In Japanese school, the beginning of summer in June did not usher in a three month hiatus from school work. Although we did get Natsuyasumi (Summer Vacation) in August, we attended school through the hot months of June and July, sweating in sweltering classrooms where an empty cast iron stove had held hot coal nuggests only a few months earlier. Now, in the oppressive heat, windows were opened as wide as they could like gaping mouths, as if the classroom itself was gasping for air to breathe.
Our school, Takayama Elementary, was a lucky one. We had a pool that we shared with neighboring elementary schools whose students walked some distances to get to our school for the experience. A couple times a week in June and July, we walked ourselves, but only down the hallway in our uniform bathing suits. We descended the metal staircases outside the building to the glorious sparkling swimming pool that called out to us each and every day. It was all we could do to stay silent as we walked past the classrooms of other jealous schoolmates when it was our turn to enjoy the pool. Then, for two wonderful hours of refreshing fun, we were divided into groups according to ability, and we were taught how to swim.
I remember lying on my belly on the rough cement deck with my classmates, as we made our legs into little frog kicks and practiced the breast stroke. But the best part of all came toward the very end of the two hours when we had free swim and when we made the whirlpool.
Try to imagine 120 children (all three classes of 5th or 6th grades) lining the sides of a pool facing the same direction. All of us, swimmers and non-swimmers alike participated, since this was basically a walk in the water. We put one hand on the side of the pool and waited anxiously for the whistle to send us on our way. One of the teachers stood on the starting block and blew the whislte loud, the squeal of the whistle drowned out immediately by our own jubilent voices.
On cue, we started moving forward, all of us in the same direction on the periphery of the pool, and we began to churn the water. Within seconds, our movements became less labored, as the current we made in the pool carried us along, all the while pushing, pushing the water forward as we began to run along the bottom making the current stronger and faster. Soon our bodies flew, one step taking us dozens of feet, our bodies crashing in to one another, and we laughed uncontrollably. It was almost time for the next whistle.
The next whistle meant it was time to change direction. When we heard the shrill sound, we turned around and tried to move in the opposite direction. The current wouldn't allow it, and bodies struggled to change the tide, as some smaller friends floated past me in vain. Once again, after moments of struggling against water that crashed against us, we were able to create a strong current, this time in another direction.
The saddest current was the one which led us back to the classroom where we changed back in to our regular school clothes, boys first, then the girls, and we settled once again in to writing our kanji characters or doing long division. Memories of being carried by the current in my school's pool on those hot days of June and July still bring up the corners of my lips.