02 February 2011

Marathon Day

At my old secondary school, if you'd asked all the students to run a 7-10 km marathon you would have gotten a lot of absenteeism, some sit-in protesters, several middle fingers and maybe 5 volunteers. In Japan, the same request prompted every student in 1st and 2nd year to run 7-10 km.

The marathon meant that I got to leave my desk for the morning, not that I could really afford to with marking stacking up but still. First off, the teachers watched the students as they lined up in their utterly straight lines on the dirt pitch, in order of HR number of course. Kocho Sensei did what Kocho Sensei does and made what I can only assume was a speech that was both charming and motivational. As usual, he held up several props, this time fans with Kanji written on both sides of them. During this, I milled around on the raised area behind him along with the other teachers, most of whom were wearing tracksuits rather than work clothes. Why did nobody tell me that we were supposed to wear tracksuits?

After the speeches, the students began their warm-up, lead by a particularly stern PE teacher barking instructions into a megaphone. A few teachers even joined in, God bless them. Only one teacher volunteered to run with the students, which goes to show that Japanese people don't enjoy marathons any more than Irish people, and that the school admin are totally hypocritical. Still, I was very glad teachers weren't compelled to run. Could you imagine? I could..

Last year my predecessor ran, fair play to her. Unfortunately, this led to a bunch of awkward conversations, when various people guessed that I might be running. No, I'm 100% unfit. Which sport do I like? Can I say none...ok surfing then. Do high school students in Ireland run marathons? See above.

I couldn't help fondly reminiscing about the last time I tried to run any significant distance. I was 12 years old and it was Sports Day in my primary school. 6th class had to run maybe 200m. My best friend and I refused on principle to participate, but we were forced to. We expressed our discontent by ambling slowly around the course behind our classmates who were actually attempting to run. Fools, we thought, in our rebellious, almost-adolescent state. The spectators had to wait for us to finish before the next race could take place, and we took pleasure in their impatience as we strolled along the home stretch, long after everyone else had finished.

Actually, with 10m to go I sprinted to the line so I didn't come in last. I was a bad friend.

The 1- and 2- nensei boys took off first. They had to run 10 km. I watched from the starting point outside the school as they pushed and shoved each other at the front. Then Kocho-Sensei, standing on an upturned crate, shot the starter gun. No kidding, he actually shot a gun into the air like at the Olympics or something..those nearby covered their ears. The boys accelerated wildly.

5 minutes later, the girls lined up, poised for their 7 km run. They were a lot calmer and took off at a leisurely pace when the gun was fired. After that, it was a case of waiting around. Of course, I could have gone inside and gotten some work done for the 40 mins plus they'd be running for, buy my supervisor had randomly suggested that I help the school nurse. I can never tell whether his suggestions are spur of the moment whims or well thought out, okayed with the Vice Principle kind of things, so I decided to go along with this one.

The nurse is a lovely woman who speaks very little English and greatly over-estimates my Japanese competency. She tried to speak to me a number of times, each in vain. I ended up chatting to a group of 3-nensei students. 3rd years don't have to run the marathon because they're focusing on exams. Despite this, these particular students hung around all morning helping out. It was a good chance to speak to them because I only ever taught 6 3-nenseis and our classes are finished for the year. Like most students at my school, they were totally cringing at having to speak English but surprisingly good at it.

Together we personed (see previous posts for my de-patriachising of English), the injury station. It was a good thing that our biggest challenges were a girl who was tired and a guy whose pre-injured knee was sore (should he even have been running the marathon? I think not...) because I certainly had no idea what I was doing. When the girl arrived, drenched in sweat and collapsed onto the soft floor tiles we'd laid on the concrete, I was pretty concerned about her. She was panting and the 3-nensei students covered her with a blanket. I suppose the problem was to complicated to explain in their second language because they told me she was tired. Then again, she sprang up and left after a few minutes.

When a problem I could have helped with finally came our way I was useless. A student with a bloody ankle in need of cleaning, showed up nonchalantly. I knew where the disinfectant and wipes were, but all I could do was wince grossed-outedly at his wound and murmur 'itai'. The san-nenseis saw to him as I sucked in air through my teeth...eww...

On reaching the finishing line, each student was given a numbered card showing their placing. Afterwards, there was a closing ceremony in the gym at which the first 30 boys and 20 girls received medals and certs. I can only assume that the ratio of boys to girls in the school is 3:2. Don't get me started on the implication that the school comparatively under values girls sporting achievements if this isn't the case...I'm not even going to check.

As usual, we bowed and clapped and were lectured at by various people. I think it went on for about half an hour, ridiculously. I saw that the students had all changed from their PE clothes back into their uniforms for the sake of appearances. It wasn't for classes anyway, because the rest of the day's classes were cancelled. Hurray for the students getting the break they deserved for once!

The whole day served to remind me of Japan's cultural unfamiliarity. Following orders and respect for physical fitness are givens. I have to admit though, that it makes for a healthy nation. In my school, I'd estimate that less than 1% of students are overweight. Compare that to Ireland where around 20% or children are overweight or obese as of 2010. There's a logic to the disparity.

It also makes for some entertaining reactions...

'What did you do in PE in high school?'

'Well...I didn't actually even do PE in high school...'



A JTE finally came back to me to comment on the maths I've been using to correct students essays. She informed me she got it, and that the students managed to work out what it meant. The math/science stream ones had the upper hand in this, while the humanities ones were left confused. Fortunately, the students helped each other to understand. Unfortunately for humankind, and Japan in particular, the teacher also pointed out that the girls in the class had particular difficulty in understanding, but that they boys helped them.

Because obviously, girls are so woeful at maths.