When my son was six years old, he came home from his Japanese Montessori pre-school one day saying that his teacher had given him a homework assignment. The task involved cutting up a wall-calendar into fifty-two weeks and joining them together end-to-end in a long strip. The strip was to be rolled up, secured with a rubber band and taken to school the following day. In keeping with the Montessori philosophy, the task had to be completed without adult help.
He explained all this in fluent Japanese. I insisted that he must have misunderstood. He was adamant that he had not. I insisted some more. What parent would agree to cutting up their calendar? What family would have a spare calendar lying around the house? Were we expected to go out and buy a calendar for the purpose? And even if a calendar were available, the assignment would surely be incredibly time-consuming, hardly something he could fit in between dinner, bath and bed ready to hand in the next day. It just didn’t sound like a reasonable request for his teacher to have made. In fact, it sounded quite bizarre. He had clearly misunderstood.
Eventually, I managed to persuade my son that he must be mistaken and sent him off to school the next day empty-handed, asking him to find out what he was expected to do. When I picked him up later that day he looked crestfallen. He had been the only one who had not done as he was asked. Everyone had taken their rolled-up calendar strips to school that day and had fun rolling them out side by side in the main hall. He told the teacher that he had not been able to do it because his mum had not believed him. The teacher, well aware of my proficiency in Japanese, assumed that he simply had not conveyed the instructions properly and told him to be sure to complete the assignment and bring it in the following day.
I tried to picture the spectacle of thirty-nine ‘years’ being unfurled along the floor, imagining my son’s dismay and feeling his sense of bewilderment when his candid excuse was dismissed out of hand as a failure to make himself understood. Linguistically speaking, I had comprehended perfectly the information he had communicated. However, my cultural mindset was such that the concept described simply could not register. So far removed from my lived experience was the thing he was being asked to do that he may as well have been speaking an entirely unfamiliar tongue.
On the way home that afternoon we went and bought a calendar and cancelled all other plans for the rest of the day. As requested, my son insisted on doing the task himself, refusing my occasional attempts to speed up the proceedings. Cutting precisely along the lines that separated each week of the twelve months and meticulously pasting them back together in the new format demanded extraordinary patience and perseverance. The painstaking process took him close to three hours, breaking only once for a drink of grape juice and a biscuit. When it was finished, the ‘year’ stretched almost the entire length of our apartment.
Finally, I understood. My son’s words now had real meaning. He had suffered the indignity of being doubted by his teacher and would have to present his ‘year’ strip one day later than the rest of the class. But he had succeeded in shifting his mother’s culturally bound perceptions and narrowing the gap between language and lived experience. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last.