In Japan, from primary schools to high schools, the school buildings are cleaned by students after classes. Each class is divided into groups of five or six, and these groups take on different cleaning responsibilities each week. One week, a group is in charge of their own classroom, the next week, a corridor, then the week after, a bathroom. Like that.
When I was in Grade 3, I became very passionate about this after-school cleaning activity. I wanted to make the assigned spot perfectly clean like a new place and asked everybody else in my group to pay attention to every detail as we cleaned. When somebody claimed that we had finished the cleaning, I would visit every corner looking for any remaining dust and turn over every doormat to check if it had been dusted. And whenever I found a spot not properly cleaned, I asked everyone to clean that place again.
Unfortunately, not everyone shared this passion for cleaning. In fact, most of us wanted to finish the cleaning as quickly as possible so that they could go home and play. For those, my strict cleaning regime was nothing but a nuisance. A few boys in particular gave me a hard resistance. Sometimes, they would even start sabotaging me by intentionally bringing more dust from outside to prove how pointless my effort was.
One winter day, my group was cleaning an outdoor corridor, and we went into a particularly nasty fight. Mats were thrown to different places scattering dust all over and the boys in the group started telling me something mean out of their frustration. After some verbal fight, we crossed a line and I suddenly burst into tears. Other girls tried to rescue me from the turmoil, and what started out as a usual cleaning routine turned into a battle between girls and boys. In the end, the boys left, and I cried my way back to the classroom to pick up my schoolbag while my girl friends tried to console me.
Back in the classroom, I was joined by my close friends who I always walked back home with. They became upset upon seeing my crying face and hearing my story. As I spoke, I found one of the boys’ cleaning apron on his desk, and out of fury, I threw it up in the air.
“You were so mean!” I said to the owner of the apron as I threw it, who had already gone home and was no longer in the earshot.
There was a laundry rope just beneath the ceiling, and his apron got caught on the rope.
“Oh, well, he won’t need it until tomorrow!”
As we all walked toward the entrance, I started to feel better. More than anything else, having my friends listen to my story removed much of the misery out of the situation. I was almost laughing when we came to the shoe rack and I realized that my shoes were missing.
“My shoes are gone!”
We looked everywhere in the shoe rack, but my shoes were nowhere to be found. This was the first time my shoes went missing.
“Did they hide your shoes? Is that what they did?”
My friends became upset while I panicked. How could I go home without my shoes?
We looked for our teacher and found him in the teachers’ meeting. My friends explained the emergency telling him that my shoes had been hidden by somebody. He and a few other teachers came out of the meeting to search for my shoes.
We searched everywhere from the classrooms to the outside. Finally, somebody found them. My shoes were squeezed at the bottom of our umbrella rack at the entrance.
“Good for you!” One teacher said.
“He isn’t really a bad kid. If he were, he would have taken your shoes to his home!” Another said.
Yes, I was relieved that my shoes were found. And I was glad to hear that this boy wasn’t a bad kid. As I watched my shoes quite neatly squeezed among the umbrellas, however, I wondered what feelings or thoughts might have crossed the boy’s mind as he placed my shoes there. There was a little bit of sadness to the way the shoes were sitting there.
The next morning, when I arrived at the classroom, the boy’s cleaning apron was still hanging from the laundry rope. It was located high above, and wasn’t quite reachable. Being the tallest person in the class, I stretched my hand above, took the apron, and brought it back to the owner.
“There we go.”
There was no exchange of apologies between us, but we were both sure in that moment that it would never happen again – hiding the other’s shoes or throwing the other’s apron high up in the air.