celebrated actress like Miss Mori."
She went on to tell us that she had indeed taught Miss Mori, because the actress felt that in order to portray Portia adequately, she had to understand the original text of Shakespeare's play. Someone had recommended Miss Boynton, and she had come to her to study and practice Portia's lines - in English.
Miss Boynton said she had never met a perfectionist like Miss Mori. She had repeated the "Mercy" speech over and over again until she could deliver it in perfect English, with all the right stresses and modulations. If we went at Shakespeare with half Miss Mori's determination, Miss Boynton told us, we could not fail to succeed.
Miss Boynton's view of history stressed the progressive development of human freedom, from the Jews fleeing Egypt to the Greeks standing up to the Persians, to the early Romans rejecting kingship and insisting on rotation in office.
She dramatized the stories of the English barons forcing King John to grant the Magna Carta, of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Augsburg church, of Washington and his men at Valley Forge. She had us memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Steeped in the Bible, she often said that the Japanese, like the Greeks, worshiped the holiness of beauty, whereas the Jews worshiped the beauty of holiness. Some day, she indicated, this sense of the beauty of holiness would have to come to Japan.
Miss Boynton was also keenly interested in current affairs. She encouraged us to read The Christian Science Monitor, although in those days it reached Japan about a month late. Through it, I learned of Mussolini's war against Ethiopia, of Hitler's persecution of the Jews, and of the Stalinist purges in Russia.
Miss Boynton read us excerpts from articles and books about Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. She shook with anger when she told of Stalin's concentration camps or of Nazi torture of the Jews. All this in a Japan that was progressively growing militaristic and grabbing more and more chunks of China.
I CONTINUED to go to Miss Boynton for private tutoring after transferring to a Japanese school in my early teens. Under her tutelage, I learned to speak French, a skill that proved useful years later when I was a journalist covering the early days of the Vietnam War.
I also continued my education in world affairs, even though some of the things I learned were deeply disturbing to me as a Japanese. For instance, I became aware of the gruesome tragedy known as the Rape of Nanking when Miss Boynton, through her American network, obtained a copy of Reader's Digest containing a graphic account of the massacres carried out by Japanese soldiers after their capture of the Chinese capital in December 1937.
This issue of the magazine was banned by Japanese authorities after they realized what was in it. But enough copies circulated in the Western community so that most members of it were well aware of what had happened. Not a word was allowed to be printed in the Japanese press.
In the summer of 1940, as relations between Japan and the United States deteriorated, the American Embassy in Tokyo advised its citizens to return to the US for their own safety. Miss Boynton, a loyal American, heeded the call.
My mother and I went to Yokohama to see her off. As the ship slowly left the pier to the strains of "Auld Lang Syne," I felt my American island was disintegrating before my eyes.
Later that year, I wrote Miss Boynton, pouring out my misery and asking her for comfort. I had just lost my grandfather and a favorite cousin, and there seemed to be no way that I could ever fulfill my childhood dream and go to college in the United States.
When her reply came, I tore open the envelope and devoured what she said, but at first I was sorely disappointed. Her letter was short and made no reference to any of the things about which I had written her.
Its purport could be conveyed in four words: "Never lose your joy."
It was her last message to me, for she passed on soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -though I was not to learn of this for many months. But during the dark days of the war between the country of my birth and the land to which I felt bound by such an intricate network of ties and values, Miss Boynton's words resonated with increasing clarity and promise. They were the bright light beckoning to me from beyond the miasma of shattered hopes.
Ultimately, they proved prophetic; the war ended, and all the things I had longed for came to glorious fruition.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society