Remembering Peter Warner

“A LARGE voice!”  The admonishment of my use of the word ‘big’ came bellowing from the back of the lecture hall where I was speaking.  I was in Nagoya talking about my experiences teaching English in a Japanese kindergarten.

I stood at the lectern fending off this and other barbs from a group of English teachers sitting in the back who were bent on taking the piss out of me for speaking in an American idiom.  I looked to the professor who had invited me who simply shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “You’re on your own.”

I’d been to Aichi on several occasions as my brother lived and worked there for several years.  I always found the people, Japanese and foreigners alike, much friendlier than the edoko and expats in Tokyo who would rather avert their eyes than acknowledge you on the street.

Unfortunately, on that day in Nagoya, they were anything but friendly.  I had no choice but to dodge the arrows coming at me.  Thankfully, one person in the room came to my defense with just as big a voice as my detractors; an otherwise unassuming older white man sitting in the front row.  That man was Peter Warner.  Though he probably thought nothing of it, Peter had stepped in and saved me that day and I was so thankful.

As the seminar went on, my friends in the back participated with cross-limbed reluctance.  Peter, on the other hand, moved freely amongst the other attendees, took directives, and helped out when he thought he could.  As I watched Peter, I got a very warm feeling about this man who was dressed like the Nazarene missionaries of my youth.

Surprisingly, and not by my direction, the last part of the lecture moved into a discussion about regional dialects, accompanied by several derisive imitations of Southern American accents.  Without making myself the hero of my own story, I ended the lecture with the idea that no one, especially in a language program, should ever be made to feel ashamed of where they come from, how they speak, or where life experiences may have taken them.

After the seminar, my defender briefly introduced himself and stated that he had been using one of my textbooks in his classes for several years.  Peter invited me to attend one of his own seminars on phonics and teaching.  I politely accepted his invitation, we exchanged emails, and I was off to the station to get back to my own students in Saitama.

Months later, I returned to Nagoya for one of Peter’s lectures.  He was kind enough to meet me at the station.  On the way to the public hall, I helped Peter post his seminar posters on already paper-covered utility poles.  At one point, a policeman on a motorcycle passed, wagged his finger, and shook his head ‘Dame!‘ as Peter kept on taping.  I warned Peter that maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.  He dismissed my concern with an ornery smile and went straight to the next pole.

Peter was a natural in front of a large group of people.  On stage, in the same thin white shirt with a pocket full of pens, he seemed bigger, and his carriage reminded me more of a truck driver than an academic.  He deftly gauged and engaged the audience of teachers and administrators for a full two hours.  I saw him falter only once when one of the participants loudly chastised him for the religious message Peter had included in his email invitations.

After the lecture, Peter invited anyone who was interested to view his classroom a few blocks away.  A small group of us took him up on the invitation.  He was justified in holding such tours.  His classroom was amazing.  The walls were covered with posters and teaching charts — something that wasn’t allowed me in my classroom at the kindergarten.  What really caught my attention was the centerpiece of the room: a large conference-size table covered with a huge world map.  You can see a photo of Peter in his classroom here.

After the other guests left, Peter and I spoke privately.  He excitedly showed me how he was using my materials in his classes.  He also suggested I write another textbook of stories with an emphasis on heroes.  He explained that kids these days don’t have any heroes to look up to.  That conversation has popped back in my head more than a few times and always makes me wonder what kind of heroes he might have been thinking about.

I returned to Nagoya several times and had the pleasure of getting to know Peter and his seminar collaborators a little better.  Their Power Seminars series brought in lecturers and attendees from many distant places in Japan.  Even discussions afterwards proved to be just as interesting as the lectures themselves.

What I came to appreciate about Peter was his willingness to be bold and take action.  Peter stepped out of his own small classroom, claimed a voice of authority, and shared his knowledge and experiences with other educators to everyone’s benefit.  That can be really hard because it makes you vulnerable, even to the pettiest of attacks.  Peter took that risk.

My last conversation with Mr. Warner was when he saw me to the station for my return trip to Tokyo.  It was a very cold day and Peter didn’t simply walk next to me, his shoulder bumped me from behind the whole way; he was so happy to just be in the present, walking and talking together.

I was very sad to hear of Peter’s passing in August.  For anyone who had the privilege of hearing him speak, Peter’s breadth of knowledge and passion for teaching were truly awesome.  His ‘A-Go Man’ logo, a caped cartoon superhero, was emblematic of his personal mission to provide his students with the best English curriculum possible, even when he thought the academic odds were against him.

Peter’s spiritual journey is now complete.  If Peter believed there were no heroes for young people to look up to, he certainly did a fine job of taking on the role himself.  He truly will be missed by many.  Rest in peace, Peter.