Henry M. Gunn High School Japanese teacher Matt Hall has a vast array of interests, including surfing, BMX racing and hip-hop dancing. But for the “Juggle Sensei,” as he refers to himself, it’s clear that two activities in particular — juggling and Japanese — are at the forefront of his identity.
Over the years, Hall has built up an impressive juggling resume: He placed second at the International Jugglers’ Association Festival in 2003 and later went on tour as an instructor with Cirque du Soleil, one of the largest circus show companies in the world.
It started during a lunch break in 1998. Hall was at a mall across the street from his workplace in Chicago when a book called the “Encyclopedia of Ball Juggling” caught his eye, he said. It was printed with bold colors and came with a set of three millet-filled juggling balls.
“I knew a little bit about juggling just in general, but I didn’t know that there was this whole encyclopedia,” Hall said. “I didn’t know that the tricks even had names, and it was [from] A to Z. I bought the book [and] I bought the balls … [to] see if I could teach myself a trick, learn a trick, check it off on the book.”
Soon, Hall was hooked. One by one, he taught himself every single trick in the book, something “very like him” to do, according to Lisa Hall, Hall’s wife and Gunn student activities director.
“I think that [his drive] is demonstrated in everything that he takes on as a hobby or as a career,” Lisa Hall said. “He throws himself into it 110% and works at it until he becomes a master of it. He doesn’t believe in doing anything halfway.”
On weekends, Hall began hanging out with street performers at the nearby Oak Street Beach in Chicago, who encouraged him to go out and juggle in public.
“I went out just for an hour and made like $50,” Hall said. “I was like, ‘50 bucks an hour. That’s a great wage. I’m going to do this again.’”
In 1999, he moved from Chicago to the Bay Area to pursue a master’s degree in education at Stanford University. During this “monster year,” he used a unique study method: 50 minutes of concentrated studying followed by 10 minutes of juggling.
“Juggling was a perfect palate cleanser,” Hall said. “[It] helped me get through those 11 months. It’s a great distractor because you can’t be thinking about drama or crap when you’re trying to juggle.”
The summer after he graduated from the program, Hall tried out for the juggling world championships, but didn’t make it past the preliminary rounds. The next year, the same thing happened again. But even after two unsuccessful attempts, Hall persisted.
“I’m a poor quitter,” Hall said. “When I was training for the world championships, I punched a wall and injured my wrist, and my wife’s like, ‘You’ve got to stop that.’ … I just go till I get something. I don’t quit.”
Two years later, in 2003, after some intensive practice, Hall entered the competition and received a silver medal. In 2005, he was crowned overall prop champion.
As he taught himself juggling, Hall also studied Japanese, which like juggling, was a passion ignited through a book. More specifically, it was a novel called “Shōgun” by James Clavell, which he read when he was around 13 years old.
“I was like, ‘Wow, man, that’s cool. I want to be a ninja,’ stuff like that,” Hall said. “But my high school only offered French and Spanish, … so I’d wait until I got to undergrad.”
Hall took a Japanese course during his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame and in his sophomore year, was selected to go to Japan with a small student cohort for a year.
After coming back from Tokyo and finishing his undergraduate studies in Japanese and philosophy, Hall embarked on a year of volunteer work for the Holy Cross Associates. During this time, Hall vowed to live in service of others and stayed with about six other volunteers in Colorado, where they rotated between working at a teen psychiatric unit, orphanage and drug addiction center.
While working at the teen psychiatric unit, Hall said he met a teacher whose students ranged from drug addicts to gangbangers. Hall said the teacher’s ability to accommodate each student made him realize that she was the first “true teacher” he’d met.
“I watched her handle it no problem,” Hall said. “I was like, ‘She’s amazing.’”
Inspired, right after that year, Hall decided to combine his passions for Japanese and teaching by applying for the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, a program managed by Japan’s government. He was accepted and promptly sent to Japan, where he taught English and world history for three years. It gave him a first taste of what life as a teacher was like, he said.
Hall later returned to Japan while working at the Japanese Consulate — a Japanese embassy branch office — as a community affairs officer. During that trip, he met Rushton Hurley, who Hall deemed his “master teacher” and ran the Japanese program at Silver Creek High School in San José.
“He said, ‘Boy, you got to come work for me. I like your action. I like your style,’” Hall said. “And I literally applied to Stanford, quit my job at the consulate, got accepted to Stanford, moved out here and I was getting my master’s in 1999, a year after I’d met him.”
A few years after graduating from Stanford and teaching at Silver Creek High, Hall became a Japanese teacher and student activities director at Palo Alto High School. While there, Hall coordinated and hosted the “Game of Throws,” a juggling festival starring guest jugglers and students from Paly’s own juggling club.
In 2020, when a full-time Japanese teacher position opened up at Gunn, Hall moved from Paly to Gunn. Now that he’s at Gunn, Hall continues to actively share his interests with students. Gunn’s first “Game of Throws” festival, which Hall will run, is set to happen next January at Spangenberg Theater, featuring the recently created Gunn Juggling Club.
“[Hall] introduced [juggling] to us in the class because it’s one of his hobbies,” said senior Ethan Cheng, founding member and president of Gunn’s Juggling Club and vice president of Gunn’s Japan Culture Club. “For Japanese, I think he has definitely increased my interest and passion. … He shares a lot of his experiences living in Japan, and it’s really interesting.”
In hindsight, Hall said his passions for Japanese and juggling have led him exactly to become the teacher he is today.
“I’ve been in training for this job all my life,” Hall said. “This is what I was meant to do.”