Living A Charmed Life: An Interview with Kyoto English Teacher Frank Lev

by Celeste Heiter, Jan 1, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Kyoto

As the sun rises over Japan each morning and casts its rays upon the enchanted city of Kyoto, Frank Lev's day has already begun. The sunrise finds him deep in meditation before his workday activities commence at The Maximum Kids Company where he teaches English to Japanese children, some of them as young as one year old. Frank bicycles to work each morning, and recently, he has been arriving two hours early to work on a video that the school is producing to augment its curriculum. The video is an English teaching video that uses storytelling (Frank's favorite English teaching technique), and the school's unique approach to teaching English, which is based on flashcards and repetition.

Although he earned his ESL teaching certificate over eight years ago, teaching English in Japan is a relatively new endeavor for Frank Lev. He began his career in Ohio with a degree in music education from Youngstown State University; and later, a desire to teach in some meaningful way at the adult level led Frank to pursue an ESL certificate through the UC Berkeley Extension Program.

Why ESL? In answer to that question, Frank says, "My music education degree led me to become a music teacher, which meant teaching junior high and high school kids with attitudes, and I didn't like it. I like teaching; I just don't like disciplining. There was a lot of that in teaching music. I was having to control kids who had weapons...the weapons being their musical instruments. ESL seemed like a good opportunity for me to teach adults, to get into pure teaching, which means not having to spend class time disciplining, but actually being able to teach."

The opportunity to teach in Japan presented itself in the summer of 2000, at the public adult school in Daly City where Frank is still employed as an ESL instructor. One of his students suggested that he go to Japan to teach English for a year, and the notion appealed to him. In July 2000, Frank took a leave of absence from his job to heed the siren call to live and work in Japan.

"I had been wanting to go overseas and live in another country," says Frank, who has traveled extensively in Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East. "But I've only stayed in different countries for summers, and I wanted to have the experience of an extended stay. Shinkichi, one of my students in San Francisco was from Kyoto. We talked about me moving to Japan to teach, and then one day the time was right, so I just did it. Shinkichi helped me tremendously. He found me a job, and he found me a place to live. It was great. It was all taken care of. He even picked me up at the airport."

But because Frank works with such dedication and diligence at the long hours required by his job, he might be the last to admit that he is living a charmed life. He rents a room from an American college professor in a large old traditional Japanese house atop a small mountain overlooking one of the world's most beautiful cities. On a typical day, after his morning meditation, he exercises, has breakfast and a shower, studies Japanese for a few minutes and then rides his bicycle to work. He arrives at 7 a.m. to start work on the video and to prepare for his first lesson, which begins at 10:00 a.m. From noon to 2:00 p.m., the school is closed for lunch, and on his breaks, Frank sometimes slips down to the nearby Kamo River to practice his saxophone or to study Japanese. Some days, he even takes a nap in one of the classrooms.

In the afternoons he teaches another children's class, an occasional adult class, or makes new teaching materials for the children. These props include such whimsical creations as "giant apples that can eat gorillas, or rain clouds with streamers for the 'Rain on the Green Grass But Not on Me' song...after all, these are babies we're talking about."

"It's a very interesting school," says Frank. "It was started by five women. They're all housewives, and their husbands are pretty well off. In a way it's like a hobby for them. They don't even pay themselves. They do it for love."

When he finishes work at six, Frank heads down to the river again to practice his sax, and then home to cook dinner, or to a restaurant with friends. Later, he might enjoy a soak at the local sento, and perhaps a bit of writing, one of his favorite pastimes. "The whole thing started for me with writing letters home," he says. "But just writing letters is kind of boring. I like to make it more interesting, so I make it into a story, which is more fun. When you try to communicate your experiences, sometimes a story seems to be better than just saying what's happening."

So, with a wry and finely honed wit, Frank writes about his everyday experiences through the eyes of a cultural neophyte. His vignettes of life in Japan are interwoven with anecdotes of the idiosyncrasies and paradoxes he observes. His narratives are based on commonplace events, like sharing freshly baked bread with a friend, going to a baseball game, a sumo tournament, or a trip to the public baths. He often concludes his stories with an unexpected twist or a bit of self-deprecating humor that rarely fails to bring a smile, if not a good hearty laugh.

But, alas, Frank Lev's days in Japan are numbered. And although he is wistful at the prospect of leaving, he acknowledges that his sabbatical to Japan was always intended to be a finite one. At summer's end, he plans to return to San Francisco to resume his teaching position at the adult school in Daly City. "I'm happy here in Kyoto," he says. "And I think my life here is better than in San Francisco. But in spite of that, I still think I'm going to go back to San Francisco. I'm thinking of getting a master's degree in ESL. I enjoy teaching English. That's why I'm doing it. And that's why I think I should get a master's degree. After that, I could come back to Japan and get a job teaching at a college, or I could continue teaching children. My options would be expanded."

For a man on the eve of his 48th birthday, this may sound like an ambitious endeavor. However, Frank puts it all into perspective when he says, "I believe that we have an unlimited ability to learn and experience. They say that every seven years, our bodies' cells are completely renewed. I like to believe that seven years is like a lifetime. So, if I'm lucky, I can expect to have at least 35 good years left as a person. Wow, that's five lifetimes. I can change my career and be a completely different person five more times. A lot of work you might say. But it's a lot of work being bored too. There are so many things to do and experience in life. I guess you could say I'm a life-long learner."