A blinking cursor.
Back in February of last year, I picked up this book called Totto-Chan : The Little Girl at the Window. Maybe it was the unusual drawing of a little girl on the cover, maybe it was my curiosity to learn about children from Japan, but something told me this would be an interesting read. So I picked it up, and like a lot of other books, there it sat in my bookshelf, ignored for a while. It was a month ago, that I looked at it again to find that the cover had the same effect on me as last year. And it found its way into my hands.
Over the years, I have had some favourite characters who were little girls. There is Alice, who said “curiouser and curiouser” the way only Alice can. Then there was Lucy Pevensie of the Narnia series whose brave heart captivated me. The strong-willed and eternally optimistic Anne of Green Gables with her fiery red hair and freckles still has me wanting to read more about her.
What about Totto-chan? Well, what’s different about this delightful girl is that she is very real. This book is the story of a Japanese actress, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who wrote down her experiences in Tomoe Gakuen, a unique school in the 1940s.
The book is a translation from Japanese, and laid out as a series of small incidents. Totto-chan never could concentrate in her earlier school, and she seemed to get into trouble much too easily. Every teacher found her to be more than a handful. Being easily bored with seemingly dull classes at school, she would sit by the window of her school and get fascinated by the street musicians walking by. The main turning point for Totto-chan was when her mother took her to another school, hoping that she can be less of a pain to her classmates and teachers.
It is here that Totto-chan’s appetite for wonder and curiosity, are fed…the classrooms are railroad cars, and the ‘gate’ to the school is an arched tree. She is at Tomoe – a school with an alternate philosophy for education. Here, each child is encouraged early to pursue what they enjoy…while there are subjects to learn and bells that ring, the main agenda seems to be to bring out each child’s best. The driving force of this setup is their headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi whose heart is forever set on these children who are more than just fee – payers to his institution. The whole school has about 50 students in all, including physically challenged children.
Some of my favourite parts of the book:
– “Something from the hills, something from the ocean” – Each day at lunch-time, the headmaster asks the children if they have, in their lunchboxes, something from the ocean and something from the hills. This fascinates the children, for they wonder each day where their food comes from and how it is made, and also starts off discussions on nutrition.
– Can we see the railroad coming in? – When the school is expecting to add a new railroad car to be its library, the children wonder how a railroad car could possibly be transported into their school. They ask the headmaster if they can watch it coming in, and encouraging their curiosity, he asks them to get permission from their parents to watch this event at midnight.
The book is full of such little incidents in Totto’s life, including her delightful games with her dog Rocky, and her Tomoe friends, who have been meeting every year since to remember their days in their beloved school.
The book ends with Tomoe being destroyed in the war. But we read to find out that it is at this very moment that the headmaster asks “What kind of school shall we build next?” as he sees the school burning.
What really stayed with me are the lines that describe best the headmaster’s thoughts toward education –
Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear.
I picked up this unassuming book merely for the intriguing tagline – ‘how children use stories to shape their lives’. Stories did always fascinate us, when we were kids, and of course even now. I wondered what this girl with the brown crayon did…so I flipped to the first page, and read about a little five year old girl who fell in love with a character in a book…Frederick the mouse. This friendship of hers with a character from a book starts off a journey of learning that nobody had quite expected.
The beauty of this book is that it’s the true story of what happened in a preschool classroom.The day Mrs. Paley brought out Frederick to read aloud to her little students, a discussion begins. A discussion that goes on beyond the classroom, beyond the boundaries of age, colour and curriculum.
Leo Lionni is the creator of the said character. It all starts when Mrs. Paley decides to read through most of Leo Lionni’s books over a period of a year, the year which is to be her last year as a preschool teacher. The children go back and forth between the stories, and discuss them as if these characters are partakers in these sessions. This mouse is like that fish, they say…or our friend Walter reminds us of this character.
Bright-eyed Reeny is the girl with the brown crayon, making statements of philosophical depth that leave Mrs. Paley pleasantly surprised…there are times when she can’t wait what Reeny will say when she reads out a new book. Does Reeny identify with the story? Does she think the story could have ended some other way? For Reeny has a way of reviewing these stories with sensitivity and brilliance. There are times she will even empathise with the author and explain to the class why he might have led the characters one way and not the other.
The journey brings in many travellers along the way…storytellers who bring in new opportunities for children to continue this string of reflections. A mother comes in and talks about her childhood, a grandmother talks about Harriet Tubman and slavery. An Indian teacher narrates the special powers of the monkey prince, Hanuman.
And the rewardees are many. Teachers who have learnt from children, the lessons of life. Children who have opened their eyes to themselves and their friends.
How is this episode any different from what would take place in any other preschool classroom?
For one, the teacher experimenting with books from the same author, thus building a premise for the children to reflect on the author’s intent, as well as find the freedom to imagine alternatives, and most of all, relate to them and befriend the characters that bounce off the books into their very lives.
A touching account of what can happen when one digs into the heart of a simple story.