So, it’s winter and I’m beginning to loathe the 20 minute scooter rides to my farthest school. I step inside and before I de-layer, I stand by the space heater for a few minutes trying to resuscitate my hands and ward off hypothermia. The other teachers (who drove ten minutes max. in their heated cars) agree, “Samui!” It’s cold. But then they step away from the space heater and sit down waiting for the morning meeting like normal human beings. I try to avoid causing a scene with my intense shivering while I sit down with fogged glasses. Also, I’m still wearing my scarf, one set of gloves and my jacket. “Baiku wa samui ne!” Yes, Kawamoto Sensei, it’s very cold for me because I ride a scooter over the mountain. That means half of the ride is in the windy shade. So you can stop the small talk. I get it, you want to be friends. This conversation stopped being fun last winter.
Now, really, I like to complain, but I’m not overdoing it when I say it’s extremely cold in my schools. Central heating—only poor people don’t have it in America. Why don’t you guys have it? Oh, here’s one reason. The Japanese like to leave the doors open to let the germs out. So, in the dead of winter, when we are allowed to turn on the space heaters, the front doors are still wide open. That’s fun. “It also lets the fumes out so we can breathe fresh air.” Hey, Tanaka Sensei, we wouldn’t have to worry about toxic fumes if we had central heating.
One especially cold day about a week ago, I asked in the teacher’s room when we could turn on the heat. The teacher’s searched each other's faces for permission as if they were toddlers asked to eat the cookies from the cabinet; can we really do that? Most schools have strict rules about using the space heaters. It must be so-and-so degrees before considering using the space heaters. For most schools, this is below freezing.
HEATER USAGE RULES
1. Children can’t turn on the heat at their own convenience.
2. If it’s less than 12°C (53.6°F), you may turn on the heat.
3. If it’s less than 20°C (68°F), you may ready the heaters.
4. If you are leaving the class, turn off the heat and open the windows to ventilate.
*If you don’t follow these rules, just know we have been known to ban heater usage.
So, on this especially cold day, I watched one of my 9th grade classes freeze outside playing softball for gym. (You remember those days in gym class where you forgot to bring winter clothes--your skin deathly white, your posture either that of a hunched, flexing caveman or Billy Banks trying to warm up, and a cold, awkward baseball glove on your hand...you remember that feeling?) Most students had only their undergarments and their cotton athletic jumpsuit. I’m guessing this has something to do with the strict uniform policy. The average Japanese person is much better suited for the cold than I am. Maybe it’s because my lack of body fat. In the dead of winter, it’s not rare to see students with skirts and stockings, shorts, and those thin white indoor shoes (standard uniform) sometimes without socks. I walk around with four shirt layers. “Look, why is Dan Sensei wearing a scarf?” It’s because the temperature in the hallways is the same as outside. Now put some socks on or you’ll catch your death, too.
So about these shivering 9th graders…We have English class together right after their gym class and some of the students look troubled. Shivering, sneezing fits, a few coughing outbursts. We have central heat in our middle school, but only in the classrooms, and only when it’s truly cold enough, and maybe after a certain date (which means not yet). After the class, I asked the other English teacher about the sickly students. “Can’t we turn on the heat?” After a long discussion he mentions that, oh yeah, he remembered hearing a few complaints that they couldn’t hold their pens to write. Wouldn’t that be a hint to turn on the heat?
Well, let’s just make sure the sick students wear the surgeon masks. And, for the sake of prevention, you healthy students should wear them too. And if the influenza spreads as rapidly as it did last year (did you ever see the movie Congo?) we can cancel classes again.