Class Project: Helping the Homeless
November 6, 2011
Dear Family and Friends,
One of the classes I teach is Writing I. It is a required basic writing course. The Japanese teachers who also have this class usually do translations, one unrelated sentence after another, from Japanese to English and back again. My Japanese simply is not up to such levels of sophistication, so my instruction focuses more on how to write coherent essays and on Western thought processes. Among other things, that means how to organize thoughts in a logical, cohesive manner, how to write paragraphs, and how to begin and end their compositions. My students must write one essay a week. The topics vary. Since Japanese youngsters tend to be several years behind their Western counterparts developmentally, the themes they write about are simple and personal. They might be “My Hometown,” “My Part-time Job,” “My Free-time Activities”, or “How Music Influences My Life.”
This academic year my students’ work in the first semester (from April to August) was better than usual, so I decided to do something different in the second term. During the summer break when I traveled a bit in the Tohoku area, I witnessed a lot of the devastation from the earthquake and tsunami, of course. But along side that, I became acutely aware of the admirable and much appreciated work being done by NGOs. The most renown is the Red Cross. But Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and even Habitat for Humanity are also contributing immeasurably. I was so deeply touched by the selfless service of those organizations that I wanted to convey their spirit to my students.
Being 18 and 19 year olds, my girls wanted to quickly forge ahead with their lives, forgetting the great losses and trauma of last spring and summer. So soon make-up and fashion, cell phones and part-time jobs became the center of focused interest. But I am older, of course, and feel that in the long run the soul of life far outweighs pleasant diversions and superficial fineries. So, I decided to use a serious theme in my class this term: NGOs.
I divided the students into groups of four and each one chose an NGO that interested them. The organizations were the ones mentioned above, of course, but also 350.org, The Carter Center, Alcoholics Anonymous, and my favorite of all, Yomawari, a local group helping the homeless in this area, started and run by my friend Imai Sensei.
Since September the girls have worked very hard researching their particular NGO, deciphering the often exceedingly complex English, and organizing their thoughts. It has been a real challenge for most of them, but they have not given up. And slowly cohesive presentations are starting to emerge.
The group responsible for reporting on Yomawari were fortunate in that they could easily interview Imai Sensei directly. Plus they were also able to get hands-on experience by actually helping in one of the soup runs for the homeless. (As an aside, Imai Sensei not only helps long-term homeless, but is still doing a great deal of work for those left destitute because of the March 11 disaster.)
(Imai Sensei with my students)
Being from privileged families, my students were rather apprehensive about working directly with street people. But I went with them, so we were able to share that truly meaningful and joyous experience together. All the volunteers assembled at 4 p.m. and then a mad flurry of chopping vegetables, heating soups, and cooking rice began.
Many of the volunteers were homeless themselves. So, this time of helping others was a chance for them, albeit briefly, to lift themselves out of helplessness and to participate in a purposeful life-enhancing activity.
Our working together was wonderful. We joked and laughed as we chopped and stirred and tasted and added more spices. Then we all traipsed upstairs and set out our aromatic, lovingly-made creations in as elegant a manner as we could: rice on the right, soup on the left, chopsticks in front, and a cup of tea behind.
At the dot of 6 the door opened and a hungry band of homeless, all men this time, entered in mannerly single file. They dove into the food, heads down, lips smacking, and then went back for more.
My students (dressed in very fashionable micro-mini skirts, spiked high heels, scoop-necked blouses, and with painted fingernails and the latest hairstyles) ladled out bowl after bowl of steaming hot nourishment.
As they worked, they gradually began to sense the sheer gratitude of the men. And as they watched Imai Sensei going round, talking and joking with each person, soon they, too, began to relax and smile and laugh — and realize the beautiful humanness of every one of us there.
In another room there were clothes, sleeping bags, and packaged food that the men could take, one of each. As usual, they were polite, courteous, and orderly.
The time soon came to clean up, so the men headed off to a nearby park or the train station for the night, while we volunteers had a final brief meeting.
“Any questions?” Imai Sensei kindly asked my students at the end. One queried about where the food came from, another the clothes.
But one girl raised her hand and said with a huge smile, “This was great! My heart has become very warm because of this. I want to come again. Would that be OK?”
Imai Sensei beamed in return and said, “Sure. Any time. We would love to have you. You are always welcome.”
(The evening’s volunteers)