As promised, here is the first installment in my new series: It’s the little things…
I attended Jackie Robinson Intermediate School in Brooklyn, a school literally built on what is considered by most older Brooklynites as hallowed ground: the space that formerly held Ebbet’s Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yes, that would be the same Brooklyn Dodgers who decided against popular opinion to integrate baseball and the very same place where that color barrier in modern-era Major League Baseball was broken when Jackie Robinson took the field. From Slavery to Ebbets Field in 80 years. And from The house that Jackie jacked, to the White House (which was built with slave labor jacked from Africa,) in a little over 60 years. Don’t you just love America? Anyway, the rest is history.
By 1980 when I attended the school it was not a fitting tribute to the great man. It was not so much an eyesore as a cataract or an eye cancer. I mean, in the 1970s, NY was financially going through a rough patch and inner-city schools were hit pretty hard. I.S. 320 was one of these schools. But, even in its heyday, assuming it had one, I’m pretty sure there was never a garden on the premises, unless you consider those weeds sprouting up through the cracks in the concrete on the handball court, or those stinkweed trees growing wild alongside the basketball court, pruned by passing trucks, some kind of makeshift garden; ubiquitous dandelions straddling its roots, their parachute-like seeds spread by wish-bearing children like myself (please God, make Stephanie love me.) He didn’t by the way. Goddamn weeds…
The facilities at a Japanese Junior High School aren’t much better. They don’t have generous budgets and amenities coming out the wazoo. They have just the bare essentials to give the students the education they’re entitled to; the quality of that education determined by the quality of the teachers and administrative staff, which is usually pretty decent I’ve found. Just take away the graffiti, the cafeteria (Japanese students eat at their desks) add a doujou for Kendou practice, central heating (Japanese classrooms have stove-type heaters in each room, lit hazardously with matches!) and shoe lockers (for outside shoes shall be removed before entering the premises) and…actually there are many differences. But, there’s one startling distinction found at many Japanese schools: a garden.
All of the Japanese Public schools I have worked at have had at least one garden…usually maintained by staff and students. The pond above houses a growing number of rather large turtles (I counted over ten) and fish, assorted lilies and various plants. This Mokkoku tree above has been pruned (剪定） Japanese style (植木の手入れ）over the years. The other pond has what looks to be about hundred carp in it.
Maybe it’s simply a cultural difference, but I find it very appealing for a number of reasons. For one, just as it’s the student’s responsibility to clean the school each day before they leave (a simple way to develop responsibility and respect for the premises, something direly missing in the public schools I attended in NY) the students are also required to maintain the garden…though I’ve never sensed there was any qualm about it. There seem to always be a number of students just dying to get their hands in the dirt and re-pot plants or grab a net and clean out the fish and turtle ponds. Though the pruning I’ve only seen being done by the maintenance staff for it requires special skills, I have a feeling the students would do it gladly if they knew how or if the tools needed to do it weren’t dangerous.
Sometimes, while the kids are busy in class and I have a free period, I grab a cup of coffee and sit out there and soak up the tranquility. Sometimes I just check out the wild life. Japan is replete with gardens and most are a 100 times more beautiful and elaborate than the one above. But, just having an area like this in a school, for me, naturally changes the atmosphere of the education underway. It’s just a little thing but man do I admire it.