“Velcro on one pocket coming away at the edge. Please repair and bring back tomorrow for checking.” This was the note I had dreaded from my son’s teacher. The Velcro was one of two strips attached to the insides of each side pocket of his shorts. One pocket had to contain a pack of tissues, the other a “handkerchief”. The tissues were for runny noses, the handkerchief for drying hands. Velcro on the pockets stopped these items falling out during exercise and posing an unhelpful distraction to the child. The fastening was easily manipulated by the child, allowing him to access and replace the contents of his pocket independently and without fuss. Spare changes of clothes had to be ready equipped with a pack of tissues and a handkerchief, doing away with the need for the child to transfer them from one set of clothing to another. The Velcro had to be sewn on, not ironed. Having been at this Japanese Montessori pre-school for a year already, I was familiar with this requirement and, not owning a sewing machine, had become a seasoned hand-sewer-of-Velcro-on-pockets. So what was the problem?
Well, this particular pair of shorts was one of eight pairs of shorts from eight changes of clothes required for a three day, two night summer camp. The calculations appear not to add up, until you consider that the children were expected to change their clothing whenever it got dirty, sweaty, or wet from the rain. Since summer camp took place towards the end of the official rainy season of high heat and humidity when the ground underfoot was likely to be muddy … well, you get the picture. Each item of clothing had to be named (no iron-on labels permitted!). And each garment had to be rolled up in a prescribed fashion and secured with a rubber band. Eight pairs of shorts, eight T-shirts, eight vests, eight pairs of underpants, eight pairs of socks. Plus eight disposable plastic carrier bags for each set of soiled clothes, each bag bearing the child’s name, and each folded, rolled up and secured with a rubber band. The children, some as young as four years old, had to place the tissues and handkerchiefs in the pockets of the shorts; check that they knew where their name was on each garment; roll up the clothing and secure each piece with a rubber band; then pack these things into their bag, along with sandals, towels of specific sizes for specific functions, toiletries and other requisite items, all contained in bags of prescribed dimensions and materials, and all labeled with the child’s name. Only the rubber bands were able to remain anonymous!
The children then had to carry the bag by themselves to school for checking by the teacher two days before the day of departure. Parents seen carrying their child’s bag were reprimanded on the spot. Checking involved the child taking all the items out of the bag, removing the rubber band and unrolling each item of clothing, showing the teacher their name on each garment and other items, then rolling the clothes back up, securing them with the rubber bands, and re-packing all the items in the bag. My only slip-up was failing to repair one piece of Velcro on one pocket of one pair of well-worn shorts.
A little confession here: I knew that the Velcro had started to come away. But frankly, I found the meticulous preparations exhausting. So I decided to risk leaving it as it was. Another confession: Part of me wanted to see whether the teacher would notice the loosening stitches on the Velcro; whether she really believed that this could impact on my child’s ability to function independently at camp; whether she would dareto take me to task on it.
I had been made to jump through hoops to follow the requirements that I know were intended to support the independence of the child, the crucial tenet of the Montessori philosophy. Now, for the sake of a few more minutes of my time, I was digging my feet in. When I saw the note I could not control my sense of outrage. I told myself that it was not worth it. I would rather my son did not attend the camp than give in to such a ridiculous request. It was just not worth it. “No, it’s not worth it,” countered another voice inside my head. It’s really not worth it.
Pigheadedness. Pride. Indignation. Were these the lessons I wanted to teach my son? What about flexibility? Humility? Respect for the person whom I trusted to keep my child safe on his first camping adventure, the person who had patiently sat with each of the fifteen children as they unpacked and repacked their bags? The children who had done as they were asked without complaint? Solidarity with the other mothers, some with siblings at the school whose workload had been double that of my own? And the reasons for eschewing international Montessori schools for a Japanese Montessori environment in the first place?
This was not the first time during the past year that I had been forced – always with an initial degree of resistance and sometimes painfully – to adjust my thinking concerning the practice of the Montessori philosophy, to expand my view of the limits of a child’s capabilities, to challenge my culturally-blinkered perceptions.
Japan was not a new culture – I had spent a number of years there before becoming a mother and was fluent and literate in the language – but the insights gained through the application of the Montessori philosophy within the cultural context of Japan went beyond anything I could ever have conceived of. That evening, as I stitched the loose edge of the stiff Velcro, listening to the chatter of my son in his growing excitement at the prospect of the trip, it seemed to yield a little more easily than usual to the pressure of the needle.
Angela also reflects about international parenting in this episode of Japanese-on-the-Move.