Monday, September 7, 2020

Renaming Berkeley Schools with a Local Focus: A Case for "Carolyn Adams Elementary"

We are in a period of national awakening. I don't need to recap the state of the world for you right now. If you're reading this, you know how to spell "interdisciplinary," so I trust that you're up on current events. OK, just incase, heres the scoop: COVID-19, Democracy on the precipice, California on fire and the most widespread movement for social justice since the 1960s. Welcome to 2020. 

I wasn't alive in the '60s. I grew up listening to my mom's stories of her adolescence in Berkeley, at the center of the free speech movement. I spent a good part of middle school listening to her old psychedelic rock LPs and studying the civil rights movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, feeling like I had missed out on an period of change so monumental, we'd never see or need its like again. Through the incremental ebb and flow of the '80s and '90s, it seemed like the slow arc of the universe was indeed bending towards justice. 

Then there was Ferguson. Then it was 2016. You know the rest. Hate crimes on the rise. Extreme division between Right and Left with a nearly as wide chasm between Left and Far Left. Then George Floyd. 

I won't say that anything good comes from murder. Martyrs are good for history, but martyrdom sucks for the martyr and their friends, family and community. George Floyd's murder has led to movements as progressive as defunding the police, ripping down of confederate monuments and widespread moves to change the names of buildings and institutions that honor slave owners or secessionists. 

Here in Berkeley, the school board has announced that the district will change the names of two schools, Jefferson and Washington Elementary Schools. As a Washington alumnus, I support the move to change the name of the school. We recently changed a school named for  Joseph LeConte, to honor Sylvia Mendez who was instrumental in the movement to integrate schools in California. Before that, we renamed Columbus for Rosa Parks and Garfield Jr High became Martin Luther King. No one here would argue that naming schools for these leaders was a poor choice. Naming buildings and institutions for people whose primary work ended up being on a national or statewide scale is fine. It means we can usually settle on something that most people agree on, and is generally unassailable in the current climate. It's also kind of generic. There are three schools named for Dr. King in the Bay Area. Rosa Parks and almost any nationally recognized figure have schools or other institutions named for them from coast to coast. These are beloved national and state icons, but as we look towards the near future and renaming another school, I would like to propose a different lens through which we select our honoree. 

I am fiercely loyal to my hometown and to the people who live and work here. I was inspired by the decision to rename a portion of Shattuck Ave. after Kala Bagai, a South Asian woman who was driven from her home in South Berkeley by racist neighbors in 1915. Bagai's story resonates with me. My mother was brought to South Berkeley from Pakistan in 1957. My family is also Asian, though unlike Bagai, my grandmother was Nisei, Japanese-American. Also unlike Bagai, my family was only allowed to move to South Berkeley. We have been here in one way or another ever since. What stood out for me about the naming of Kala Bagai Way is summed up well in this Berkeleyside story from July, 2020. 

"[Berkeleyans] have been pushing for Bagai not for the usual reasons — because of what she accomplished in Berkeley, or because she live [sic] here a long time. She wasn’t wealthy or well-known. She didn’t win awards or hold political office — the reasons why most people get streets named after them.

Rather, Bagai was an early immigrant from what is now Pakistan and the racism she experienced at the hands of Berkeley homeowners is a history all residents should know."
Carolyn Miyakawa at Cal

When I heard that the district was planning to rename Washington, I knew who they should name it for: not someone who did their work in another state, not someone who changed lives in Southern California, but someone who lived and worked and changed lives here in Berkeley. That person is Carolyn Adams. Mrs. Adams, a second generation Japanese-American born Carolyn Miyakawa, was living in Sacramento when the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942. She was sent, with her family, to the Tule Lake internment camp. After leaving camp for Boulder, Colorado, Mrs. Adams returned to California to attend U.C. Berkeley. She met her husband and became a teacher here in BUSD, where she taught for 31 years at Whittier, Jefferson, and, for most of her career, Washington. When she wasn't teaching, she tutored neighborhood kids, including another famous Washington: Claudell, who would go on to star athletically for Berkeley High and the Oakland A's. 

Honoring Mrs. Adams would fulfill all of the district's published criteria for renaming. Her story of losing her home while being put in camp, then getting out and coming back to California to become a teacher, is inspiring and educational. Her name will endure and stand the test of time. Her name and reputation are pristine. Her story fits perfectly with BUSD's values of equity, inclusion, social justice, and diversity. The name would have strong ties to the community, history, and BUSD. I cannot think of a name that could better exemplify excellence and a right to public education than naming a school for a teacher who taught there and whose kids attended school there. Carolyn Adams is a member of a group that is underrepresented in BUSD. Berkeley does not currently have a school named for an Asian American person. Finally, the name is certainly not widely known or in use elsewhere. 

Mrs. Adams with family at their home in Berkeley 
 I'll digress to tell my Carolyn Adams story. When I came back to Washington for third grade, I registered late and didn't have a classroom assignment. I don't know what was going on behind the scenes; maybe no one wanted me. I know that I paced the hallway outside the main office for three days. It has to be the most bored I've ever been in my life. Some time on that third day, Mrs. Adams noticed me. I remember her walking by because she seemed really tall for an Asian woman. My mom was 5'2" and my grandmother was shorter than that. I don't know how tall Mrs. Adams is, but she seemed like a superhero-sized Japanese woman, and she would become my savior. As I heard it later, she went into the office and asked who that boy was and why he wasn't in class. She asked if I was Japanese. I don't think the people in the office knew, but she insisted that I be placed in her class right away. I don't know if the part about her asking if I was Japanese is true, or something my grandmother added in. I don't think it mattered: I think she would have taken me anyway. One thing that may have played into the question is that the class that year included a kid from Japan who didn't speak much English and another kid whose family had moved from Japan a few years earlier. The three of us became fast friends, and after he moved back to Japan, Mineo and I kept up a pen pal relationship for many years.  

I wasn't an easy kid, but Mrs. Adams never let me know that. I know it now because I'm an adult, and I'm me. I carry the scars of my life and can see myself with greater perspective now. When I was a student and a person still growing into who I would become, Mrs. Adams meant everything to me. She never made me feel like anything other than strong and capable and smart. She was the first person outside my family who made me feel like she truly believed in me. She was the first person in the school district who made me feel seen and valued. She had the same expectations for every student. Even as tracking and shifting standards and expectations wound their way through each iteration of the curriculum, she always believed that every kid could succeed and meet those standards if you gave them a chance and met them where they were. Whenever I felt like I couldn't make it through BUSD, I thought about how good I felt in her class and I'd remember that I could be successful. 

Mrs. Adams came to my wedding even though we hadn't been in touch for years. My wife and I were recently going through things from my mom's memorial and found a card from Mrs. Adams. I don't think these things make me special. I'd be shocked if she hadn't kept up with many students over the years. After retiring, Mrs. Adams stayed dedicated to educating the next generation on speaking tours, teaching kids about Japanese internment during WWII. She worked with the Berkeley Japanese American Citizens League to establish the Carolyn Adams Family Scholarship, given to graduating high school seniors in the Bay Area. She is now living in the East Bay, enjoying time with her son and grandchildren. 

A lot of ink has been spilled this year thanking teachers for their work during the pandemic. For years we have held teachers' appreciation days and given gifts at the end of the year. We both laud and lament the educators who purchase their own supplies and work long hours to make sure kids don't get left behind. Yet how many of our schools or lasting monuments honor the people who do the work within the walls? It's a fine thing to honor well-known activists or historical figures, but how can we say we value teachers and then pass over them when dedicating the buildings in which they teach? Naming a school for one of its most dedicated denizens would be an honor not only for Carolyn Adams, but for all the teachers past and present who have dedicated their lives to teaching us, our kids, and for some of us, our parents. It is time to name a Berkeley school for a Berkeley teacher: for someone who lived here, raised kids here, had an impact here. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

When the time comes, I hope that you will join me in supporting renaming Washington as Carolyn Adams Elementary. 

Six people standing on the beach with the ocean behind them. Front row left to right Mrs. Adams, older Japanese woman. Three young women. Middle aged woman. Behind them, Carolyn's son John Adams
Carolyn Adams with her son John and family.


  1. Thank you for your story! She sounds like a fierce educator! I think you are right-name the school after someone who was remarkable in the place that’s being named!

  2. Mrs. Adams is my favorite teacher of all time. I had her for 2nd and 3rd grade at Hillside Elementary in 1981 and 1982. As Berto says, she was always very inclusive but also had high standards. I particularly treasure the memories of the ambitious creative projects in writing, and filmmaking with a UC Berkeley student named Eddie. We did an underwater Japanese myth and "the Jack Tales." Definitely we should name a school after her!

  3. I had miss Miyakawa in 6th grade at Le Conte elementary school in 1958. I was new in the country (from Holland) and I was homesick. Miss Miyakawa took me into the hall and told me she understood, because she had experienced being away from home. At the time I didn't know about her history of being in the Tule lake internment camp. I was able to visit the site, and it brought many emotions thinking of what she and so many other people experienced Her experience was so much more difficult than mine, yet she didn't lose her innate kindness and empathy. She is the one who handed me my diploma (I still have a photo)and I've never forgotten her. If you're still in contact would you convey my thanks. She made a huge difference in my life.

  4. My kids had Mrs Adams! She was a great teacher. She has such a rich and interesting personal history and Carolyn is HELLA BERKELEY!

  5. My kids had Mrs Adams! She was a great teacher. She has such a rich and interesting personal history and Carolyn is HELLA BERKELEY!