By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Right below a photo of him in military fatigues holding an automatic weapon is a caption that he served in Korea “circa 1994.” That and other posts on Facebook have contributed to speculation among Japanese American community leaders about why a high school principal with exposure to Asia would terminate a highly-popular Japanese language program.
The principal, Thomas Caudle, who owns the Facebook page, came to Lindbergh High School two years ago and encountered arguably the most popular teacher, whom her students call Hiromi Sensei (her full name is Hiromi Weir).
What followed was not entirely clear, but resulted in the only remaining Japanese language program in the Renton School District reportedly being put on the chopping block, only to be reinstated after students, parents, and Japanese American groups raised an outcry.
The details that emerged appear to outline a story of the murkiness and frustrations surrounding school districts, as they seek to reestablish themselves after coming out of years of dark times with remote learning and COVID policies.
Caudle did not respond to multiple emails for this story, nor did the school board, the superintendent, or the deputy superintendent.
In the end, a spokesperson for the district said that it was only a “rumor” that the program was going to be cut.
“The Japanese language program will continue. There is no plan now or in the future to cut the program,” said Randy Matheson, Executive Director Community Relations, Renton School District.
A different history
According to Weir, who has taught Japanese for 14 years at Lindbergh, Caudle told her he was planning to cut it and replace it with American Sign Language (ASL), despite the fact that more students had shown interest in Japanese per teacher than any other language course.
Matheson said Caudle was only making an “inquiry” about ASL because it would allow students “to earn credit for two programs at the same time.”
He did not offer clarification for which programs. Students are required to complete two years of foreign language study in high school in Washington state.
According to Weir, however, after Caudle told her about the program cancellation, she asked him why.
Weir had initially planned to retire before the pandemic, but stayed on to usher the program through hard times and make sure it continued as it was as popular as it had always been—so that it would be in good shape for a new teacher to take over.
As of this month, 190 students had expressed a desire to take one of the courses she teaches, putting it above French, with 109 students, and Spanish with a total of 350 students—175 for each of two teachers.
“It was more than a full-time job,” said Weir.
So when she told Human Resources, during Spring Break—the first week of April—that she was planning to retire the following year, she expected the sheer number of interested students, not to mention the ongoing popularity of the program, to ensure its survival.
The following Monday, she was meeting with the assistant principal about the course.
“The assistant principal said, ‘Congratulations, Hiromi, on your retirement,’ and then she told me the principal wanted to know if I had any interest in coming back to teach part-time next year,” said Weir.
The offer being presented was to help those students who had finished their first year of Japanese complete their second year. There would be no new students, and the entire program would be dropped, said Weir.
“When I saw him the next day, I asked him, ‘How can you drop my program?’ And he said, ‘I don’t have to tell you that,’” she said.
In her previous dealings with Caudle, who had joined the school two years earlier, she had found it necessary to have union representation and vowed never to meet with him alone.
Upon hearing that her program was going to be canceled, Weir said she was shocked and did not know what to do. But she eventually reached out to a number of the organizations that regularly provided support to the school districts for Japanese language classes, such as the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington (JASSW), the Japanese Consulate, and the Washington Association of Teachers of Japanese (WATJ).
Dale Watanabe, executive director at JASSW, said the loss of the course would have prevented the restoration of a language and culture which the forces of assimilation stripped away.
“Many of our members are either Japanese companies doing business in Washington or American companies who do business in Japan. Language skills broaden job opportunities. Many Japanese Americans of my generation don’t speak Japanese, but wish we did. Lindbergh should be treasuring the very popular Japanese language program that Hiromi Sensei built,” he said.
One of his daughters was able to study Japanese in Tacoma, while the other in another school district took French because it wasn’t offered.
Chris Johnson, chair of the Renton-Nishiwaki Sister City Association, said Renton has a 50-year history of cultural exchanges with Japan.
“The language programs in our middle and high school curriculums have prepared thousands of students for life in the global community in which we now live,” he said in an email. “The loss of a language program like this would seriously impact our future ability to work with Japan, who is one of Washington state’s largest trade partners.”
It was only when her former students heard about the possible ending of the program that the real change apparently took place.
One former student, Aleyna Yamaguchi, 29, organized a petition and wrote letters to the board, the superintendent, and the deputy superintendent, and encouraged others to do so. Other students spoke out forcefully for this article, reacting with shock and sadness to the apparent end of a beloved program that had changed their lives (as with the community groups, they were interviewed before Renton announced the program would continue).
It is not clear if their outcry, along with Yamaguchi’s campaign, and the dismay of parents, led to a reinstatement of the program.
But their collective reactions to the possible cut gave voice to the profound impact a single language program and a single teacher can have on a whole generation of students.
For Yamaguchi, who took Japanese from Weir a decade ago, gaining fluency has allowed her to communicate with her 92-year-old grandmother, who has reverted to speaking almost entirely Japanese since developing Alzheimer’s.
On a recent weekend afternoon, Yamaguchi talked with the white-haired older woman for an hour, holding a scrapbook of photos of her trip to Japan with Weir and offering the old woman treats.
Other students credit the program, and Weir’s nurturing, with their career successes.
Orm Wei, 28, was inspired by Weir to apply to the University of Nagoya, which he chose over the University of Washington, and where he studied mechanical engineering. He now does extreme weather and emissions testing design for the automobile industry.
“During the time I was there, it was very mundane, everything had to be done in a certain way,” he said. “I felt, in her class, things opened up.”
Jenna Louie, 24, was nominated by Weir to visit Japan on a scholarship and take part in the rebuilding of the Tohoku region after the earthquake and tsunami that wiped the area out in 2011.
In Japan, she was exposed to a woodworker who lost his children in the flooding that followed. As part of his return to life, he built a playground called “the rainbow bridge.”
Louie was so inspired that she studied civil engineering at the University of Washington (UW) and then went to graduate school in structural engineering at UC Berkeley. She now works at a company that builds schools, offices, residences, and commercial structures.
Other students posted comments at the bottom of the petition saying they owed careers at Amazon or as a Japanese interpreter to Weir’s teaching.
Weir herself said that some of her students had gone on to work at such companies as Honda USA, Uwajimaya, and even Genki Sushi. Some had used their Japanese in military careers in Japan and some proselytizing.
“And also a couple of kids came back with their wives to meet me,” she said.
But in the handful of interviews conducted, and during a classroom observation, it was clear that it was much more than language skills that Weir had imparted.
“She has made me a better human being,” said Yamaguchi. “She was like a second mother to us, really caring about our whole lives.”
Said Louie, “She was an exception—I do not know any other teacher in high school where everyone loved her.”
Yamaguchi also said there was something about the Japanese language and culture itself that encourages different ways of being for young people.
“It’s a culture where listening to others is so important, as well as understanding things from other people,” she said.
The WATJ said there has been a decrease of Japanese language courses in this state.
“It is true that there appears to be a recent trend in more Japanese language programs being canceled than added in western Washington, where most WATJ member teachers reside and teach. It is also true that nationally, numbers of Japanese language programs and students appear to be rising,” said Kei Tsukamaki, WATJ President, in an email.
However, Tsukamaki said, “As of my most recent communication, it is my understanding that the Japanese language program at Lindbergh High School will not be discontinued at this time.”
For her part, Weir pointed out multiple schools in the area that have done away with Japanese language programs.
But both she and the community organizations say it’s not for lack of teachers.
“I know that there are a number of younger, qualified Japanese teachers who can succeed her when she retires,” said Watanabe.
One reason for the reduction in Japanese programs, Weir speculates, is related to the Chinese government’s willingness to fund Chinese language classes over the past decade.
In her school, it is still not entirely clear what happened.
The district did not respond to questions about budget cuts, school politics, or personal preferences on the part of the principal.
Nor is Weir sure that the current assurances can be counted on long-term.
She hopes to have a one-on-one conversation with the superintendent.
To view the petition to save the program, go to: https://www.change.org/p/save-lindbergh-s-japanese-language-program
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.