It’s a test week, so I’ve been grading papers more than going to class.My students make the normal mistakes for kids their age, and I’ve got to admit I made the same kind of mistakes every so often back in the day. When one of my Japanese English Teachers came over and gave me a stack of winter break assignments, I just assumed they’d be like all the rest. He told me, “Look for mistakes and correct. If they are right, circle. You know, yes?”
I smiled and nodded my head, “Hai. I know.” I took the papers from his hands. When I plopped them on the desk, they made a nice thunk! I got out my red pen and got comfortable on my rolling chair. As we would say back home, “This is gonna take awhile.”
I opened the stack and started reading. I paused when I realized these weren’t the normal variety of papers. They were essays, and the students were given different things to discuss over the year 2011. Of course, the Great East Japan Earthquake was a topic. Some students wrote about it. They said pretty much the same thing over and over again.
“The East Japan earthquake was on March 11th. I remember that day. I was in school when the earthquake happened. I was very fearful. Many people passed away and died. I will not forget that earthquake.”
I felt my heart break each time a student wrote about it. Some of them had family up near Fukushima and worried about them being so close to the radioactivity. More than one student mentioned the radiation levels getting high, and also about the earthquake damage in Itako. I wanted to find each and every one of them and hug them. Instead, I slash out grammar and spelling mistakes with a red pen. Beside an essay, I put a “Good job! :)” and possibly a comment.
Every time I saw the numbers 3/11, I couldn’t help but get flashbacks to 9/11. I remember that day very well. I could point out exactly where I was when the Twin Towers were attacked. I can remember how the hallways in middle school were full of people panicking. Teachers were talking to each other in hurried voices, trying to decide what to do I guess. I remember a friend running up to tell me, “Something really, really bad just happened. I don’t know what, but parents are coming to pick up their kids.” I remember turning to the science room and the TV was on. I saw something smoking and a tall building. At the time I had no idea, but it was the first tower struck by the airplane.
That memory remains like a deep scar. For the next week, kids at my school talked at the lunch table. Some were even talking about going away on vacation for a bit. We lived next to a uranium enrichment plant, and it was on the hit list of possible targets for terrorism. I remember wondering how long it would take to go up. The answer? I probably wouldn’t even had time to scream. I still have nightmares about that plant blowing up one day.
I remember where I was on 3/11, too. I woke up that night for some reason. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I got on YouTube to watch some movies and relax. I saw the earthquake news an hour after it had happened. I was in denial about it, hoping against hope that the earthquake just did some damage and that was all. I found out at lunch about the tsunami. I cried when I saw the death toll numbers rising every ten minutes. I got on Facebook to message my friends and emailed my host families in Japan. When I left to go on Spring Break, I kept up with the news and watched the nuclear plant problems. When I got the news that everyone I knew was fine, I felt relieved, but the nuclear plant issues put a knot in my stomach. Thankfully, some very brave people saved Japan from yet another disaster.
The radiation remains an ongoing problem, but the recovery efforts will continue as well. Still, many people here won’t btuy foods or products if they have the Fukushima kanji on them. There’s a huge nuclear power distrust among my students. They say, “Abunai desu!” It’s dangerous. I don’t know what to tell them. I do understand how it feels to suddenly realize the danger of the world, that it can change so violently, and the paranoia that it could happen again. I wish I could find the right words to say, but I can’t.
At that moment when I sit at my desk I feel like I should do something. I don’t know what, but something. I feel like a failure, like I haven’t done enough to make thing better.
But then I remember how after 9/11 my teachers did their best to keep things normal. We talked about what happened from time to time, but usually we just tried to move on. I can see my students and teachers are trying to move on, too. I can still see the fear students have when a bigger earthquake happens. One student held my hand tightly when a earthquake hit a few months or so ago. I squeezed her hand and said, “Daijoubu desu.” It’s alright. I want to keep doing that. I want to help make everything alright again.
My students are definitely strong and moving forward. They didn’t just reflect on the earthquake. They also talked about the Tokyo Motor Show, the Japan Women’s Soccer Team winning the World Cup, and Arashi winning its various awards (MatsuJun, I love you!). Because of the Japan Women’s Soccer Team, many of my students felt inspired and so proud. They all talked about how the win brought them such joy. Thanks to them, I’ve got quite a few girls talking about being soccer stars when they grow up. I gave them smiley faces on their papers and told them to keep their dreams.
They’re already talking about spring vacation even though that’s quite a ways away. Valentines Day is also just around the corner. A few of my students have asked me if I’m giving away chocolates to a boy. Maybe someday, but not this time.
I hope this next year brings a whole lot of good things. I’m no hero and I know I can’t take the memory of 3/11 away, but I can be here to support my kids. I can’t get it back to the way it was. That’s impossible. Still, I can try to make them feel secure again. The ground can shake all it wants.
I’m not going anywhere.