The Boy in the Mirror

July 19, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
The International Herald Tribune/The New York Times

TOKYO — “What are you going to say if I don’t make it?” my son asked me before he left for a long-distance ocean swim required by his school.

“I’ll say, ‘Can’t you even do that? What a waste of tuition!”‘ We both laughed as I continued, “What did you want me to say? ‘Nice try?'”

That such words of encouragement would be relegated to sarcasm reflects my son’s experience of six years in an elite Japanese elementary school. All 122 of the sixth graders, except for two who had been out sick or injured, swam one or two kilometers that summer. From the relief of the parents and children I saw after the event, it was clear that what mattered was not how hard the students tried but whether they actually went the distance.

Earlier this year, my son graduated from one of the country’s most elite, private elementary schools. The school did a good job of imparting textbook knowledge and exposing him to a rich array of art, music and sports. He left with an impressive body of facts at his fingertips and a solid foundation in math, reading, writing, science and history.

My son’s intellectual growth is another matter. Pervasive negative reinforcement from teachers and a competitive atmosphere that demoralized underachievers chipped away at his self-confidence. A constant and towering amount of work pushed him to view all school tasks as daunting. I fear that instead of planting the seeds for a thirst for knowledge, the rigors of school may have discouraged the development of a probing mind.

The initial years were ideal. On the first day of school, the homeroom teacher circulated a small box and said, “There’s a picture of the kind of child I like in there, so take a good look.” I cherish the photo I have of my son peering into the box and smiling at his reflection in the tiny mirror pasted inside.

The basics of reading, writing and math were emphasized. Children were encouraged to play hard, and conflicts, even physical fighting, were not discouraged as long as they didn’t cause injuries or weren’t a result of bullying. As a parent of an only child, I appreciated the school’s willingness to allow the students to experiment with their own strengths and weaknesses. My son developed a love for his school and strong friendships during these years.

To motivate students in a culture in which people tend to define themselves by how they compare with others, papers and projects were displayed on the walls or photocopied and distributed to parents. Test scores often noted the average mark and class rank, so that instead of receiving my son’s report and saying, “Good job, 88 out of 100!,” I was prompted to lament, “Oh, just below the average of 91.”

Praise was doled out parsimoniously. In a certificate my son received for completing the two-kilometer swim, the words of congratulation from his instructor were followed by a list of “overall weak points that I want you to polish.” It is no wonder that, as the years went by, my son would say with increasing frequency, “I’m not good at that.”

Our most painful episode took place in the fifth-grade Japanese class. The teacher was a supremely confident man in his 60s, popular but intimidating for his entertaining and sharp tongue and revered by most parents for the advanced materials he taught. One day, he circulated my son’s notebook around the class as an example of sloppy penmanship. Instead of apologizing in shame, my son joked, “Handle with care! That’s my treasure.” When sending him to stand in the hallway still didn’t elicit the expected remorse, the teacher took him to an empty classroom and slapped his face until blood streaked down the center of my son’s shirt.

A resilient and optimistic boy, my son continued to attend that class happily. But I’m still harping on the disturbing values that I saw in the incident — promoting corporal punishment and humiliation. I didn’t report it to outside authorities because I didn’t want to jeopardize my son’s standing at the school. Besides, few other parents seemed to share my outrage, presumably feeling the teacher’s strengths outweighed his severity and knowing their children would be more obedient.

When I look back and wonder whether I would have chosen the same school if I could do it over again, I find it’s a tough call. I haven’t come across a school in Japan that consistently tries to provide creative ways to spark the potential in every child, while also instilling a high level of knowledge.

I just hope that my son will remember that he mastered enough math to score an 88 and not that he scored below the 91 average; that he had the athletic prowess to swim two kilometers even though he didn’t perfect his breaststroke; and that he had the dignity to accept, rather than resist, a teacher who beat his face.

And may he always smile when he sees his reflection.