Brilliant Returns; An Interview with Head of School Karen O'Neill

Brilliant Returns; An Interview with Head of School Karen O'Neill
Kit Pancoast Nagamura (Parent of alumni)

The Internationalist Fall/Winter 2019 Vol. 63

It's an early fall weekday morning when I enter "command central" of Nishimachi International School, the Head of School's office in the Matsukata House. I sit down with the new head, Karen O'Neill '78, to learn how it is that she has returned to her elementary alma mater to fill its leadership role. We exchange a few words about Nishimachi International School's founder, Tané Matsukata, and I realize that O'Neill, slim and petite, slightly resembles Matsukata, with a simlar sharp-eyed focus and easy laugh that Matsukata shows in photos when surrounded by children.

The Visa Vignette
O'Neill's story starts with the travels of her father, Jeffrey Mass. Just out of college, Mass snagged a civilian job on a US military battleship, writing "Life at Sea" clips as the ship plied its way through the South Pacific. Mass, it seems, managed to leave his passport in the Philippines. People kept mailing it to him, port after port, just missing him each time. Luckily for Mass, in those days the influence of a good friend was enough to secure Mass's entry upon landing in Japan, minus his passport and visa.

"It's hard to remember a story about your parents when you weren't actually there," O'Neill says, laughing, "but I've heard that my father sent letters to his own parents in 1962, while here in Japan, talking about the 'ugly American,' and what it looks like to be an ambassador of good will, but in fact, be someone who takes license. He was astounded by how fellow Americans treated Japanese people with a level of arrogance."

Mass gradually found an affinity for Japan and Japanese people, and landed a job teaching English at the Green School in Tokyo. During this time, he made the acquaintance of a young Japanese woman, Kazuko. One year his junior, Kazuko was studying journalism in college, and had a strong interest in learning English.

Life Savings
Kazuko and Jeffrey's relationship strengthened, and a marriage date was set. The relative rarity of cross-cultural unions at the time is underlined by what O'Neill tells me next: "I have a black and white film of their wedding," she says. "My mother was in a kimono, and my father in tuxedo. There was virtually no communication from either side, just a lot of bowing. It's an amazing video."

The young couple set sail for the United States, "and my mom's parents really thought they'd never see her again," O'Neill says. However, the young couple returned to Japan with two new family members. "I was born a year-and-a-half after the marriage, and my birth created this bridge [between the countries]," O'Neill says. "My sister was born when I was one-and-a-half, and a week after she was born, we got on a Pan Am flight. My parents put my baby sister in a cardboard box that they set by their seats, because they had no money."

Reconnecting with Japanese relatives was largely what motivated the trip to Japan, but O'Neill admits there was another impetus as well. Mass had been teaching history at a high school in Queens, New York. One of his students, enraged by the bad grade he had received, attempted to attack Mass with a baseball bat, missing only because the bat got caught on an overhead light fixture. Mass didn't wait around for strike two.

Off-shore Interests
The young family lingered in Japan for a year, enjoying family time. During this hiatus, Mass started collecting old Japanese artefacts. "My dad always was a collector—of coins, Indian head pennies, comic books, and stuff," O'Neill says, "and through my mother, he became interested in the history of Japanese things."

Upon returning to the states, Mass took his exploration into academic high gear. He enrolled at Yale, where he met Professor John Whitney Hall, who was launching a program for graduate studies in pre-modern Japanese history. Mass became one of the program's first graduates, and his thesis focused on medieval Japanese history.

To further his studies, Mass applied for and won a Fulbright scholarship to return to Japan. "The award paid for one child to attend a private school, and that was me," O'Neill said. "So this is how I ended up at Nishimachi, when I was five."

Small Capital Gains
From the start, O'Neill had to deal with being slightly out of sync with the normal Nishimachi International School first-graders. "My parents didn't think people should pay for Kindergarten," she recalls, "so my mother asked Tane Matsukata to please consider me for first grade instead. She agreed."    

The result? "I was super tiny," O'Neill laughs, "and a head shorter than anyone in the class."  But, sometimes small-statured kids leave big impressions, correct? "My classmates remember me as a chatterbox," O'Neill agrees. "Also, I was an early reader, so it worked out."

Of the two years O'Neill attended, 1969 and 1970, O'Neill remembers little beyond people who were nice to her. "I recall my first grade teacher, Hirooka-sensei," she says, "and a girl named Emily Severance, who was blonde and had the same bowl haircut as me, and I had another doppelgänger from those days, Debbie Krisher, though I was a head shorter than she. I was also friends with a set of twin girls, Rieko and Kaeko Okawa, who were giants, Japanese twin giants. In truth, I was just tiny and they were of normal size."

Double or Nothing
Later, as she started college, O'Neill had a preview of the way Nishimachi International School would remain threaded through her years. As she was moving into her room at Stanford, she glimpsed twin Japanese girls riding bikes across campus, right in front of her dormitory. "I turned to my mom," O'Neill recalls, "and said 'that looks like Rieko and Kaeko!' I ran out and chased them down the street, and it was them. We all went to college together."

Prior to college, though, O'Neill grew up shuttling between the United States and Japan, as her father pursued research on the Kamakura Period in Japanese history, eventually landing a position teaching premodern Japanese history at Stanford.   

Did the peripatetic life bother her, I ask O'Neill. "I don't think it's necessary to settle in any one place," she responds, thoughtfully. "But growing up as a bilingual, bicultural, biracial child in the United States, it was hard to understand my own identity. I was never really sure if I was a majority or minority. Even in California, in the 13 different schools I attended, there were a lot of Asians and a lot of non-Asians, but there weren't a lot of people who looked like me. And people didn't talk about that difference."

The Cocoon
O'Neill's discussion intrigues me, because I sense that identity confusion is an underexplored struggle faced by bicultural children. "When I came to interview at Nishimachi International School for this job," O'Neill says, "I thought, oh my gosh, there are so many kids who look just like me! I felt in the majority finally; it's like a cocoon here. I think about kids who will leave Nishimachi, and might feel the way I felt, which is, 'wait...who am I?' It's a super subtle feeling. So, I think we need to teach identity, and I'm learning about how to do that here."

Corporate Actions
O'Neill's route back to Nishimachi International School follows a roundabout, and frankly improbably, path. Set to graduate in East Asian studies and Japanese economics at Stanford, she started to seek out work for a large shousha (Japanese trading company) in her junior year. The timing was bad, though; severe yen devaluation had caused international trade with Japan to dwindle. A friend of O'Neill's suggested that she consider instead management consulting. "She told me that I'd only need to know a little bit about a lot of things, like at a cocktail party," O'Neill recalls "so, I got out a phone book, took down some addresses and mailed out resumes, telling people I'd head to Japan to interview over spring break."

O'Neill flew to Tokyo in the spring of her junior year, stayed with her relatives in Hatano, and rang up all the companies she had initially contacted, and sat for their English language entrance tests. "At McKinsey & Company, though," she recalls, "there was also a Japanese language test. There I was, in an office across from the Imperial Hotel, staring at the first page. There were two kanji on it, and I was asked what was the difference between the two. I thought, drat, I can't read either one. The second page was the same. By the time I finished, I was mortified and embarrassed. I stood up and, apologizing in Japanese to a partner on the way out, tried to slink away. But a secretary came running after me, and they gave me a verbal interview. After that, they said they'd call me. I flew back to the States, and literally heard from no one."

Fortunately, months later, she finally got a call and interview with McKinsey's San Francisco office. "I was instructed to meet one of McKinsey's guys, Ken Ohmae, in Los Angeles," she says. "I was such a novice that I said 'I'd really like to meet him but I can't afford the flight.' The secretary told me, 'Oh honey, we'll pay for that.'"

Balance Sheet
Though O'Neill was still unfamiliar with the perks of consulting management, she soon encountered the demands. "I didn't fly to LA after all, because Ken called me, and asked me to be in Tokyo by April. I was supposed to graduate in June, but he said get there by April. So, somehow, I managed to graduate early."

Once in Tokyo, O'Neill found herself speed-learning the terminology of her new job, buried in "the Nelson" (a comprehensive Japanese-English dictionary of kanji characters by Andrew N. Nelson), counting strokes, and learning basic accounting terms in Japanese. "It was hard, but I had a Helen Keller moment," she says "where suddenly I found I could read Japanese, not college level or anything, but I could read the Nikkei newspaper. I've lost a lot of that now, but I could do it then, and the whole world opened."

Nonetheless, there were long, lonely hours at McKinsey, and it wasn't long before O'Neill realized she was friendless and miserable. "I wanted to bag it," she says, "so I called my dad and said I didn't think I could last the 2-year contract. My dad said, do the 2 years. You'll be fine. But I was not fine."

Investing in Her Future
A chance elevator encounter with an employee of investment banking firm Jardine Fleming led O'Neill to a new job as a securities analyst. "In 1987, I became a food analyst," she tells me. "It was a very male-dominated field, but I'd go directly to distributors and write financial analysis reports for investors. I was right here when the Japanese market started to take off, at the inflection point, and suddenly it didn't matter what I wrote—the stocks were going up." Later, O'Neill moved into sales, and ended up working with Nishimachi International School alumni parent Dominic Henderson, with whom she is still friends.

Toward the end of the 1980s, O'Neill eventually joined investment bank S.G. Warburg & Co., a firm that had 2,000 employees when she started, and 55,000 by the time she left her position as Executive Director. There, she leveraged her knowledge of robust Japanese markets, and this facilitated her next move to Swiss multinational investment bank, UBS.

What followed was arguably the biggest turning point in O'Neill's career. After eight years at UBS, O'Neill decided to jump tracks, perpendicularly.

Shedding Bonds
"I was quite senior in the bank, because they kept promoting the very few women there," O'Neill says modestly. "I was working on global financial institutions, and I had a weird moment when I realized that I was spending my whole day on email and voice mail. I began to think 'this is such bunk...what am I doing?' I liked advising and working with young adults, so I thought, I'll go into teaching."

O'Neill called her father to let him know the good news. "I told him I was going to leave the financial world to become a teacher," O'Neill recalls. "He said 'WHAT? why would you, at the pinnacle of your career, leave your job to do a thankless task?' I told him I wanted to teach high school math. He told me not to do it."

Nonetheless, O'Neill followed her gut feeling, and left her position as Managing Director at UBS. "Then my dad got sick, from stomach cancer, and died, at age 60," O'Neill says. "Plus, that year was 2011, in September. 9/11 was supposed to be the first day of graduate school for me...but of course school didn't open. I wondered what all this was telling me."

It's testimony to O'Neill's tenacity that, despite these sobering events, she stuck to her convictions. Her first placement was as a math teacher. "I hated it," she says vehemently. "I didn't want to be a single-subject teacher." Her next placement was in a 2-grade classroom as an assistant. "I thought, gee, I might ruin their young lives," she says, "because I didn't know how to teach reading. I came to realize that knowing something, and teaching it, are very different things."

From Banking to Bank Street
To address this disparity, O'Neill promptly enrolled at New York's Bank Street College of Education. "It's the place for instruction in early childhood learning," she says. "and it totally upended everything I thought I knew. We learned how math works. You think you know about math, and how it works, but you don't always know why you know it. Encoding formulas, so that you build a long-term working memory in your brain to use when you need it, was all something I didn't understand until I got to Bank Street."

O'Neill brought her new knowhow to Beauvoir School at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. There she taught second and third grades. A few years later she transitioned to Sidwell Friends School. "I really loved teaching there," she says, with a wide smile. "I learned several things at that school: most important was that children need time to play, and they also need quiet time to just be, to reflect."

At Sidwell, O'Neill taught second and fourth grades, then broadened her interests to include work in the area of identity. "I was interested in gender roles, stereotypes and the gender construct in general. I became a diversity practitioner and loved working on a wide variety of topics with children," she says. "After training myself in the field, I started training others, adults, and that got me thinking about becoming a principal."


Principal Principles
O'Neill did not set her sights on heading Sidwell—"The man I would have replaced had been there for 36 years, and I didn't want to do that," she says. Instead, she enrolled in Columbia's Klingenstein Institute, to take a degree in independent school leadership. "It was the hardest thing I'd ever done," she recalls, "harder than childbirth. It was so intense, and I was the second oldest person there. But, I knew if I could get through so much reading and so much writing, I'd survive."

A survivor extraordinaire, O'Neill next took a job heading the elementary school at Norwood School in Bethesda, Maryland, just down the street from Sidwell. She was several years into that post when she got a random call from a friend, asking her if she'd heard of some place called Nishimachi International School in Japan, where there was a listing. "I of course applied," she says.

An amalgamation of two cultures, O'Neill seems exactly like the kind of person Tané Matsukata hoped to education, and the ideal choice for Head of School. But O'Neill is wary of the high expectations and challenges she faces. "I can't pull some bunny rabbit out of the hat," she cautions. "I'm totally human."

In addition, O'Neill has a husband, two boys at ASIJ, a labradoodle, and a cat to look after. How does she manage the whole work-life balance thing? "I don't," she says, wryly, "at least not very well. But I try. Being in Japan helps, because my kids can be more independent. It's dog-walking that's the issue."

Just as she starts to tell me more about her life in Japan, O'Neill suddenly looks at her watch, and leaps up. "My gosh, I have recess duty," she says, and flies out the door. I try to follow her, but she disappears into a sea of children outside waiting for her, putting them before herself, just as Tané Matsukata would have done.

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