Monday, September 14, 2009

Magic Jesuit

The Rev. Frank Howell, president of Sophia Junior College, Catholic priest, educator and debate team coach, finds serenity in an unexpected location amid the bustle of his busy life. He hops a train and heads to another land — Tokyo Disneyland. Rev. Frank Howell relaxes in a garden at Sophia University in Tokyo. It may seem strange that a Jesuit priest finds solace in such a glaring representation of the material world, but for Father Howell, Disney really is a Magic Kingdom. "Of course it is staged," Howell acknowledges.
"But you are surrounded by smiling people, and that has to be good for you."
Howell also appreciates the compassion that is a traditional part of Disney.
"The first time I went to Tokyo Disneyland, I was amazed how the staff focused on the front row, all the people in the audience in wheelchairs. The kindness was impressive."
For Howell, Disney and Japan are somehow connected. He was given a special backstage tour of Disney Studios in California soon before leaving the United States for Japan back in 1972. When he was growing up in Washington in the 1950s, Disney and "The Mickey Mouse Club," a popular television show for children featuring the Mouseketeers, were a symbol of childlike innocence. When his 1972 tour brought him face to face with the most famous Mouseketeer of all, Annette Funicello, Howell's appreciation of "Disney Magic" deepened. A few months later he left home to make a life in Tokyo. Teaching in Japan, Howell quickly realized, was not always a magic place for university teachers. University students were mostly tired from the hard slog of entrance exams, and their intellectual curiosity seemed to evaporate when they entered a classroom. Some of his students slept in class, and attendance was sporadic. Howell found himself engaged with and challenged by his new students only after he started coaching English debate as a club activity. To challenge his students intellectually has always fit his idea of an educator. Growing up and attending school in an international community in the U.S. capital, Howell realized early on that there were many avenues of thought.
"My father would read The Washington Post to me, articles about the Pacific War. I had the idea that Washington was the center of a very big place called the world."
Like Howell, most of his high school classmates went on to achieve doctorates. Exploring the world, its different places and views, seemed the work of an educator to young Howell. He now considers himself more of a coach than an educator. "I regret that most Japanese academics do not work with clubs; the educational possibilities are so much greater in coaching, any kind of coaching, than in standing in the classroom."

Link (here) to the full article in Japan Times

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