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Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012

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Teaching compassion for all living things


As the distinguished gaijin on the island (ie: the only foreigner here), the Shiraishi Island Elementary school asked me to come and give a speech to third- and fourth-year students. All four of them.

"We want to teach the students compassion for all living things," the dean told me. "So we would like you to come talk to the children about the beautiful nature on Shiraishi Island."

There are only 16 students in the entire elementary school. That includes one first-year student and one kindergartener.

Nonetheless, the students get many opportunities to practice compassion. In kindergarten they raise animals such as rabbits and chickens. On Respect for the Aged Day (a national holiday in Japan), they write letters to the elderly people living on the island. Throughout kindergarten and elementary school each class has a garden where they raise vegetables. These activities foster a sense of compassion for animals, humans and, um, vegetables.

The letter-writing further serves to link the younger and older generations in this small community of 599 people. But as the elderly population increases and the student numbers decrease, letter-writing has become more of a burden for the students. This year, 16 students had to write 230 letters for Respect for the Aged Day.

My question is, how can we expect the young to respect the elderly when these people are the cause of making them write 14 letters each? Wouldn't the mere thought of having to write so many letters encourage students to ditch compassion and go on a fun camping weekend instead? If they could email the elderly people, using the "cc" function, that would be one thing, but asking each student to hand-write 14 letters each? Oh, the writer's cramp!

In the future, should these students ever need to write someone else a letter, they will surely start with: "The autumn season is upon us. I hope your blood pressure is not too high today."

My talk with the students was supposed to encourage them to develop a compassion for nature. This should be easy, I thought. After all, the children on this island still grow up with nature. There are no shopping malls, convenience stores or video rental shops here. The children still play in the mountains, swim in the sea and go fishing, just like their elders used to do.

"Not so," says the dean as I sip English tea with her in her office just minutes before my talk. Her office is in the new, modern elementary school building. "Nowadays they go swimming in the pool at the local B&G and on the weekends, they leave the island to go do things on the mainland. Previous everyday island activities such as swimming in the sea, fishing and kayaking have become a part of school PE class because if they weren't, the children wouldn't do them. Even the parents don't take kids fishing anymore because they say it's too dangerous."

"Dangerous?" I scratched my head. Maybe for the fish.

"When the students came back after summer vacation," the dean continued, "I asked if they had spent time on the beach. One student answered that yes, he went to the beach. Twice! I couldn't believe it," she said. "Imagine living right next to a beach and only go swimming twice all summer!"

"So I would like you to tell the students how important it is to grow up in nature. Tell them how much you love the sea, the mountains and the nature on the island."

With that, we finished our tea and went into the classroom. As the distinguished guest, sporting the gaijin halo, I sat at the back of the classroom with the dean. Another teacher was on hand taking photos.

I eyed the posters on the wall, most of which I was sure would never be found on the walls of elementary schools in the United States. One poster showed how to hold chopsticks correctly, with three vivid drawings accompanied by explanations. Then there was the "Proper Posture" poster, demonstrating the proper way to sit while in class — with their head 30 cm above the desk, the butt touching the back of the seat, and knees pressed together. The back should be straight with a slight forward lean. In addition, no elbows on the desk, and no dessert until all the vegetables on your plate have been eaten.

The teacher introduced today's topic: autumn. The four students were asked what came to mind when they heard the word "autumn." The grocer's daughter started and said, "Trees." Next was the fisherman's daughter, who said, "Forest." The only boy in the class offered "maple leaves" and the daughter of the island's "cat lady" said "kittens." Then they were asked about Shiraishi Island's autumn. The students named: bamboo, chestnuts, figs and leaves. Each time, only four types of anything were suggested since there were only four students.

Distant ferries tooted their horns as they came in and out of the port carrying mothers and fathers to the mainland and back while their children studied compassion for nature.

It was then my turn to get up and talk about nature with the students. I straightened my halo and went to the front of the class. I told them my thoughts on living among nature on Shiraishi Island.

At the end of class, the teacher had each student write down one point about my talk that they would remember. Naturally, there were four points. The grocer's daughter wrote, "I didn't realize that most people don't see the sun set over the sea in the evenings." The fisherman's daughter said, "I thought everyone could see the moon rise over the sea." The only boy in the class said, "I didn't know there were bell crickets at Amy's house," and the cat lady's daughter said, "Shiraishi must be a beautiful place if Amy came all the way from America to live here."

With that, I took off my halo, bowed to the students, and left the classroom feeling I had successfully "level-upped" the students' compassion for nature.

Maybe.



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