Family Matters

Kindergarteners Process the Earthquake in Japan

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My family was awakened Friday morning on the West Coast by my parents on the East Coast: had we heard that the ripples from the earthquake and tsunami that had rocked Japan while we slept could hit Seattle? P.S., they didn’t, but that doesn’t mean we were unaffected. In our corner of the world, the disaster hit home in my 6-year-old-daughter, Shira’s, kindergarten classroom. The night before, she had completed a homework assignment to craft a letter to Gaku, a boy in her class whose last day at school is supposed to be tomorrow. She wrote: “To Gaku. I love you. From Shira.”

Their teacher is making a book of all the kids’ letters to present to him, so he can remember his kindergarten classmates once he’s gone. He is moving back to Japan with his family this week. (More on A Visitor to Tokyo Witnesses the Earthquake)

But now, I’m not sure if he has a home to move back to. Gaku is supposed to leave Seattle for Sendai, which Wikipedia tells me is a city of 1 million known as the City of Trees. In summertime, it hosts Japan’s largest Tanabata festival, which celebrates the stars. In wintertime, thousands of lights bejewel the city’s trees. It’s a tourist destination. But now, Google “Sendai” and a video pops up: The moment the waves hit Sendai, Japan. Sendai was whacked harder than probably any other city by the tsunami waves. Hundreds of bodies have been found.

As parents, we try to protect our children from pain and sadness. I remember taking my oldest, then 3, to a hands-on discovery room in a science museum. Another child announced that the beetles the kids were allowed to touch in a box full of dirt and twigs were dead. “What’s dead?” my son asked. I quickly changed the subject. (More on Time.comHow Do Kids Handle Death? Better than Adults)

Many parents struggled with what to tell their children in the aftermath of Sept. 11. How could we preach the importance of values like kindness and respect for people who don’t look or act like you while simultaneously acknowledging that some people hate those who are different so much that they would destroy the cerulean blue of a late summer morning?

And now I was faced with explaining to three inquisitive kids the magnitude — both literally and figuratively — of what happens when the earth shakes. Did people die? they wanted to know. How much of Japan was destroyed? Why are there fires?

My daughter’s teacher sent an email on Friday to all the parents. “This morning,” she wrote, “the students entered school talking about what happened and asking questions.” When Shira got home, she told me how her class spent the entire morning meeting talking about the earthquake. In a departure from the regular routine, she told me incredulously, “We didn’t even say the Pledge!” “We were worried,” Shira told me, “because Gaku is going to move to Japan.” (More on Time.comKid Crazy: Why We Exaggerate the Joys of Parenthood)

I don’t know if his family’s plans have since changed. Maybe they won’t leave for Sendai this week. Maybe they’ll finish out the year here. And maybe, this brush with current events will teach my daughter the kind of lesson that’s not taught in school — that tragedy can strike anywhere, and that weathering the storm is the most anyone can hope for.