Friday, October 1, 2010

Steve Strong: A Year Lay-Off

I was only 23. But I felt like an old man as I sat in that class full of guys just home from their missions. I hadn’t been in a scholastic setting since I was 18 and I had no confidence about college life in general, but specifically about this Japanese 202 class.

During the previous 5 years I had toiled in a pickle factory, served two years in Japan as a missionary, and worked for two years repairing audio visual equipment for a school system in Michigan. By most American standards, I was still considered fluent in Japanese, but all these young guys seemed so much more confident than me. They all seemed to know each other too. Their Japanese was funny, clever and I just knew that if I tried to speak in front of them, I’d make some grammatical error that would leave them in stitches.

I would never have chosen Japan as a place to serve a mission. It was chosen for me. I saw the formal notification as I opened the letter from Salt Lake City addressed to an “Elder Strong.” The letter said I would be spending the next two years of my life in Sendai, Japan. Like most boys my age, I had never heard of it. I had tried one year of foreign language in high school. I took German because the teacher was pretty, and I sort of wondered what Hitler was raving about in all those old movies. I got a D in the class and never really learned more than how to count to twelve and say a few inappropriate phrases.

Studying Japanese was very difficult for me. I used to tell myself that I could never learn a foreign language. But that darn letter said I was going to Sendai, Japan. There just was no way to get around that. So rather than get too worked up with grammar, I mostly studied vocabulary, and tried to mimic the way Japanese men spoke. I tried to use their phrases. I tried to slur my speech like they did. I tried to sound kind of tough and speak from my gut like they did.

It pretty much worked. By the later end of my two years in Japan, I could speak on the phone without someone realizing I was American. I dreamed only in Japanese. I even found myself bowing slightly when talking on the phone. My immersion seemed complete.

But sitting in that university class two years later, I found I had lost all my confidence. I had only spoken Japanese a few times since leaving Japan. The university said I could enroll in Japanese 202, and after two weeks take the CLEP test for Japanese 101, 102 and 201. If I scored 82% or better on the test I could purchase the credits for those classes and only need three more classes to have a Japanese minor. But if I scored below 82% I would get no credit and be asked to leave the Japanese 202 class.

I was a bottled up ball of tension and stress as I took that test. I think I got an 85% on it. I passed, but not with flying colors. After the test I slunk back into the 202 class and tried to keep a low profile. I took the required three extras classes to get a minor, but I never wanted to speak Japanese in front of other gaijin because I felt so intimidated.

I later found that most people feel that way. When I got to grad school and enrolled in the MBA program, the school required fluency in a foreign language as part of the international program. I tested for them, and they said I could only take one class at their school (Business Japanese) because it wouldn’t be fair to the other students. I took that as a complement, and spoke up like crazy in the business Japanese class because I was the best there. But because I never spoke English with the Japanese instructor the other students hated me. Quite a switch from my undergraduate program!

As I reflected back on my feelings in the Japanese 202 class, I thought about what it must have been like for my mother when she went back to college as a single mother of five when she was 40 years old.

My mother graduated Valedictorian of her high school class in 1949. She had a complete scholarship to both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. You can imagine how excited she was to start school. And then you may imagine how distraught she was when shortly after the start of classes she discovered she was two months pregnant.

She immediately dropped out of school, forfeited her scholarship and married the father of her child. That was 1949, and that’s how things were handled back then. She became a stay-at-home-mom like most others in the fifties.

Seventeen years later she found she was a newly divorced mother of five with no child support and a household to feed. She found a job as insurance underwriter by day and started attending the local community college at night. She supported the family this way for four years until she was able to transfer to Kalamazoo College when she turned 40 years old.

Because of her JC transfer credits, she was able to enter Kalamazoo College as a Junior. After one semester there she somehow convinced Western Michigan University to accept her into the English Master’s Program (even though she hadn’t completed her BA). By doubling up both programs at the same time, she was able to graduate from both programs simultaneously.

As kids, we were sort of aware that we were poor while mom was going back to college. We had free lunches at school, and we shopped with food stamps. For one birthday my mom gave me 8 books of S&H Greenstamps that I carried to the outlet and got myself a Pancho Gonzales tennis racket (which I still have today). My kids saw a picture of me from that time and they thought I was wearing Capri pants. I told them back then we wore pants until they wore out – regardless of how they fit.

But that’s how my mom juggled all the parts of her life. We had birthdays. We had Christmas presents. We had Easter baskets. We had a hot cooked dinner every night. Not once did she neglect any of us kids or make us think we weren’t her top priority.

And there she sat each day in class. She was a 40 year old mother of five, in classrooms full of teenagers and twenty-somethings. How awkward it must have been for her after her 21 year absence from academia to return to the classroom.

When compared to my mom, my troubles seem to diminish in importance. She is a living example of how resilient we can be. She taught us kids through her example to be thankful for the things we had. She taught us to work hard. She taught us to set goals and not settle or make excuses for failures. She never paid a dime for any of her children to go to college. No tuition. No books. No living expenses when we left home. And yet, of her five children there’s an Associate Degree, four Bachelor Degrees and three Masters Degrees.

And I love her.


  1. I really enjoyed this, Steve. And hats off to your mama. She sounds like she's really something.

  2. Every post you write is better than the one before! This is really great, Steve. Keep it up!