A year ago, I feared just how insipid and boring it would be to tell stories of “last year’s middle-of-nowhere festival” compared to “this year’s middle-of-nowhere festival.” It was, in fact, one of my reasons for wanting to relocate. But matters of bedding and a certain affection for my kids kept me around, so here I am bearing news of the second edition of the many, many festivals that have spread themselves out over the last two months, as well as perhaps just a little foreboding of just how hard it’s going to be for me to leave this place in March.
Every last one of my schools and even the town itself had a sports festival in October. For a month in advance, the schools set aside class time not only to practice the events, but also to rehearse the formal ceremonies that came at the beginning, end, and various points in between through the course of the day. The sports days were even scheduled on weekends so parents could come watch their 6-year-olds veer uncertainly down a track only vaguely aware that they had to stay within a single lane until they reached a line at the end. And then afterwards, of course, everyone went out and got sloshed.
I was invited along to two of the teachers’ after-parties. Over dinner with Monday Elementary, the principal asked if I would be willing to do lessons at the school’s associated kindergarten. I normally don’t teach the really young kids, but after a month of discussion I’d started doing visits at Thursday Elementary in June, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the others followed suit. It was a headache, but with the kindergarten teachers sitting in front of me and the principal footing the $80 dinner bill, I could hardly refuse.
Beyond my affirmative “yes,” not a single word was broached on the matter until Saturday a week later. Eating lunch with Soccer-sensei after soccer club, he mentioned that I would be teaching my first kindergarten lesson on Monday—in two days.
“Surprised?” he said, noting my expression.
“Um… yes.” I replied. But I was too stunned to say anything else.
This may ostensibly seem a small matter, but what I had done was that I had yet again agreed to prepare an entirely new set of lessons outside my contract and for no increase in pay, and nobody had thought I might like to discuss when, how often, for how long, and with how many students I would be doing it. I didn’t know if the lesson was going to be fifteen minutes or fifty, with three kids or with thirty—and they hadn’t even asked me if I’d wanted to talk about it. They’d just gone ahead and planned it. It felt a lot like the ritual tooth-kicking I got every time I offered to lend a hand outside my contract at Blight. It was one of the key reasons why I’d left that job after six months.
For the rest of the weekend, I was so angry I couldn’t sleep. At school on Monday I was so bluntly unfriendly with my kids that I finally called my head office and got the okay to talk to the principal. But before I had a chance to say anything, Soccer-sensei flagged me down and told me that, as of that time, the kindergarten lesson was off. In fact, they were all off.
Following my call, someone from my office had phoned the BOE to let them know that I needed more warning for kindergarten lessons since they were outside my normal schedule. This prompted the new head of the BOE to review my contract, and he discovered that I was not, as I well knew, contracted to work at the kindergartens at all, so any injuries I caused or sustained would not be covered by liability. A flurry of calls went out, and all visits were cancelled.
I hadn’t wanted the lessons cancelled. I’d just wanted them to understand that it was thoroughly disrespectful to give a teacher an entirely new class without giving him enough information to plan for it. I even had a lesson ready… and I was just starting to get to know and like the kids at my other kindergarten. I felt like I’d cancelled Christmas.
About ten minutes south of The Village is a town where they have an annual Pirate Festival on the beach, and I attended this year’s festivities upon several independent invitations. While the only pirate-related thing seemed to be a lone guy in costume standing in front of a big wooden cutout of a boat, the event really revolved around dozens of barbecues grilling up piles of free fish on the beach.
Rather than join the line waiting for a chance at the buffet, I got the attention of one of my principals and my iaido sensei, who insisted that I come sit under the organizers’ tent and have free food and drink brought to me every few minutes. I only notice it at these events, but it’s amazing how well-connected I am in this area. And there’s nothing like drinking your second free cup of hot saké at 10:00 in the morning.
The town sports festival was supposed to be the next day, but it was delayed a week due to rain. And since I couldn’t understand the loudspeaker announcement at 6:30 that morning, I’d gone out under cloudy skies in search of the secret contingency location where they’d hidden 5000 people holding a festival. It rained precisely long enough to soak me down to my underwear.
I was initially signed up for three events with my regional team, but a lot of people weren’t able to come on the rescheduled Sunday, so I ended up in nearly half the events, receiving silly things like a box of Kleenex or a bag of sugar every time I participated.
At any Japanese sports day, the big event is the final relay. Under the gross misconception that long legs made me fast, I had the unfortunate luck of being chosen as anchor for our eight-member team—so I got to be the pathetic loser to cross the finish line last if we did poorly. The two guys ahead of me were Taki-chan and Animal, and we commiserated by telling each other not to worry about our own performances, since the race was usually already lost by the time it got down to the last few runners anyway.
Imagine our distress when we started winning.
The women on our team had a great start, but our early lead began to slip away. By the time Taki-chan took the baton we were a few seconds behind the leader. But Taki isn’t exactly built for speed, so when Animal took the hand-off, we were about twenty feet behind. He neither gained nor lost ground, and I received the baton with us still soundly in second place.
I started out at a moderate sprint, just hoping to make it around the course without embarrassing myself or blowing our hold on second. But then I noticed the strangest thing: even with a partial effort, I was catching up.
The last lap of a sports day relay is normally a dull affair. The winner has long since been decided, and whoever’s in first has an easy jaunt to the end. But this time, there was an actual chance for an upset, and I wasn’t the only one who could see it.
I put all thrusters on overdrive and tore around the remainder of the first curve. The track was lined with tents from all the different areas of town, and those tents were filled with parents and their kids—my kids. By the time I got to the our regional tent, I was riding an incredible roaring wave of cheers and applause that seemed to physically pick me up from inside my chest and hurtle me down the track.
By halfway into the last curve, I was right on the heels of the leader.
I took a gamble and crossed to the outside on the last quarter. I pulled alongside as we hit the straightaway. And just as I pulled ahead, the instant he disappeared from my periphery, my legs turned into a jumble as I lost my objective and I wasn’t sure where I was running any more. I couldn’t make my legs move properly. He was going to catch up. But then it sounded like he had also begun to stumble, and just as I feared that I was going to give it all away in the last second, I crossed the finish line and broke the victory tape for the first time in my entire life.
I pretty much jumped on Soccer-sensei when I got off the track. By the time I came back to our regional tent, every little grandma and grandpa wanted to shake my hand, and people I’d never even seen before came up just to tell me I was really fast. The best, however, came from Skids, one of the grade four kids from my area.
“Animal,” he asked, “Why didn’t you go all-out when you ran?”
Animal looked rather affronted. “What do you mean? I did go all-out.”
“Yeah,” said Skids, “But when Michael-san ran, you could tell he was going all-out.”
I glowed. Animal hadn’t let me live it down since he’d been able to outrun me in practice.
Of course, that was only the qualifying round. By the time we got to the final in the afternoon, Animal put in a spectacular run, but I wasn’t able to generate enough power to pull us out of fourth place.
I finished the day with three boxes of Kleenex, four packs of garbage bags, a bottle of salad oil, a pack of noodles, a bag of sugar, and not a single podium finish for our region. But it was still a great feeling as we went back to our meeting hall afterwards and they dumped a 5-kilo bag of cut meat onto a steel drum barbecue. For the first time ever, I really felt like a part of that crowd. I had only to show my face in the room where all the wives were chatting to have them insist that I sit down and eat absolutely everything they could feed me.
For the ensuing two weeks, I glowed in glory as teachers at every school commented on my outstanding performance. But I paid for it, of course. The cold that had been creeping up on me all week had sunk in its claws by Monday, and for the next few days I had the most peculiar sensation that my left leg was simply going to unhinge and fall off at the knee. But then I look at this hyperbole-laden article in our regional newsletter and I know it was all worthwhile.
Great Legs of Fire
Foreign-grown Michael Kanert explodes onto the scene:
Top hope in town relay preliminary
In his first appearance at the Town Sports Day, Michael Kanert, the assassin from Canada, led the way to a first place finish for Sakurada in the preliminary relay event.
Running with a magnificence unknown to his Japanese competitors, the 5000 spectators at the grounds were brought to mighty cheers, and the old-timers couldn’t help but put their hands together in applause.
Sakurada’s men and women held onto 2nd or 3rd place throughout the 40-man race, but when Animal handed the baton to Michael, he remained concerned. “Might we yet lose the preliminary?” he worried. But then like magic, Michael outpaced the lone runner in front.
Mr. B, the defeated Village resident, reported, “I suddenly felt as if a darkness encroached upon me from behind. I never want to run against him again.”