The teacher awoke 30 minutes early Thursday to give a special lesson that she has recited many times for many pupils over many years. She took her breakfast alone, at 7 a.m., ahead of the other residents of the Spiritwood assisted living home in Issaquah, where she and her husband Tom have lived for three years.
Sally Kitano is 81, very hard of hearing, faint of memory, prone to repeat lines from the script of her conversations, but still steady on her feet. This morning, she dressed in beige slacks, a floral, button-down blouse and a heavy, grey cardigan sweater, looking very much the part. She assembled the materials for her lesson — newspaper clippings, family photographs, a school yearbook — into a heavy, black Samsonite briefcase older than some of her children. Then, she boarded the Spiritwood activity van for the 25-mile trip to Gatewood Elementary School in West Seattle.
She arrived at 8:30, taking a seat in front of about 50 fourth and fifth graders who have been studying an episode of American history triggered by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, 72 years ago tomorrow, marked each year as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
Kitano was 9 years old when she heard the news of the bombing on the radio in her family’s farmhouse on Bainbridge Island, where she and all her five siblings were born. Her parents were from the Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. Six aunts and uncles, and many more cousins, still lived there at the time. As she stood against a wall listening to the radio, her prevailing thought was, “We’re at war against my relatives.”
As a witness to the events related to World War II, she is among the few and fewer. By the time the current students of Gatewood become parents, Kitano’s generation mostly will have passed. This is a fact many of the students in front of her were aware of that morning.
Through one of the Gatewood parents, Kitano agreed to speak to the students about her experience of WWII, of leaving behind her home and friends on Bainbridge, riding in a train to California escorted by soldiers and attending school behind barbed-wire fences in the desolate, high desert. She has spoken to students before on the subject, usually high school and middle school students. This was the first time she spoke to elementary students, who are the same age she was when she left the only home she had ever known.
The class greeted her with a song they had rehearsed, in Japanese. Charmed by the gesture, she sheepishly admitted to the children she understood only a few words.
For weeks, the children of Mr. Radu’s combined, fourth and fifth-grade class studied the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II as part of their larger plan to study the Constitution and what it means to have rights protected by the document and to be a citizen. While no students in his class are Japanese-American, several are the children of immigrants from other countries, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Mexico among them.
To further immerse his students in the local history of the internment, Darren Radu assigned roles to the kids. All of them were given Japanese surnames and parts to play as Japanese-Americans living in the Seattle area in the 1940s. Some played farmers, some business owners, some children. As part of the exercise, all of them wrote letters to hypothetical friends and relatives to describe the imagined experience. (Radu plans to use the same role-playing curriculum later to study the Civil War and the civil rights movement.)
“It’s a really powerful way to bring the kids into this story,” said Radu, 42, who married into a Japanese-American family, so has some indirect experience with the wartime detention. “The power of the story makes it a lot more concrete for them.”
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