Language students have 'hai' hopes

Kristin Henshaw teaches Japanese to more than 90 students at Bainbridge High.

Ryunosuke Konno’s name means “Gold, Field, Dragon, Son.”

Konno, an exchange student attending high school in North Kitsap, chalks the intricate hirigana – language symbols – that compose his name for Bainbridge High School teacher Kristin Henshaw’s introductory Japan-ese language class.

“It’s just cool, because most Americans don’t know what their name means,” freshman Sam Gaspich tells classmates.

Henshaw’s students and Konno have spent the morning finding common ground and identifying differences.

Since his arrival last fall, Konno says, he has been editing his impressions of this country – formed, it seems, from exported action flicks.

“I thought Americans don’t care if their car crashes,” he said, “but, actually, they do care.”

Another media-borne impression – that Americans are lazy – also proved false, he says, but still he’s shocked to learn how hard Henshaw’s beginning students work.

“Do you have 100 minutes a day of Japanese?” he asks the class, incredulous.

They chorus “hai,” Japanese for “yes.”

The impression of general industry may be a little misleading, however, because Henshaw’s program – developed over her 18 years with the Bainbridge Island School District and currently serving some 90 students – is something special.

Henshaw was hired by the district in 1986, after the schools decided to add a third, non-European language to augment BHS Spanish and French classes.

Henshaw, who had been an exchange student to Japan through a Rotary Club scholarship, had learned the language on her own during a visit to Japan.

“I had taken French and Latin in high school and I could learn languages,” she said, “but it was different, very different.”

But, by the end of her year’s stay, Henshaw could pass for Japanese on the phone.

On her return to this country, she studied Chinese at Penn State, because Japanese wasn’t offered. She transferred to the University of Washington in 1969, working her way through school with a job in a sushi bar and receiving dual masters degrees in Japanese language and comparative literature.

Now a seasoned teacher, Henshaw asks students to naraimasho, sonkei shimasho and kikimasho.

The Japanese words meaning readiness to learn, respect for fellow classmates and careful listening are the ingredients that have made “gambarimasho,” classroom success for her students, who may study sequentially throughout their four years at BHS, often advancing to second-year classes at college.

Besides learning the language, which includes two phonetic alphabets – the 46 katakana for writing foreign words and names, and 46 hiragana and kanji, the Chinese-derived Japanese characters – Henshaw’s students absorb customs and history, try their hand at calligraphy, watch segments of Japanese television programs and historical movies, learn songs and listen to audiotapes.

When Konno asks how many students want to visit Japan, nearly every hand goes up.

It’s not just wishful thinking; this year alone, seven Bainbridge High School students have applied to go overseas with Youth For Understanding, the high school international exchange program sponsoring Konno’s visit. Students have also received help from Bainbridge’s Rotary Club.

Nicole Ringgold, the western district director for YFU, said, “Kristin Henshaw has a passion for exchange. On her website she has links to different exchange organizations, one of which is YFU. Not only does she teach her students the Japanese language, but about the culture...Her students are driven by her enthusiasm.”

But the true importance of her promotion of international understanding may be revealed by an exchange near the end of Konno’s visit, when a student from Henshaw’s class asks the Japanese teen whether his friends at home want to visit America.

Konno hesitates.

“They are shy,” he said. “They think Americans are scary and ‘bad boys.’”

When Henshaw asks if he means that Americans might carry guns, he responds: “Yes, guns, maybe.”

For Ringgold, it’s an obvious point that person-to-person first-hand knowledge is an antidote to such media-driven misunderstanding.

“Ms. Henshaw deserves recognition for her great efforts to promote international exchange and global awareness,” Ringgold said. “She is helping to prepare young people for their responsibilities in a changing, interdependent world.”

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