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Where Time Stands Still


As I have two children attending the local elementary school, I end up spending a lot of time over there myself. A few times a month at least, I find myself walking the school halls, on my way to one kind of meeting or another. If I think back to my own elementary school days, it seems to me that my parents didn't visit the school anywhere near as much as I have to these days. I am sure that they went to 'home-and-school' meetings now and then, and also went to concerts and such events, but beyond that, I don't think there was much in the way of required parental involvement in school activities. School was school, and home was home, and there wasn't a whole lot of overlap between the two. As I didn't pay too much attention to such things back then, I may be overlooking something or other, but I'm quite sure there wasn't the constant parade of mothers visiting the school that I see in my community here in Japan.

I say 'mothers', but actually it's not 100% of the time that it is the mother from each family that is the one to be involved with these school activities. It's probably only about 99%! And the other 1% is me ... Although most of the parents and kids at our school long ago got used to seeing a foreigner walking around, I do still feel a little bit out of place at these meetings. Not because I'm a foreigner, but because I'm male. Being a single parent, I'm automatically delegated to attend the 'Jigyo sankan' (when parents visit classes in progress), or the 'Hogosha kai' (parent-teacher meeting), or the 'Tanoshimi kai' (a kind of class party for kids and parents). It is very rare indeed for me to see another father at one of these events. Don't misunderstand. I'm not trying to criticize these fathers for not being there. Obviously, they are at work, and unable to attend. I work at home, on a 'free' schedule, and am almost always available.

Five years ago, when I first started attending these meetings, I was quite willing to speak out ... perhaps too willing. Although my language skills were even worse then than they are now, I was always ready to give my opinion on whatever topic was under discussion. And the teachers and mothers were only too ready to keep asking me. After all, they mostly all came from the same background, and there was rarely any disagreement or expression of new ideas, so my presence was a chance for them to get a bit of a new viewpoint on things. There was one negative aspect to this, which I didn't fully grasp at the time, but have since grown more aware of. Whenever I gave an example from my own school experiences in England or Canada that perhaps differed from standard Japanese practice, they automatically took my comments to imply a criticism of the Japanese way, and a desire to have things done the foreign way. Now I hadn't meant this at all, and had simply been offering a viewpoint on another system. After all, if I really did think the Canadian way was better, then that's where I would be living, not here! But over the intervening years, they have gradually come to understand that I am generally quite happy with things here, and my comments are not to be taken so seriously. And for my part, I am more careful of how I speak.

In the early days, the meetings were generally quite interesting for me, for a couple of reasons. Not only was it all new and fresh, but with my children just starting out in school, I was very concerned that they integrate well, and thus didn't want to miss anything that was going on. But I must admit that five years down the road, with the girls now doing very well and completely integrated into this environment, I find that I am somewhat less concerned. It has all become pretty routine ...

So much routine in fact, that during a school meeting last week, where all of us parents stood at the back of the classroom, and watched while the kids went through a music lesson, I found that I couldn't keep my eyes away from the clock. It was moving so slowly. Was it broken? And this took me back in time ... right back about 30 years. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, as it will give you a pretty good idea of just what kind of student I was, but when I remember my school days - I mostly remember the clocks! And of course, for the same reason ... they always moved so slowly.

Although some kids seem to adjust quite well to school routines, doing certain things at certain times, and sitting still in their seats while an adult up at the front of the room 'explains' things to them, some other children have trouble adjusting to such a system. In my early school days, I was a model student, who behaved himself and attained high marks. But over the years I somehow lost my ability to conform to this pattern. I never became a problem student, and I never made trouble, but the steady decline in my grades from grade one (perfect marks) right through grade twelve (barely passing), and then on to university (first year incomplete ...) tells its own story - that of an enthusiastic learner, gradually worn down by the 'system'.

It's not that I wasn't smart enough, or patient enough (any man who can take on a ten-year printmaking project like mine has no need to prove he can be patient!). The basic problem with me and schools is just that I have an inherent dislike of being 'instructed' in how to do something. I don't want to be told how to do it, I want to simply do it. I just could not sit there and listen to teachers endlessly droning on with the lessons. Oh, those clocks! Those days when time itself seemed to stand still!

Now, I well know that we can't simply do away with our present education system. After all, I wouldn't want my dentist to be the type of person who 'learns by doing', rather than by carefully studying proper procedures. Or the pilot of the plane that brought me to Japan ... or the doctor who delivered my two children ... Our society definitely needs some sort of rigorously structured, stable method of instruction and education. But it would be nice to think that there were alternatives available for those people who just don't fit into such patterns. For the dreamers ...

At present in Japan, there are really only two choices for a young person. Either stay with the system and become 'educated', or else become a 'dropout', and remain 'uneducated' forever. One of the most interesting ironies in my life is the fact that success in my endeavours has come to me, not in Canada, where 'dropouts' like myself have many chances to advance themselves, but here in Japan, where the possession of a university degree is an assumed pre-requisite to success.

I think things are now changing though. As a result of the approaching sharp decline in student populations, schools here are going to become much more flexible institutions, and society as a whole is also becoming much more tolerant of those who wish to follow a 'different drummer'. I hope some of these changes happen in time to save my daughters from some of my negative school experiences.

But perhaps I'm worrying about nothing. During that 'endless' music class that I visited, I may have been watching the clock a lot, but I noticed that my daughter Fumi wasn't. She was listening to the teacher, making music with her friends, and enjoying herself. I sincerely hope she will enjoy the rest of her school years as much ...