They looked like a UN delegation; well-groomed men and women in somber suits, bowing and shaking hands under a canopy of international flags. In fact, it was Sports Day, the Korean elementary school equivalent of Field Day back home. Parents and grandparents filled one set of folding chairs, while the other was stuffed with principles from other area elementary schools. They sat like visiting dignitaries under a blue pop-up tent. It was about 80 degrees, and they had to be sweltering in those suits. Sports Day, a co-teacher explained, was a game and exhibition day. The students would perform "mass games" for their parents. “Mass” was a slight overstatement for a school of twenty-some students, though in downtown schools the kids can number in the thousands. Regardless of school, students have to put in hours of practice on synchronized stretching and dance routines.
It was clear the teachers had put a lot into this. There was a sparkly scoreboard, tons of decorations, and a serious number of props to organize, not to mention a herd of shouting, pushing, laughing, crying students to corral.
My own responsibilities involved eating ice cream, tying shoelaces, and standing in for absent mothers during the parent/child mixed events. I pushed enormous rubber balls through obstacle courses, ran relays with a parachute strapped to my back, and occasionally popped balloons with my buttocks.
Suit jackets and ties did not spare you from participation, which is probably why most of the principals snuck out early. Only the dignified grandmamas sat in the shade, exempt from games. But even they got called onto the field to fish for prizes in a gigantic cardboard box. Their fishing poles pulled out thoughtful, practical gifts like toothpaste, kleenex, and cans of Cass beer.
After the games concluded, we watched a stellar traditional drum and dance performance. Being a foreigner at these events is a guaranteed ticket onstage, where I utterly failed to juggle spinning plates in a manner that would make my parents proud. Sorry, mom.
After the show, the kids trooped off for a hamburger and pizza picnic, while the teachers collapsed in the cafeteria with noodles and rice wine. Three cheers for a job well done!