The school system here is structured into three academic terms. The first one, from the first week of September to the first week of December, is essentially when the majority of classroom learning is done. The second term, known as “Sports Term,” runs from January to Easter and is usually the shortest of the three terms. This is the term where sports takes priority, as students are pulled from the classrooms to train for Sports Day. The third term, from after Easter until about the first week of July, is largely focused on assessments and preparing the students for the next level.
I can’t speak much to the third term, given I’ve only been here for the first term and now halfway through the second. Knowing my schedule will be more challenging, I set out at the start of January to seize every opportunity I would have to work with my pull-out students.
Thank God for rain.
Grenada’s rainy season on a calendar-year historically runs from June 1st to January 1st. It’s now late February, and still raining nearly every day (keep in mind by raining, I mean passing showers that last a few minutes at a time throughout the day). Due to the unusual lingering of the rainy season this year, much of the sports training has gotten pushed back and postponed due to the wet and muddy field conditions. As a result, I’ve been able to meet with my pull-out students pretty regularly; I’m happy with the progress we’re making with long vowel sounds and the “Silent E.” With my two students reading at the Pre-K level, we’re building up fluency skills before moving on to the next step. That being said, for the past two weeks the weather has been more favorable and I have had to compete with sports training for time with my students. But as I’ve learned, Sports Day is a pretty big deal for the school and the community.
Now I know why.
I showed up at school early on Friday morning, dressed in my casual pair of khaki pants and my bright yellow Ecuador football jersey and wearing a yellow hat. All the teachers were dressed in their respective red, green, blue, and yellow colors. Much like Hogwarts in Harry Potter, the students and teachers here are divided into one of four houses: red, green, blue, and yellow. When I first arrived I was placed in blue house, but was soon moved to yellow. In recent years tending to finish toward the bottom of the totem pole in sports, yellow house is the school underdog. But luckily since I’m from Cleveland, the home of the underdog story, yellow house suits me just fine.
I quickly hopped into my principal’s car with one of the caretakers of the school, and the three of us went down to the park to begin preparing the field for Sports Day. Stepping out of the car and unloading the trunk, we carried the miscellaneous contents to the field. It was a picturesque summer morning. Birds chirped from the trees and the sun seemed to burn increasingly hotter by the minute. A few, puffy white clouds drifted gently in the sky, pushed by a warm breeze that passed through.
The first task at hand was staking in small flags of various colors around the track. Hammer in hand, I squatted down in the hot sun, pounding the wooden-staked flags into the soft ground. As I did this, flashbacks of preparing ball fields for baseball tournaments came to mind. This time, instead of measuring and chalking baselines, I was pounding in flags marking the inside perimeter of the track.
The next step was carrying chairs out to the two tents set-up in the center of the field, where the scoreboard and special invited guests were to be seated. Students from a local secondary school were completing their javelin and discus training. As I dropped a set of three chairs under a tent, one of the female students turns to me and says hello. Looking up, I acknowledge her with a smile and hello before turning to double-back for more chairs.
“I like you,” she says. “Do you like me?”
I paused, caught off guard and not sure what to say. So with a polite smile I said, “Sure, I do.”
“You like me to be your girlfriend?”
Well this is awkward.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry no, I can’t. But have a good day.”
I shuffled off and went to get more chairs. You know, I knew I was signing up for a lot of unexpected things when I joined the Peace Corps, but being asked out by a fifteen-year-old was not one of those things.
The rest of the morning was spent carrying chairs, tables, benches, coolers, and those metal barricade fencing you always see at parades downtown. The DJ set up his speaker system in front of the stands. “I Feel It Coming,” by The Weeknd was blasting on repeat from the speakers with a delayed echo reverberating off the surrounding mountains. The DJ would cut in intermittently, “Check. One. Two. Sound check. One. Two.” By this time I was seated in the chairs under the tent in the center of the field. Wiping the sweat from my brow and resting my legs, I was exhausted from being on my feet all morning. I was taking a brief moment to rest alongside the caretaker and the physical education teacher, who had been helping set up the field all morning as well. Somehow the microphones found their way out to us, and we laughed as we passed it around sound-checking it ourselves and throwing our own karaoke-take into “Skankin’ Sweet,” the song by reggae artist Chronixx the DJ now had blaring.
The environment of the morning at this point was exciting and anticipatory. You could feel the impending excitement ahead, envisioning when the stands would be full, the athletes on the track, and the races taking place. Drifting off in thought, I was sitting in a chair underneath the same type of large, white tents you would always see at graduation parties. The last time I was sitting under one of these tents before an event was before my going-away party the day before I left for the Peace Corps. Back then I was seated under a white tent in my parent’s backyard. The birds were chirping on a cool, spring morning and much like today, you could feel the sun get increasingly hotter as the morning went on. The excitement I felt at this moment was similar to that of my going-away party, when you’re tired from the morning’s preparations but excited for the day’s events to come. I’ve come a long way since that cool, spring morning, but I look fondly back on that day frequently as it was easily one of the best days of my life.
I suppose that’s what happens when you’re living abroad by yourself, simple things trigger your memories of home.
The morning drifted into the early afternoon and the sun continued beating down mercilessly. A few people began trickling into the stands. Carrying the two blackboards out to the scorer’s tent, I pulled out the chalk and began writing down the current standings. It took a couple of tries, as I’m not even sure why I was the one assigned this task in the first place, given my lack of artistic ability. Needless to say, I was somewhat relieved when another teacher arrived and ‘fixed’ my scoreboard so it looked more like a scoreboard and less like a neighborhood sidewalk.
Drums thundered from down the road, as the students were about to arrive. I ran over to the entrance and watched the students, dressed in their colorful costumes and covered in glitter, march to the field. A few remarks were said and after some formalities, including a singing of Grenada’s national anthem, St. Peter’s RC Sports Day was officially underway. I took my seat alongside the three other teachers assigned to scoreboard-duty. We kicked back under the life-saving shade of the tent and watched as race after race unfolded before us. The students would line up in their respective lanes and take their mark; some were donning sneakers or cleats, others opted to run barefoot in the grass. The official would raise the gun and fire, unleashing a puff of smoke as the students took off in a sprint for the finish. I would step out into the sun, calling out and cheering my yellow house students on. I needed yellow house to do well, as pride was at stake. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know who takes house pride more seriously: the students or the teachers. All the teachers, myself included, would laugh and ‘talk smack’ back and forth about each race, depending on which house won or lost. I would return to the scoreboard, taking turns reading the scores, rubbing off the board, counting, and re-writing the scores with the other teachers.
Somewhere along the way my chair was taken, but I was too busy running back and forth from the track and scoreboard to mind. A group of kindergartners were lined up in the distance, prepared for their inauguration into Sports Day with a 100-meter dash. The gun goes off and the children take off with it, running as fast as their little legs could carry them.
“Go Williams!” one of the teachers, a member of Williams House (otherwise known as red house), calls as she jumps from her seat and pounds on the desk of score-papers.
“Come on, Glean!” I shout louder, rooting for my girl in yellow running neck-in-neck with the girl in red.
The competition between the two girls quickly unfolded into a competition of pride between the two of us, cheering our respective girl on so we can thumb our nose in the others’ face afterwards with a laugh.
The girl in red out-stepped the girl in yellow as they crossed the finish line. I shake my head and laugh, “We almost had you there,” I tell the red house teacher. “Don’t lie you were nervous for a second there.”
“Nope. We had it the whole way,” she remarks slyly.
Then an uproar of calls captures our attention. I turn around to realize (along with everyone else in the park), that the kindergarten girls were still running! Caught up in the adrenaline of the race, they ran right past the finish line and kept right on going. They didn’t realize the race was over, much to the amusement of everyone watching. After that, a teacher was placed behind the finish line to ‘catch’ and stop the younger students after the finish.
As the day progressed, the races for the older children began taking place. My feet began to ache but I continued on, running back and forth between the scoreboard and the track to cheer on my yellow house students. Before I knew it, the sun had begun its descent and we had reached the day’s intermission. Seeing an open chair as an opportunity, I plopped down with a sigh. Being on my feet all day under the overbearing heat of the sun, combined with the emotional roller-coaster of excitement that was the races, my energy level was depleted. I stretched my legs out and crossed them at the ankles. Tilting my cap over my eyes, I closed them to try and catch a moment’s rest.
“Mr. King,” I was roused awake with a nudge on the shoulder. “Have you eaten your meal yet?”
“No, not since lunch,” I replied, still dazed and confused from the snooze and unsure of what she was talking about.
I was then handed a styrofoam box, inside of which was a typical Grenadian meal complete with a leg of barbeque chicken, macaroni pie, dasheen, rice, beans, plantains, and a small side-salad. It was just the hearty pick-me-up meal that I needed.
In the distance, I could see a group of police officers arrive at the gate. They strode out to the center of the field, as if on official business. A secondary school drum corps played rhythmically as the houses gathered to make their march pass. Dressed in full uniform and carrying the banner to their respective house, the four houses performed their “eyes right,” marching in unison and passing in front of the now-packed audience in the stands. After each house made their military-esque march pass, the police officers of the community gathered to score each house’s performance.
While they did this, it was time for the cheerleading performances to take place. Now, over the course of the term so far, groups of students would frequently lock and barricade themselves into a classroom after school. They took extreme measures to ensure that no one could see the rehearsal unfolding inside, while many idle students did everything they could to sneak a peek to see what that respective house’s cheerleading performance was going to be. There was a lot of talk about the cheerleading performances, as it is one of the focal points of Sports Day. It didn’t disappoint either, as it was wildly entertaining.
The blue house students started it off, dancing to various excerpts of music dressed as sailors. They completed their performance with a student in a cardboard boat ‘eliminating the enemy,’ by throwing water balloon ‘cannonballs’ at three students dressed in a red, green, and yellow shirts.
Green house went next. A Peter-Pan themed performance, the girls were dressed as fairies as the boys danced with them chivalrously. Frequent prop changes occurred with each song that was played, culminating in one of the boys wearing a dread-locked Rastafarian hat as the sweet reggae tune of “Skankin’ Sweet,” boomed yet again from the speakers. I might be a little biased, as all the students that performed for green house are part of my third grade class, but theirs was already my favorite.
Next was red house, dressed in beautiful, flowing African garb and decorative hats. A boy brought out a drum and beat it while the girls danced and twirled in a circle around him. Two other boys ran back and forth in front of them, catapulting themselves into somersaults and front-flips before the crowd. A blue, green, and yellow-painted fence was brought out, to which the girls knocked down and destroyed. At the conclusion of their dance, the crowd erupted in applause.
It was at this time I happened to look behind me. The sun was down, and a jaw-dropping shade of pink, purple, and dark blue was cast across the sky while a remnant trace of yellow lingered on the horizon. The stadium lights around the park had kicked on, illuminating the field around us. But quite honestly, the sky was doing enough of that already.
The music of yellow house’s performance kicked off with the all-too-familiar, “Are you ready kids?” “Eye, eye, captain!” call-and-response of the Spongebob Squarepants introduction. Snapping myself out the trance that was the sky, I ran back over to see the yellow house performance. Dressed in bright, yellow sailor uniforms, the students danced in circles, swaying back and forth to the music. They carried a yellow-painted cardboard coffin, moving systematically with and around it while twirling foam pirate swords. It concluded with three of the girls losing in a sword fight with the boy sailor. The three ‘casualties’ were then placed in the coffin as red, blue, and green shirts were thrown on each of one of them.
All the performances were wildly entertaining and incredibly creative. I got great amusement, particularly, out of the creative ways each house “destroyed,” their competition. I can only imagine what it must have been like to have seen it from the stands, particularly with the lavish-colored sky in the background. But now I can see why it was such a big deal to keep their rehearsals concealed and in-secret. By the end of the cheerleading performances, my cheeks were sore from smiling.
Now it was time for the relays and medleys to complete the second half of the Sports Day. The races unfolded much like they did earlier in the day, as I ran back and forth from the scoreboard and the track to cheer on my yellows.
I called out to one of my students in yellow, “Get us going strong now! You got this!”
He looked up, a wide grin spreading across his face as he nodded in acknowledgement. I ran over to where the second leg of the race was to begin.
I call out to the boy in yellow and he looks up.
“[He] is going to get us going,” I said, pointing to the first yellow runner. “Then it’s your turn to get us through!”
He jumped up excitedly and clapped his hands, ready for the challenge.
The gun went off and the students in the first leg took off to a roar of the crowd.
“Let’s go Gleeaaaaaannn!!” I called.
The students came around the bend and handed off the batons, passing right in front of me. Blue and red were out front, followed by green, and then tailed by my guy in yellow. I bit my lip and smacked my hands together as I began walking back to the tent, eyes still on the race. This one just didn’t seem like it was to be our race. I looked down momentarily, as the third leg came around the far side of the track to the final hand-off of the 4×100 relay. My yellows had closed the gap and we’re still looking at a third place finish at-best, still trailing blue and red. As my third yellow handed the baton to the fourth, it was like the boy was touched by the speed-inducing golden mushroom from Mario Kart. The boy in yellow quickly jumped to the pace of blue before sprinting past him to catch up with red. The crowd simultaneously jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering the students on. It was shaping up to be a close finish.
“Go! Go! Go Glean! Go!” I called out, sprinting past the tent toward the finish line.
Coming down the home stretch, the boys in red and yellow were running stride-for-stride. Students chased them along the edge of the track, urging their housemates on. Teachers were jumping up and down, waving their arms frantically, trying to be heard over the crowd and their opposing colleagues. I ran right up alongside the teachers, calling out with a rough and now-strained voice. The boys’ had grimaces on their sweaty faces, pushing as hard as they could to beat the other to the finish. As they leaned across the finish line, it was clear which one had won. In the last few steps, he had created enough separation to out-step the other at the finish. The underdog yellow house won the race!
I leaped in the air, throwing my fist forward and yelling victoriously. Arms raised in celebration, I also made sure to throw a wide grin at the other teachers in red.
“Now that was a relay,” one of them says.
This is what sports is all about. Oh, how I’ve missed playing sports. I primarily played baseball my entire life, including two years in college. When I stopped playing, I channeled my competitive drive toward running: completing a half-marathon and a full-marathon in subsequent years. I stayed around the game of baseball by coaching a youth travel team in the summer. It’s hard to lose that competitive drive when its been ingrained into who you are.
But someone once said, “Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.”
Well, my wish came true. The second-to-last race on Sports Day is known as, “The Teachers Race.” Myself and the other teachers were divided into four teams for a 4×100 meter relay race. I was to take the last leg for my team, so I ran through an old calisthenics routine from my baseball days to warm-up. My heartbeat quickened, as the familiar feeling of adrenaline began pumping through my body.
At this point I’d like to digress by letting you in on a little secret about the King family: we’re all built like runners, but we’re notorious for seemingly running in slow-motion. During my time playing baseball, I largely played in the corner outfield spots. Laying out for a diving catch was always my favorite part. It’s a feeling like none other when you dive to the grass, the baseball falling seamlessly into the leather pocket of the glove. It’s a good thing I enjoyed diving for catches anyway, because fact of the matter is I wasn’t fast enough to catch those fly balls on the run. But when it came to running, I was always preferential to the endurance races anyway; the races where I can strategically set a proper pace before sprinting to the finish. But this was to be a plain, good old-fashioned sprint to the finish. So I took my place in Lane 5, the adjacent lane to my principal. The word on the street is he was quite the runner, so I knew I was going to have to put in some work to keep up with him.
The gun was fired and the teachers in the first leg took off. I could see a little bit of the race unfolding in the distance, but it was hard to see through the tents and spectators on the field. The batons were handed off to the second leg. The second leg on my relay team was taken by the District Education Officer for the parish of St. John’s. Due to some unexpected last-minute changes, he had joined the race lineup despite being dressed in full shirt and tie. But that didn’t stop him, as he ran a great leg and just about gave my team the lead coming into the third leg.
He handed the baton off to his daughter, whom came around the bend a step behind the leading team. Reaching back, I grabbed the baton from her and took off. I knew there was no way I could beat the physical education teacher of the school, whose team was in first place at the final leg. So I had just one goal: give my principal a run for his money. At this point I was in second place, receiving my baton a moment ahead of him.
I came around the last of the bend to the straight-away, pumping my arms and lengthening my stride. I was running as hard and as fast as my legs could take me. My principal quickly caught up to me and forged ahead. A dark mountainside momentarily concealed the stands and stadium lights from our view, but as we hit the lights of the straight-away it was unveiled to the crowd that it might be a tight finish for second place. I pushed to keep up my pace, giving all I had to make this a close race for second. I think the crowd realized this, too, almost gasping collectively in anticipation as I tailed the pace of my principal closely; that is, until he took over the final stretch with a closing speed that I just didn’t have. I kept pushing my pace, but I was already going as fast as I could. I strode through the finish line in third place, a smile on my face.
I was happy with the race; I finished it strong. For a moment I gave the crowd hope that I could beat my principal, but for them it was just a tease before realizing my little ‘King family secret.’ I walked over to my principal and shook his hand as we laughed about the race.
“I almost had you there!” I grinned, panting and out of breath.
Next thing I knew, a flurry of students came running up to my side. They grabbed my hands and jumped on my arms, wanting their own opportunity to race Mr. King (as this was the first time they’ve seen me do anything remotely active). I just laughed, still needing to catch my breath first. That was the hardest I ran in a long time. I was going to be sore the next morning.
But it was worth it; it was all worth it. Yes, it is more challenging to accomplish what I’m here to do during Sports Term. But there is a value in having a term primarily devoted to sports. It stresses to the students the importance of maintaining good, physical health. There’s a reason every one here seems so fit, even the elderly are active. It’s also the reason, I believe, the Caribbean nations are so competitive during the Summer Olympics.
By the end of the night, blue house had won both the boys and girls division championship, sweeping St. Peter’s RC Sports Day. Red house, however, won the march pass and cheerleading competition. My yellow house finished third in the girls division, last in the boys division, and third in the march pass.
But like any unreasonably faithful underdog would say, “Maybe next year.”
In the meantime, the focus now shifts to the Branch Sports Championship. In two weeks’ time, St. Peter’s RC will go against our rival school, St. John’s Anglican. Other schools like Concord Government, Grand Roy Primary, and Florida Government will be competing as well to determine which school has the best sports in the parish of St. John’s. St. Peter’s RC won the Branch Sports last year, so this year we will have a target on our backs. If my school’s Sports Day was this exciting, I can’t wait to see what the Branch Sports will be like.
Last year the St. Peter’s RC rallying anthem was, “Take it to dem,” which they did. This year, our motto for Branch Sports will be, “On to de next one.”
So until that day comes, there’s work to be done.
“On to de next one.”