Moss Fujii

M. Moss Fujii

What a memorable man my sixth grade teacher was.

Born in Tacoma in 1929 he lived an extremely full life and I’m lucky to have shared a year of it with him.  I’m writing about him now because he passed away this month.

After six years (kindergarten included), of having a school of only female teachers, arrived Mr. Fujii.  Now I realize he was only 35 years old when he took us under his wing to teach us about a world we had not been aware of.

From his funeral notice I learned that after Pearl Harbor he and his family were incarcerated by our country in concentration camps.  Four different ones.  In the concentration camps there was nothing to do so he and his friends danced. Apparently he became quite good dancing to the Andrews Sisters music!  After the war his family lived in a railway car until they could get settled properly again.  He never spoke of any of this and he never expressed bitterness in his talks about life, but always gratitude.

He did mention his experiences in the South and not being quite sure which drinking fountain or restroom to use as he was neither White nor Negro, as the signs read.  He taught us to honor human beings, no matter their color or circumstances.  We sang “We Shall Overcome” for our graduation and often sang songs of this nature and time period in class.

He had a love of animals, especially birds, and taught us to recognize bird calls. We would be quizzed on the bird songs of many birds that were recorded on a tape recorder.  I loved that he found this important and, even though I had grown up a bird lover, he made me much more aware.

If we found a dead bird in the school yard or a student’s small hamster died, we could bring it to Mr. Fujii and he’d stuff it for us.  Most unusual!  I always imagined his doing this in the classroom while we were at lunch but I know now that must have been impossible.

Up until Mr. Fujii, our teachers in grammar school had all been excellent and well loved but were trained in another day, with another style.  Mr. Fuji came on the scene with a modern way of teaching and treated us like young adults.

He wanted us to be aware of everything in life so we could make informed decisions and not just accept things.  We were in his class during the election of Lyndon B. Johnson when he ran against Goldwater.  Mr. Fujii had us do debates. We picked a name or issue out of a box and were to study that side thoroughly and then debate it the next week.  I’ve never been much of a debater so this was challenging for me but I loved being opened up to this world of politics and issues and have had an interest ever since.

Before coming to John Muir Elementary School Mr. Fujii had served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War as a First Lt. Radar Observer-Navigator and survived two plane crashes!

He received a Bachelor’s Degree and three Master’s Degrees.  These were in education, child psychology and physical education.   He was a teacher, school principal and child psychologist.

As he was our teacher we knew very little about his private life or past but I was delighted to meet a family recently who had known Mr. Fujii nearly all their lives and I was lucky to learn more about him through them.  The kids (my age) said they learned  how to camp, fly fish, sail, play tennis and snow ski from him on the many vacations the two families shared together.    Mr. Fujii was married for fifty years and had two daughters.

He was always wanting to expose us to wonderful things and the story behind how things were done so at Christmas time, as an art project, he took us back to the Renaissance by having us mix-up egg tempura paints and paint the hallway windows to look like stained glass windows.  It was lots of fun and most unusual to be out of the classroom and doing such a project in those days.  We all thought the windows looked marvelous!   When we returned from our two week Christmas vacation  we entered the school and found it smelling of rotten eggs and there was the janitor, Mr. Melson, unhappily washing all the windows of the very hard to remove egg tempura!

His memorial was in a Buddhist church in Union City.  Every seat was taken and there were people standing.  The church was colorful and smelled of incense. The service began with tolling of bells, then chanting, then an incense offering when everyone lined up to offer a bit of incense at the alter.  There was such a crowd this part of the ceremony took half an hour.

Then there was the eulogy by a long time friend and words from one daughter. This was touching and informative.   I learned how he continued to reinvent himself.  In the ’60’s there was a big pot bust, with many police cars, just a few doors down from their home.  He decided Berkeley was not the place to raise their daughters so the family moved to Aspen, Colorado.  He had the family learn Transandental Meditation and EST and the children went to school with Hunter Thompson’s children!

The next move was to Mill Valley.  Then again to the East Bay.

He was always encouraging and wanted to make life better for those around him.  He saw the positive side of life, took risks and made the best of things.  In fact, one story about him was that when he was young he tied his shoes to barrel staves to ski!  Always ingenious!

He learned to play the ukelele and fell in love with all that was Hawaiian (he had requested that everyone dress in Hawaiian attire for the memorial!) and will be buried alongside his wife in Honolulu.

What I learned about him that stood out for me at the memorial was that the most important thing to Mr. Fujii was his love of people and his friends.  He kept friends from every phase of his life.  He was inspired by people and hoped to inspire them in return with endless support and love.  This is what I remember about him.  His constant smile and warm encouragement of these young children who would be passing through his life.  He made a huge impression on most of us in his sixth grade class at John Muir Elementary School, class of 1965.

Ken Gerver, a student of Mr. Fujii’s at John Muir School, kindly alerted me of this video he made of his time in the interment camps.  I know you will find it as moving as I did. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m11EYpixVyQ.

It would delight me and others, dear Reader, if you leave comments or stories about Mr. Fujii.

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