On the last Saturday of May, one of my elementary schools had their annual 「運動会」, also known as the Sports Festival. It’s somewhat like an all-day track meet. Only twice as much flair and celebration. I had no idea what to expect when I rolled up to the school around 11:00 that morning.
In late April, I started seeing the students wearing various colored ties around their red and white gym caps. Some were red, others were blue, yellow, or green. I thought maybe it was some new dress code standard issued by the Board of Education. In the following weeks at this school, my class load gradually decreased. I’d come in on a Monday or Tuesday and arrows flying all around my schedule indicating class changes or cancellations. Somedays I would have no class at all.
In mid-May, the teachers would sometimes invite me to gym class. The students would always be practicing team gymnastics or something along the lines of cheerleading. Still I thought it was normal and didn’t think anything big was going to happen soon. A week later and tents started to pop up on the huge recreational sandlot in the back of the school. The week of the event I could count on one hand how many classes I had at this school. everyday was spent prepping for Saturday. There was even a four hour “dress rehearsal” for this supposed Sports Festival.
Finally, Saturday rolled around. The hottest day of the year so far and I wasn’t feeling it. Eventually, I made it to the elementary school around the hottest time of the day: noon. It was packed. I received a parking pass from the school last week, but my assigned spot was already taken. I assume they thought I wasn’t coming. I was lucky enough to find a nice spot right by school. I hopped out of the neon blue WagonR and instantly felt the Sun on my back. What I felt even more though, were the eyes all around me taking a look at the man who looked nothing like them.
I haven’t had one of these “aware that I’m different” moments in a while. Most days I usually go about my business, unaware of the fact that I stand out for miles no matter where I go in this city. Today was different, my double consciousness was in full effect. For one, practically the entire neighborhood was there. My students parents, aunts, uncles, and their parents and family friends. For the first time their family was seeing the guy who sends their child home singing the Alphabet song everyday. All of a sudden, I felt super aware of the interactions I had with my students. Handshakes are never used when greeting in Japan. I shake hundreds of hands a day. Yet today I actually felt uncomfortable in giving handshakes! I don’t know what my students’ parents are like, and I’ve heard so many stories online about “monster parents.” So I only shook hands unless a kid initiated it.
In addition to the 2000 or more people that were there, unknowingly reviving my awareness of my own individuality, there was also my attire. I was not wearing my normal suit and tie, business attire. I was rocking a graphic tee of a NASA launch, skinny jeans with high tops, a snapback and prayer beads on my wrist. My students were quick to point this out, yelling things like, “Wow, no suitsu!” or “Ehh?! Jeanzu?!! Cool!” It was the first time any of them had saw me out of my work clothes. I began to realize how special the moment was. They were seeing a whole different side of my personality. They were acknowledging that I’m more than just a teacher. Some of the kids just couldn’t stop staring and smiling. I’m glad I didn’t come in my usual work clothes.
Throughout the day there were various events. From traditional track and field races to more wacky things. The more wacky events, like sack races, were mainly for the younger kids. The more intense races were reserved for the older grades. Students who were “sick” or injured shot off the cap guns at the start of every race. The kids were doing everything; from breaking down and setting up events, to play-by-play commentary. The teachers hung out in the background and only stepped in unless a problem arose.
After lunch was the “kumi taiso” performance. This was what the fifth and sixth grade were practicing the most in the days leading up to the Festival. I guess you can call it a synchronized gymnastics performance. My students did all kinds of multi-person balancing acts. Many of which I probably couldn’t do at their age. Every movement in the twenty minute act was done in near synchronized precision.
Soon after that I headed out. I was out of water and being burnt up by the Sun. On my way out I ran into some of my graduated sixth graders. They had only been out of elementary school for no more than two months yet I could already sense a new air of maturity among them. It reminded me of my own waning youth. Some of you are probably saying, “You’re 23! You’re still young!” There was a time where I couldn’t imagine being this age. The older I become the faster time feels to pass. Working with children everyday has been a nice bittersweet reminder of the constants in our Universe: Time + Change. Stay Tuned.