We Called Him Mr. Dan

January 17, 2008
By Eugene Ichinose, San Gabriel, CA

We called him Mr. Dan. He was a doctor, a saxophonist, and our erudite teacher. I met him during the summer after my sixth grade, on my first day at an after-school program for K-8th graders from all over the city. The first thing I noticed was his dark, coarse skin; he claimed to be from one of the boroughs of Memphis. As the only African American in the all-Asian school, he attracted a lot of attention.

I did not understand his way of teaching. He made our class recite the preambles of the Constitution, made us rewrite anything that was not “inside the margins”, and made us listen to each of his dramatic lectures about serious topics during which his silly gesticulations would make us burst into laughter. Worse were the times when he would embarrass me personally (according to him I was his favorite student there) by giving a lecture on how I exemplified the student that everyone should try to become.

“So, what’s the point”, became the way he greeted me, since every time he initiated one of his weird class assignments, I would ask just that. He smiled at me, at everyone, all the time. He never yelled, and his staunch bizarre mannerism led him to be one of the least popular teachers in the whole school.

On one instance, one of the younger students in my class, having just learned a vulgar racial slur term happened to whisper it loud enough to one of his friends that Mr. Dan heard his remark. All of us present expected an explosive yelling tangent that instant, but much to our surprise, Mr. Dan turned toward the student, and in a soft but serious voice, instructed that student to take a 10-minute time-out.

Everyone soon forgot about that incident. But a few months later, Mr. Dan failed to show up to teach us, and our principal told us that we were to have a new teacher. Soon after a group of Chinese students began teasing me about my Japanese ancestry. They openly talked about how violent and atrocious the Japanese had been toward their beloved China during World War II. Since I was the only Japanese American in the school (the rest were all Chinese American), there was nothing I could do to defend their verbal attacks. I was forced to ignore them, even as they blatantly taunted me, every day. And, predictably, like Mr. Dan, I convinced my parents to have me leave that school that fall.

It was not until I experienced such prejudice for myself that I understood all that had been mysterious with Mr. Dan. Having grown up in Tennessee in the pre-Civil Rights era, he sometimes told us the poverty-stricken life that characterized his childhood. He had come to Los Angeles attracted in part by its ethnic and racial tolerance. And in the end, he found out that racism exists in some degree within every community, even in the diverse southern California. I too learned soon after that racial prejudice is not some vanquished enemy of the past, but a real person, up in your face, insulting and testing your ability to endure. And though I will never know for sure, I believe have I figured out the purpose behind everything that he tried to teach us, including the memorization of the preambles of the Constitution, the habit of always writing inside the margins, the habit of always practicing your best penmanship. He wanted us to become good, orderly citizens, ones that would begin a new era by setting racial and ethnic boundaries behind us in order to move forward ourselves. He wanted us to understand the basic principles on which our country is based. He wanted us to always live up to our fullest ability, all the time. And all his dramatic lectures that often made us laughs were all about real, complicated issues that each of us would face eventually as we matured into adulthood.

Growing up in a family in which both parents worked and most attention was turned toward my younger brother, I came to view Mr. Dan as a parent during much of my early childhood. I have promised not to let down Mr. Dan, whose last words to me were, “You have the curiosity and potential to make a great difference in this world, I have faith in you”, words my own parents have never told me. It is close to seven years since his final lesson at my after-school tutoring center, and still as I am concluding my high school years and applying for college, I fail to forget a thing he has taught me, and will always strive to create a better world for him, for me, and for all else.

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