It’s a broiling July day in Tokyo, the kind of day where the air is so sweltering that simply walking outside feels like entering a steam sauna. My first-grade daughter bursts through the front door, her hair sticking to her forehead and her pink dress wet with sweat. She takes off her shoes, plops her heavy schoolbags on the floor, and eagerly gulps down the large glass of ice water I’ve brought her. “It’s soooo hot and I’m sooo thirsty!”, she says as she puts down the glass and hugs me. “WHY oh WHY oh WHY aren’t thermoses allowed at my school?! That rule just doesn’t make any SENSE!!””
Later that afternoon, my daughter goes to her room and works intently at her desk. I refrain from interrupting until she calls me, an hour later, to see what she’s written. It’s a letter to her principal asking for a change in the no-thermos rule. Her letter is polite and her reasons are clear: she gets thirsty walking to school, she doesn’t want to get dehydrated, and all the other nearby elementary schools allow their children to carry thermoses. She carefully wrote the letter in her neatest handwriting, folded it nicely, and is planning on handing it to the Principal tomorrow.
I suddenly find myself caught between motherly pride and worry. As someone who marched in my first protest while still in elementary school, of course I’m proud that my daughter seems to have inherited my fighting spirit. And I agree with her about thermoses. I’m a bit worried, however, about her getting labeled as a trouble maker at the very start of her educational career. This is Japan, the country where, infamously, the nail that sticks out gets pounded. We’re new to this area, and our international family stands out enough as is. Do I want my daughter to challenge the school authorities and thereby call possibly negative attention to herself? We live close enough to the school that the no-thermos rule is more of an inconvenience than a true safety concern. I haven’t seen enough of the principal yet to judge what kind of educator he is. On the other hand, my daughter’s already written her letter and is looking at me with bright, excited eyes, confident in her ability to change the rule and make her voice heard. I want to both encourage and protect her. What’s a mother to do?
Faced with this dilemma, I did as I so often do and turned to my friends for advice. First I asked the other moms in the fabulous KA group. Positive and supportive remarks poured in, with many women writing to assuage my worries about the school’s reaction, as when C.A. stated “A respectful letter would have been welcomed at my kids’ elementary school.” Several women complimented my daughter, such as this lovely comment by Danielle Shibano: “…as a mother of 2 young daughters I am very proud of your daughter, I hope my daughters grow up and fight for what they want!” As for my concerns about standing out too much, E.H. said “You and your family will stand out no matter what!” I had confirmation that my worries weren’t completely unfounded, though, when another mother commented about the difficulty of making changes here. She worried that my daughter may face negative consequences for trying to make changes by herself. Gulp.
Next I asked the advice of Kelly Grant Godsoe, one of my closest friends and an educator with years of experience in Japanese schools. She said, “I understand your concerns about [your daughter’s] letter. From what I’ve experienced in shogakko [elementary school], though, this kind of expression of opinions–polite, well thought out, neat, child-like, and on a topic that is not too controversial is likely to be accepted well…If she has a good kocho-sensei [Principal] and teacher, then her class might discuss this issue together and come up with a fair solution. If she has a so-so kocho-sensei, then the content of the letter will be politely ignored. I don’t think the results will get any worse than that.” Phew.
Next, I turned to Japanese friends for advice. Their advice was more varied than the KA advice, but most friends were in favor of letting her hand in the letter. One friend, surprisingly, said that she always has her kids carry thermoses secretly and just has them them hide their thermoses in their bags while at school. That’s a good idea, but my straight-laced daughter would never agree to breaking a school rule. Another close Japanese friend voices my deepest concern: “Of course all the moms want their kids to carry thermoses, but the school must have a good reason for the no-thermos rule. Why let your daughter stick out her neck and risk drawing negative attention to herself? The rule won’t change based on what one kid thinks, and anyway, the kids who walk from farther away should take the responsibility, not your daughter.” Gulp again. It’s a good point, and just the one I was most worried about hearing.
Faced with all of this contradictory advice, I next decided to call my father-in-law to get the opinion of an older generation. Granted, my father-in-law’s belief that his darling Granddaughter can walk on water no doubt biases his opinion, but I’m still curious to hear what he thinks. He listens patiently to my concerns and then cuts straight to the heart of the matter: “Telling her she can’t hand in her letter would be the equivalent of clipping her wings. She wants to change things and believes that her opinion matters. You don’t want to take that belief away from her.” It’s an opinion echoed by several KA members, as when Nicole Nemoto writes “it’s about the message that you are sending to her.” More than anything else, this argument resonates with me. Okay. I’ve made up my mind. She can turn in the letter.
The next morning, my daughter gave the letter to her sensei. Her sensei passed her letter on to the Principal, and the very next day the Principal called for my daughter to come to his office. He was friendly and kind as he asked my daughter all about herself, her hobbies, and why she thought the no-thermos rule should change. At the end of their conversation, though, he explained that the school has the no-thermos rule because of an incidence of someone getting ill from drinking from a dirty thermos. My daughter was excited to get to talk with the Principal and share her opinion, but she was disappointed with the outcome of the discussion, of course. I made a point of telling her how proud I was of her for stating her opinion and having the courage to speak to the Principal, and I thought that the thermos saga was now finished.
And then, the very next morning, the phone rang as I was washing the breakfast dishes. It was the Principal! He lavished praise on my daughter, saying how wonderful it was that she had shared her opinion in such a well-thought-out, polite, heart-felt letter. He explained the reason for the no-thermos rule, but then said that , because he valued my daughter’s honest opinion, he was going to reopen the issue and hold a discussion about thermoses at the very next faculty meeting. He closed the call by praising my daughter yet again, saying that he has high hopes for her in the future, and saying how happy he’ll always be to hear her opinion.
Success! Far from being pounded, this poking-out nail is shining brightly! Maybe the thermos rule will change, and maybe it won’t change–but at least my daughter will have the very real satisfaction of knowing that her voice was heard and respected. I had tears in my eyes as I hung up the phone. Overwhelmingly, I felt pride in my little girl–one small girl with the confidence and courage to take on a school. I also felt relieved to know that we have such a caring, thoughtful Principal, the kind of man who will go out of his way to respect the opinion of a first grade girl. And, finally, I felt grateful and humble to have been spared the awful mistake of discouraging my daughter. As parents, I think we worry so much about protecting our children from every risk (real or imaginary) that sometimes we run the greater risk of stifling their voices and discouraging their dreams. If I had given in to my worries, if I had believed the negative stereotypes about Japan, if I hadn’t let her hand in her letter, I would never have seen her priceless reaction to the Principal’s phone call: she grinned, leapt into the air, and shouted: “YAY!!! I DID IT!! THEY LISTENED TO ME! I CAN CHANGE THE WOOOORLD!” Yes, sweetie. Yes, you can.
This KA International Mothers in Japan article was submitted by Rosemary Lebow Saeki who lives in Tokyo with her husband and two munchkins.
Erinn LaMattery: workaholic SAHM with a possible touch of ADD. Favorite question: Free time? What's that?? Days are spent: raising 4 children, teaching part time, developing a jewelry business (http://facebook.com/offonawhim), and following the lives of the KA Moms! Cooking, cleaning and shopping are all secondary.