…Tomoe Gakuen. This was a school founded by Sosaku Kobayashi during World War II where he taught lessons not just on science and literature, but also about nurturing relationships, making friends, and taking care of nature. This school, like many other places in Japan, was destroyed during the war in 1945, but the lessons taught there continue to inspire many.
Kobayashi was born on June 18, 1893. It is said that as a child, he would stand by the river, and pretend he was conducting an orchestra performed by the waves. No wonder he encouraged children in his school to dream, always believing in the inherent creativity and goodness in all children. The world knows about Kobayashi and his educational methods because one of his students, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, wrote a book about her years in the school. The book was published in Japanese as Madogiwa no Totto-chan in 1981. A colleague loaned me a copy of Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window , the highly-acclaimed English translation by Dorothy Britton.
Kuroyanagi attributes her success to her early schooling at Tomoe, and its extraordinary headmaster, Kobayashi.
So what was so special about this school? To start with, it was a school where the classrooms were old railway carriages. It had a headmaster who allowed children’s potential to blossom naturally.
In school, Totto-chan learnt to scrawl music notes on the floor, climb a tree, and help a classmate with polio climb it too. She also learnt that an old farmer could be a great gardening teacher. She narrated all the interesting things that happened to her in school to her pet dog, Rocky. Thanks to her kind, music-loving, progressive headmaster, Kobayashi, she learnt life skills easily and organically just like her classmates did..
In 1982, within a year of the publication of this autobiographical book in Japanese, it sold 4.5 million copies. The title in Japanese roughly translates to mean ‘to be left sitting by the window’, a phrase denoting failure in Japan. But the book records the triumph of free spirit, of innovative methods in education and the natural development of children. It also opened a window, for countless readers, to the enormous potential of sensitive schooling in the development of children. If you can’t sit on a tree to read this book, a place by the window will do very well.