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September 17, 2002: Things I Never Thought I'd Do

Currently topping my list of "Things I Never Thought I'd do in Japan" is: I never thought I'd share a giant pair of shorts with a small, Japanese man. This is how my sports day began—my vice-principal informed me that I had been drafted to co-anchor the PTA relay team. At 7:45 am, all he could tell me was that I would be sharing a large pair of pants with a stranger. I was wondering how big said pants would be. Putting aside my curiosities, I changed into my sneakers and walked out to the grounds for the opening ceremony.

Some background on Sports Day. This is an annual event held at every Junior and Senior High across Japan. It is a festival to demonstrate the students' physical prowess and discipline. They march in precise lines and run a variety of races (each student must run in several). Some schools also have elaborate feats of gymnastics, although the closest Naru comes is performing the town dance. After spending the week in focused preparation in lieu of classes, I was ready for a day of serious races, but was pleasantly surprised by the infusion of the ridiculous throughout the day.

The morning began with students soberly marching, military-style, around the track to the spirited, yet slightly out of tune brass band and the applause of the audience. Oaths were taken, speeches were made, flags were raised and we were underway (although not without the requisite bowing and thanking each other for all of the hard work).

As instructed, I make my way towards the tent to sit at my post. I am to keep track of points earned by the blue and red teams and supervise the students placed on this task. Surprisingly, we were joined by an old, toothless woman wearning a large, white bonnet and chanting "Ao Ao Ao" ("Blue Blue Blue"). No on seemed to know who she was but she remained in our company for the entire day, spouting a great deal of fervent motivation for the blue team.

The races bagan and we were entertained with cheer and dance routines by the junior high students. As the program ambled toward the PTA relay, I began to fret slightly about "sharing the big pants." In case one hasn't caught on, the Japanese are a small race—big is sometimes still small here. Participants were gathered and the tasks for each leg were explained. The pair anchoring the race would press a balloon between our faces while running, full force, toward the finish line. The giant pants (shorts really) would act as the baton. The starting gun was fired and, prior to fully processing what was happening, I was jumping into the shorts and running, balloon pressed firmly in place. We won and, for our efforts, were presented with a box of tissues. They weren't even a commemorative edition.

After a quick bento box lunch, I was dressed by an entourage of Japanese women, in a cotton kimono (yukata) and a bright red satin obi (sash). The 23-year-old school nurse was also swaddled in yards of cotton as she had agreed to dance with me and the female students in the Naru-cho dance. We caused quite a scene; teachers were applauding and we could not walk five feet without students yelling, "Sensei, Sensei," and asking for a photo with us. The sight of these beautiful Japanese girls dressed in their yukata was astounding. Each had a different bright design and contrasting obi. The boldness of the colors and strong patterns could be construed as gawdy but somehow it comes off as simple and elegant rather than brash and showy.

The rest of the afternoon was considerably more lighthearted and entertaining. My favorite event was the biggest surprise of the day. Six of my male colleagues were placed on chairs in the center of the track. Before them crouched eight members of their homeroom clutching shopping bags.

Music came over the loud speakers and each teacher was stripped and recostumed. One was dressed as a bride, another as a school girl, yet another as a pro wrestler (his costume was black boxer briefs and a wide belt made from aluminum foil). My favorite was my supervisor, who was dressed as Sailor Moon (a Japanese cartoon princess). He donned a spandex mini-dress, white stockings, and a long, blonde wig. They were then paraded around the track and catcalled by the rest of the students, faculty and community members. I was in tears, laughing so hard. I was trying to imagine such a scene being permitted in the states. While I appreciate the notion of preserving modesty and keeping a line for appropriate behavior, it struck me that students really love the opportunity to know their teachers as real, risk-taking people.

Sports Day wound down and the entire school came together once more to put away tents, chairs, and equipment. There was no expectation that a "crew" would come clean-up. We had set up the grounds together and we would strike it together as well. I continue to be impressed with the way the school community works together. We don't have a custodial staff and the school is always immaculate. It's our space and we care for it together.

So that was my focus for last week. I expect this week will be more "normal" although I am learning that with the flexibility of the school schedule, I should always expect the unexpected. And I just have to throw in a note about my colleagues. I hold them in the highest esteem. Teachers in Naru really give of their whole selves. Teachers are enthusiastic and passionate about our work of educating the students in and out of the classroom. It's inspiring and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to spend this year in their company.

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2002 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475