While Military Brats do adapt to new schools, countries and cultures—they have to—it is a difficult process and hard to forget.
Changing schools was one of the mixed blessings of being a military child. If one had a great teacher and a wonderful circle of friends, the wrenching away from what was familiar was painful. However, a move also brought the opportunity to remake oneself. The trick was knowing ahead of time that you would need to remake yourself!
In my 2nd through 5th grade years, we lived in Kansas. My father was stationed at Ft. Leavenworth, initially as a student at Command & General Staff College, and later as an instructor. It was idyllic and my school was excellent. I flourished as an early and eager reader and simply loved everything to do with school. I wore dresses every day except on the coldest winter days.
Those days it was acceptable to wear pants under my dress, but we removed them once we were in the warmth of the school, only to put them on for recess and for the walk home. We had excellent music and art classes. Cussing was not tolerated. Teachers gave hugs, and sometimes allowed us to sit on their laps.
I did have a blip in 4th grade because I had a teacher who was very unkind. It was a shock to my system as all of my prior teachers treated me like they loved everything about me. She had to have knee replacement surgery partway through the school year and in 1970 that was a huge operation with long recovery. Looking back, I now realize that the pain she must have been in prior to the surgery tinted her outlook! But at the time, I just thought she was mean. Fortunately, in 5th grade I went back to my happy self and excelled once more.
Each spring, every classroom teacher in our school would put up a big world map and each child would be invited to stick a pin in the map to show where they would be going next. I was in agony in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade because we stayed in the same place year after year! Although the time at Leavenworth was a true blessing in my childhood, back then I just wanted to stick a pin in somewhere OTHER than Kansas!
Finally, in the spring of 5th grade I very self-importantly marched up to the map and stuck my pin in the island of Honshu, in the country of Japan. It sounded exotic and wonderful and it wasn’t Kansas! Our family began the process of culling the accumulation of four years, getting shots, and preparing our ‘grand tour’ to say goodbye to cousins and grandparents.
The biggest shock for me when we got to Japan wasn’t Japanese culture. That was engaging and fun. My shock came from the change in culture in my schooling situation. For the first time in my life I was going to a fully integrated school. In Kansas, the elementary schools had drawn from the housing areas surrounding them. Since officer housing was separate from enlisted housing, there were very few children of enlisted men in our school. And since the officer corps was mostly white in the late 1960’s, there were also very few kids of any different colors, except those whose fathers were officers in armies of our allies and were attending the course. Those children were like diplomatic kids – very high status in their home countries.
Another equalizer was that everyone was in about the same socio-economic strata; there was no obvious division between haves and have-nots. This doesn’t mean our schools at Ft. Leavenworth were one-dimensional or in any way lacking – they were actually very rich in teacher talent and curriculum and provided a learning environment that corresponded to that.
Sagamihara Elementary School was a very different place. The first shock was that I had to ride a bus from the headquarters base at Camp Zama where we lived, to the school in the Sagamihara Housing Area. The bus was noisy and stinky. When I got to school I discovered I was the only girl wearing a dress in 6th grade, and girls didn’t hold hands and skip together at recess. Some of them talked about boyfriends and there were all kinds of words floating in the air around me that I had never heard before. They were NOT Japanese words!
Some of our teachers were very dedicated. But , many had accepted positions with DODS so they could travel abroad, and teaching was their lowest priority. My home room teacher was male, had very long hair, and carried a purse. He often told us that he was there for the adventure.
The school had kids whose families lived on a whole lot less monthly pay, and those kids were tough. And, there were kids with dark skin who sounded and acted in ways different than I had ever experienced.
On the third day of school someone threatened to beat me up. I’m still not sure what prompted that but I imagine I was like an alien to them . . . kind of Shirley Temple meets West Side Story.
At the end of that first week I told my mother I was never going back to that school again unless I could wear pants and sneakers like everyone else. It was difficult to get clothes for us over there, but somehow she managed the pants, but the shoes were a different matter. The cool shoes to wear were Japanese sneakers, but they had no support in them. I had been born with a foot problem that required corrective shoes for many years and my mother feared losing the hard-won gains I had made. I think I finally just wore her down.
At the beginning of the second school week a miracle occurred. A girl came into our class late, and I was no longer the newcomer. Her mother was Japanese and her father was an American civilian. Her family had been on a trip to the States and it made them late. She had been at the school for a long time, and could have jumped onto the side of the kids who made fun of me, but for some reason, she chose not to do that.
Pam invited me to be her friend, and for the next two years, we were inseparable. Her family lived off base and her mother practically adopted me. As often as we could, we stayed at her house and wandered through all the little villages around hers. Pam delighted in showing me to the old people who had never seen a blonde, blue-eyed child in person. In return for letting them touch my hair, she would extract free candy for both of us.
When we both turned 12 and were supposed to pay full-fare on the train Pam made me buy the tickets. It was unusual for a gaijin (foreign) child to be purchasing a ticket at all, and I would stand there saying “Kodomo” (child) over and over until the agent finally gave in, while Pam hid somewhere nearby laughing hysterically. We probably only saved about ten yen on each ticket, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise.
Pam introduced me to crickets in cages, manju over steamers at the train station, and the glory of hot chestnuts in the middle of winter. We went to festivals with drums and festivals with fireworks. She had older siblings so when the brand new “PONG” game was introduced, we played it at her house long before anyone on base had it.
One summer I went with her family to a beach house that had once belonged to the Meiji emperors. We swam in the clearest blue water I’d ever seen and ate the fruit of the sea every night. When it got late her older brother told us ghost stories about samurai warriors and we huddled together telling each other we weren’t scared.
My friendship with Pam gave me a bridge for both cultures. I still didn’t fit in very well with the other military kids, but I didn’t care as much because I had a close friend. And, she was cool enough in their eyes that her being my friend smoothed off some of the “uncool” halo that I wore. Together we progressed from Bobby Sherman to Michael Jackson, from Suzie Whitebread to Motown. It was great.
At the end of 7th grade her father’s job changed and they moved to Tachikawa. I thought I would die of loneliness, but that year some other girls new girls arrived and helped ease the pain. I did mourn the loss of my dear friend for a long time though. We tried to keep in touch, but like military kids did back then, we drifted apart as both of us got involved in our separate lives.
I received one telephone call from her in about 1979. Her mother had died and the family had moved back to the U.S. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for them to settle into mainstream American life – more difficult than for military children to do so. They were truly cross cultural in myriad ways.
I wish I could find her today and tell her how much she meant to me. I’ve searched Facebook to no avail. I hope, somewhere deep down, she knows that her friendship was the saving grace for a geeky social outcast and hopefully, there was something in me that she enjoyed as well.