04 April 2012

Fire Drills, Handwriting Books, and Calligraphy Class

Do you remember fire drills back in our elementary school days? The alarm would go off, and the teacher would announce that everyone needed to line up by the the back door. We would march, little ants streaming out from each classroom. Walking briskly through the hallways, our feet would be noisy on the faded linoleum; we'd pass the kid sized water fountains and colorful murals, lining up on the playground grass while the teachers would count us off, 1-2-3-4, and signal that we were all present. Elementary students are usually noisy and carefree, but we would be hushed and still. We knew were were practicing something SERIOUS and IMPORTANT. Only once the count-off was complete and the a-okay given to reenter the building would the volume and high energy return.

I always rather enjoyed the drills. They made me feel safe and taken care of; I was comforted in the matter-of-fact nature of our teachers, the reassuring presence of our white haired Principal, who was completely no nonsense with her black nun shoes and unflattering pastel colored skirts, which were made out of durable and stiff fabric, the kind that doesn't blow in the wind on playground grass.

When I was very young, the teachers would prepare the students and announce the drills beforehand, in an effort to, I assume, avoid too many tears and a gaggle of terrified five year olds. But in second grade, my teacher, Mrs. Thiesen, decided that we needed to be ready for an unannounced fire drill. The alarm went off in the middle of our handwriting class, and I lined up, terrified that this was a REAL fire because there was NO WARNING. In a panic, I fervently prayed to God:

Dear God, please don't let my handwriting book burn. Dear God, please don't let my handwriting book burn. Dear God, please don't let my handwriting book burn...

Two things: I was a bit of a nerd, and I really, really loved handwriting class.

Years later, well beyond elementary school and into Real Life, I doodle and practice penmanship with an embarrassing frequency. Not to toot my own horn, but my handwriting is none too shabby. (toot! toot!)

In Japan, I stumbled into a calligraphy class, which is like English handwriting on steroids. Instead of simple pens and lined paper, this involves rich black ink and studious, long paintbrushes. The paper is segmented into little boxes for each character and there are thick books detailing kanji formation. There is specific hand placement and talk of angles and pressure and sweeping motions.

Oh my goodness; my inner second grader just died and went to handwriting heaven. 

I took my first class about a week ago, with Karzumi - Sensai (yes, she of the ikebana fame). She is lovely and patient and encouraging. It's quite humbling to be so new, so green. I'll look at her examples, know what I want the pen to do, and fail completely at getting it right. My lines are lopsided and heavy, my brush strokes uneven, with too much ink on one and not enough on the other. The graceful loops and lines that are supposed look like samurai sword strokes are instead ungainly and and ineloquent, lumbering unevenly across the page.

To be a beginner again. In so many ways, this sums up my experiences so far in Japan.

I ran to Daiso (the 100 Yen Store and Nagoya's equivalent of a Dollar store) and bought my own ink and well, paper and brush. Now I sit at my dining room table, slowly and methodically copying out katakana and hiragana, learning to read and write.

Years later, it's the same repetitious, and comforting, drill.

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