Eighth-grader Matthew Kaung writes on the Middle School Student Service Leadership Team’s (SSLT) yearly trip to Tohoku as part of the Tohoku Virtual English Classroom (TVEC) program in support of victims of the 3/11 earthquake.
Former US President Barack Obama once said, “Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” I never really understood what President Obama meant until I went to Ofunato City in Tohoku to teach English to the children devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Tohoku Virtual English Classroom is a program run by the Middle School Student Service Leadership Team (SSLT). TVEC started six years ago as a way for ASIJ students to offer help to the victims of the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake. Every other week after school, students from SSLT collaborate to teach a fun and exciting English lesson via Skype to two sixth-grade classes in Ikawa or Sakari elementary school. ASIJ high-schoolers are also part of the program, teaching the students from Takkon elementary school. The vibrant smiles and the energy from the kids all contribute to making these lessons fun to teach.
On Feb 9, 2018, 12 SSLT members (eighth-graders Hugo Hasegawa, Shiori Harima, Dean Dawson and myself; seventh-graders Kentaro Mathis, Espi Littlefield, Mahima Dattaguru, Mia Hamaguchi, Sungyeon Park and Mia Gaspar; as well as sixth-graders Lily Matsueda and Aya Burpee) ventured more than 500 kilometers to Iwate Prefecture to teach English to the fifth and sixth-grade classes of Ikawa Elementary School. Middle school teachers, Jamie Richard, Anita Gesling and Kathleen Nickle, as well as program coordinator, Steve Mita also came along and chaperoned the trip.
Before arriving to Ofunato, I expected that they had already recovered from the damage the tsunami and earthquake brought. Almost seven years had passed since the disaster and yet sign boards were still bent and residents were still rebuilding houses. The damage still has such a severe impact. As I looked out from the bus window, I could just see emptiness to my left and right. There were no houses and no people. Seeing these living conditions makes me appreciative for what I have. As people who live in places like Tokyo, we never stop and think about how lucky we are to have never suffered such a tragedy.
But, the living conditions in Tohoku are improving. In the first year SSLT members visited Ofunato, temporary shelters surrounded the school, but now they’re gone. More permanent facilities stand in their place—areas for the kids to play, swings, slides and monkey bars. When I found out that the temporary shelters were gone, I was elated. Families would finally be able to have proper homes. Kids would finally be able to have a place to play.
The most memorable aspect of this trip, which I will never forget, would be teaching the kids in Ofunato English. While many might expect that the kids would be sad and unenergetic, they were the complete opposite. Once we entered the school, we were greeted by applause from the kids. Their faces were etched with smiles and excitement. They were so optimistic and energetic, and they treated us like celebrities. Some of them looked shy, but once we started teaching, they opened their hearts to us. I have never seen such a group of kids so grateful for one simple thing, learning English. It’s shocking to see how one small thing can make such a difference in one’s life.
As popular fictional character Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) once stated, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” From going on the TVEC trip for the past three years, I have learned to see things from the perspective of the children in Tohoku. Their lives have really been taken away by the tsunami, but their optimism and brightness just inspires and touches you. The TVEC trip has definitely been a wonderful experience, and I strongly urge you to visit Tohoku one day to experience the lives of these children.