Giving thanks from oceans away


This could be just a heartwarming story of two college friends getting together over Christmas break to compare their respective lives and careers. Yet the implications of this simple visit reach around the globe, bringing diverse cultures and people together.

Sound like a stretch? Not if one of these young people is my nephew Joel, who is teaching English to grade school students in Japan, and the other is Hannah, an elementary school teacher in Bennett, Colo.

Joel and Hannah followed similar paths after their graduation in 2011. Both have become teachers. Both moved away from their hometowns. Both want to make a difference in the world by making a difference in the lives of children.

And when Joel visited Hannah’s classroom this past December, he brought more than a new language and a new culture to the students. He brought a new way of thinking and doing and understanding.

Joel shared with Hannah’s students — the art of logographic characters that are pictographic sketches of the items they represent, such as the symbol for “horse” that he taught them to draw. And although playing with ink and water and brushes is great fun for kids and adults alike, Hannah’s students also got a look through a new window on the world.

How do we know this? Because, in addition to teaching academic skills, Hannah is helping her students learn about life, such as the importance of saying thank you — after Joel’s visit, Hannah asked her students to write him thank you notes.

All of the letters were appropriately addressed to Joel an honorific term for “teacher” that refers to masters of their professions. Many of the students were straightforward, sincere, and very serious in their thanks: “Dear Joel Thanks for coming to our school today. I didn’t know that some Japanese letters meant words.” And: “I learned that horse in Japan isn’t a picture of a horse. It’s a symbol.”

Many students expressed their curiosity about a world quite different from their own: “Why are your classrooms made of wood?” “What was the most confusing thing that happened to you?” And: “Do you like Japan food better than American food?” In a particularly sad commentary about violence in our schools, one student asked: “What if somebody breaks in (your classroom)? Won’t they see you through all the windows?”

Students also offered their appreciation in humorous and poignant ways: “My mom’s birthday is today and I forgot to get her something so that craft is really going to help me.” And one of my favorites: “Thank you for teaching us about Japan. I told all my toys about you.”

The students said thank you for the lessons, the crafts, the gifts and the games that Joel brought to their classroom, but perhaps the most telling comment came from one student who said simply: “I learned a lot of other stuff, too.”

Education brings awareness that in turn provides opportunities for understanding, which then becomes the seeds of empathy. These letters from Hannah students to Joel are tangible signs that such seeds are taking hold.

, Joel and Hannah. You are indeed making a difference.


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