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Book of the week: School camp of a different sort

Schools Behind Barbed Wire: the untold story of wartime internment and the children of arrested enemy aliens
By Karen L Riley
Rowman amp; Littlefield pound;16.95
Distributed by Plymbridge

Imagine you are an all-American high school student going about your everyday life when suddenly you're whisked away from your friends and neighbours, transported half-way across the continent and locked up in a dusty Texan internment camp.

This is what happened to thousands of students of Japanese and German origin during the Second World War. It happened to Sei Deyo, an American-born Japanese boy who, in 1941, was living happily in Santa Barbara, California, studying the American constitution at school and working for his boy scout badges. Following Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, his father was arrested, and the family was taken off to Texas. It happened to Art Jacob, a teenager of German origin and another keen scout, who was buying war bonds at his New York school until his father was also arrested as an enemy alien.

The camp opened Japanese, German and American schools, and Schools Behind Barbed Wire meticulously charts the short but varied histories of these three institutions, offering in the process a string of fascinating cameos highlighting how schools are culturally defined, and how they, in turn, shape and define the pupils who pass through them. The German school catered for the children of people who were often angry about being arrested, and about the way they had been treated in prisons and holding camps before being interned. A rabidly nationalist group quickly came to run the camp's German section - in 1943 they honoured Hitler's birthday with a swastika hung in a recreation hall - with the result that even though most of the children spoke English as their first language, almost all were sent to the German school to be taught in German.

A similar nationalistic group sprang up in the Japanese quarter, made up mainly of people who had been educated in Japan before moving to Peru, where they had lived in a self-contained Japanese community. They set up a school that followed a traditional Japanese curriculum, including shushin, or Japanese morals and ethics ("Be good to old people"), and martial arts. Home economics included cooking, sewing, flower-arranging and Japanese customs such as the tea ceremony.

But most Japanese-Americans elected to send their children to the US elementary and high schools, where many students remembered having a good time. The schools offered a typical Texan school curriculum, with all the usual extras such as sports events, after-school programmes, evening film shows, cheerleading contests and graduation ceremonies. The only courses that did not go smoothly were the vocational programmes of home economics and agriculture. These found few takers among Japanese families, who expected their children to be academic high-fliers.

To many students, these American schools, with their classrooms, gym and athletics field, were bliss after the makeshift arrangements of the transit camps they had been in before they came to Crystal City, and in them they enjoyed a small but vibrant version of that upbeat American school experience that the world now knows well from Hollywood teen movies.

To read this story in full see Friday Magazine in this week's TES.nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;

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