A book review - Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi was one of my childhood reads. I couldn’t remember exactly when I read it but it should be between 12 to 15 years of age. My friend N got me to read it because it’s one of her favourite books.
I don’t really remember the story but I remember that I liked it. A lot. All I remember is that it’s about a little girl and her school. So, being reunited with the books after so many years made me want to catch up with it immediately.
I re-read the book with great speed. Actually, to be honest, I don’t have the time to read it but it’s not a thick novel, and it’s not complicated. So, I recommend this book with great passion to whoever who hasn’t read this. It’s really a good book and it’s based on the recollections of the author Tetsuko Kuroyanagi of when she was a child. So, it’s not exactly fiction. After reading it, it makes me want to become a better mother and a better educator. If only everywhere in Malaysia, there is a school like Tomoe that doesn’t stifle a child’s curiosity and mould a child to some society’s preconceived notions, our children would grow up with their innocence intact and be better people.
The book is also like a tribute to the man who was her headmaster, and the creativity, patience and understanding he had in dealing with children. I have to say that when reading the book, I wished I had his wisdom, and her mother’s wisdom too.
The book begins with Totto (as Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, the author, was called as a child) being happy to be at school but totally oblivious to the fact that her class teacher was unhappy and at a loss at what to do with Totto. Apparently Totto was disruptive in class and disrupted her lessons by opening and closing her desk, which opens upwards (unlike her desk at home), and stand at the window to invite street musicians to perform for her and her classmates. Totto meant no harm but the teacher couldn’t control her. So Totto was expelled from school but her mother didn’t tell her that; she only said that they were to go to a new school.
And the new school was a in a train, and the school gateposts were growing. Amazing, isn’t it? Totto-chan was most curious if her schoolmaster was a stationmaster or a headmaster. Her mother asked her to ask the man himself and those were exactly one of the first words she uttered to him.
“What are you? A schoolmaster or a stationmaster?” she asked him spiritedly.
Her mother was embarrassed but before she had time to explain, the headmaster laughed and replied that he was the headmaster of the school.
Totto-chan was delighted and said, “Oh, I’m so glad, because I want to ask you a favor. I’d like to come to your school.”
And then the headmaster asked her to tell him anything she liked (without the presence of her mother) and she talked and talked and talked until she couldn’t think of anything else to say; and he listened with rapt interest. When she stopped, he informed her, “Now you are a pupil of this school.” He had listened to her talk for four solid hours until she had nothing else to say! How many people would do that?
I don’t want to reveal much about the book but just enough to entice you to read it. It’s not just for children, but I believe parents and teachers should also read this book as it shows us that children are capable of so much, and that we shouldn’t stifle their creativity and the excitement kids have towards life. So find the book and read it. It’s a keeper.
Here are some other reviews:
If you ask children what they are frightened of , they may well say they fear darkness or ghosts, or bullies, or tigers…And what would you respond to that?
A headmaster of a school asked this question of children and then told them, “Having eyes but not seeing beauty; having ears but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving the truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear”. He also added, “children you may not understand it now, but someday when you grow up you will understand these words”.
The headmaster was from a school situated in an abandoned railroad car, in a large ground. Where bogeys were converted to class rooms; where each child had his/her own tree; where they worked all morning on subjects of their choice and then went on long walks, by the stream in the afternoon. They came to school and camped there at night. The school was called Tomoe Gakuen and its extraordinary founder and headmaster was Sosaku Kobayashi.
The school sounds idyllic and almost out of a fairytale. But it existed in Japan during the Second World War when just outside the horrors of war unfolded. The school finally burned down.
Sosaku Kobayashi kept these children protected from the war outside, until the day each child went on to meet his/her own destiny.
Totto Chan - The Little girl at the window written by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi is a recollection of the author’s formative experiences at this wonderful school. In the book, she recounts the story of her own life and the lives of many children and how each one of them who survived, created a future for themselves and their country during the darkest of times. She attributes it to the headmaster, his love for children and his educational philosophy.
Kobayashi believed in freedom of expression and activity. Some of the methods in his school were very unusual. Everyday for lunch he asked the children to bring something from the hills and something from the ocean - to have a balance in what they ate. He allowed young children to swim naked in the pool so that they get over the curiosity of their bodies.
He also wanted the handicapped children in the school to be more accepting of their bodies. On sports day he gave away carrots and cabbages so that children could earn a meal for their family.
Tetsuko recounts “Even as I write I realise how many episodes that just seem happy childhood memories to me, were in fact, activities carefully thought out by him to achieve certain results.” Readers may wonder how the authorities in wartime Japan allowed such a free school to exist. Kobayashi hated publicity about the school and its unconventionality, and this in a way kept it protected.
In 1945, the school burned down when American airplanes began dropping bombs from the skies. With the hope that this beautiful school could live on in the hearts of people a little longer and feed their hopes, Tetsuko presents this tale to the world.
In recounting this story and her childhood, she has given courage and inspiration to many educators across the world. And through her, one falls in love with this extraordinary old man who undeterred by the circumstances, gave a light that each child could carry in their heart to light the world.
Santhya's school is inspired by this school in Japan and even derives it’s name from there.