Mon10202014

School days: No Shoes, Please

It is commonplace for the school year to begin in mid-August, but it still takes me by surprise. Just like when I notice reminders for December holiday shopping airing well before Thanksgiving, I find myself thinking, “Already?” I realize that the school year ends earlier as a result, but when I see the traffic heating up and kids walking around with their backpacks during August, I still feel as if something is getting cut short. But then again, from a minimized vacation point of view, I know it could be worse.

After graduating from college, I taught English in Japanese public schools for a year, arriving during the sweltering month of August, which is the summer holiday for Japanese students in its entirety.

This being Japan, I was of course sent immediately into a classroom where students from several municipal schools had been enrolled in summer English-language instruction with a newly arrived American sensei. No grades or evaluations were required for the course, but that didn’t necessarily mean those kids didn’t experience pressure and imposition. But together we sweated it out – literally – and no one dared complain, least of all the newly arrived American sensei.

At the time, I thought, “Wow. American kids sure have it easy by comparison.” Here were approximately 35 middle school students, wearing light cotton shirts and blouses with oppressively heavy skirts and pants; the boys all had black military-style caps and shaved heads. I learned later that the uniforms were adaptations of early 20th-century European naval and military dress. The shaved heads were considered a bit archaic even back then – in cosmopolitan Tokyo, for example, male students were allowed a respectful amount of hair on their heads.

But it really wasn’t about the uniforms per se. It was about a bunch of kids – mostly against their collective will – spending two weeks of their already short summer break practicing their limited English skills in a stuffy classroom while temperatures peaked at decidedly over 100 F on a daily, unrelenting basis. That’s a challenge even in shorts and a tank top with your hair styled anyway you like.

This was my intro into a stricter educational system than I had been accustomed to, and it was really only the beginning of a genuinely eye-opening experience.

When my own kids were attending primary and secondary schools, and as I work with middle and high school students today, I still remember that year when I was making the rounds in Japanese classrooms. Sometimes I think what the American system offers by comparison is laudatory, sometimes I think it’s horrible. Regardless, public education is revealing. You can tell a lot about a country’s values by how it chooses to educate its youth, which is why the current U.S. debate over public education – government’s role, cost, curriculum, access and inequality, teachers, family support structure – is so fundamental, going well beyond when a school year begins and ends.

I still feel sorry for kids trudging back to school in mid-August. But ironically enough, year-round schooling doesn’t strike me as such a bad idea, either.

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