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School Days Behind Barbed Wire

September 1942, Men building benches and chairs for classrooms in Heart Mountain. National Archives

In my research for Unforgotten Voices from Heart Mountain, I found many unique school memories from students and teachers who were dealing with classrooms unlike any they had experienced.

In Heart Mountain, school opened on Oct. 5, 1942. There were no desks, no books, not even real classrooms. Somehow the WRA had failed to plan for school in their rush to remove the Nikkei from the West coast. Classes met in barracks that had been divided like their living quarters. The walls did not go up to the ceiling, so voices drifted from one room to the next. Plain benches were built in the carpenter shop and the teacher’s desk was nothing more than a box. Sheets of plasterboard were black on one side, so they were nailed up and used as blackboards. They did have pencils and paper, but books did not come until later in the year.

Heating the drafty classrooms was a challenge with pot-bellied coal stoves that gave off more smoke than heat. Students sat in their coats in the poorly ventilated. overcrowded rooms. Teachers worried because many of the children had no adequate clothing for a Wyoming winter. Some kids came to class in cotton dresses, anklets, and short jackets even when the temperature was sub-zero. Others, whose parents could afford to send for winter things, came “so heavily clothed … it was a difficult task to ‘de-sweater’ them so that they would not be too warm.”

There were no bathrooms in these barracks, either. So students had to go outside to the latrines and stomp through the mud most of the winter. The soil was like clay that became exceedingly sticky. As one teacher wrote: “ The slightest bit of water causes foot-deep mire which clings to the shoes and is brought into the class room so that by the end of the day the floor was covered with dirt….all winter long there was dust in the classrooms.”

(information from Community Analysis Section Sept 1,1943 Interviews with teachers; WRA Reel)

Joy Takeshita has vivid memories of school that year…

Because of the delay in the construction of the new school building, we were compelled to go to classes in barracks like those in which we lived. Usually forty desks and seats were crowded into the tiny rooms. It was not considered the least bit ill-mannered to climb over desks to get to one’s own seat, as the congested traffic in the narrow aisles made it impossible to do otherwise. The cardboard walls were not soundproof, so if “Miss Niland” was scolding “Jim” in our room, the reprimand was heard from one end of the barrack to the other.

(I am exaggerating somewhat, however, it is true that the least bit of turbulence became very distracting to the other classes.)

In the winter we shivered in spasmodic discomfort as the mercury dropped to 25 degrees below zero. Our sole source of heat was a small iron coal stove, which needed to be fed continually. Most of the girls wore slacks and boots. A very familiar sight in camp was the ubiquitous mackinaw jacket over our “Sears” or “Monkey-Ward” catalogue-book- ordered dresses or trousers.

Plowing through the deep snow with the fierce winds cutting and chaffing ones legs or any other exposed skin is one thing I’ll not forget.

(Joy Takeshita Teraoka personal papers, essay 1947)

This is just one of many classroom stories...

more about the new high school in blogs to come....


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