“Totto-chan” is the title of a compendium of autobiographical essays written by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi about her childhood education. As a first grade Japanese student, she was expelled from her first school just after a few weeks for being inquisitive and “disruptive”. She was then accepted at another school with an unusual but very enlightened teaching philosophy. The collection of essays is about her memorable time at this school before World War II.
One of the stories recounted how Totto-chan dropped her favourite purse into the school toilet because of a curious habit of peering down the toilet hole after using it. In the late 1930s, Japanese toilets drained into a cesspool which was emptied manually, much like how sewage in Singapore was managed in that era. Refusing to give up the purse as lost, she started emptying the cesspool herself through a manhole using a long-handled wooden ladle used for gardening. After inspecting each ladleful of foul-smelling contents, she would empty the ladle onto the ground around the manhole.
Before long, there was a large, fetid pile around her and class was starting. Yet she decided to continue on her quest for her purse.
The school headmaster happened to pass by and asked her what she was doing. After hearing her explanation, he said in a friendly tone, “You’ll put it all back when you’ve finished, won’t you?” before continuing on his stroll around the school.
Needless to say, Totto-chan did not recover her purse. But she kept her promise and replaced all the contents back into the cesspool, smoothed the ground and put the manhole cover back properly. And she was satisfied that she had done all she could to recover her purse.
The author commented that “Most adults, on discovering Totto-chan in such a situation, would have reacted by exclaiming, ‘What on earth are you doing!’ or ‘Stop that, it’s dangerous!’ or, alternatively, offering to help.” How true.
After the incident, Totto-chan broke the curious habit of peering down the toilet hole every time she used it. Both she and her mother had new-found respect for the school headmaster and she felt that he was someone she could trust completely.
What a beautiful lesson this story holds for all of us. Through our understanding of social norms, safety and what is right and good, we shape the behaviour of our children and of each other by the things that we say and the body language that we exhibit. By the urgency in our voices or by the disapproving frowns on our brows are our speech and behaviour molded.
When that happens beyond a certain point, authenticity will start to be lost. In the extreme, truths may be exchanged for lies, as seen in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Anderson.
So, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col 4:6) For only in a truly gracious community will there be authentic relationships as we bare our hearts to each other without fear of judgement. It is only in a gracious community that truth can be heard, fully understood and applied. May the Lord help us all to grow in grace and truth.
By Dr Ong Kiat Hoe, Elder (YCKC Bulletin 14&15 May 2016)