When I was eight years old, all proper middle class Japanese boys my age had to go to a few after-school activities. If I had a choice, I would have rather played baseball until it was dark and I could not see the ball any more, but the game usually came to an end when one of us had to leave because it was time to go to abacus school.
An abacus is an exercise in visualization of mathematics. The top bead represents 5 units and the bottom four beads represent one each. You add/subtract left to right (as opposed to right to left as you would if you are adding numbers with pencil and paper) just as the numbers are being called. “Four hundred..”, you add four beads to the third digit column, “Fifty..”, you add five beads to the second digit column, “and Two”, you add two beads in the first digit column. After a few years of abacus schooling, children were adding and subtracting a series of 3 digit numbers by mentally visualizing the finger movement and bead placement on the abacus. I saw some older kids practice this mental abacus along side a bunch of us who were flicking the beads furiously to keep up with the numbers being called out. I could not guess how many hours of practice it took to get to that level, but the message was clear that, with discipline and repetition, any child could learn to use an abacus at a level that was very impressive.
Sunday morning calligraphy school was meant to teach children discipline, concentration and subtlety of perfection and nuance. Before we could write anything with our horse hair brush, we had to make black sumi ink by grinding an inkstick against an inkstone with a little bit of water. You must sit on the tatami floor with your back straight and your legs neatly folded under your body. The proper posture was essential in your effort to concentrate and relax at the same time. The harder the inkstick, the richer the blackness it produced; however, it took longer to make sumi ink with a hard inkstick. The time you spent on making ink was rewarded by the quality of ink you produced. This was a lesson in patience and we learned that nothing beautiful can be created with a hasty mind.
You wrote on a super thin paper and you only had one chance to do your stroke. You could not go back and correct your stroke as it would be obvious if you went over the same stroke twice. One chance. One chance only. You committed yourself and moved your hand with precise direction and controlled velocity to express the intensity of the stroke. If you messed up, which you did often, you started over again from the beginning. Finally your calligraphy was done and you brought it to the teacher at the front of the room. She looked at it and corrected your stroke by going over it with orange ink, demonstrating visually what the perfect character brush stroke would look like. Then, she drew circles. Three circles for a good job done, two circles for an OK job, and one circle for “Try harder.” You went back to your seat and tried again until you got three circles. If the correctness was the goal, the practice would get you there. If you wanted to cultivate a little bit of individualism, style, and artistic expression of your own, there was absolutely no room for that on Sunday morning. Perhaps mothers sent their children to calligraphy school, not to make us an artist, but to teach discipline and focus.
Japanese mothers in the 1960’s were starting to explore cultural training for their children. In addition to almost obligatory math and calligraphy, music lessons were a popular choice at that time. I had my piano teacher come to our house once a week for a one hour of lesson. He gave me a new sheet of music to practice and I was supposed to practice a couple of hours every day, which I of course didn’t. He would come to check on my progress, or more like lack of progress, and critique my playing. He would write down the date we went over a certain piece on the upper right hand side of the music sheet. The problem with this system was that the dates that were supposed to show progress were stuck on one sheet as I never practiced. I wanted to play baseball, you know. Without practice, I never became good enough to progress to the next piece of music. Pretty soon, my sheet of music was looking like a calendar, filled with dates of shame. One week, I was fishing for a crayfish in the pond and did not appreciate the thought of seeing my piano teacher. So I decided to not go home. 2 hours after the piano lesson time, I finally went home only to find out that he was still there as my mother made him wait! Another date of shame was on the music sheet.
By age 10, I went to another after-school school that taught mathematics. After going through mathematical concept and theory in the class, the teacher gave us a test at the end of each class. Usually 100 three digit additions, subtractions, multiplication and divisions. Fairly straight forward stuff. The only caveat was that as soon as you finished the test, you could go home if you got everything correct. We would go through the test as fast as we could and bring the answer sheet to the teacher. Being the first one was always accompanied by a little bit of glory. He checked your answers and told us how many wrong answers we had without telling us exactly which ones were wrong. You went back to your seat and started checking every single one of 100 answers until you found the wrong answers by yourself. The ironic fact of life was that you tended to use the same short-cuts and mis-process that caused the wrong answers to begin with, which made finding your wrong answers very difficult. You would go over 100 questions over and over again, but just couldn’t find the wrong answers. Other kids were leaving the class and you were still stuck with this frustrating test, which made you even more careless. Sometimes doing it the right way the first time was the fastest way to get out of the class room, you learned.
Our children never went to abacus school. They never practiced calligraphy on Sunday morning. They had no piano teacher waiting for them at our house. They did not have a special after-school math class. Yet, they learned discipline, focus, patience, and subtlety of perfection and nuance just fine. I really wonder if all that shame of not achieving your talent and dates of embarrassment were necessary to learn whatever I learned. I could have just played a PlayStation game to learn the reward of repetitive practice.
Skip the piano lesson, if you want, and come to Ormsby Hill…
In pursuit of Life’s best lessons…
|The Inn at Ormsby Hill
1842 Main Street
Manchester Center, VT 05255