Not too long ago I spent the night sleeping on the floor of a North Devon primary school hall, literally surrounded by sixty children all under the age of eleven. It was one of the many fundraising activities put on by Bratton Fleming Primary School, as part of their efforts to raise money for the people of Japan who had been affected by the earthquake and tsunami. When I had visited the school last year in July and October to give talks on Japan, the children were moved by stories of children in Tohoku sleeping in their schools that had been turned into shelters, and decided that they’d like to raise money by spending the night in their school.
So on a Friday night before half-term, sixty children turned up at school for the second time that day, all wearing their pyjamas and carrying sleeping bags or duvets, and of course, their favourite teddy. Six teachers from the school were there, including the head teacher, and also one of my university friends who is a teacher at Bratton Fleming and first introduced me to the school last year. Also staying the night was Natsuko, a Japanese lady who now lived locally and had given Japanese cooking classes to the school in the past.
The children piled into the hall and stacked their belongings up all around the outside of the room. We gathered at the front of the room where I gave the children a quick talk to remind them of why we were there, and update them briefly by telling them a bit about my “One Month in Tohoku.” They had raised some money before, which went towards the water pump for the Ohara fishermen, so it was nice to be able to tell them about that. Then they split up into four groups to take part in some Japan-related activities that had been set up around the hall and in the kitchen.
One table played a Japanese board game that Natsuko had brought in, and added English instructions to. Another table did origami, and another table was just for colouring in Japanese cartoon characters. I still love colouring in and spent a lot of my time just sitting at the colouring table, thoroughly enjoying chatting away to the kids around me. Natsuko and her husband were busy in the kitchen, teaching children how to make okonomiyaki — they were all having a great time cooking and eating.
Each group rotated so that every child got to do every activity until it was time to get the sleeping bags and duvets out. The children organized themselves (with very little assistance, I have to say!) around the hall and sat on the edge of their “beds” while we brought round milk and cookies. Then it was time to use the toilet and brush their teeth — what complete chaos! It was hilarious.
Once everyone had settled down, the teachers and myself found spaces on the floor and spread ourselves out among the children. I found myself next to a tiny little girl who looked so young that I couldn’t believe she was there. I asked her how old she was and she replied proudly “I am four years old,” and I was amazed to see that she didn’t look one bit nervous about being away from Mummy for the night.
We turned all the lights out and Natsuko sat in the middle of the hall with a small torch that she shone into a Japanese children’s storybook in her lap, from which she read (entirely in her native language) “Little Red Riding Hood” to us all. Slowly (very slowly!) the children started going to sleep although I don’t think any of us adults got much sleep at all, especially my university friend, Gillian. Occasionally through the night you could hear little half-asleep voices say “Mummy,” at which Gillian immediately leapt out of her sleeping bag and somehow found the voice in the middle of everything, offered a soothing hair stroke and reassuring word to the little one in question, then leapt back to her own spot without treading on anyone at all. I have no idea how she did it and still looked like she’d had a good night’s sleep the next day.
The children knew they were supposed to wait until people were awake before getting up and about in the morning so, while they were waiting for the all clear, they thoughtfully whispered to each other. Except that the sound of sixty children whispering is actually really loud! I sat up to see that a few of the children had jumped on their headteacher’s sleeping bag and were giving her a cuddle, which was really sweet! When I trained as a teacher you weren’t allowed to have any physical contact with the kids at all, which with younger children, is actually very difficult and I think a bit of a shame. So it really brought a smile on my face to see the children so fond of their headteacher (let’s face it, she’s got to be a very special person to be letting all this madness go on, and not only that but to join in on it all too!).
After getting all the kids sat down on long tables going straight down the hall, we brought them their breakfast of toast with all sorts of spreads or different kinds of cereals. And pretty soon, it was time for the parents to arrive!
The teachers had not only organized breakfast for the kids but also for the parents. Bacon sandwich after bacon sandwich came out of the staffroom and was handed round to the parents, and I gave another, slightly more grown-up talk above all the chaos, showing my photos of Oshika and thanking the adults for all their efforts to support people in Japan. I have to say that I have never given a speech in my pyjamas before!
In total the Bratton Fleming sleepover for Japan raised £384, which was amazing. A very big thanks to the parents, teachers, and children for such a very special event. I’ll be sure to find a very special project your money can go toward on my next trip to Tohoku.