Monday, October 18, 2010
The Boy in the Yellow Hat
Temple Valley, Tsurumi, Yokohama - Today Jiro (my number two son, in order of birth) and the rest of the entire sixth grade from Bounty Hill Public Elementary School went on an overnight school excursion to one of Japan's most treasured ancient cities, Nikko. His mother spent a good part of the weekend packing all the items that were required to be inside his knapsack. By Sunday night the bag weighed a good thirty pounds. When she finally packed the lunch box (bento) that she had gotten up extra early to prepare, the bag had gained an extra four-to-five pounds. He is a big kid, bigger than most in his school, so I was confident he could handle the pack on the mile-long trek to school and points beyond. M, his mother, was a bit worried so she tagged along with him to the bottom of the block-long hill where we live. Kids around here are pretty independent when it comes to getting around. Tiny first graders on their way to their private schools jam into train cars packed like sardines, nudging the knees of tired old businessmen with their elbows as they carve out a niche of their own within a crush of dark suits filled with near lifeless bodies slowly emerging from a semi-somnombulant state. While each of the Bounty Hill parents, grandparents, etc. take turns as crossing guards at the busier intersections ,the kids for the most part are all on their own for the rest of the journey. Sometimes on my way home at 9:30 at night, or there abouts, I'll even run into one of Jiro's classmates returning from a tough night at cram school (and that's on top of a regular eight hour school day) where they study the tricks it takes to pass the entrance exam for a private junior high (or high school) and if they are lucky become one of the chosen who enter a junior high school that is a stepping stone to Todai (Tokyo University) or maybe some other hallowed institution of higher ed. Jiro has eschewed this harried academic pursuit to focus more on arts and leisure. He's set his sights on, let's say the more inclusive, local public junior high where the better half (meaning most, not necessarily the best) of his classmates will join him.
Like most of the kids in his class he can get to school on his own, no problem. So I wasn't at all worried when he left home this morning at 7:55 am, even with the burden of the extra-heavy load. That is until I heard him huffing and puffing back up the hill to our house at about ten after eight. He collapsed in the portico, out of breath, and on the verge of tears. "I forgot something." His body pinned to the floor under the massive weight attached to his back, he managed to crawl to his school bag and started digging in desperation until finally... "Ah! Here it is." It was a yellow satin ribbon with his name scribbled by the teacher in black magic marker that each student was to wear tied around his or her arm for identification purposes. He was sure they only had exactly enough yellow ribbon to go around the arms of every 6th grader in school, no more, no less, and if anyone showed up without one perhaps they would be barred from the expedition. Then he started burrowing again. He still hadn't found the plastic luggage tag distributed by the travel agency that had arranged the trip for the school. Somehow his mother convinced him it wasn't all that important. I think it was the fact that she told him he had only five more minutes before everyone departed the school grounds and marched off to the train station. He was soon back out the door and running like Peter Rabbit with Farmer McGregor on his tail, down the hill for a five minute dash across Temple Valley and up to the gates of Bounty Hill Elementary School.
That's when a deep sense of anxiety began to seize my entire being. I straddled my bicycle and rode as quick as my feet could peddle up to the train station where I searched high and low for a place to park my bike for free (the bicycle garage near the train station charges about a dollar to park and it's usually full by 8am anyway) where it wouldn't get loaded on a truck and taken away by the city. I spied a cluster of bikes parked in front of a pediatric clinic, tucked mine in between, then darted off to the station to see if I could catch a glimpse of Jiro and make sure he had made it there okay. The kids were all assembled in a staging area off to one side of the station plaza. When they stand in a group I can usually spot Jiro in a second since he stands head and shoulders over the crowd. When they're sitting, his light brown hair is like a buoy in a shiny black sea of typically jet black Japanese hair (while maybe half off all women and a good proportion of men in Japan seem to dye their hair brown or some lighter tone, the fad hasn't really caught on with the grade school set just yet thank goodness). Then my eyes were suddenly blinded by a yellow flash of light. NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Every single one of them was wearing his or her school issue yellow excursion hat. They all looked exactly alike! I tried my best to spot him, squinting to keep the glaring reflection of the early morning sun off their hats from piercing my pupils. Jiro was no where in sight. I tried panning the crowd through my half baked lenses in search of the white T-shirt he had been wearing when I last saw him only to be foiled again. Everyone was wearing the jackets they were required to bring and if Jiro was wearing his, it would have been the first time he had ever worn anything more than a flimsy T-shirt and I had no idea what color it was since M. had done all the packing. Aware that I stuck out in the crowd even more than Jiro usually does, I decided to observe the school kids from a less visible vantage point to avoid any the usual embarrassment my mere presence causes my offspring. Just then I noticed a window situated next to the train platform with a perfect view of the plaza. I purchased the cheapest fare ticket, passed through the turnstile and made a beeline for the window. Peering from my secret station platform perch I spied the smiling face of Jiro, yucking it up with his pals on the plaza below.
Everything was alright, only now where was I headed? I was on the train platform but I didn't have anywhere to go so I decided to go back from whence I came. Jinxed again!!! When I inserted my ticket into the turnstile to exit the station, instead of the usual swish of the gate opening, bells started ringing and lights blaring as the machine spit the ticket back in my face. Now I was forced to confront the station master with my ticket in hand as he sat in his office lair at the end of the long row of impenetrable turnstile machines. "I forgot something," I explained as he took my ticket, then quickly exited the train station as fast as my feet could take me, and on that note neatly rounded off a morning in which I had run around in a completely perfect circle.
I've actually been through this before with Ichiro (my number one son, in order of birth). He went to Nikko when he was in 6th grade too. He left with a pack as big as Jiro's, filled with a two-day supply of clean clothes, a jacket, snacks toiletries etc. He had a great time, saw some great sights and had loads of fun. When he returned he was wearing the same clothes that he was wearing when he left, only covered with two days worth of dirt and grime, and it was plain as day that Ichiro had been no where near the vicinity of a bath since we last met.When quizzed on why he didn't take a bath, he simply said, "I forgot." Maybe we should have just forgot about packing altogether then there would have been nothing to wear or not to wear and best of all nothing to forget.