Get to Know Kanai Before He Says Goodbye


Latin School of Chicago

After four years of teaching English at Latin, Lang Kanai prepares for his unexpected departure.


Upper School English teacher Lang Kanai has lived a thousand lives, and his adventure isn’t nearly over yet.

After working for four years at Latin School, Mr. Kanai, often referred to as Coach K, will be moving on at the end of the school year, but his colorful story begins long before Latin.

Mr. Kanai grew up right outside of Washington, D.C., attending public school through high school. He was a four-sport varsity athlete and a gifted musician, even winning state competitions for his viola and piano playing.

After high school, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a music scholarship. However, he quickly realized that music wasn’t for him, and he began to study English. Shortly after beginning his college studies, Mr. Kanai transferred to West Point Military Academy.

Reflecting on his decision to transfer, Mr. Kanai said, “My first year at Chapel Hill, I didn’t connect to the student body in a really meaningful way. I was sort of wayward and was looking for a sense of purpose. I thought I would find that at the military academy at West Point, and in many ways I did.” He added, “I met some of my very best friends. The academies are not like any other schools on the planet. They are their own unique, strange little institutions. There are some really great life lessons I learned from going there, but then also some things I learned about myself that indicated that the military and the academy is not the place for me.”

After about three years at West Point, Mr. Kanai resigned as a conscientious objector, just a month before his graduation. An objector is somebody who cannot in their good conscience serve in any form of armed forces whether that be due to religious, political, or moral beliefs.

However, being a conscientious objector is easier said than done. The Department of Defense attempted to enlist Mr. Kanai in the Army. He then participated in a prolonged legal battle against the Department of Defense, in which he filed for writ of habeas which protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment.” His case was taken to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, before it was eventually dismissed, allowing him to move on.

“Like many chapters, I sort of wish it ended differently, but I feel great about my decision to leave,” he said.

“That was tough, because I essentially lost all my friends because they went on to the Army, and I just went back to the civilian world and I lost touch with a lot of them. I read books and poetry, and they were off fighting. I have a little bit of guilt feeling like I shirked my duty and all the things that we worked towards together. I skipped out on it in the last moment. Many of them totally understood my decision.” He added, “Heat-of-the-moment type conversations get the better of people, but give it some time, and it will get worked out.”

After fighting the Department of Defense for years and eventually winning, Mr. Kanai finished his degree in literature at the University of North Carolina. “It was one of the best years of my life, where I got to just be completely immersed in poetry and fiction and study all my favorite writers.”

He graduated from UNC in 2009 and moved back to Washington, D.C., where he began teaching immediately in their public school system.

“I took what is essentially a summer to do a Teach for America-type program where you get trained for a summer and then you are thrown into a classroom,” he said. “I was trained in secondary special education, and that was what I did for the first two years of my teaching career. It was really rewarding but also extremely difficult.”

Mr. Kanai finished his graduate degree at Georgetown University and applied for English teaching jobs. He got one and as he says, “The rest is history.”

He taught in Washington at an independent school, a university in Indonesia, and then came to Latin, where he has taught for the past four years. In between each of his teaching endeavors, he took interludes where he found new adventures, but always came back to teaching in the end. For example, he was a copy editor and fact checker for National Geographic, where he also wrote a series of articles on the connection between manatees and mermaids. “It was cute little hard-hitting journalism,” he said.

He also became a certified nursing assistant and worked in various long-term care facilities. When he first came to Chicago, he got a job at the Swedish Covenant Hospital on the stroke floor. Mr. Kanai worked with “complete patients,” meaning that they needed complete help in all basic activities. “That was actually one of my most rewarding experiences,” he said. “Being a caretaker is something I think that everyone should do to see that side of things.”

Additionally, Mr. Kanai is often one to participate in peaceful protests, standing up for marginalized groups. In a Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020, he was arrested and mistreated by the police.

In addition to his various adventures, Mr. Kanai is a man of many hobbies whether that be shoes, music, video games, or scuba diving. “I have such a wide range of interests that sometimes I feel great about it because I can connect to all kinds of people on all kinds of different things,” he said. “But I don’t drill often too deep in doing mastery, which I sort of crave as well.”

First and foremost, Mr. Kanai is a shoe junkie. Anybody in the Latin community who has ever met him knows this. He is often seen sporting a colorful, unique, and very clean shoe.

“I’ve loved sneakers ever since I was probably four or five and I first understood what a Jordan sneaker was,” Mr. Kanai said. “Shoes are my one indulgence. My mom raised me by herself, and she was a teacher, so we didn’t have the most disposable income in the world. That being said, she did an amazing job. She put me in all these programs, had me playing instruments, sports, and all that stuff. The one thing she couldn’t support was my burning love for Jordan sneakers, and sneakers generally. So once I had a little bit of money on my own, it began. Once it began, I couldn’t really turn it off.”

His first “indulgence” was a pair of red and black Jordan 12’s Flu Game shoes. “I just loved those shoes. Darnell Little had them, and I was so jealous of him, so I made it a point that they were going to be the first ones I ever bought.” He added, “It is great because you get to connect with other people from all walks of life who love sneakers and love basketball.”

Currently, Mr. Kanai has about 15 to 20 pairs of sneakers.

While Mr. Kanai didn’t end up pursuing music in the sense that he expected to, it is still a large part of his daily life. He often plays around with his guitar and loop pedal, coming up with random licks and songs. He is a big fan of Elliot Smith, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon.

Additionally, Mr. Kanai has an admiration for scuba diving and photography, two interests that he has combined. “I have this whole giant rig of another thing I splurged on,” he said. “I am able to take really nice photos underwater of all the marine life I encounter when I am on dives.”

His love of photography and other types of media shines through in his teaching. Senior Avi Vadali, one of Mr. Kanai’s students, said, “Mr. Kanai is clearly passionate about English and literature, and he did an excellent job of breaking the typical English mold with Digital Narratives. I learned an incredible amount in that class about how digital mediums can effectively communicate stories in ways that traditional media cannot.”

Recently, he has also taken up skateboarding, truly emphasizing that one can never have too many hobbies.

“I love watching anime,” Mr. Kanai said. “I have been frankly so shocked and delighted that anime has taken off in the way that it has. Anime was not nearly as mainstream when I was in high school, and I had maybe two other friends that were into anime. That has been really fun to see and be able to chat with people about their favorite animes.”

Sophomore Michael Cardoza said, “He was a pretty laid back teacher, and he was always fun to talk to about things such as anime. I was never into shoes, but the anime I really got. He just made the transition from middle school to high school really easy.”

Mr. Kanai also took a recent interest in coaching amateur basketball teams, specifically Latin’s very own P-Pushers, formed from Mr. Kanai’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Literature students.

Sophomore Dillon Romano said, “He didn’t only coach basketball and English. He coached life and how to better myself for the future.”

Diego Miranda, a sophomore member of the team, added, “As a coach, Mr. Kanai was someone who taught us leadership and what it truly means to be a part of a team.”

Mr. Kanai is an open book. He is often found sharing stories and his various life experiences in his classes. But one thing that most do not know about him is that he owns a video game company. About a year ago, he and two of his close friends partnered up to start a company. While he did not want to share the name with The Forum, he said “It’s been a really fun project, and it’s going kind of well. Hopefully, we’ll raise enough capital here to keep it going for a while longer.”

While departing from Latin will give him time to focus on his many interests, he says that leaving brings up many conflicting feelings for him. “The last two years, for most folks, but I’ll speak just for myself, have been really draining, and I feel like, personally, I’ve had no chance to re-energize and do the things that I really love to do that get me prepared, then, for a full school year of teaching.”

The COVID pandemic has restricted him from seeing his family for several years now and is yet another contributing factor to the “pandemic exhaustion” that many are experiencing. And with that exhaustion, Mr. Kanai felt it was time to move on to his next adventure, even given his adoration for Latin and its community.

“I hope all my students know that I think they’re amazing,” he said. “My colleagues are also super fabulous. This has been the best professional experience I’ve had, working with folks in the English Department and just generally in the faculty.”

As for his plans for next year, as cliché as it may sound, Mr. Kanai is just living in the moment and seeing where the world takes him. He foresees some traveling, driving for Lyft, and doing whatever he has to do to make it work while taking a break from teaching. As noted before, his years of pandemic teaching were exhausting, and Mr. Kanai is looking for a breather, but he will be back eventually, maybe not at Latin, but in the teaching world.

“There is really nothing like teaching,” he said. “Usually I wake up and I just think, ‘Wow, I get paid to do this. To come in and talk about literature with these amazing people.’ It feels like I have found a cheat code or something. It is something I am sure I’ll come back to. In the meantime, I think I need to reconnect with my family, just sort of take some time, do some meditating. Maybe I’ll go do a monastery stay for a little while. Truly, I don’t know!”

Not only has Mr. Kanai been a member of the English Department, but he is the faculty advisor for both the Asian Student Alliance and the Chronic Illness and Disability Affinity, as well as the coach for the P-Pusher’s basketball team, working with and impacting a wide range of students.

Avi said, “I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Kanai in [Asian Student Alliance], and he brings a fresh perspective and a plethora of experiences for us to connect with and discuss. He is an incredible individual and will be missed.”

Similarly, Junior Megan Riordan said, “I am very saddened by Mr. Kanai’s departure. He has been incredibly supportive as the CIDA affinity faculty advisor, and a great teacher to be around. I, as well as the entire CIDA affinity, will miss him greatly.”

Sophomore Phoebe Koehler said, “I always enjoy my conversations with Mr. Kanai ranging from our weekend plans to ideas for transition words at the start of new paragraphs.”

In true Mr. Kanai fashion, his final thoughts included an extensive amount of gratitude to Latin and all members of the community. “A big thank you for letting me be part of the community for the time that I’ve been here,” he said. “Stay in touch please. I am here, and if anyone ever needs anything, I’m around.”