Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Stoves

Boys huddled around the stove

In the coldest depths of winter, the temperature often drops to near zero. With no central heating in Japanese schools, the hallways are so cold that the students can see their breath, puffing out like escaping spirits. You can hear people all around you greeting each other, not by saying “hello,” but with a shivering “samui!” “It’s cooold!”

Obviously students can’t be expected to learn in such a frigid environment. That’s why at the beginning of December of every year, Japanese schools mark the beginning of a new season by wheeling in the stoves.

A “stove,” as the Japanese call it, is actually a kerosene heater. Most people have small ones in their homes, and the ones in a classroom are about the size of a large stereo speaker. When the day begins, the first student in the classroom inevitably starts to whine about the cold and tries to wheedle the teacher into turning the stove on. The teacher, being just as cold as everyone else, is no doubt happy to oblige.

The stove takes about two minutes to start up. During that time, the students huddle around with bated breath, like ice fishermen around the hole, praying for their lines to start dancing. In this case, it’s the dancing flame of the stove they’re waiting for, and when they hear the electrical buzzing that precedes the heavenly “poof!” of fire, you can almost feel the sigh of relief around the classroom.

Minutes later, the classroom is toasty. During lunch breaks, the halls are only filled with the brave and the active. Everyone else huddles around the stoves, like modern-day campfires. They sometimes even try to steal a moment in front of the fire during class time, until the teacher catches them and shoos them back to their desks.

Sometimes the stoves malfunction, sending out a creeping cloud of foul-smelling smoke. The smoke quickly engulfs the front of the classroom, and the students who were once anxious for their heat are now begging the teacher to open the windows and doors to get the smell out. Moments later, the smoke will dissipate and the students will once again bask in the warm glow of the flame.

But no season lasts forever. Come March, the frigid cold of winter will wane. And as the final days of the Japanese school year ebb away, the teachers begin their annual ritual of wheeling the stoves back to their storeroom. There the stoves begin their hibernation, waiting for another season to bathe the students in their warmth.


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