Sixth-grader Thomas Early curiously tore open a tiny cellophane bag, pulled out the paper-weight green leaves inside and gingerly bit into them.
"Ooooh, it's salty, tastes like fish," he said with a grimace. Then he took another bite out of the seaweed. "Hey, I'm getting used to it."
Bearing seaweed and sweet rice cakes, Los Angeles School Board President Warren Furutani, delivered a gentle lesson in cultural and racial tolerance Tuesday to 25 South Los Angeles sixth-graders who were unwittingly thrust into the limelight in February when their drawings and letters--including several depicting anti-Japanese sentiments--were held up by Mayor Tom Bradley as a symbol of Japan-bashing.
"This is not an effort to punish these students," Furutani said of his unusual classroom visit at 66th Street Elementary School. "This is about understanding. I don't think the intent of any of these kids was to Japan-bash. I think they were reflecting a lot of the sentiment that is out there."
In the aftermath of the riots, Furutani and other school officials say they have stepped up efforts to develop programs that encourage racial sensitivity among both students and teachers.
The students' letters and drawings were mailed to Bradley and county Supervisor Gloria Molina as part of a current events assignment. Their teacher, Clarissa Roberson, had lectured about the local furor over the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission's plan to allow a Japanese firm to build trains for the Metro Green Line.
One drawing said "Americans, yes! Japanese, No! Vote Again! Before the Japanese Bomb the U.S.A. again." Another showed a figure, apparently an American, kicking another person with slanted eyes.
During a February speech, Bradley displayed one of the pictures as he denounced the wave of Japan-bashing that emerged after the commission decided to award the Green Line contract to Japanese-owned Sumimoto Corp. The commission later canceled the contract.
"I worry that teachers, parents and televised politicians have thoughtlessly planted the seeds of hatred in young minds," Bradley said during the Feb. 13 speech. "I fear that these seeds will grow and that our youngsters will turn against all Americans of Japanese ancestry."
But Roberson said she does not believe the children intended to make racist comments, and speculated that their drawings reflected neighborhood tensions between some black and Latino residents and Korean merchants, whom they may have confused with Japanese-Americans.
And because the community has such high unemployment, the children also understand the importance of preserving job opportunities here, she said.
Roberson had talked with her students about the need for Americans to be competitive in the work force and stressed the importance of writing letters to elected officials to peacefully protest. Roberson said she reviewed the letters, but did not see the drawings that were to be included in the package.
After Bradley publicized the letters, Furutani and other school board members received numerous calls from angry Japanese-Americans. Molina also visited the class, which is mostly Latino, to address the controversy.
Assistant Principal Judy Franks said administrators reviewed Roberson's lecture and were satisfied that she had explained both sides of a controversial issue. Several of the teacher's colleagues and Furutani said they applaud her effort to challenge her students to think about difficult political issues.
"This issue was hot and I'm pleased she elicited responses from students," Furutani said. "Obviously it wasn't a controlled response and she did not attempt to censor them."
The school board president, one of the highest ranking Japanese-American politicians in the nation, used food and a world map to drive home his message of understanding racial diversity.
Pointing to Japan and showing how it is surrounded by the ocean, he urged the youngsters to think about why Japanese would eat seaweed, and prodded them to try it before passing judgment on its taste.
"When we see something and don't know or understand what it is, sometimes you think you won't like it, you start to prejudge it," he said. "Sometimes it can even happen with people."
After asking students to point out the countries where they and their families were born, the classroom map was dotted from Israel to Central America to Argentina.
"In Los Angeles people from all over the world have to live together," Furutani said. "Before you decide whether you like someone or not you have to try and get to know them."
One Latino boy chuckled when he realized that he was a second-generation American, or a Nisei in Japanese culture. Others were surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo is Children's Day in Japan.
Jimmy Tokeshi, regional director of the Japanese American Citizens League, welcomed Furutani's lesson, even months after the political debate.
"In the aftermath of the riots it's important that we keep pressing the notion that playing to racial emotions is a very divisive means to meet political objectives," Tokeshi said. "It's unfortunate when kids get caught up in it."