“Inside an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of immigrant children wait in a series of cages…” -Associated Press, June 18, 2018
One of the most powerful conversations I ever had as a principal was with Tak Sugimoto, an alumnus of a high school where I worked, who had been interned as a boy in the 1940s. His family was of Japanese descent, and in the height of post Pearl Harbor fear they were taken from their homes in Encinitas, California and placed in custody in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. He described what education was like there: a makeshift school, students under terrific stress, and a system that punished families for simply being of a non-white heritage deemed threatening by the government.
A hearty nonagenarian, Tak brought a profound wisdom to the telling of his story, and an unexpected sense of peace that was decades in the making. The corrupt nature of Japanese internment, the systemic racism, and the nation’s cruelty had wounded him, but not broken him; he lived now a strong, balanced man. Experiences like those he described had destroyed other families, ruined childhoods, and been a high water mark for intolerance and governmental cruelty. When I talked with him two years ago, he was optimistic that his country had learned from those mistakes.
As Tak spoke, I thought back to my friend Doug Kamon, whose parents met in a different internment camp, The Gila River War Relocation Center in the middle of another Arizona desert. At the end of every year we worked together Doug would present his family’s story, providing our students his own familiar face, making the details of this tragic time even more immediate to them. As Doug talked about his young parents and his grandparents, not all of whom survived the camps, students sat silently, listening to this man they knew so well and his connection to a past some would choose to forget. Many students found it hard to believe that Poston or Gila River could really have happened in the United States. More than a few considered themselves lucky that they didn’t live in times like those.
Both Tak and Doug’s parents were interned with their families. They struggled under harsh conditions and did their best to survive a system that marginalized them for no reason other than their ethnicity. In school in the camps the kids from the Sugimoto and Kamon families did their best in an environment filled with stress and anxiety, and went home to parents who could hold them tight and reassure them that they had the strength to persevere. These were terrible times, but they were together.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve thought a lot about these stories, and imagined what it might be like for the kids who don’t have parents to comfort them in times of duress. As an educator I know the importance of supporting every student, both academically and when it comes to mental health. It’s common knowledge that students face very real challenges, wrestle with complicated emotions, and struggle to stay healthy in US schools. Most of these students have adults to go home to and a greater sense of certainty than those kids whose home life is so uncertain. For kids who are deprived of that support, the risk of both short and long term harm is profound.
There are times when I feel helpless in effecting change beyond the walls of my own school. Here I can get to know kids and families, I can encourage kindness, build systems that promote care, and potentially make a difference. Even with all that, sometimes it’s really difficult.
In the greater world, where I am a participant, not a leader, I feel even more challenged when faced with situations that put kids in harm’s way. I am not a lawmaker, and as much as I write them, I struggle sometimes to believe that my voice matters. I do my best to stay optimistic, but seeing tragedy rise unexpectedly and impact kids keeps me up at night. Literally.
Willa Cather captured my anxiety when she wrote:
When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.”
“When kindness has left people…” What a terrible phrase. “When it has left a place where we have always found it…”
I want so much to believe that kindness can return, where we can all feel secure and not “drop into something malevolent and bottomless.”
Then I remember Tak and I hope.
I hope, and I wonder. Seventy years from now, who will be the alumnus who talks with a principal about her experience with internment? Will she have Tak’s wisdom or perspective? Will she share his strength? What will her story say about the the country that imagines itself to be a place where one can always find kindness?
A lack of kindness underscores the stories of Japanese internment that I know. There was a time when heartlessness toward others, describing them as something less than human, informed our country’s willingness to lock away the innocent. Tak was a kid, not a spy. Doug’s parents weren’t threats; they were people doing their best.
As an educator I need to believe that we learn, we all can learn, from our mistakes. I need to hold hope as a value, and live as if kindness is stronger than cruelty. In those shipwreck days I’m wise to look to survivors for inspiration, focus on nurturing kindness in every way I can, and be willing to reflect on what more can be done to help.
Reality is powerful. Optimists sometimes doubt. Internment of children is internment of children. Hope will win the day.