I read a fascinating book years ago about the Japanese school system. Having grown up a Suzuki kid I knew a bit about Japanese cultural influences on education, and about some of the educational rituals. Another great source of cultural tidbits, presented especially for children, is Here and There Japan, a blog which covers many of these little school rituals and trappings. I've always been entranced by the way a sense of community responsibility is built through the expectation that students work together to clean and care for their learning space.
I'm watching this expectation being built at the kids' aikido dojo. It's a new dojo, and the sensei is fairly new to instructing children. And I think he's gradually working out how many of aikido's Japanese cultural influences can be introduced to these hippie valley kids.
There is the standard ritual of bowing to the shomen (scroll) upon entering the room, and before leaving. They all get it now, about respecting the space and the scroll and the tradition it represents. There are rules of respectful interaction that kick in inside the dojo. There's a sense that passing between the curtains means adopting a different set of social mores. For the most part the kids get that. Higher standards of behaviour apply inside the dojo.
In past weeks we've sometimes arrived early for the Thursday class and so we've helped Sensei wash down the mats. The other kids have been encouraged to join as they arrived. But this week the bucket of warm soapy water and wiping cloths was waiting for everyone and Sensei was not already hard at work washing the mats down.
"This is what you guys are responsible for from now on," explained Sensei. "This dojo is for all of you -- it's not just my dojo. If you're part of this club, you help keep it clean."
And then followed a brief but exacting lesson on proper floor washing. And the kids washed the entire immense floor in the space of about five minutes. Without a single complaint, and with an affirming sense of their own efficiency and accomplishment. And, I would wager, a stronger sense of the value of contributing simple work to one's community.
Is it really this easy? Even with our independent-minded far-from-Japanese kids? There is a lesson to be learned here for sure.