Ted Tajima: A teacher who changed lives

By Joe Saltzman

By Joe Saltzman

from the Los Angeles Times online, retrieved January 5, 2012
The year was 1955, and there I was, a high school junior, standing in the Alhambra High hallway crying my eyes out.  I’m not sure what I would have done if T hadn’t walked up.

We all called Ted Tajima T or Mr. T because no one could pronounce his last name correctly, and Ted was too informal a name for any high school kid to call his teacher.

T was an English and journalism teacher at Alhambra, and he changed my life forever.

On seeing my distress, T stopped and asked me what was the matter.  I told him that the high school counselor just told me I wasn’t college material and that I should follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a window cleaner.  My dream of being the first person in my family to go to college was over.

In all the years I’d known Ted Tajima, I’d never seen him that angry.  He told me to wait there for him, and then went to see that high school counselor.  He came back and told me that together, we would work to get me into the best school of journalism on the West Coast the University of Southern California and with a scholarship as well.  And he made it happen.  If it weren’t for Ted, I probably would have ended up a window cleaner.

Hundreds of Ted’s former students would tell you that he transformed their lives as he did mine.  And he did it with humor, with patience, with grace, with intelligence, with compassion.  T was always there for us, gently telling us to follow our best instincts and do what was right.

Tajima was an award-winning journalism advisor for 35 years until his retirement in 1983.  Alhambra High’s newspaper, the Moor, was a perennial All-American winner, and Ted, who made sure every student journalist acted like a professional, went over every inch of copy with a red pencil and never accepted a semicolon, adverb or adjective he didn’t like.

We never thought much about T being Japanese.  I didn’t know then what he had gone through during World War II.  Born in Salt Lake City of issei parents in 1922, he moved to California when he was 6 and suffered one racial insult after another.  If you were white, for example, you could swim in the Pasadena public pool six days a week.  If you were a person of color, there was only one international day a week.  Then they would drain the pool.

Ted watched his parents forcefully moved to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona and his sister and her husband sent to the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.  He saw friends and family lose property, money and educational opportunities just because they were Japanese Americans.

Yet he persevered.  He graduated from Occidental College in 1946.  Then, in one of the many ironies of his life, he was drafted into an Army counterintelligence unit in Maryland to teach Japanese to U.S. personnel who would be serving in occupied Japan.  When he discovered most of them couldn’t write decent English, he taught them that too.

In another time and place he would have been a newspaper or broadcast journalist.  He had all the tools he was a curious and brilliant interviewer and reporter, a first-rate writer whose command of the language was unparalleled, and he had a melodious, baritone voice perfect for broadcasting.  Although he was allowed to write for campus newspapers, he couldn’t get a job in the mainstream press because he was Asian American.

So his wife Setsuko, suggested he go into teaching.  And in 1948, Tajima became the first Asian American teacher at Alhambra High School, one of three Asians on campus two students and me, he often said, laughing.

He once told me that what got him through the rough times was the First Presbyterian Church of Altadena.  For more than 60 years, he edited the Clarion, the church newspaper, turning it into a stellar local publication.  As a church elder, he found an inner peace that sustained him through many personal and professional disappointments.

When I once apologized for having mispronounced his last name for more than 50 years, he laughed and said that almost everybody did.  Ted wasn’t my real name either, he said.  It was just a way to make it easier for non-Asians to call me by name.

Keizo Tajima died Feb. 20 at his Altadena home of complications from emphysema.  He was 88.

Thanks in part to Ted Tajima, Joe Saltzman became an award-winning journalist and a professor of journalism at USC, where he directs the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project.

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