Traditions (Part III) — Sports Day

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Earlier this month, I experienced Sports Day. Sports Day has been held every August since the regular Thai program was established in 1971. The International Program (IP) has a little over 400 students, and we joined the 3 or 4,000 regular program students for this all-day event. I began teaching in IP in late June, and by then, the students had already been practicing cheers for the event, which would be taking place more than six weeks later. Sometimes during Homeroom, sometimes during our Extra Curricular periods or even during math, IP11 students would come in to the IP6 classroom to lead the class in various cheers. IP6 is part of the See-Fah team (Blue), so the cheers were all about the Blue team. The songs and cheers were very humorous when they contained English words. For some reason, no one has bothered to inform the cheer-leaders that their songs do not make sense. I, too, avoided the confrontation, but maybe next year I’ll politely mention that they are using the word ‘victory’ incorrectly in the announcement, “We are the victory!” These ‘interruptions’ for cheer practice were certainly eating up precious time for teaching, but as I mentioned in my previous post, school is not primarily for learning; it is for culture, tradition, community, and…as one co-worker puts it, indoctrination (more on that later).

On the actual day of the event, which took place on the Wednesday before a two-day Buddhist holiday, students arrived at their classrooms around 7:30, just to drop off their belongings. No teachers taught anything that day. Our job was simply to facilitate our students’ enjoyment of Sports Day. Around 7:45, three out of the four IP6 Homeroom teachers (myself included) lined up the IP6 students in the hallway and led them downstairs, outside, and out to a grassy field in the shadow of the school’s clock tower. All students, from both programs, lined up with their teams — See-Fah (Blue), See-Dang (Red), See-Chompoo (Pink…yes, it sounds like ‘shampoo’), and See-Leung (Yellow) — and they sang the national anthem, recited their Buddhist prayer, and then were guided in cheering for their teams. A color guard was there and everything. Next, everyone was guided to the track, and the teams sat in locations according to their team color.

The students, ranging from grade 1 to grade 12, had to sit on the ground, cross-legged, under tents. Apparently, this tent idea was rather new. Up until last year, students had to sit beneath the blazing Bangkok sun for nine hours straight. That does sound miserable, but sitting cramped together beneath a makeshift canopy, and essentially trapped in by erratically tied ribbons around the outside of the tent, while it’s 95 degrees and as humid as a sauna, doesn’t sound that great either, does it? But this is tradition, and this what the school does, and this is what the students expect, and so it is done this way. (It should be noted that the majority of students rather hate Sports Day, but again, we can’t let the almost unanimous hatred of this event stop it.)

What is interesting about the event is that it is close to 100% run by the grade 11 students. Every year, the grade 11 students organize, set up, and tear down the tables, tents, flower arrangements, medal podiums, etc. They also teach all the other grade levels their cheers, pass out snacks and water to the hot, uncomfortable audience, and facilitate the sporting events. I think it’s a fantastic way to teach students about event coordination, teamwork, problem-solving, and leadership. They actually did a fantastic job. I noticed that there were very few teachers – if any – helping them. This kind of real-life experience is very valuable, and it makes me think of John Dewey, an education philosopher who emphasized the idea that school must be a place where students practice living in the real world. I was impressed by the students, and I think it’s really cool that the school has something like this in place.

After the very long opening ceremony, which involved singing, speeches, flowers, podiums, medals, photos, flags, marching, a full band, and on and on, the events began. A critique I must make of Sports Day is that only a select few students actually get to participate. For most of the day, students are sitting outside, waiting for something exciting to happen. The only sport that actually goes on is running, and so all day students watched kids from each grade level run individually and in relays. The four IP6 homeroom teachers took shifts throughout the day, so that we didn’t all have to be out there from 7:45 to 4:15 like all of our poor students. My shift was the last two hours. I was able to see some cheerleading that was as far from American cheerleading as one can get, and I saw a few of my students race. Each time a race ended, there was a medal ceremony, kind of like at the Olympics. Around 3:00, my friend (an IP2 teacher) and I were approached by a Thai teacher and asked if we would like to participate in the teacher relay, also a big tradition. I was honored to be included, so I said yes, and waited until it was time to run around the track. Little did I know that I was getting myself involved in quite the serious athletic endeavor. The other participants were not taking this lightly, as I soon found out while ‘warming up’. Warming up was far more intense than the race itself! We sprinted, we jogged, we did those drills where you get your knees really high, we did those drills where you kick your butt, we practiced the passing of the baton, we practiced it again, we stretched, we…seriously? I was thinking it was going to be a sort of silly race for the students to watch, but no. This was serious competition. The four teams arranged themselves around the track. I stood ready in my lane, starting jogging as my teammate approached me, grabbed the baton, sprinted as fast as I could, passed it on, and then watched as three more sprinters made their way toward the finish. Team Blue got bronze, of which we were quite proud. We got to receive our medals on the podium and be applauded by our adoring fans. I felt guilty that I got to run around and have a really great time while the majority of my students had been sitting for hours and still had to sit for a couple more.

Towards the end of the day, I started understanding why Sports Day is a tradition that has survived decades of children hating it. The truth is that they don’t really hate it. OK, some probably do, and they do hate being outside in the heat all day, but many of these students are the children of alumni who did the same thing when they were younger. One teacher told me, “Every kid here has to go through Sports Day. Their parents did it, so they feel that their kids should do it. It’s like a rite of passage.” Suddenly, I realized that what might seem like a waste of precious teaching time, or a boring/cruel activity for these hot and thirsty kids is seen as an important step toward adulthood and an important way to solidify the students’ and alumni’s bond. Just like I sang “Hail to the Hills of Westwood” at UCLA basketball games and felt that sense of belonging to something bigger than myself, the students, teachers, administrators, and alumni sing their school anthem and participate in Sports Day for the camaraderie and the oneness. Now, of course, I can be critical of this. These sorts of connections are quite arbitrary and the world might be a better place without such granfalloonery, to borrow a term from Vonnegut. But the point is that I’m learning what is important to my students and coworkers, and this is helping me be a better, more respectful, and more understanding teacher and coworker.

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One thought on “Traditions (Part III) — Sports Day

  1. I totally agree with the philosophy that the best kind of school is a place where students practice living in the real world. I found that part particularly interesting. How vastly different from the sports days that I use to attend!

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