Thursday, March 22, 2012

Follow the Yellow Hat Road

A few days before my first day of the first grade, I zoomed in on the "Z" name at the bottom of the "Mrs. Jackson's Class" Roster taped to the front door of Fishinger Elementary School. Anticipation ensued, and school supplies list soon followed. I hopped in the back seat of the family wood paneled station wagon, and with one stop at Gold Circle, a detour to Northland Mall, my checklist was complete: thick Mickey Mouse pencils, Crayolas, a Holly Hobby lunchbox, a Raggedy Andy nap mat. I was measured for a shiny pair of Tom McCan school shoes, and with the final selection of a coordinated outfit from JC Penny's, that I had to "save" until the first day of school, the prep was finalized. In a day. Gearing up to enter elementary school as an Ohioan in the 1970s was relatively low maintenance (though my mom may remember it differently).

The run up to my daughter's first day at the local Japanese elementary school in the 2010s, though cliche, was a world away from my experience. In Japan, that one day of preparation from my childhood spanned into nearly two years of my motherhood. I admit that I don't know how to add bead one on the abacus I had to buy from her school supply list, but my own memory of elementary math recalls that 400 plus days vs 1 day is, according to my calculation, "no fair!" That's right, Toto San, it looks like we are not in Ohio anymore.

Initiation Process (or Hazing?)

The games began some 18 months in advance with a manila envelope from the public health center. The packet contained a detailed account of every shot, sneeze and sniffle she's had since 2005, plus a checklist citing the remaining vaccinations required before my Kindergartner's number was up to enter first grade. Since her birth, I had followed through with all of the homework-like health center round-ups. We, the birth cohorts grouped into 3-month herds, had been cattled up to public facilities in intervals to take a number, get a once-over check up, and a shot or a prick, in assembly line fashion, for what felt like everything but mad cow (vaccination pun intended).

According to our track sheet, which I didn't realize but am not surprised is public record, all but a couple of the initial immunizations and booster shots were ticked off the list. I had been passively ignoring, Nihon Noen (Japanese Encephalitis), perhaps ignorantly, perhaps ethnocentrically, assuming that since American wasn't in the name that we had a bye. However, rules are rules, and homework is homework. When entering a Japanese system, protocol comes down to less the fear of exposure to a rural mosquito spreading virus, but more on the group effort of crossing the "t"s and dotting the "i"s on the master checklist to your micro checklist.

While gradually becoming immune to earthly ills, we continued to receive friendly reminders and form letter invitations, or depending on how half full or half empty your thermos is, must-do assignments to advance into the system. One hand addressed envelope, varying from the usual tiny font for a foreign name typed mailing label, arrived from the town hall. I was cordially invited to come for a "light" interview with the superintendent of schools: "Please kindly appear with your daughter at the Board of Education at your convenience, today or tomorrow, before 4:30 pm."

Strategically, or in proud American fashion, we rocked up just before closing on a Friday. It turns out we were the first "foreign" example to grace the halls of the public schools. In contemporary town history, there exists lesser known cases in which the offspring of one Japanese parent and one foreign national stumble through. Yes, if they're out there, I know them. There is an insider eye-lock when you spot another gaijin in small town, or suburban Japan. It's a knowing look, a contextual bond. If you're in the produce section, you exchange, "can you believe how much we pay per apple?" glances, or if you happen to clamp eyes on a station platform, it's, "did you ever think you'd carry a brief case in a bike basket to catch the express train?" You may never speak, or even meet, but you communicated. Truly communicated.

Like us, those families (which I could count on one string of beads on the kid's abacus if I ever did get through the How To enclosures) were tax-paying citizens with rights to the system. Concerns from Oniisan (Big Brother) were more of the day to day variety. Can our daughter speak Japanese? Can she eat the school lunch menu? Not to omit every native's favorite Samurai sword jab, "can she use chopsticks?"

We went through the motions even after the non verbals answered all they needed. When we walked in the room, they offered a coloring book and a doll for Hana to play with while the grown ups talked "boring big people stuff." Somewhat gracefully and mostly under her breath, she launched into singing the jingle associated with the It Girl Character, Cure Sunshine, and talking to her in the local lingo. So the superhero girls-group Precure popularity boom with this age group took care of our "big dealing" session. I had been less gracefully, and to my best effort under my breath, cursing that theme song when it aired every Sunday morning from 8:30-9:00 am, but today, minutes before happy hour, I was blessing its behind the town hall scenes educational benefits.

Following through with the formality of a set agenda, they assigned me to an "essay of intent" in Japanese, 3 pages A4-sized paper, stating my reasons for enrolling my child in the local school. I doubt they looking for fundamentals such as, "human rights," or "the law," which were running through my mental outline, as much as to just make sure I had a formal hold on reading and writing the language too. Homework is homework. Well, this was more like what we used to call "in class busy work," as students, since the easy-A hand-written composition had to be completed in front of them. I took to the fountain pen with the confidence of a Precure superhero, but couldn't resist asking myself, when was my vaccination for red tape number going to be up?

We passed through the first flag marker to advance into the first grade. The Zidonis genius line continues (give me that much, it stalls at the abacus - cue the Scarecrow's, "If I Only Had a Brain").

Field Day

Closing in on 9 months before the start of the school year, an invitation for the incoming first grade students to participate in an event at the Fall Sports Day Festival arrived. I filled out the return RSVP postcard, then tackled the items included in the checklist of 9 things to bring for the 30 meter dash relay. This was to welcome the kids, as well as to warm them up to the school rituals, complete with traditional fanfare, none short of the vuvuzela invasion on the World Cup stage. I suspect a hidden agenda was to get the moms (I'd say "parents or guardians," but my quick survey of those accompanying the 91 first grade candidates came to a non scientific 100% mom count) accustomed to spending 12 hours in prep time for every 3 minutes of event time they'll face in their academic lives.

In training mode for the relay, I took the baton (a sash in Japan), and ran with my role in abiding by the uniform code, the measurements of the to-bring list, down to the appropriate measure of barely tea refreshment for both mother and child, the street shoes and the playground shoes. I studied hand crafted maps of where to check in, stand, cheer, and finally memorized the layout of the course where the kids would start, finish, and collect prizes. I didn't go as far as others by bringing my kid to run through the course, but I dutifully came through with the final request of labeling everything I or she will bring, wear, eat, drink or touch, in two languages.

In the end, everyone was a winner. At the finish line, the 6th graders presented their juniors with school issued notebooks. They labeled them on the spot at a table and marker station in impressive record time. I bet the Olympics even requires a day or two turn-around to get the champion or event names inscribed on medals.

Physician's Permission Slip

With any track and field event win, a doping test looms right around the corner. A notice of the mandatory on-site health checks and "intelligence" tests held at the school was the next invite in my mailbox. Parent-child teams were to report to the school, by now versed in the drill: labeled plastic bag totes for street shoes, indoor footwear, note-taking supplies. Future first graders had to bring specific plain white indoor shoes resembling a cross between Tretorns and ballet slippers, in order to be appropriately mobile for the rounds of health checks from classroom to classroom. These uwabaki would become their uniform indoor school shoes from April, so it wasn't a purchase-for-one-day shot, more like foreshadowing the syllabus for what was lied ahead in Fundamentals in School Supplies, 101. We were given a diagram in advance including the exact location and dimensions in which to label the shoes with our child's name. There was even a specific sized and brand marker, conveniently called a "name pen" at the top of our must-buy list for such use.

On test day at Higashi (East) Elementary School, we checked in, collected our name tags, information packets and lecture notes. Seated mother-child, mother-child, we settled into cushion-less wooden chairs, in the unheated auditorium for the next 90 minutes. The speeches from the school nurse, principal, and first grade teacher-in-chief targeted the parents: maintaining good habits at home, demonstrating a healthy lifestyle through your own actions. Sitting still beyond the keynote speaker's introduction was probably part of the kids' endurance test.

Highlights mapped out prerequisites to train your child in over the months before the spring start -- using an Eastern style toilet (squatter); introducing a certain rhythm to the tooth brushing ritual, crescendo-ing with a ue shita ue shita (up down up down) chant to complete the cycle on the two front teeth made the top of the list, followed by morphing from indoor to outdoor shoes in a single-file line without having to crouch or look down, ensuing a smooth transition from classroom to recess (one wonders if that task conflicts with mastering the squatter). There were illustrated handouts, Q&A time allotted, and of course note-taking throughout the day. I could have used a recess by page 8, yet I kept myself alert thanks to my systematic use of thematic highlighters -- pink was high on the crazy scale, blue was mild, and green was just plain weird. The sanity scale rainbow kept me awake.

Next, we shuffled in single file from classroom to classroom where doctors from local community clinics were stationed to perform a body of "tests." Examination content appeared standard, reminiscent of the once over I received growing up when a medical permission was needed to join a school sport: heart rate (confirmed Tin Man's "Heart"), pulse, height, weight, hearing and sight. Boys and girls weren't separated at any junction of the check-points, launching them into their all-for-one mind-set from the start. Portable standing screen dividers provided minimum privacy during their exam, but they were shirtless waiting in line, so it was really the thought that counted. A dentist was on call to check the teeth, as well as observe a dry run of the kid brushing on her own while gumming the jingle previously described.

Ears, nose and throat went without a hitch and then it was onto the eye chart. We had a disadvantage on this one and held up the line in American "I'm going to take my dear sweet time" fashion since the "E" chart alphabet Americans are accustomed to, was, well, not standard here, nor representative of their spoken language. As a not so 20/20 result, this is one challenge I couldn't prep her for. The standard Pacman test: A pie shaped circle, with one slice cut out. The "open" side is facing right, left, up or down, in flashing turns through a scope. The kid declares, migi, hidari, ue, shita (right, left, up, down) to indicate the direction of Pacman's mouth. With each random rotation in succession, the size Pac's size gets smaller and smaller. So if you don't know your left from your right by age 5, the school thinks your blind. Or blind dumb. Or both. Or raised by an American Mom. Or all three.

With no inspiration from me -- I was more of a Ms. Pacman kid anyway -- she was advancing from screening test to screening test like a retro arcade gamer. Assured, my focus shifted to the classroom decor. Student projects paraded zoo animals made from empty tissue boxes and paper-towel rolls, as well traffic lights constructed from milk cartons, which was a familiar one from my elementary school days, except they declare the green light to be "blue." Next, we were released with our charts filled in by the 4 doctors, and advanced to the intelligence test. The little ones were escorted by 6th grade leaders to a separate room, where they were administered a 12-page written exam, capped off with a one-on-one interview with a teacher (no Precure doll this round). Although results aren't released to parents, somehow we were granted the "blue light" to prepare for first grade, and furnished with a 66 page hand-illustrated instruction manual stating the specific items to buy, complete with a detailed rule book on how, where and to what millimeter, to label each item. I only had 9 weeks to churn out this Dissertation in Motherhood project. Where was the simplicity of Mrs. Jackson's class list now?

Label Mania

My mom strung my mittens through my winter coat to prevent me from mixing them up with classmates' gear, or sealing their fate in the lost and found crypt. That was one sentence. I could type 176 pages to describe the labeling I went through, but my fingers already feel raw from stitching and iron-on-ing names. Another mother and I devoted three straight days sitting across the kitchen table from each other plowing through the mountain of items had ordered through the school, each with its own how to and what size to label rule. We got so bored with our own child's name after awhile that we switched in intervals, like true study buddies pulling all-nighters before finals. In similar "ol' college try" fashion, it was probably considered cheating.

Science and math sets were the most challenging. Each kit is made up of a large boxed set containing hundreds of tiny items: different shapes, colors and sizes of magnets, mini flashcards, "playing" die, clocks, stop watches, beads, as well as an array of arrows and compasses, and included 380 label stickers of assorted sizes. Many magnets were flower shaped, and clearly one side was taken up by, well, the magnet. There were pinkie sized stacks of flashcards for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, numbers 1-100. I took a break and a victory lap around the table when I got the label on a single die without covering up any of the black dots. Every single itty bitty item required tagging her name, grade level, class number, and student number within class. She was Ashley Hana Dilenschneider, grade 1, class 2, number 23, in other words, アシュリーハナデイレンシュナイダー、一年二組、二十三番.

Piano + Harmonica = Pianica

Just like it sounds, this is a piano keyboard activated with a harmonica-like attachment which somewhat resembles an accordion with a mouthpiece, but with no sign of a circus monkey gripping a tip-collecting cup. Each key required a label which at this point I don't question, but it would be alarming to start finding E-flats and F-sharps in the lost and found, let alone in my vacuum cleaner bag. Although I'm not claiming to have an in-house Mozart prodigy, the Pianica produces a halfway decent sound. I disturbed the neighborhood in 5th grade with my forced-purchase of an unlabeled Yamaha Recorder for music class. In this context it's fitting to draw that comparison, but I doubt I ever practiced, which may be linked to the chilling sounds I set off toot for toot. Alas, the E and the F letter keys were more reflective of my instrumental effort grades rather than musical notes.

Alarm Buzzer

This oval shaped, bright yellow safety item dangles from a built in leather stitched hook on their backpacks, adjacent to a color coded ribbon denoting which group they walk home with after school, which differs from the ribbon color denoting which group that they walk to school with. I failed the alarm attachment test faster than I bombed the Pacman eye exam, my first and 100th attempt at folding origami, my one shot at the abacus, and please don't start me on my try on the unicycle, since at least I have until 2nd grade to get that one "rolling." Unintentionally, I sounded the alarm on day one of attaching it. Note that it wasn't day one of school, but the first day of the recommended "prep in advance" run-through before the school year started. When bloody murder sounded through the neighborhood, a cop doing rounds on his motorbike swung by to detonate it. Instead of being embarrassed (I dropped that feeling 15 years due to over-use), I quickly switched to relief that it was boorishly announced within a 2 km radius that I was doing my parenting homework. And Homework is Homework. If only I still had that old Yamaha Recorder, I could accompany her to and from school, serving as live a replacement for the buzzer. However, that notion would risk jump-starting her book of embarrassing moments, a chapter which I claim to have closed, before even giving her the chance to reach the starting blocks.

And More School Supplies

From the list of items to prepare before the first day of school, we were "free" to purchase some requirements -- pencil case, pencils, erasers, notebooks and seat cushions that became cone-head hats for disaster prevention (I would insert an airplane "your can be used as a floatation device" joke here, but they used those things more in 2011 than I did magnet labels) at our store of choice, but not without a "restrictions apply" clause. First, the store of our choice could be selected from one of the two recommended venues. Second, the items could not appear flashy in color or with commercial characters as to not distract the 6-7 year olds from the learning process. As an exception, the material for the cloth tote bags for chopsticks, masks, lunch place mats, towels (to hang on the chair to scrub the classroom floor, to hang on hook to dry hands after washing), gym clothes cloth tote, indoor shoes cloth tote, craft supplies cloth tote, and cloth "chair leg booties" for when they move the classroom seats to the dusty outdoor grounds for events, had no such color, pattern or character regulation.*

*Providing they were hand made in a display of a mother's pure love and support of her child's education, and within the regulated dimensions, with a one-pull drawstring with no tie or bow, labeled with a single thread color of my daughter's liking, representative of her individualism.

Public schools in Japan don't dictate complete uniforms until junior high. Therefore, they have 6 years of *limited* freedom to choose their daily outfits until they are formally strapped in. Yet, with choices come rules: Neck warmers en route to school? Yes. Leg warmers? No. Rain boots? Yes. Snow boots? No. I don't know if this policy saves them from later regretting fashion photo-uploads on social networking sites, or if it is to thicken their skin while promoting the ability to ganman, or, withstand the harsh seasonal elements. Culturally, I'm guessing it's the latter, but I sure could have benefited from the former. If only someone would have put a carton of milk quart Stop Light on my Xanadu leg warmers and Mork From Ork Moonboot choices. On second thought, 17 winters without central heat, and no early childhood education in ganman, I'd give my thousand sticker labels for that warmth now.

Nevertheless, elementary pupils do have a line of formal Uniform Accessories:

Gym Clothes
: Summer wear consists of a white shirt and blue shorts straight out of the circa polyester line my generation modeled from the former Agler Davidson on Henderson Road. Navy blue uniform swim suits and white swim caps, each ID-ing the kids in bold black marker creating trackable bobbing buoys. All public schools have outdoor pools and require a 6 week swim program in their curriculum.

The have an additional 2 weeks during "summer vacation." The report card parents send the kids with to their lesson requires recording their temperature daily, circling an icon best representative of the child's mood that day, listing their breakfast menu, and finally the number of hours of slumber they clocked in the previous night. I'd give myself a grump face icon for my end of the assignment, but instead, I choose to grin and bear it, "in a display of a mother's pure love and support of her child's education."

Following the summer swim school session, they have morning calisthenics at 6 am led by the live national public radio broadcast with a PTA - volunteer - assist daily for one week before school resumes. Freedom of clothing choice for the wake up call disguises the hidden agenda of making sure the children don't get used to the poison vacation lifestyle that yours truly had growing up with Scooby Doo catered by Cap'n Crunch.

Winter Gym Clothes
gear simply adds a coordinating blue zip-up jersey and matching pants to the look, although they don't get much use, in harmony with the idea of "proving your toughness to withstand the elements." Colors or styles rarely vary nationwide, though the unique school emblem sets them apart from other kids, or in the least keeps the rice on the tables of the the local Ma and Pa school uniform store fronts. The name plate spanning across the chest of the shirts is 5 by 7 inches, so there is no secret as to who "drops the ball" on any play. Year round, they wear the red side of their red/white reversable hats. Half flip to the white hat side when they into divide teams for assorted scrimmages. The colors depict the Japanese flag, which makes more sense and perhaps is more within the law for this age group than the US cultural equivalent of "shirts and skins," despite having played rounds of that game at the public school health check.

Commute to School by the seasons: 1. Solid yellow hat for winter, mesh yellow hat for summer. No, they don't change clocks for daylight savings time, just hats. No memo or emergency phone chain is activated to remind us, rather, they leave it to the Equinox on the calendar to denote the big switch. 2. Two yellow umbrellas. Even though there are fierce rainy season and a typhoon seasons, kids don't carry both in during these heavy downpours. What with all the "handmade from love" draw-string totes in an array of sizes, how would they ever spare a hand? Rather, one is to carry from home for when rain is predicted from the morning (I give the meteorologists a 99% accuracy rate), the other is to keep at school in the event of sudden rain (so the meteorologists' 1% margin of error covered).

Boxy Backpacks: They serve as a mobile desk, and have the added charm of making students look like astronauts (accessorized with previously introduced neon buzzer and multi colored ribbons). Kids bring all the necessary texts depending on their changing class schedule each day, as opposed to storing them in a school desk or cubby at school. Unlike the K-Mart Blue Light Special, prices vary from About $200-$1,200, a figure which renders them sturdy enough considering they carry the same リュックサック (backpack) all six years. Since about the millennium, リュックサックcolors may vary as much as price. Tradition formally dictated red for girls, black for boys. Women's lib has since advanced, allowing 6 year olds more personal expression to cut loose for this commitment.

School Lunch Uniform: This sounds misleading, since the student body doesn't have a costume change to eat. The daily lunch menu is cooked on-site in a kitchen, but there is no school cafeteria. Instead, they eat lunch in their classrooms. The kids set, serve and clear the daily meal for their class. They rotate serving groups monthly, and the "lunch ladies" (boys and girls teamed in a group of 4-6) wear white cotton chef caps, white lab coats, white masks, and the complete ensemble folds neatly into a white tote bag with a one-pull drawstring. Each student brings a white surgical mask to wear during the set up, chopstick set, toothbrush and cup in a cloth bag each day. Students in the serving rotation require 2 masks to ensure having a spare to serve seconds mid-way through lunch period. *White denotes international symbol of cleanliness in food handling, though I believe they look like they are prepped to perform an emergency root canal.

Not to be excluded, parents are administered 2 types of uniforms: 1. "Event pass" ID badges to wear around our necks for when we visit the school, as well as a matching banner to fasten to the front basket of our bikes for when we pedal* around the neighborhood or to school. *Driving to the school is not allowed, which is in line with our modeling the ideal "uphill, both ways" hardship in commuting-to-school life. After all, our presence in the neighborhood is expected to be of the safety and greeting patrol duty, day or night, weekday or weekend, rain or shine, sleet or snow. 2. We rotate the morning crossing guard ensemble consisting of a neon vest, yellow poncho for rain (umbrella of any color strictly prohibited, ganman enforced), and neon flag pole. As if I didn't stick out enough (here I activated the Cowardly Lion's "Nerve").

Entrance Ceremony

Finally, the gate to Oz, or in this case, the entrance to the first grade along the Yellow Hat Road, comes into view. We chose the right path at the fork, in this case, chopstick in the road, and the Scarecrow, in this case, first grade teacher-in-chief, pointed us the way to the induction ceremony in the gymnasium at the elementary school. Time came to mount that horse of changing colors to the black tie affair. The principal, superintendent and local politicians wear tails (but not the kind donned by guest star Winnie the Pooh who spoke on traffic safety). Parents and incoming 1st graders wear suits, but thankfully not matching to each other or matching to Pooh Bear. We were to carry bags for our shoes and tote our fanciest slippers for the formal occasion.

The hand off from home to school at the starting line has a bigger milestone feel than even the way we celebrate the graduation victory finish in the States. After almost 2 decades in the field of education in Japan, I have come to embrace the ceremonial entrance along side of them, now with my non-cynical, sincere Glinda the Good Witch smile. Their connection to the school, their class, their group within the class, is a proud part of student identity. I would equate it to the zealous loyalty an Ohioan has toward Buckeyes Sports, yet without the tension or risk of losing (or rioting). Following the two hour ceremony of speeches, the classroom teachers give a roll call for the 91 incoming students. We were instructed to rehearse our children for this. They hear their name. They stand. They reply, "HAI!" to confirm their enthusiastic attendance. They take their seats with perfect posture for the remaining of the 90 names and responses.

After the 6 year olds complete their sitting still test (and the fidgeting parents fared well too), one professional photo snap commemorates the teachers, staff, students and families as a group for the last time. They are now released from us and deemed independent first-graders. The principal, or Wizard, of Higashi Elementary School, gives us one final deep bow with his pledge to "take them in and care for them for the next six years in earnest." Off she went to meet with her classmates and teacher for the first time as a unit. No, Toto, we are not in Ohio anymore. And with that, I clicked my indoor ruby slippers and reminded myself, "there's no place like Parenthood" in Japan.


  1. Love this funny, touching, beautifully written walk down memory land and glimpse into school life in a completely foreign culture. I was laughing and smiling during the entire read.
    Stacie (Whitten) Chadwick

  2. Brilliant. If I wasn't already afraid of raising a child in Japan, I blooming well am now!