Graduation

Recently, I attended what could have been my last high school graduation. I say “last” because all of my former students have now graduated from high school. It is scary how quickly time flies, and I still can’t fathom that the kids I knew as 13 and 14 year-olds have grown and are going off to college in what felt like a blink of an eye.

Watch this powerful graduation speech by one of my students:

Xitlalli, the one giving the speech here, is one student whom I grew particularly close with during my teaching career. The thing I miss most about being a teacher is the chance to meet and develop a connection with amazing students like her, for I feel that I have formed what will likely be life-long bonds with these students. They are practically my sisters and brothers now. And although the world may dismiss these students as “black and brown kids from the city”, to place such a label completely misses the mark, for these students are beautifully and uniquely human, and they each have their story, despite being ignored by the rest of society.

I am convinced that there are no such things as innately “smart” or “dumb” kids, and the fact that there are students performing at a high level in one part of the country while poorly in another, is simply an indicator of our systemic failure. Either we have failed to recognize the injustice and racism prevalent in the U.S. public school system, or even worse, we have recognized but simply decided to do nothing to fix the all the wrongs we see, and for that, we should be deeply ashamed.

Then there’s the undeniable truth that there is a lot of political pressure to keep things the way they are. It’s simple arithmetic; for every underprivileged person the society fails to educate, it opens up an extra opportunity for an “over”-privileged person somewhere else because there is one less person competing for that spot in college admission or for a job opportunity. It is no wonder that the gap between the have and the have-nots seem to only widen; many politicians and their supporters are hard at work to try and keep this status quo, fooling many by claiming a phrase like “Make America Great Again,” even though the only people this country was ever great for for its entire history are white men. And worst of all, we often blame the underprivileged for their hardship, claiming that success is the result of hard work and those who want it simply must work harder. Hard work is important, that I agree, but to ignore all of the things that were handed to me just by being born into a privileged upbringing, and to claim that my circumstances are better because I simply worked harder than, say an immigrant mother who had no access to education and works overtime cleaning hotel rooms for the off chance that her children might get a better shot at life, is blatantly ignorant, offensive, and delusional.

But despite all that society does to try and keep some people down, students like Xitlalli manage to arise against all odds, and with tremendous hard work and determination, break the stereotype of “the kids from the hood”. Of all the accomplishments in my life, nothing makes me more proud than the fact that I was their teacher.

There is so much more work to be done to tip the balance of this unjust society, but I have high hopes that we can, however slowly, change the world for the better if each of us do our part.

 

Memorial Day

I am spending this Memorial Day weekend in Idaho. Growing up in Tokyo and now living in Los Angeles, the hustle and bustle of the city life has become the norm for me. I even feel at home when I go back to Tokyo, smelling the polluted air, seeing the neon signs that never turn off, and walking amongst the thousands of pedestrians whom I will never see again.

However, once in a while when I do get away from the city, I am reminded of the remnants of what Earth was before men, and all the things that we have done and continue to do to destroy the only home that we have ever known. And what is it all for? To stimulate the economy? So we can live comfortably? What does that even mean?

It is silly to set out to provide a better life for men at the cost of the planet, because life as we know it requires the planet, but even if that was a worthy goal, it seems that we have not done a very good job at that either, as we have left behind so much of the population and made a society in which only the few benefit from the hard work of the many.

A student of mine expressed, “the idea that certain people are more important than others is the cause for all that’s wrong with the world.” I completely agree with her, and I would even go further to point out that we have somehow created a world in which the people who are actually important and form the foundation of a functioning society are seen as not important and replaceable (think chefs, janitors, teachers), while people who perpetuate the systemic inequality are seen as worthy of respect and what we should all strive to become (think corporate lawyers, politicians, and investment bankers).

Think about the message that we are sending the youth. Is it any wonder that so many kids grow up thinking that their worth is measured by how prestigious their college is, the amount of money they make, or the size of the house they own? This narrow version of success that society imposes on the minds of the youth is not only inaccurate, it is harmful. It doesn’t do much more than to reinforce the idea that most of us are failures in life because we have failed to live up to the unrealistic expectations, and worse, the few who do become “successful”, whatever that means, realize sooner or later that real success is to be defined by the individual, and to work toward any other version of success is to sell ourselves short; we will have spent a significant portion of the little time that we have been given pursuing the wrong things.

Happiness is a state of mind and a way of life; it comes from within, and it does not depend on what is happening around us. It does not appear magically when we reach some milestone, because the struggle and the journey of shaping yourself is where true meaning lies. Material possessions do not make us happy, because we already have everything we need. When we realize these truths, it frees our mind to start focusing on the right things; deepening our relationships with others, pursuing growth, and searching for meaning in our work that goes beyond trivial, meaningless goals, like purchasing tickets to an island getaway, or owning a luxury car.

This Memorial Day, as we remember the many who have sacrificed their lives for their country, it is only right to ask ourselves this; as we move forward, what is a cause really worth fighting for?

If our collective answer is to keep fighting to preserve the lifestyle of the privileged few at the expense of the lives of the rest, then we will have failed miserably.

(note: while many authors use the word “men” to mean all people, and some even have the nerve to make excuses about how it used to be a gender-neutral term and it should be interpreted as such, I specifically used that term in this post to mean it in an actually gender-specific way. Our societies have been set up to benefit men, not women. Most acts of violence throughout our history have been committed by men, not women. Most corporations that continue to destroy our planet are led by men, not women. So yes, I really mean men when I say men.)

Music’s Purpose

Earlier this week as I witnessed L.A. Philharmonic’s deeply emotional performance of Arvo Part’s masterpiece, “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten,” I was reminded again the purpose of music.

In my daily life as I strive to become a better musician, it is very easy to get caught up in the minute details of trying to perfect my technique that I forget why I am pursuing music in the first place, and what I am trying to accomplish through my music.

I am not writing this to dismiss the importance of technique, rather, quite the contrary. Technique is important because it serves a higher purpose. All of the scales, arpeggios, and etudes that I play on a daily basis, and all of the time I have spent taking apart a phrase into even smaller parts and studying them, have equipped myself with the ability to express the emotion which I always knew in my heart that the music deserved, but did not have in my hands the ability to bring out.

This particular composition was just what I needed to hear, because of what the piece consists of. It is a piece written for the orchestra, yet unlike many symphonic works that consist of quickly changing themes and complex harmonic structure, it basically has one melody, a descending minor scale. It is a bold expression of how simple things can add up to so much more than a sum of its parts.

In a way, this piece is a perfect synonym of life; the world is like the symphony, and each of our lives express a small yet important piece that make up the beauty that is the universe. It was a slap in my face and a reminder of the sheer power of one simple idea.

Why I left the teaching profession

Not too long ago, I was a public school teacher. This is the story of how I ended up leaving the profession I considered my passion and my calling.

To resign from teaching was the toughest decision I ever had to make in my life, because I really enjoyed teaching. I loved my students, and I wanted to be a part of their life for more time to come. But everyday I would come home after a 12-hour (minimum) work day, which consisted of a more than a full-time load of teaching, PLUS all the time dealing with the bureaucracies of the corrupt world of education. I spent so much time filling out paperwork that achieved nothing, and I sat in so many meetings that accomplished nothing, while I was dying for more time to prepare for the actual teaching that needed to get done. It felt as though, for every teacher that works in education, there are two more people in the system whose only job is to make the job of a teacher more difficult. Every night I would come home, mentally drained and physically too tired, with no energy left for anything else. It didn’t help that I am an extreme introvert whose energy got sucked up by all the highly stimulating non-stop interactions that happened throughout the day. I could not go on like that anymore, because a part of me was dying on the inside. Some days I was too tired to even eat dinner, and went straight to bed. I gave my all to the school and to the students, and I needed some time to restore myself by focusing on my life and my passion for music.

For anyone who has not been to a school in the inner city, I want to share with you what it’s like. The students, at no fault of their own but because of the lack of access to quality education prevalent in every inner city neighborhood, came to us with low skills. Okay you probably knew that, but do you know just how low? Many students were reading at an elementary grade level. Many students didn’t know the times table. Some even struggled with single digit addition.

Many came from homes where their parents are hardly ever home because they are trying to make ends meet by working more than one full time job. Many took care of their younger siblings and cousins and lived in multi-family homes with no time or place to study. How dare the politicians of this country accuse the hard working parents of these students of stealing from the government? How could they be so out of touch from the realities of the struggles of people all over the nation? They make my blood boil with anger. Then I got to thinking. Would I be where I am today, if I grew up in the same situation as that of my students?

No, I probably would not be where I am at now, if I was not given the opportunities I was so freely given. I am where I am today because I was set up for success. I had access to the most amazing education, and very supportive parents who wished the best for me and had the power to help me achieve whatever it is that I wanted. I was never concerned about how my family was going to pay rent next month, how I’m going to pay for college, or whether we would have enough food in the fridge. My psychological and physical needs were met, and the only thing I had to worry about was myself; what am I going to do today to be a better person tomorrow? So of course I did well. From the moment I was born, I was set up to do well. That is called privilege, and I was not aware of it until I met my students.

My students’ lives may have been nothing like mine, yet they still came to school everyday, and they were so eager to learn. They did not use their problems at home as an excuse, but gave their all in my classes. That’s another misconception that people have about inner city schools, that somehow the kids are “bad”. I spent a vast majority of my waking hours with them and I assure you, these kids are nothing short of amazing. It makes me angry that students who want and deserve the best education are not given the best because society has made the decision to make their lives so difficult. We have collectively made this choice by being aware of failing schools in the city while doing nothing about them.

When I started teaching, I thought that I could change the whole world. I was confident in my teaching, and I thought that all my students, even though they came to me behind in academics, can catch up and even thrive, after one year in my classroom. I was naive. One year was not enough to make up for the many years of education that they missed. But every time I felt like calling it quits, a student would say something to encourage me to keep going. One day a student came up to tell me, “thank you for another great lesson.” Another told me, “you may not change the whole world, but you changed my world.” These words of gratitude were all I needed. Despite my failures, my students would encourage me by telling me how glad they were that I was their teacher. They wrote me countless hand-written letters of appreciation, and they worked so hard in my classes. So I found the power in me to keep teaching, at least for a while more.

Ever since founding the school, my amazing coworkers and I did everything in our power to provide the best education to the students that came. It was very frustrating to work so hard only to be told that we need to do better, that we are the reason for the failing education system, and when we asked for changes in policy that would benefit the students, our opinions were ignored. Apparently, teachers are not considered important enough people in education, so we are not given any opportunities to affect policy. It really hurts to see the current status of education, because politicians are arguing over what really are not issues at all, just for the sake of saying something that sounds good to get them into office, while teachers, if you just take a second to listen to them, have so much to say and have very good ideas about how education can improve as a whole, are ignored completely in the education reform conversations.

Often when I told people that I’m a teacher, people would ask, “Why are you a teacher, with your resume and your engineering background?” Keep in mind that when I tell people that I’m an engineer, nobody ever questions, “Why are you an engineer despite your teaching talents?” And that tells you something. America does not value its teachers at all. So many people believe as if people who are smart go into other fields, and people who don’t have other options go into teaching. I don’t blame them, because unless you have taught a classroom full of students, you really do not know the intellectual talent that it takes to break down a subject in a way that the students can master it. So in case you didn’t know, I’m telling you now: teaching is much harder than it looks, and the teachers who have mastered this skill deserve the same kind of respect and status that doctors and lawyers get. Teachers are the ones who know what is best for the students, and I assure you that we would be much better off if teachers’ opinions were valued, and we used them as the basis to guide all policy decisions.

I consider teaching to be the most important job in the universe, and I have the highest respect for teachers who are teaching today. I have a feeling that I will be back in the classroom in the future, because I really miss my students. I hope that slowly, people’s perception will change and we will become a nation that values and respects the hard work that teachers do.

If you have a teacher that made a difference in your life, please, reach out to them and let them know how much they matter. It’s about time we give them the recognition and compensation for the important work that they do. The status quo is simply unacceptable.

Why music education matters

One of the greatest joys of being an educator is to experience these special moments when my students’ hard work pays off.

Today, two of my awesome students, Blanca and Esther, performed music with the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, Coldplay, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars, in possibly the biggest stage of all, the Super Bowl Halftime Show!

I feel like a proud father, having seen them work so hard to balance music and education throughout the years I have known them. You could say that they were very lucky to have had this opportunity, but none of this would have happened if it weren’t for their hard work. Like the saying goes, “luck favors the prepared,” and these two definitely deserved it.

Esther and Blanca were introduced to music through Harmony Project. In a city where most of these students would otherwise have no access to music education, students in Harmony Project get an instrument to take home, music lessons, and an opportunity to play in an orchestra. The orchestra you see in the video is YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles), a culminating performance group founded by the Harmony Project and L.A. Phil.. But there are so many students in Los Angeles, and the program is not even close to meeting the demands of the number of students who want to learn music. Music has given my life purpose, and I wish that one day, every kid will have the same opportunity that I had growing up, no matter where they’re from.

This is such an important issue because music teaches you life’s fundamental lessons. By pursuing music, I learned that nobody is born with talent, and that there is no replacement for hard work. I learned about the power of art that brings people together and helps heal wounded souls. I learned about the joys of overcoming challenges, and the importance of saying “I can’t do it yet” instead of “I can’t do it.” And most importantly, I learned to seek happiness in the work that I do, instead of the things that I own. (I wrote more on this topic here. Also check out my brother’s hand-lettering piece here)

If you care about the future of these students, I urge you to consider making a donation to a local organization that provides music education for the youth, such as The Harmony Project and San Jose Jazz. After all, supporting music education is not even about music. It is about helping these students discover some of the most important lessons they will ever learn in life.

On Minimalism

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I love this piece by Katsumi. You can see more of her work here, and the Zen Pencils feature here. Reading about her journey was such an inspiration for me. Most of her work are in Portuguese, but she has a good number of pieces translated to English as well. There is something special about this piece that reminds me of where I stand in life.

There was a two-year period during my mid-20s when I rented and lived inside a garage. As a self-identified minimalist, living in a garage was the perfect way to stay consistent with my core values. Naturally due to space limitations, accumulating stuff was not an option. I lived a very simple life, as my daily routine consisted of the following, and not much more:
-Simple meals
-Teaching
-Music
-Sleep

I don’t live in a garage anymore, but I maintain a very simple lifestyle to this day. Other than my musical instruments, I do not have much possessions. Because I love music so much, I doubt that any material possession will make me as happy as simply having the time to play music.

It is ironic that society ingrains in us the idea that we need to make more money and buy more things, while psychological research reveals the exact opposite truth; the more materialistic the person, the less happy they are.

The holiday season is a good time to reflect on the values by which we live. While the media tells us to go hit up those mega sales in stores everywhere, I can’t help but wonder how much of our values are tragically shaped by this consumer society driven by profit-seeking corporations. Keep in mind that these advertisements were specifically designed for the sole purpose of putting more money in the pockets of the corporations and their investors, with absolutely no regard to the well-being of the consumer. It angers me because they do it so cleverly, showing people who appear so happy consuming the products that they don’t actually need. Why should anyone expect to be better off by following their advice?

Whether we like it or not, life is short; it’s a mere instance of time in the scheme of the universe. Pretty soon, we will all approach the end of it. When that day comes, would we have any regrets, and if so, about what? I doubt that any of us will regret that we did not buy enough nice things. We might, however, regret that we did not spend enough time with our loved ones, nor express often enough just how important they are to us. Or maybe we’ll regret that we did not follow our dreams to make a positive impact in this world beyond ourselves, because after all, isn’t that the sole purpose of life? We didn’t come into this world simply to exist, pay bills, and die.

If you woke up this morning happy about what you are about to do today, chances are that your life is well-aligned to your values. If not, you’re not alone. We’ve all experienced those periods in our lives. Life certainly isn’t always great, and everybody struggles through the tough times during which we grapple with the idea of reevaluating and readjusting our course.

Change is actually not as scary as it seems. Rather, it is exciting. The country’s founding forefathers thought that it’d be important for us to have the right to the “pursuit of happiness”, but life is actually about the “happiness of pursuit”. When we stop pursuing and growing, we start to lose track of the meaning behind everything that we do.

May your 2016 be filled with growth,
Shin

Computer Science Education

As a former public school teacher and advocate for students everywhere, one issue that concerns me is the lack of access to computer science classes for students in K-12 schools.

The graph below shows the number of AP exam takers in various subjects.

ap-exams-1997-2011
(source: http://www.exploringcs.org/resources/cs-statistics)

It is immediately obvious that computer science has not seen the growth in enrollment that other subjects have.

But why? Considering that computing is arguably the fastest-growing industry in society today, how is it that our students are not exposed to the study of such a relevant and important subject?

This is a multi-faceted issue, but first, there is a serious shortage of computer science teachers. As a result, currently, only about 10% of high schools in the U.S. offer a computer science course.

To make matters worse, 97% of students who elect to study computer science in college choose the major because they have had prior exposure to computer science before entering college. So what about the students who did not have that opportunity?

Just put the numbers together: most high schools don’t offer computer science, yet only those who have been exposed to it consider it as a possible future career. We can deduce, then, that for most high school students in the nation, pursuing computer science is not even a viable option; they simply aren’t aware of the opportunities that exist.

Computer science is also suffering from an image problem. It is commonly (and mistakenly) thought of as a profession for privileged white males, sitting in cubicles typing away in front of a computer all day, eventually to suffer from extreme boredom and carpal tunnel, and die a lonely death. But that is far from the truth.

Programming is a creative endeavor, with as much opportunities for critical thinking and teamwork as any other field. It is an important and integral part in a variety of areas in society today. Computer professionals work for diverse employers, not just for tech companies. They are the ones who create the tools to make sense of data to inform policy to better the world. They help create technologies that cure diseases. They work with physicists and artists to create the algorithms to simulate the reflection of light or the movement of a strand of hair of a character in Pixar movies. They create platforms like Kiva that empower the marginalized to become entrepreneurs. They write the programs to auto-navigate spacecrafts, such as the MSL Curiosity Rover which, in a split second after the heat shield came off, made a decision on the safest landing-spot, and miraculously guided itself to actually land there softly, all in a low-pressure, low-gravity environment that could not have been replicated for practice here on Earth.

Anyone who wants to make a difference in the world can get off to a flying start by combining their passion with the knowledge of computer science.

If you are a high school student reading this, I encourage you to give it a try. Take a CS course or join a club if your school has it. If not, there are tons of online courses to get you started, and if you can, sign up for summer coding programs like Girls Who Code and others available in your area. It might just change your life.

If you are in college, chances are good that your school offers an introductory CS course available for non-CS majors. Enroll in it, and you might discover a new passion that you never knew existed.

If you are an adult, it is never too late to start learning. I know many people who got started in this field post-college and have grown to love it. Start taking introductory online courses, and attend meetups to see if there are others like you who might be looking for a study buddy. As far as online courses go, I really like the contents available on websites like Udacity, CodeCademy, and Khan Academy. They are all great places to get started, and each have their unique strengths, so see which one fits your learning style, or try them all.

Happy new year!
Shin

On Prejudice

Here is a rendition of La Marseillaise that I arranged and played on the piano. It is one of my favorite National Anthems.

On the day of the Paris attacks, I was at a library in Pasadena all day, studying with my friends Daniel and Andy. We were so consumed in our study that none of us thought to check to see what was happening in the world, so naturally, I did not hear of the attacks until I got into my car that evening.

On my drive home, the radio talked about the attacks, and nothing else. I spent the 40-minute car ride, kind of in a state of disbelief. I mean, that could have happened to me, or to anyone I know. It happened at a concert, and I go to concerts all the time.

The next day, I was driving to work, and again, the whole time the radio show hosts talked about the Paris attacks.

I started to wonder why this attack in Paris was getting significantly more coverage than other violent acts elsewhere. The Paris attack happened literally ONE DAY after a deadly suicide attack in Beirut, yet the radio did not mention it, not even for a bit, during my car rides. Then I remembered something I had read a while back:

In her book Compassion Fatigue, journalist Susan Moeller writes: “In the news business, one dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth fifty Arabs, who are worth five hundred Africans.”

To let the news be the main source of information to educate ourselves about what is happening around the world constantly gives us a false sense of reality, because the coverage of stories is so disproportional to what is actually happening. First of all, the news almost always makes the world look like a much more dangerous and polarized place, because something that happens everyday are considered mundane and not newsworthy, and opinions of people who stand in the middle of the political spectrum are not as entertaining to hear. But the ignorant and hateful rhetoric from Donald Trump? Oh that, we want more! So the realities of a vast number of people are far from what is being shown in the news. And what’s worse, as Susan Moeller so accurately (yes, it is tragic that she is not joking) stated, we really do not care about violence, unless white people are dying.

If you don’t believe it, just consider that nearly 20,000 children died today, mostly from preventable causes stemming from poverty and malnutrition. Yet how many of us even stopped for a moment to think about these deaths today? I know I didn’t. I mean, shouldn’t that be a big deal, 20,000 people? That’s like 200 Paris attacks! Why is that not on the news?

The amount of coverage for violent acts vary widely based on location. Did it happen on our soil? Then we react as if the world is coming to an end. Did it happen somewhere in the Middle East or Africa? Then we don’t talk about it, we’re not aware much of the time, and even if we were, we don’t seem to care.

I do not mean to trivialize any death anywhere, but we cannot ignore our own biases. Racism is not a thing of the past. Racism does not propagate by deliberately racist people, but rather by the prejudice, however small and unconscious, that we each hold, deep inside our souls, and only by recognizing that fundamental truth, we can then start to make this world a better, more just, place.

Peace,
Shin