by Sarah Coomber
From the early days of my first autumn in rural Yamaguchi, Japan, I had loved watching the exuberant shōgakusei—primary school students—skipping and tripping their way to school. The boys were dressed in black shorts and white collared shirts, the girls in shorts or skirts and blouses, every child wearing a cap and hard leather backpack like a camel’s hump—red on the girls, black on the boys—comically over-sized on the youngest children. Calling back and forth, their high, clear voices could have belonged to cartoon characters, brilliant cartoon characters, utterly confident in the language whose code I was working so hard to break.
My supervisor, Sasaki-san, had set me up on visits to a few of our town’s six primary schools early on, just for fun, and my days there were pure delight. We sang songs, I taught them my favorite playground chase game, pom-pom-pullaway, and they introduced me to their projects, from drawing maps to raising chickens. The children were energetic, enthusiastic, uninhibited and receptive. So were their teachers.
This was probably partly because the stakes were so low. At the time, English was not an official primary school subject, so there were no curricula to follow, no requirements to meet, no tests to take. If the children happened to learn anything at all linguistically or culturally from my visits, it was simply shiso on the rice cake.
By winter term, Sasaki-san had scheduled me to visit one primary school almost every Wednesday morning, a time when I would otherwise be sitting at my desk in the Board of Education office, writing letters home, studying Japanese or worrying about the grad school project I was not getting done. But first, he had asked repeatedly whether this plan was really OK. Wouldn’t I get too tired of teaching without my Wednesday desk day? No, I had assured him, the primary schools energized me.
How could they not? Instead of sitting properly in a little gray chair at a little gray desk and helping serve little cups of tea and coffee every few hours, I could spend my Wednesday mornings visiting classrooms that radiated joy and playfulness. And I could get a taste of what it must feel like to be a rock star.
My town’s six primary schools—shōgakko—varied in size and character from tiny Yashiro Shō, with twenty-five students studying in a century-old wooden schoolhouse seemingly on the edge of civilization, to Akiyoshi Shō’s few hundred students, whose brightly lit classrooms were stacked atop each other in a new multistory building in the busiest part of that very quiet town.
Regardless of location and demographic, when I arrived at the schools, the students would call out to me, welcoming me at the front door and through their classrooms’ open windows. They would approach en masse trying to touch my arms and my hair, and to look for the blue of my eyes. They would happily shout, “Shake! Shake!” and I would smile, feeling a bit dog-like, and take their generally limp, often sweaty little hands in mine, glad that they were confident enough to use this little bit of English without the prodding that was required by my junior high school students.
Despite the near hysteria, the mood never remained at fever pitch for long. Once the principal or teachers had introduced me, the children would settle into the lesson at hand, whether I was teaching them “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” comparing animal noises in our respective languages (my favorite being the Japanese rooster’s “kokekoko”), or they were showing me how to fold colorful squares of paper into samurai hats, frogs that hopped and tiny balloons that could be inflated with one breath.
At the end of each class, the excitement would return and the children would mob me, thrusting notebooks, pencil cases, papers and even their bare arms at me, requesting “Sign! Sign!” They wanted my autograph.
When it was time to leave, to return to the Board of Education office, to my afternoon koto lesson, quiet studies and tea-serving duties, the school principal would lead me out of the school and open his car door for me. In the early days, I rode in the back like misfit royalty (or a crazy visiting aunt). As he maneuvered down the school’s driveway, children would give chase, waving and calling till we turned onto the street or disappeared out of sight.
Who would turn down a morning like that?
These days were about more than living some unearned rock-star-style experience though. They were also an opportunity to revisit childhood—not mine exactly—but a childhood of sorts, and sometimes when I joined the students in their classrooms, each of us eating lunch at a wooden desk, the atmosphere of the room would quiet to shy smiles and the sounds of clicking chopsticks, little teeth chewing seaweed salads and the quiet thunk of heavy glass milk bottles being set down on desktops. Sitting silently, I could almost fool myself into believing I was small like them, with my whole life ahead of me.
But this very enjoyable experience of rejoining the world of innocence also gave me some heartburn. At times it seemed unclear whether I visited their schools as a teacher or an aged exchange student. When a posse of senior citizens visited one school and spent the morning teaching traditional games, when a sensei at another school demonstrated how to hold a large shodō brush and use it to write simple calligraphy, I was not standing with the other teachers facilitating the students’ learning or helping maintain order. Instead, I was embedded in a group of children and taught how to juggle homemade beanbags; I was lined up on the floor with the rest of the class, brush in my right hand, following their sensei’s air-writing motions and then kneeling over a long sheet of white paper, dipping my brush into freshly ground ink and drawing my own somewhat childlike characters, top to bottom,
—“A-ki-yo-shi-da-i,” the name of the nearby plateau.
Sometimes I truly became a student of the students. A trio of third-grade boys taught me how to add and subtract using a soroban or Japanese abacus, my little instructors beating me to the answers every time. In the fall, one school had taught me how to harvest sweet potatoes; in the spring, another would show me how to plant rice seedlings in a soft paddy, all of us standing in the muck, red worms swirling around our ankles, mine, thankfully, encased in someone’s father’s boots.
I wondered at times whether it was wise for a teacher to regularly appear so ignorant, so unskilled, to be such a neophyte at activities that came to the students—or at least every other adult they knew—naturally. I wondered whether it should bother me that these schools lumped me in with primary school students in the role of learner. I wondered whether this would impact my credibility to teach English or my authority to explain my own culture, to do my job.
But still I loved having the opportunity to experience so many aspects of this culture that I would encounter nowhere else. And truth be told, I had a lot in common with the primary school students. My Japanese language level was still lower than most of theirs, and my cultural understanding also was at a relatively primitive level, perhaps not unlike theirs. Early in my two-year tenure particularly, there was a whole lot of nuance that went over my head. The difference between the students and me was that I knew how much I was missing. The similarity was that, like them, I really was not expected to get it all. In fact, our days probably went more smoothly for everyone when I did not.
I did not need great language skills to understand the impressive level of camaraderie and cooperation I witnessed at the primary schools, where older students looked out for the guileless little ones, and for each other. Or to observe the warmth exuded by the teachers, who offered a kind of wraparound support that seemed to free the children to explore and live out their natural zest for learning, one not yet burdened by fear of failure—or of experiencing that well-known proverb about nonconformity: The nail that sticks up is hammered down.
One Wednesday morning that winter we awoke to the glorious sight of our town sculpted white, snow still falling in great fluffy blossoms called botan yuki—“peony snow.” And for once it did not melt after breakfast. I walked to nearby Kama Shō and saw the children on the playground, most wearing their uniforms of shorts and short-sleeved shirts, some with a jacket or sweater, some with pants, most seemingly oblivious to the cold. They were building the Japanese version of snowmen, yuki (snow) daruma, modeled after the little dolls that represent Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, which are sold with both eyes blank white, one eye to be blackened when a goal is set and the other to be inked in when the goal is achieved.
I had been to Kama Shō a couple of times already, and the school’s principal had called me into his office and over tea had drawn me into conversations that initially worried me. He told me about his experiences and memories of World War II, a time when our countries had fought each other, a time when we could not have sat together in his office and talked about education, about our cultures, about anything else. His earnestness soon put me at ease, though, and I came to anticipate those heartfelt exchanges, which inevitably ended with him concluding philosophically, “It was war; that is how it was. It could not be helped.” Whether he was explaining it to me or to himself, I was never quite sure.
Perhaps because of those talks he felt he had sufficiently vetted me and was comfortable giving me the reins at his school. This time, he had asked that I plan and teach my own lessons. Seeing that the day would be a snowy one, I focused on the weather, bringing props—a paper sun, a paper snowflake, my umbrella and a stuffed gorilla that I named Cloudy for the occasion. In the sixth-grade classroom, the teacher sat back as I introduced my props and the dialogue the students would learn to use. “How’s the weather?” I queried.
“It’s rainy,” they responded when I grabbed my umbrella. “It’s cloudy.” “It’s sunny.” “It’s snowy!” They got it. They loved it. They cheered for Cloudy the Gorilla.
I must have begun waxing on about my home state of Minnesota’s glorious snowfalls and reminiscing about making snow angels and playing fox and geese—a game set up by shuffling through the snow to create a giant wheel in whose spokes my friends and I had chased each other, punch drunk after 4-H meetings when we were primary schoolers—because their teacher suddenly asked, “Do you want to show the children?”
We made a dash for the classroom door, down the stairs and out the front entrance into the snow. My little charges, most wearing short pants and gym shoes, shuffled out fox-and-geese wheels, and we chased each other around the spokes. Others lay down, bare skin in the snow, moving their arms and legs in giant arcs to make snow angels. Everyone wet. Everyone laughing.
[Editors note: “Snow Angels” is an excerpt from a book-length manuscript Sarah recently completed about two years she spent in Yamaguchi, Japan]