Retiring Camp Zama teacher reflects on 33 years of service

Gaye Perera poses for a photo in her classroom at Zama Middle High School at Camp Zama, Japan, May 19, 2020. She plans to retire this summer after 33 years of service. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)
Gaye Perera poses for a photo in her classroom at Zama Middle High School at Camp Zama, Japan, May 19, 2020. She plans to retire this summer after 33 years of service. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Retiring Camp Zama teacher reflects on 33 years of service

by Winifred Brown
U.S. Army

CAMP ZAMA, Japan (May 21, 2020) – When Gaye Perera left the United States to teach at what is now Zama Middle High School, she figured she would stay a couple of years and return. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

This summer she plans to retire after 33 years at the school.

“I knew I wanted to travel, and I knew this would give me an opportunity to do that, but I really thought I would do two years and go home,” said Perera, a learning strategies teacher for seventh- and eighth-grade students.

In Perera’s three decades here, she has traveled throughout Asia; raised two boys she adopted from Vietnam; made friends on and off post; and reached the intermediate level in “ikebana,” or Japanese flower arranging.

“When I leave here, it’s not just a job I’m leaving,” Perera said. “It’s this community and my Japanese community and it’s being able to just hop on a train and go someplace.”

Perera, who grew up with her father in the Air Force and had lived in Mallorca, Spain, selected Europe as her region of preference when she applied to the Department of Defense Dependents Schools.

The man who interviewed her, however, had another idea, Perera said.

After her interview, he circled “worldwide” for her placement possibilities, and she later received her assignment for Japan, Perera said.

“I guess he felt I could handle going anywhere, but when I got the offer for Japan, I was just dumbfounded because it had just never even entered my mind,” Perera said. “I just had in my head that I was going to Europe.”

Looking back, she is extremely grateful, Perera said.

“I lucked out and got here, which is one of the nicest places you could ever be stationed,” Perera said.

Soon she was on a plane headed for Japan, telling herself, “This is your decision. If you get there and you hate it, you can just come home,” Perera said.

Little did she know, however, that she would immediately fall into a group of friends who would explore Japan together for years, Perera said. They included about a dozen other teachers, as well as active-duty military personnel.

“It was just so fun,” Perera said. “We all hit the ground running, and the first weekend here, we were all on the trains. We didn’t know what we were doing and kept forgetting to get off the Express [line]. We would go past Sagamihara or go past Sobudai [Mae Station], and … then we’re looking at the clock. The trains stop at midnight. Nobody cared.”

Over the years, Perera traveled to places such as Nepal, Borneo, Tahiti, Bali, Hong Kong, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore, sometimes returning to countries several times.

“It was just great fun and we traveled all over Asia in packs,” Perera said.

As for Camp Zama itself, it has changed in some ways, with families no longer living at Sagami Depot, newer housing, different locations for stores and building changes at the school, but on the whole, a lot has remained the same, Perera said.

For example, it has always been a great place to raise children, Perera said, and that is one of the reasons she stayed so long.

Perera also observed a lot of history from her vantage point in Japan.

Perera lived here during the reigns of three Japanese emperors; saw the reactions of her students who had fathers participating in the Invasion of Kuwait in 1990; was horrified to hear of the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo; saw immediate security changes after 9/11; and was here during the devastating March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

Perera said she remembers when Emperor Hirohito, emperor for 62 years and during World War II, died, Jan. 7, 1989.

“That was my first year here and that was a pretty big deal here in Japan because he had been emperor for so long,” Perera said.

The Invasion of Kuwait was life-impacting, Perera said, because it was morning in Japan when the bombing began and many of her students had fathers in the Navy who had recently deployed.

“So when they started the bombing, [and students realized their fathers’ units were involved], we had kids that were distraught and wanted to go home with their mothers, because at that time there were some women on the ship, but not as many [as there are today],” Perera said.

Her students wanted to go home to comfort their mothers because they knew they were receiving the news at the same time, Perera said.

“We didn’t lose anybody, and I think maybe some of the aircraft had some holes and a little bit of damage, but we didn’t lose anyone in that, and those ships were really involved,” Perera said.

Perera said the sarin attack shook her because she often traveled into Tokyo by train and was familiar with the subway stations the attack targeted.

Then, in 2001 when 9/11 happened, leaders put security measures in place right away at Camp Zama and the nearby bases, Perera said.

The traffic patterns to enter the base changed, Perera said, and everyone not only had to go in through the main gate, but guards inspected each vehicle as well.

For several days, everyone had to stay home, and when the base reopened, there were Soldiers with weapons guarding the daycare center when she went to drop off her sons, Perera said.

“You just try hard not to get tears in your eyes when you’re dropping your babies off and there are Soldiers with guns,” Perera said.

The barriers at the gates, which were not there prior to 9/11, are a lasting reminder, Perera said.

Perera said her Facebook posts after the 2011 earthquake come up in her Facebook memories sometimes, and the understatement of one of them strikes her in hindsight: “We just had a pretty big quake. It was really big somewhere. I’m sure it’s going to be on the news.”

“We had no idea yet,” Perera said. “We had no idea how big it was.”

Perera said that on the day of the earthquake it was an early-release day at school. She and her sons lived on Sagami Depot at the time.

Her younger son took the bus from John O. Arnn Elementary School at Sagamihara Family Housing Area to Sagami Depot, and she worried about possible hazards on the way, Perera said.

“In your head you’re thinking, ‘OK, what’s tall that could fall on the bus? What bridges does [the bus] have [to cross]?’” Perera said.

Meanwhile, her older son was supposed to be home, but he didn’t pick up when she called, Perera said.

“My son finally answered,” Perera said. “He had grabbed the dog and gone outside. He was shook up, but it took a couple of hours to get out there because traffic lights were out.”

Throughout the ordeal, however, the Department of Defense took care of everyone at Camp Zama really well, Perera said.

As for COVID-19, Perera said it is inconvenient and makes her sad that she cannot spend time with her Japanese friends, but she is grateful Camp Zama has reasonable restrictions that still allow her to walk around, shop and go to work.

Perera said she plans to return to her home state of Missouri, and as she looks back on her time at Camp Zama, she is thankful for all the students and parents she has known over the years.

The students have not changed, Perera said.

“Our high school kids were nice when I came and they’re nice now,” Perera said.

Camp Zama also has “super parents,” Perera said, and the support she has received from them has been outstanding.

“I’ve been teaching 39 years,” said Perera, who had teaching experience when DoDDS hired her. “It seems like just yesterday.”

Wayne Carter, principal of Zama Middle High School, said the school will miss Perera tremendously.

“She is a walking history book of Zama Middle and Zama High School,” Carter said.

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