Providence, R.I. — As part of its reading week, Stephen Lynch visited a fifth grade class in Laurel Hill Elementary School here. During his April 12 visit, Stephen read to the students, most of whom are not native born, and described his experiences as a long-time visitor to Japan.
“I read them a story of a Japanese immigrant who came to California and became a famous writer/illustrator of children’s books. His name was Allen Say, and the book I read was his award-winning Grandfather’s Journey.
Mr. Say followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Stephen said, who came from a little village in Japan to the big city of Los Angeles.
“The only thing Allen Say brought with him as an immigrant to America was his incredible artistic talent,” Stephen said. “Hard work and perseverance took care of the rest.”
“I taught the children some Japanese words, and also talked about Japanese customs that are quite different from those in America,” Stephen said. “We had a great time together, and we learned a lot from each other.”
Many of the students live in low-income projects on depressed Hartford Avenue, he said. That area has many gang and drug problems. The Laurel Hill students are 85% Hispanic and 14% African American.
The students are poor, in the material sense, according to Stephen, yet rich in imagination and creativity.
“Most get very excited about drawing, sketching and coloring, as well as writing stories and poetry,” Stephen said. “Two of them read their stories to me. Both stories were about finding a true friend that you could trust.”
Many children belong to one-parent families. In some homes, English is not their first language, so reading is a problem, as is thinking in English, Stephen said.
“I told them that I lived in Japan for 20 years as an American immigrant,” said Stephen. “Some members of the class told me that they were born in other countries and also came to America as immigrants.
“The children wanted to know who were the first people I met when I arrived in Japan, and whether it was difficult to make friends there. I told them the first people I met were the Japanese Immigration officials, who asked me if I was in Japan as a tourist, or planned to become a resident.
“When I told them I would like to be a resident in Japan, they insisted that I remember two things: obey Japanese laws, and learn to speak Japanese. I spent three years in a Japanese language school in Tokyo.
“The children all knew about the atomic bombings that ended WWII, and said they felt bad about all the Japanese children who died or were wounded in the bombings,” Stephen said. “The whole class thought war was a very bad thing, and that people should try to live together in peace, even when they do not always agree.”
“They said they thought more people should be like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, who were very brave and didn’t like violence. They asked me, “Why can’t people try to be nice to each other?”
Stephen said, “Now I understand better why Jesus kept reminding us that love is the bond that makes us all brothers and sisters.”
Stephen was one of several guests who visited the school that is not far from St. Mary’s Church, which the friars recently took over, he said.
Other guest readers included the education editor of the Providence Journal, the major of Providence, head of the Urban League, as well as other prominent local citizens. All joined in reading books to the children.
“We all feel that encouraging children to read is vital for success both in their education and in the job market,” Stephen said, adding that several Laurel Hill School teachers are members of St. Mary’s Parish.
— Fr.Stephen lives in Providence, R.I.