Dreams from the Dust Bowl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Debby Katz


At 7:35 on a Monday morning, with a firm punch of the stapler, Nozomi Sensei posted the results the students would soon be craning their necks to see. Who would be the Sports Day captains this year? Tetsuya Mori, captain of the soccer team? Kenji Yamamoto, captain of the baseball team? Or the dreamboat of the cram school scene, basketball captain Naoki Kawahara? The teachers’ selection was about to initiate an intense month of cheering practice, marching drills, and megaphone abuse leading up to that grandest of all Japanese school traditions, Sports Day, or taiikutaikai. Summer had officially begun.

I was equally expectant. For as long as I had been a middle school teacher here, I had yet to see a girl captain. A PE teacher who spent most of taiikutaikai chain smoking in the shade of the judges’ tent explained gruffly in Japanese, “Girls cannot be leaders! Girls are not strong like boys!” He threw up a soft tennis ball and caught it with a downward smack. “Girls can be vice-captains,” he conceded, tipping his chair onto its back two legs.

The vice-captain was responsible for ten fanatical ninth grade leaders who spent afternoons shouting at their teammates through a megaphone during cheering practices. Team leadership was highly coveted because it meant participation in oendan, an event that is similar in function, if not appearance, to American cheerleading. For weeks before taiikutaikai, the four groups of leaders stationed themselves in empty classrooms after school, watching videos of local high school oendan competitions and heatedly discussing how they were going to knot their team headbands and which kid was going to start the performance with what variation on a front hand spring triple toe combination.

A few weeks before taiikutaikai, while walking the hallways after school, careful to step over bunches of students cutting out headbands, I made a surprising discovery. In a near empty classroom, Yui Nagata, the loud captain of the softball team and an excellent if difficult student, suddenly leaped up from the seat in which she was slumped and switched off the TV images that nine other students had been intensely studying. “That’s the opening we want!” she announced. ” I’ll be in the front. Then we’ll count off boy girl boy girl.” One boy, clearly her vice-captain, stood against the wall waiting for instructions. “Kimura-kun will teach us the arm movements today,” she announced authoritatively, throwing him a glance. She looked past him out to the hallway and saw me. “Debby Sensei!” She waved excitedly, her stern expression melting into an impish grin. “Do you want to watch us practice?” she asked in Japanese.

“Of course!” I answered in English. “Yui, are you the team captain?”

Yui nodded proudly, her short hair flopping onto her forehead. “Oh, yes yes!” She pointed her thumb at her chest, Tarzan-style, causing a smattering of laughter from her watchful peers. “I am green girl!”

“Wow! That’s great!” I beamed, smiling along to show that I was in on the joke, whatever it was. “Congratulations!”

“Oh, yes yes, thank you, yes yes,” she crowed, taking my outstretched hand and pumping it vigorously.

“Are you the only girl captain?” I asked slowly, my arm flying up and down across my line of vision.

“Oh, yes yes!” Yui replied loudly, nodding her head like a marionette. Behind her, girls clapped their hands over their faces and smothered their giggles, feigning embarrassment for Yui’s behavior. Clearly, Yui failed to grasp the implied gravity of my question. I wasn’t even sure she grasped my English.

“Bye bye bye bye,” she added in singsong as she released my hand. She then turned back to the others, who could see from her face that the show was over. “Ok, let’s start!” she commanded in Japanese. I was quickly forgotten as they shuffled to their feet.

I watched them for a few minutes before moving on. Further down the hall, I heard the scuffle and cheers of the blue team practicing. Yui’s unserious reaction to my congratulations, while not surprising, stuck with me for several days. I hadn’t expected that the appointment of a girl captain would cause an immediate overturning of established gender assumptions, but somehow I wanted Yui to show more pride in her singular achievement.

Still, I recognized Yui’s belief that if she wanted to be taken seriously as a captain, she had to act like she imagined a boy would: tough, fearless, and strident. Her disregard of the girlishness many of her female peers so readily embraced and perpetuated was admirable for the respect it commanded. I thought of the cool intensity of her squint from the pitcher’s mound before she wound back her arm like a powerfully churning windmill. The genderless moxie of this new leadership role wasn’t such a stretch for her.

Despite my interest in her unique standing, however, Yui was not a student for whom I felt a strong personal affinity. I wouldn’t say I disliked her. But coupled with that showy goofiness that led me to believe she was trying to make fun of me, she had an uncanny ability to make me feel distinctly self-conscious when, slumped in her chair, she fixed me with one her bored, withering looks in class.

After weeks of opening ceremony practice, cancelled classes, and mounting anticipation that threatened to pop off the roof of the school, taiikutaikai finally arrived. Morning sunlight worked its way through the lush trees, splashing the sand field with white puddles. Suspended from the trees on green netting four stunning team banners flared like sails in the hot wind. At the first blasts from the band, the students began marching out from under the shade of the trees in perfect rectangles, team by team.

After the opening ceremony, the relay races began. Yui and her team leaders boosted morale in front of their team tent, beating a large taiko drum and running alongside their respective team members with a green flag on a pole the length of five seventh grade students stacked end-to-end. Yui watched every event with hawk eyes. She clapped her hands tensely, barked encouragement into her megaphone, and walked back and forth, leading cheers. She knew that even the most comical events meant the gain or loss of precious points for her team. In a game called tamaire, students hurled beanbags up toward tiny baskets suspended twenty feet off the ground on wobbling reeds held by a teammate. In another, kibasen, teams of four seventh grade boys carried a tiny classmate on their shoulders. The raised boys valiantly tried to rip the hats off their airborne competitors as their supporters on the ground careened into each other. The great American dust bowl meets its match in the Japanese school sand field. For several minutes, clusters of students disappeared in billowing clouds of sand, and when the air cleared, the field was littered with colored caps and the tangled bodies of the losers crawling despondently back to their team tents.

At last it was time for the last and most highly anticipated competition, oendan. As the dust settled over the blindingly bright field, the three hundred members of the green team not dancing in the oendan assembled on bleachers in the center, clutching their green headbands. With a thwack from their drummer, the oendan performers, led by Yui, burst out from the trees, running, cart wheeling, and howling like a chorus of teapots at full boil. They gathered in a perfect triangle, knees bent in identical right angles, with Yui at the helm. She brought her hands in front of her in prayer position, closed her eyes, and bent her head. Gone was the green girl who nearly shook my arm off for the amusement of her peers and scratched her name into her desk with her pencil until she was caught. Here was a poised, serious team captain determined to win. The students behind her stood frozen, their eyes focused on a distant point beyond their audience. The grind of the photographer’s feet in the sand was the only sound.

Suddenly Yui threw her head back and released a powerful, wordless shout, and her teammates clicked into motion. As they executed their synchronized movements, lunges, leaps, and dazzling poses, the students on the bleachers behind them unfurled, lifted, and waved their headbands, making a perfectly shifting backdrop of green. Each team leader’s face was a mask of concentration. They knew they were being judged on their speed, symmetry, flexibility, and grace. Every moment of stillness, held for several quivering seconds, was met with the clicking of cameras and the scratching of pencils.

In a few minutes, it was all over. Blinking away the sweat that dripped into their eyes, Yui and the team leaders, breathing heavily, ran swiftly off the field while the other students quietly dismounted from the bleachers and walked in silent lines back to their team tent. Moments later, the blue team filed out, and the drums beat steadily again to announce the oendan participants.

After the last oendan, teachers, PTA members, and students exempt from the games because of injuries efficiently tallied the scores with pencils and solar calculators. The team leaders sat in their tents staring at their laps or, in the case of some girls, squeezing each other’s hands. Yui, however, stood alone in front of the tent. She squinted up at the scores hanging on colored banners out of the window of the fourth floor art classroom, trying to calculate what rank her team’s oendan and banner needed to pull into first place. She vaguely chewed on a hangnail. Suddenly, she turned back to her tent, picked up the megaphone, and loudly led her team in a last round of cheers. Tired and dusty, the three hundred seventh, eighth and ninth graders promptly heeded her command.

The final results were handed to the school principal as the beleaguered students marched back out onto the sand field across the long bands of the setting sun. Lined up in twenty-four lines fifty students deep, the knots of their headbands slightly askew after much emphatic retying, the students anxiously awaited their taiikutaikai fate.

Small scatterings of cheers and applause erupted through the lines as the principal read out the homerooms with the highest points in each grade and the winning banner and oendan. With each announcement, team leaders’ mouths silently worked through the math, trying to calculate as quickly as possible the shifting possibility of victory.

Finally, the team captains were summoned to the podium and assembled in front of the principal, their solemn faces about a foot in front of his knees. Among the three boys, bangs lifted over her headband, Yui looked like a tough, brown nut as Rambo. The field was silent but for the wind that kicked up sand and furiously snapped the Japanese flag overhead. Parents leaned against the ropes around the field, their digital cameras poised. Returning high school students gathered near the judges’ tents.

The principal cleared his throat and garbled through an endless speech about teamwork, athleticism, and middle school glory as the tension on the four team leaders’ faces expanded like balloons about to pop. At last, he began reading the total scores of the four teams, from lowest to highest. At the first announcement, crushing disappointment crossed over the faces of the white team like a dark cloud. Their captain stoically took his award in both hands from the principal. Tears welled up in the eyes of his teammates as he turned to them and raised the certificate shakily over his head. Next, the red team captain bowed, received his certificate, and returned to his team, digging his fists into his eyes.

Now, only two team captains stood in front of the principal: Yui and Tetsuya Mori, the blue team captain. Behind them, their respective team leaders stared at the ground, unmoving, waiting. A few seventh grade students in the very back of the outside lines leaned out to try to get a better view. “The second place team is…”

I glanced over at Yui. Her eyes were fixed on the principal’s knees, but her own legs were shaking slightly. Side by side, she and Mori-kun could have been twins, save for his buzz cut that made his head look like a tennis ball.

“Green!”

Three hundred green shoulders slumped as Mori-kun leapt into the air and the members of the blue team let out squeals of joy. The poker face that Yui had so carefully cultivated cracked as she took the certificate with both hands, bowed, and lifted it up in front of her team. But her teammates’ eyes quickly moved to Mori-kun, who, with a smile worthy of an Olympic champion, stepped forward to receive the winner’s flag. Despite stern reprimands from the PE teacher, who removed the cigarette from his mouth to tell the students to calm down, the blue team could not receive the news without hopping up and down with excitement, throwing their arms around each other like family members on a game show.

Before the teams made their final march around their field, sadness at the passing of their last middle school taiikutaikai had spread in the form of rampant hysteria to virtually all the ninth graders. By the time the students began dismantling their tents, the field had descended into a scene out of a Civil War movie. Girls shuddering with sorrow howled and clutched each other as tears and snot spilt over their swollen pink faces; boys dragged their dusty arms across their wet eyes as they pulled their chairs back to their classrooms.

After cleaning the field, their tears dried on dusty sports uniforms, the ninth graders began their ritual of signing headbands in their classrooms. Students of the opposite sex shyly approached each other and traded markers. Girls knelt at desks, carefully drawing anime characters and hearts onto the strips of cloth, and bored boys took advantage of a rare lack of supervision to relax in the hallways against the walls, snapping their headbands at each other’s ankles and butts.

I found Yui in her homeroom, industriously signing her team members’ headbands like a celebrity distributing autographs. Although her face was streaked with dried tears, her joyous, carefree cackle exploded across the classroom. When she saw me, she waved her fist, clutching a headband. “Ms. Debby, hello hello how are you!” she shouted.

I hadn’t really expected to see her crushed, but I felt a flood of relief to see that jack-o-lantern grin. “Yui, you were awesome!” I told her in English, knowing that it was an expression she would understand.

She gave me a bold thumbs up from across the room. “Green is best! Number one cool!” The students around her giggled, which clearly pleased her. In Japanese, she cheerfully commanded, “Debby Sensei, sign my headband now!”

As if I were in middle school all over again, I felt a glow of flattery for being singled out by someone so socially important. I smoothed the swath of cloth against a desk, thinking about what to write. A few students peered over my shoulder and smacked each other over the novelty of English on a taiikutaikai headband. “Yui,” I wrote carefully, “You are a superstar.”

She took it from me eagerly and read aloud, “You… are… a…” her face scrunched up comically on the last word. “Debby Sensei, I can’t read this!” she mugged in Japanese. I took the headband back and drew a crooked star on it. “Bright star,” I told her in Japanese, pointing the marker at her.

“Oh, yes yes, thank you,” she replied with exaggerated humility, bowing and clutching the headband to her chest. I took up the next headband held in my face by a grinning boy in thick glasses. “Sign mine the same, please,” he asked in Japanese. I was happy to oblige, but I wrote a different message. After all, there was only one taiikutaikai captain in our midst. She retied her headband tightly so that my star shone from her forehead, a crooked beacon floating above the constellation of her freckles and her wide, satisfied smile.

pencil

After her graduation from Wellesley College in 2002, Debby Katz spent two years dodging volleyballs and winning her students over with stickers as a middle school teacher in Kumamoto City, Japan. Since returning to New York, she has protected herself from the drudgery of her full-time job by writing and making overstuffed scrapbooks. This fall, she will start the PhD program in English at the City University of New York. E-mail: debbykatz[at]gmail.com.

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