Sunday, April 17, 2011

School Situations

Some things are settled, and some things are getting there. Since our family is nothing but teachers and students, and we all go to a slew of schools, we’ve been in a kind of limbo ever since the earthquake on March 11. Before I talk about my own family’s situation, let me explain some things in case you’re not familiar with some of Japan’s educational practices.

The Japanese school year begins in April and ends in March. Yes, school goes on (pretty much) the entire year. There are breaks, of course, but for most students even during the breaks there’s a reason to go to school once in a while, and there are usually homework assignments or tests to prepare for because your “job” at this stage in life to be studious and learn as much as you can (while it’s “easy”). So, when the earthquake hit, students were at the end of the school year. Things were coming to a close, students were looking forward to graduation ceremonies and having their spring vacation (the only 2 weeks out of the year that you could really feel FREE from teachers and homework).

Another function of school grounds in many areas is to serve the local community as an evacuation center in case of some emergency. Thus, since most of the evacuation centers were schools, the schools could not continue classes to the end of the school year. Actually, no one was psychologically able to teach or attend classes the first few weeks anyway. While there has already been a start in building temporary housing units for evacuees, there are still a lot of new homeless in school gymnasiums. There have been attempts to put up partitions, so that families can have some sort of privacy from all the others living practically on top of one another. (One TV program showed us how one evacuation center organized themselves into the same neighborhood divisions that existed in their normal neighborhood, so that people could be in proximity to the same people they always live near. It gave them comfort to be near the people they knew and could talk with freely.)

Ceremonies are a common and frequent part of Japanese culture.  Unfortunately, many schools decided to cancel graduation ceremonies. A lot of schools did not cancel, and there were programs on TV showing us the scenes of the graduation ceremony going on with all the evacuees sitting on the gym floor in the background partaking in the milestones of students whose living situations and future plans were now altered drastically. Especially poignant scenes were of parents receiving the graduation certificates of their deceased children. Every graduation ceremony has speeches. There’s the principal’s talk, the student selected to represent the graduating class reading his or her message to the principal, and a parent of one of the graduating students giving thanks to the teachers. Almost all of them tried hard not to break down for this year’s message was atypical: how do you give an inspirational message of a wonderful future in the middle of death and destruction? You cannot say the things you usually say. The things that are usually said would be rather trite this year.

No sooner did the scenes of graduation finish, then we saw scenes of parents with children starting school for the first time. So many of them had already prepared, and now their preparations were for naught. People from all around the country began sending in their children’s old school bags, uniforms, gym clothes, and other supplies, so that not only brand new students, but any student who was in need, would have everything necessary to resume as normal a student life as possible in the upcoming school year. I was amazed at their efficiency in gathering and distributing it all.

So, where are we now? Maybe it would be easier if I went person by person.

Ai goes to a public high school in a town next to Sendai. Last week she went to school almost everyday, but she attended her club activity for the most part. She has two more days of club only then the official school year will begin on the 21st of April. That’s about 2 weeks later than usual.

Makoto goes to a public high school in Sendai. He will start classes on the 22nd. That’s also about 2 weeks later than usual.

Yuko goes to a public university in a town next to Sendai. I’m still not sure of the exact starting date, but I think it will be around the end of the first week of May. That’s about one month later than usual. (Note: Most educational institutions beyond high school have no classes for two months in the summer and two months in the spring.)

My husband teaches at three different universities. Two are in Sendai, and I believe they are both beginning at the same time as Yuko’s university. One is in Ishinomaki, and that school will begin the last week of May.

I teach at five different schools. My high school class begins this week, and my junior high school class begins next week. One university will begin the at the end of the first week in May, another (the same one my husband’s at in Ishinomaki) will begin the last week of May, and the Ishinomaki Red Cross Nursing School will begin some time in June. On March 29th, I learned that all of the staff and students at the Ishinomaki Red Cross Nursing School are alive and well. When I spoke with one of the teachers there by phone, I was on the verge of bursting out in tears of relief. I didn't realize I was so scared until I heard from her. The building is still standing, but the first floor was completely destroyed by the tsunami. They have to find some new facility (perhaps at the Red Cross Hospital itself, or at the other university in town where I also teach once a week.
Things are moving along, and it won’t be much longer before we have our school routines in place. Once again, because all of this earthquake-tsunami-nuclear stuff happened when it did, our household of teachers and students truly were not nearly as bothered or stressed as the majority of people who could not take time off from their vocations even when everything was a living hell. Our hearts still feel so much pain because there was not much we could do at that time to lessen their burdens.

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