There was a school that I used to visit as an itinerant assistant language teacher in rural Japan. It was a small elementary school, and each year the entering first grade class got smaller. I loved my days there. The students had an enthusiasm for learning that pervaded the school. Even on days that I did not get to visit, I usually drove past on my way to other schools. It set beside one of the main roads that ran through a series of valleys. Between the road and the school was a field where the students could often be seen checking on the crops they were growing. Nestled behind the school, away from the road, was a sports field and a pool that backed up against a heavily wooded hillside, and I have many memories of playing catch with the students and enjoying the pool on hot summer days.
Inside the school, everything was wooden, with sliding doors that led from a central gathering area into each of the classrooms. Everyone ate lunch together in the central gathering area, and the students took great joy in serving the food and cleaning up the area at the end of lunch. Tucked in a nook off of the central gathering area was a library with not so many books and a globe.
The school served a small farming community. The community showed up for school events and the school showed up for community events. I once ran a 2 kilometer race with the third grade class in a suit and dress shoes because I showed up not knowing it was race day. A third grader gave me a rock he found on the road as a prize for my efforts. That same third grader held my hand as he excitedly led me to the opening of a new shrine building that had just been completed in the village. To celebrate, the folks who had completed the building stood upon its roof and threw mochi out to the waiting kids. Mochi is a kind of crushed rice. One of the mochi thrown that day hit a student in the nose, and he cried as the school nurse helped to stop his nosebleed. We all returned happily to the school at the end of the ceremony, with one student in particular telling a story of adventure to everyone who would listen. The story was about being hit in the nose by mochi.
One day during rice planting season, we took a field trip up into the wooded hills behind the school. We walked back into a small rice field. The farmer leading the field trip told the class that this field was different. It was like the fields of the past. It had never been connected to the modern irrigation system. Then, the farmer showed us the medaka that were swimming in the water pooled around the nascent rice plants. Medaka are small black fish that used to teem in the rice fields of yesteryear. The medaka have largely disappeared from rice fields irrigated with modern methods. Their absence doesn’t affect the rice harvest in any noticeable way. At least not to the person buying rice at the store. The modern methods are efficient and stable.
This past summer, I was in Japan staying at my wife’s family’s home. We took our dog for a walk most days, and on some days we followed a narrow street that led down a hill and under the freeway, opening out onto a large flat valley of rice fields. Narrow cement trenches carried water between the fields and ran along the side of the roads. One day we were out in this expanse of rice when my older daughter suddenly pointed to the irrigation channel. The water was crisp and clear and devoid of living things, except for one little medaka swimming against the current. My daughter found it and she was delighted. For that matter, I was delighted and so was my wife. As for my younger daughter, she was asleep in the stroller and my dog’s interest was directed onwards continuing our walk.
On a different day, my family and I drove along the road that ran by the small elementary school where I first learned about medaka. Its windows were boarded up, and I heard from a friend that the school had been consolidated into another school up the road.
I read often throughout the school year in search of what it means to be a teacher. This year, I’ve been reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou, a playful book that leaves more to the imagination of its reader than it explains. In his book, Martin Buber reflects on how we can make sense of our lives by stepping just far enough away to see through the entangled relationships in which we are held, but not so far away as to let those relationships become unrecoverable.
For me, the single medaka swimming in a concrete irrigation channel brings a sense to medaka in general that may not have come into being for me if medaka were commonplace. In the boarded up windows of the school where I used to teach, it strikes me that I remember everything joyful so easily. It is only now when driving to school in Denver with the anxiety of what seems to be a million competing demands on my attention that I realize that I felt the same way when I was a younger teacher teaching in Japan. Somehow all this helps me take joy in my memory of my daughter’s discovery of the medaka, and this in turn lets me see past the relationships I am currently entangled within so I can appreciate them fully.
It seems like the time of year for that kind of reflection. The meaning of most educational experiences comes into being through the relationships in which I’ve been held, and those same relationships can blind me to what that meaning might be until the experience is long committed to the past. I believe one aspect, one important aspect, of education is to raise the importance of the relationships that hold us while those relationships are still in place.