After sleeping on park benches in Paris, joining a punk rock band in Japan, riding over a land mine in Cambodia and drinking Vodka with a member of the Russian mafia on the Siberian trail, some might say Glenn Mathes has seen it all.
With the international experience of over 30 countries under his belt and enough stories to make even homebodies feel inspired to jump on a plane, the 32-year-old language instructor said the best way to understand and appreciate other cultures is by experiencing them in person.
“There’s no substitute for actually being out there and seeing the world,” he said. “You realize there’s so much out there you wouldn’t be able to see just sitting in front of a television.”
Dedicating his time and career to helping non-English speaking people learn the language, the President and CEO of his self-owned company called FLACK (Furthering Language and Cultural Knowledge), Inc., an English learning program that provides language services across Michigan and the world, said he has used teaching English as a reason to travel and expand his cultural knowledge.
Mathes, who taught himself to read and write as a child by practicing from a bag of Better Made Potato Chips, said he always knew he wanted to be a teacher. After being asked in kindergarten to help a classmate from Iran learn English, he said, “I didn’t realize until later that that’s where it all began.”
Along with his initial fascination in teaching, Mathes received an early taste of culture growing up in Hamtramck, a diverse, inner-city area located near Detroit. Encountering a great deal of violence throughout his childhood, Mathes described having toys stolen from his garage, being thrown off his bike and also being held up at gunpoint on more than one occasion. He said, “I wasn’t in the most dangerous neighborhood, but it wasn’t safe.”
As a result of being exposed to such a hostile environment growing up, Mathes said he tends to be rather distant and standoffish when he first meets people. Even after moving to the suburbs, he said he would wait for people to prove they weren’t there to harm him.
“It’s like people who live in the ghetto have to act bad,” he said. “I’d portray this image of being tough. Luckily, because I didn’t live in that environment my entire life, I was able to balance it out.”
Special Programs Coordinator of Michigan State University’s English Language Center Andrew McCullough was an English as a Second Language professor when he met Mathes in 1997, and the two quickly formed a friendship. McCullough, who was substituting for a class while Mathes was observing as an undergraduate, described Mathes’ seemingly rough personality.
“He grew up in a rough neighborhood, so he already had a toughness about him,” McCullough said. “It really personifies who he is in life. He’s not afraid of anything; he’s just ready to go.”
Although Mathes said he didn’t have much money growing up, he could still remember his family managing to take a vacation at least once a year. Escaping to places such as Niagara Falls, Mackinac Island and even Lansing, his love for travel was sparked at a young age.
In college, Mathes studied abroad throughout Europe, but an opportunity to teach English in Japan further inspired him to immerse himself in a foreign culture. Despite having taken only two semesters of Japanese language before leaving the United States and not knowing where he would be living once he arrived in Japan, Mathes said he wasn’t afraid.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” he said. “I literally woke up one day and thought, ‘I’m going to Japan.’ I just focused on that and knew it would be fine.”
Because of his exuberant personality and energetic nature, Mathes had no problem making friends and adapting to Asian culture. During his three-year stay in Japan, Mathes played in a band called Strawberry Mud Pie with his new Japanese friends and another group called Dick and the Pussycats that played at wedding receptions. He also met a Japanese woman named Ryoko, who is now his wife and a counselor at Baker College in Owosso.
Mathes spent three years teaching in Utsunomiya in the prefecture of Tochigi where he taught English to Japanese students ranging from middle school to high school ages. After having returned from the United States in 1999, Mathes joined forces once again with McCullough in 2001 when the ESL director recommended Mathes to teach English through PAL (Progressive Accelerated Language), a grant-based ESL program being run at Lansing Community College that offered language services to non-English speaking people including immigrants and refugees.
McCullough said Mathes was the perfect choice for the position because of the energy and unique teaching skills he provided. He said, “People need training beyond the university setting, and that’s the kind of material he had experience with.”
While McCullough said Mathes essentially directed PAL, the program lost grant funding and ended in 2003. Developing FLACK, Inc., Mathes now offers his services through a website that links potential students to language classes for non-English speaking children and adults, textbooks and other language materials, and also tutor sessions. Mathes said he thinks learning should come from opening up to new ideas and beliefs rather than a strict set of laws.
“Education shouldn’t be about just being there to play by the rules,” he said. “It’s about people sharing ideas and learning from each other. It’s not important if somebody’s wearing a Mohawk or holes in their jeans.”
While Mathes’ company has operated with representatives working in Lansing, Tokyo and Chicago, attorney prosecutor for the city of Chicago and FLACK, Inc.’s Chicago representative Yancey Pinkston said he admired Mathes’ personality and dedication to education. Pinkston also taught in Japan and met Mathes during their orientation process. Like McCullough, Pinkston said he quickly formed a bond with Mathes.
“He’s got one of those personalities that makes you just want to get to know the guy,” Pinkston said. “Once you get to talking to him, his overall aura is one that just kind of draws you in. Even if you don’t want to buy his product, he’s a guy you’d want to sit and talk to for hours.”
Despite teaching abroad and finding every opportunity he could to travel throughout the years, Mathes said it was ironic that he returned to Michigan for work. However, he said he now considers his current work to be more worthwhile.
“I always thought ESL was a mechanism to travel,” he said. “Interestingly enough, I ended up back in Michigan. Working with a population of people in the United States who are trying to make lives for themselves here-that’s more rewarding-to do more for people and more for your own country than going abroad and teaching English to people who just want to learn it as a hobby.”
Although the travel veteran said he appreciates the experiences he has had, Mathes now finds comfort in staying still. He believes people should be able to plant their feet firmly in one place rather than constantly being on the go.
“People should have nice mobility and a nomadic attitude while still being able to find stability,” he said. “It’s important to find a balance between the two. If all you do is wander from place to place, there’s no sense of accomplishment except for saying, yeah, you’ve gone to a lot of places.”
Despite the influence traveling abroad has had on his friend, McCullough said Mathes was always the same energetic, open person.
“His experiences have helped color him,” McCullough said, “but when it comes down to it, he’s still the same Glenn Mathes that he’s always been.”
After decades of travel experience, hundreds of tales to tell and a company that continues furthering his goal of helping people become more culturally aware, Mathes said he is comfortable with the direction his life is headed, but uncertain of what the future holds.
“If people told me at 18 that I was going to marry a Japanese woman or go on the Siberian trail, I’d say, ‘You’re nuts!’” he said. “Right now it’s hard for me to say what will happen in the future. Everybody has to be ready for change.”
*For more information about Mathes’ company, FLACK, Inc., visit www.flackinc.com.
*If you are interested in teaching English abroad, you can find more information at sites including www.teflcorp.com and www.crossculturalsolutions.org.
(Photo 1-Mathes-Niagara Falls) Nine-year-old Mathes poses with his sister Nicole in 1981 during a family vacation to Niagara Falls. (photo courtesy of Glenn Mathes)
(Photo 2-Mathes-Classroom) Mathes gathers with students in Utsunomiya during his second year of teaching in Japan. (photo courtesy of Glenn Mathes)
(Photo 3-Mathes-Wedding Singer) While his Japanese friends (from left to right) Sensei and Ken sing along, Mathes performs at a wedding in Japan. (photo courtesy of Glenn Mathes)
(Photo 4-Mathes and Wife) Mathes met his wife Ryoko in Japan days before he was scheduled to leave before the two fell in love and married in the United States years later. (Caitlin Dobson)