The wind came through a different window one morning last week and a cooler day arrived with the message that autumn was coming. Soon, we will be back to a schedule set by my son’s elementary school.
Going to school in a commuter city requires timing and teamwork. Breakfast is brief, accompanied by quick check for the TV weather forecast. Sometimes, there’s a sudden rush to finish homework. When we leave, Andy shoulders his rucksack – a leather, square-shaped pack that contains the day’s educational equipment. A school rucksack costs from a few, to several hundred dollars, and is built to last. With books inside, it’s a challenge for a first-grader to carry, but all do.
We are usually out the door by 7:35 a.m., and walk up the shopping street and then take a right, crossing over the trolley-like Setagaya-sen. Here, we encounter the first of many safety measures. A security guard stands watch, ensuring children’s safe passage at the crossing. We say good morning and he responds in kind, and we go up a slight hill to the Green Route. There are three routes children take to school: Green, Pink, and Yellow, named for wide bands of color along both sides of the street, providing clearly marked pathways for children to school. Automobile traffic on the Green Route is blocked during the mornings and afternoons when most children are walking to and from school. The only serious hazards on the way are two busy streets, but each has a traffic light that responds to the crossing buttons. The second busy street, directly in front of the school, has a crossing guard during the peak times. Lastly, the routes are monitored by PTA parents on bicycles, making sure nothing is amiss.
Most of the 600 students arrive at the school between 8:05 and 8:15 a.m. So what starts as a quiet walk down an empty lane becomes a boisterous column of children, bobbing rucksacks, mostly red for girls, and dark blue for boys, but also light blue and pink. As we near the school, “It’s a Small World,” the Disney song, can be heard wafting over the neighborhood from the playground sound system. The school principal stands outside, greeting children as they arrive. I thought all this was something special for the first week of school, but this is how children are welcomed every morning.
The school is of standard Japanese design, which to an American looks like a minimum security prison — a high fence, enclosing a gravel-covered area, framed on two sides by the plain white block of the school, and the other sides by the plain white block of the gymnasium and a line of cherry trees. The playground is austere, but to a child who has spent previous years playing in a walled garden, it is as vast and as full of possibility as the open range. Children cross it — instinctively it seems — by running.
The school building has a wide entrance where children take off their outdoor shoes and switch to their standard white indoor shoes. The building inside is as fresh as the exterior is austere. As in most Japanese schools, the hallway is not down the middle of the building, but on one side, running along an exterior wall with windows the full length. This allows natural light and air to enter the building through the hallway windows and continue through the classroom windows on the hallway side. The classroom’s external wall has sliding glass doors that face the playground. In essence, the classrooms have natural light and air entering from both sides of the building. Sitting in a desk, the students have a views of open sky and trees to their right and left.
The teacher is a cheerful young man I mistook for someone’s older brother. Watching him one morning, his enthusiasm encouraged the children and they remained surprisingly attentive and participative throughout the pedestrian lessons.
At lunchtime, the students turn their desks to form a square of four each to facilitate chatting. Lunch is wheeled into the classroom on a cart and a team of children don server smocks, masks, and hats to dole out lunch to the others. Only when the last server has taken off his smock and sat down, do the children eat. The rule is that they focus on eating for the first few minutes and then talk, but most children focus on talking.
A covered walkway extends along one side of the playground from the school to the gym. Wide doors on the gym’s ground level and, above these, wide windows can be opened, and when they are the gym feels like a shaded area on the playground. Again, what appears Spartan on the outside, is sunny and airy inside. On the roof of the gym is the swimming pool. The view from there is attractive enough that when Andy forgot his swim gear one day, he happily spent the swim lesson studying the landmark buildings on the horizon.
After school, the children who don’t go directly home go to an adjacent building connected to the school gym for after-school daycare. The children can play inside, on the playground, or in the gym. The play is facilitated by several adults. At 5 p.m., the children are called in for a one hour study session until 6 p.m., closing time.
The walk home from school isn’t nearly as exciting as the walk to school, but in some ways more fun. When I’ve accompanied him, Andy and his friends meander along, talking, shouting, laughing, and challenging each other the whole way. One boy is tall and thin, with eyeglasses, another is almost as tall, a third is shorter and heavier build, and the fourth, small, looking almost two years younger than the others. Nothing much happens on these walks, unless someone gets angry, and then the wounded party swears that he’ll never have anything to do with the offender. This continues until they part their ways and go to their homes. The next morning all is forgotten.
I still walk with Andy when I have time in the mornings, and on the occasional afternoon. In those first days of school, I sometimes walked all the way to school with him and his friends. These days, we part where he meets his friends at the first traffic light. I simply stop and let him walk away, waiting to see if he looks back to wave good-bye. At first, he often did. Even now, sometimes, he still does.