How Students Shifted from Mocking to Honoring. A Lesson in History By Leila Meyerratken

I teach the Exploratory Foreign Language Course to middle school students. In these classes, students are exposed to several foreign languages to help them make an informed decision as to which language to pursue once they are in high school. Students also learn about the culture and history of countries that speak the languages they study. When I started teaching Japanese, my 8th graders comically began to pull their eyes toward their ears, push down on their noses and stick their teeth out. I ignored it all, really, until one student shouted, "Yeah, we nuked ‘em!" A few students stood up and gave a high five. I froze to the ground.

My mind quickly wandered to my recent trip to Japan. "Here, Omyagi you take to America for students," an elderly man told me after he walked a long distance in his town when he heard news of an American teacher visiting. He too wanted the honor of giving me presents to deliver to my students and school. With a fragile smile and trembling hands, he carefully opened a sack filled with candy, origami paper, and rice seeds. He was one of many Japanese people who felt honored to have an American teacher visitor. They all rushed to give me the best gifts for my classroom to make teaching fun.

Bringing my mind back to my class, I recollected myself, and realized that for the first time I took a remark personal. Never before have I showed passion about the past tense of Japanese verbs, or displayed any emotion about a people, but this time if I failed it would be a personal defeat.

Within a week, I distributed a class set of The Bracelet, and my 8th graders shrugged upon glancing at the picture book. "How elementary!" one student commented as she rolled her eyes. It was the beginning of a unit dealing with Japanese-American Internment and the prejudice these people faced during WWII. My rationale for this topic was to teach about racism and the pain that the depth of it caused to innocent people.

How could my students distinguish between Japanese and Japanese-Americans when they considered all Asian Chinese? I knew my lessons would be a journey. I began with a motto I once heard that a grain of rice can tip the scale. I hoped I would make a difference, for I felt whether we pull our eyes or stick our tongues out, it is a contribution to homegrown intolerance. I needed to start from somewhere. The Bracelet describes how a Japanese-American family had to move to a relocation camp, and what that was like from the point of view of a little girl. When students read the epilogue they asked if the historical events written were true. The unit was supplemented with class discussions, and a tremendous video titled Honor Bound. The film is a documentary made by a Japanese-American journalist whose father lived through the horror of WWII. During this film, when a veteran talked about his experience and cried, several students held their breath. One student said she felt a lump in her throat and had the urge to cry, a feeling I had too. The video is an emotional journey and a memoir that reveals the historical events, trials, and triumphs of the Japanese-Americans since 1940’s.

Students were given another class set titled Baseball Saved Us. It is a story about a Japanese-American boy during the time he was in the relocation camp. This book gives a brief description of the camp and what some did to pass the long and weary hours. The unit ended with a story I read to class titled Heroes. This story is about a Japanese-American boy, and how his friends continued to perceive him as an enemy after the war was over because he looked like "them." The unit generated high level thinking and some heated discussion about the meaning of Executive Order 9066 that took the constitutional rights of the Japanese-Americans during the 1940’s. "Can this happen again?" some students wondered. My 8th graders became so adamant to teach the community and the rest of the students about what they learned. "This is our history, and we never heard it before," a girl told a local newspaper reporter. Students made a presentation at the Courthouse but that was not enough to them. They composed artwork and poems but felt something was missing.

Then they started to dream when they decided to turn the school courtyard into a Japanese Zen garden. Their vision had no limits. For this garden, they wanted everything: a large deep pond with a waterfall, a fountain, Koi, water lilies, even stone lanterns from Japan. There was no compromise to create a memorial garden for the Japanese-American WWII veterans, especially for the 442nd Battalion. My students were profoundly touched by this unit who fought for the U.S. to liberate France when their own families were imprisoned in relocation camps. The group was so enthusiastic with their exciting project that they barely noticed my apprehension about such an undertaking. Noting my silence, a student said, "You told us we can do anything." Though I had no doubts in their abilities, I had little certainty in mine. I lacked skills or interest in gardening, but for them, I was willing to learn. My task was to support them in their mission, and I started by clearing my calendar -and class.

Each morning, one at a time, I saw a wheelbarrow making its way in my room followed by a student. Shovels managed to fill any empty space or crevice. Students took the lead, and were ready to build. They contacted a landscaping firm, which helped them design the plans according to the wishes of the youths. Fathers and grandfathers volunteered daily after school to help till the ground, to make way for the Yin Yang shape that students were anxious to begin with. When the bell rang at 3:15, students with rolled up pants flocked in my class and the hallways, too many to fit all at once in the room. They hauled their tools and headed for the courtyard as fast as they could. There was a lot of sweat but also careful planning, research, and collaboration. After they dug a 6 foot deep area for their pond, the insurance disapproved of the depth, and asked that they fill the area, allowing us no more than 12 inches. My students already had the 24 tons of dirt hauled away. They were not worried, neither were they willing to work so hard to be allowed "a puddle," as one put it. They contacted attorneys, met with insurance agents, and checked the Web. After conducting research, they were able to convince the school insurance that it is dug in layers or steps, to allow anyone who falls to climb right up. They pointed out the courtyard as an enclosed area, and students wouldn’t be able to enter without the presence of a staff member who has the key. My students got their way.

Students collected several thousand dollars worth of money, labor, time, and supplies to make their garden complete with everything they wanted. They even got the Ishidoro (Japanese stone lanterns) they picked out. The lesson was an opportunity to learn tolerance, study American history, and a time to thank all our American veterans and recognize the Japanese-Americans’ two battles: "One for the country and one against race." It was a chance to thank the Japanese people even from continents away for all of their Omyagi they gave me during my stay. For me, I discovered that the same people who can make piercing statements have the capacity to produce impressive work. My students have sharp minds and it was up to us to veer them in the right direction.

My students learned a lot from our Japanese class. I know that they may forget many words, but they will always remember the lessons. They learned how fragile our constitution is, and how much power people have.

My students found this out when their dream memorial garden became a reality. We now know that the limits we have are only within our vision, and may it always have a place to preserve peace between people and nations.

**Omyagi is a Japanese word that means a souvenir gift.

About the garden:

Phase 1: Is the Yin yang. Students removed 4 tons of dirt, placed landscaping cloth and then replaced the dirt with pebble.  On the pebble there is a bamboo plant, and on the grass there is a rock buried deep.   rock garden7.JPG (68272 bytes)rock garden6.JPG (72026 bytes)
Phase 2: Is an area that has a winding path. Two tons of dirt were removed,and replaced with pebbles. Here are several mounds to represent the hills climbed and difficulties faced by the AJA veterans.  rock garden15.JPG (79046 bytes)rock garden11.JPG (56477 bytes)
The only flowers are purple iris plants to represent purple heart. Students chose iris because it is a tall, upright plant to represent the strength of the AJA. They never crumbled under the weight of the injustice on the battlefield or society. rock garden3.JPG (76771 bytes)
The highest mound used to have a Japanese Maple tree. It died, and was replaced twice. Students joke by calling it Mound Folgorito, and decided there were snipers who come when they are gone and kill their tree. In this area there is a small Ishidoro to represent " light at the end of the tunnel." rock garden5.JPG (62839 bytes)rock garden4.JPG (73081 bytes)
Phase 3: Is a pond. When standing in one spot on phase 2, one can see that that the pond is shaped like a heart. 


rock garden1.JPG (69088 bytes)
The fountain was replaced last year. Rather than the simple one we had before, students added an expensive brass one. It is called a Pirouette. It has seven nozzles and spins around, creating dramatic effects.  The fountain is from France. Students used it to represent the "lost battalion" stranded in France, and surrounded by the heart shaped pond to represent that they were surrounded by very loyal and caring Americans (the AJA's). That's why they were in good hands. rock garden8.JPG (77339 bytes)
rock garden14.JPG (57366 bytes)     rock garden13.JPG (58214 bytes)     rock garden2.JPG (71191 bytes)     rock garden13.JPG (58214 bytes)     rock garden10.JPG (61053 bytes)
Not pictured is a large tree by the entrance door. It is ugly and has no shape. It represents the chaos of the 40's. Away from it is a Zenigata basin and a bamboo dipper, which represents peace and serenity.
In doing the pond, students ran out of funds, so they picked 9 tons of rocks and brought them by hand. We couldn't afford it any othe way. rock garden12.JPG (68915 bytes)
Students didn't have funds to complete other things they wanted to add last year. They wanted to have a topiary shaped like a standing woman,surrounded with barbed wire to represent all the helpless, innocent victims of EO9066 and WRA. On the opposite side of the garden, they proposed another topiary showing a seated lonely soldier, in memory of all AJA who survived the war and carry the sad war memories. Lonely, because us civilian can't understand their experience.  These might be the project for next year.


Q1: Exactly what turned your attention to the AJAs more than 3 years ago before the construction of the Zen-garden at the school?

A1: What turned me to teach about the AJA was the disrespect shown by my students when I started teaching Japanese. I used to ignore it, but that year I had returned from a trip in Japan. I met the people and I fell in love with them. I took their remarks personal.

Q2: What is the total number students that are participating in the current quilt project from the 2 middle schools?

A2: Currently, I have about 503 students in the 8th grade.

Q3: Approximately what percentage of the students in the quilt project are Hispanics?

A3: There are 42% of my students are on free or reduced lunch, 12 % Hispanic non-English speakers, 2% others (Black and multi-racial), 40% at-risk students. Some categories overlap.

Q4: Are there any connection between teaching elementary Japanese with the notion of honoring AJA veterans? If so what is the connection?

A4: The connection between Japanese language and Japanese American is to teach my students that there is a clear distinction between Japanese and Japanese Americans. My students used to refer to all Asian as Chinese or Orientals. I dislike both, especially the latter, because I use Oriental with objects like rugs and vases, and not people.

Q5: When and where did you become familiar with the story of the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team?

A5: I became familiar with the story when I attended a free short workshop. I was given a few books and there was some mention about Japanese Americans and the "relocation camps". I learned about the story from the Video Honor Bound, which was a present. I mentioned to a friend that I read it was good. After the video, I wanted to learn more.

Q6: Were you recruited by the school system of Lafayette to teach French, Japanese, and Spanish?

A6: I was recruited to teach French and Spanish. They are my area of strengths. They told me to add Japanese later on, so I started to take more classes. I don't feel comfortable with it, because I think I will never learn how to write it well or know the Kanji. Each time I learn 100 new Kanji, I forget the first set.

Q7: Were you a teacher also when you lived in Arabian countries?

A7: I wasn't teacher during my trips in the Arab world. I was a student. My step-dad was a Peace Corps volunteer. I used to be hired to teach Arabic to American diplomat. I earned a reputation for teaching well and making Arabic easy to learn. Then was hired to teach French, then Spanish. I didn't know I was going to be a teacher. I planned to pursue International Law, and thought I would work for the UN. When I graduated I was hired to work for the FBI, but didn't like the idea. I couldn't imagine being a linguist with a gun. I don't know how I chose to teach. My college professors told me they wouldn't recommend me to be a teacher, because I refused to work as a group. I hated for my name to be put on an assignment I didn't do. No, I didn't like group assignments.

Q8: How long have you being teaching in the Lafayette School System?

A8: I have been teaching for LSS for 9 years.

Q9: Have you ever visited the battle ground of the Lost Battalion (Hill 645) in the Foret Dominiale De Champ in northeastern France, northwest of Geneva, Switzerland?

A9: I never visited a place dealing with this unit, because I never thought I would be doing this project. I wanted to do some research last summer before this project started, but spent the summer in Guatemala and Mexico as a Fulbright fellow doing research, and improving my Spanish. Most of our Hispanic students do not speak Spanish and I am needed to communicate with them. This year I am off duty from teaching ESL (English as a Second Language), in order to be free during my prep time to work with 8th graders on this project.