By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

STOCKTON — Benjamin Nakamura is not afraid to admit that he loves being a high school principal. He loves everything about it — the students, teachers, administrative staff, and parents — which is why his removal as principal of Amos Alonzo Stagg High School has many people puzzled. 

A year ago, fresh from a successful stint as principal of North High School in Riverside, including recognition as California’s Principal of the Year, Nakamura, 41, accepted the top position at the Stockton school. 

Ben Nakamura

On March 9, the Stockton Unified School District Board of Trustees announced they were laying off 104 people, including 11 principals, due to low enrollment and budget cuts. The move prompted retired principal Eugene Jackson to say, “This is (a) great concern to lay off that many principals. The superintendent knows that stability is necessary for students, and now they will not even know who is in charge.”

Teachers and faculty quickly took to the streets, such as teachers Ana and Sandra Orzonio, bearing signs that said, “KEEP NAKAMURA at STAGG HIGH.” Student Nadia Dutra prepared a sign that declared, “STAGG STANDS WITH NAKAMURA.”

Nakamura became a popular figure among students and staff despite having joined Stagg just a year ago as the pandemic began. Although he re-applied for his job on May 25, the SUSD voted 4-3 to remove him.

On May 27, commencement was scheduled to take place in three separate ceremonies to avoid crowding at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m. Nakamura was scheduled to speak briefly at all three. During the first ceremony, he delivered an impassioned nine-minute speech:

“I’m going to tell you why I came here. Why I moved up from Southern California. Why would I come up here to Stockton? I came here after I saw a giant brawl outside of our school last year on the news. I’m not going to lie. I came here because I’d seen students whose background I might be able to identify with, that might need some guidance.”

Nakamura explained to the students that his mother and father divorced. His mother died of a heroin overdose when he was 12 years old. His father, he says, made lots of bad choices.   

Stockton is in San Joaquin County with a population of 297,975. Racial breakdown is 40.9 percent Hispanic, 21.7 percent Asian Pacific Islander, and 12.8 percent black. Of those who speak another language in the household, 26.7 percent speak Spanish; 13.9 percent speak an Asian language at home.

His parting advice to the graduating seniors:

“I’m honored to say I’m graduating with you today. If I could come back, I would do it the exact same way, for one year, one opportunity to serve you and to show you that you are loved. And why are you loved so much? Because you are valuable. You’ve got value that people don’t understand. We paved the way for the future, Delta royalty, and we’ve shown them that we can overcome anything.”

As he walked off the stage, Nakamura was met by two school district police officers, who waited until most of the students had left the field before escorting him off campus. He did not speak at the two subsequent graduation ceremonies. 

Contacted by The Rafu Shimpo, Nakamura noted the newspaper “has meant so much to our family.” After the (World War II) camps, a lot of the Japanese American families went different ways. The Rafu was a way to unite the Japanese community.  Everyone found out about cultural events. 

“I belonged to San Gabriel Judo Dojo when I was a kid. Most of my sensei were from Japan or didn’t speak a lot of English. Later we went to Orange County Buddhist Church for judo.”

One of his sensei encouraged him to try wrestling. The sport introduced Ben and his brother Joe to a small town where the tournaments were held: Stockton. Ben proudly shows a news clipping from 1997 when the two young wrestlers were featured in George Yoshinaga’s “Horse’s Mouth” column. “It’s like everything has come full circle,” Nakamura commented.

As for his next steps, the high school principal draws upon the memory of his mother. “Mom, I know you aren’t here to see me become the man that I am, but I promise that I will continue to serve and uplift others.” 

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