Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Skipping to eternity

We were on time, which made us late by Japanese standards, so we were the last parents to arrive, hurriedly negotiating the huge bulldozed piles of snow in the car park. It was another of the many days in the year when  children's families are invited to the school. We had had opening day, sports day, science day, swimming day, performance day, and now skipping day, and there will be more before the academic year is out. Its only two weeks until ski day, and many schools have those?

And you know, as you settle down to watch your beloved offspring do their stuff, that around the land thousands upon thousands of other parents are doing so too, because every child at Primary school will be skipping the same exercises on the same day, at exactly the same time. You know, because the organising teacher is anxiously consulting both his watch and a book the size of a phone directory with detailed tables and timings. It is as if he is following a detailed train timetable, only instead of marshalling toy trucks and trains, its children. And these children will run on time.

They skip their hearts out on demand, the little darlings, their feet pattering and drumming on the wooden floor in frantic counterpoint to the silent horizontal drift of snow petals past the big windows at the top of the gym. First came the group drills, the older ones executing fast figures of eight through one big rope, everyone chanting "Hai, hai, hai, hai!" in rhythm, the pressure to get it right, to not be the one who breaks the group harmony, plain on their faces. As good a symbol for the Japanese attitude to group endeavour as you could find: endless practice, attention to detail, great skill at the price of tiredness and stress, with the payout of achievement and the comfort of the group at the end. It is this conditioning that makes the crushing unpaid and unofficial working hours imposed by most employers awaiting these children in their working lives bearable, I suppose. Along with all the other physical skills they learn, it also makes Aizu children incredibly fit and healthy, much more so than their poor counterparts in crammed city schools.

Mrs Mills taught me to skip when I was my son's age. She was a cheery dinner lady at Littleborough Primary School in the north of England and I never forgot her name. She wore a blue nylon overall and oversaw playtimes, but she also saw to it that I could skip. It was fun. I don't recall that she asked me to do at least 300 in five minutes, or 500 when I was a couple of years older, with everyone watching and someone at my feet counting every jump. Still, these skipping storm troopers, serious though it all is, cracked into their usual sunny smiles in between, and clearly relished the challenge of the trickier techniques - the reverse skip, the double, the twist, and even the reverse with twist. Mrs Mills let me down badly on that score. The children's highlight was when their athletic young teacher came out for the ultimate challenge, the triple, which is apparently nearly impossible. They hooted with laughter when he only managed it once.

It is the figure of eight pattern that stayed with me, the moving machine of children interlocking with the circling rope. Seen from above it would look like the symbol for eternity, made of bobbing heads and flashing limbs, the piping voices crying "Yes, yes, yes!" in time.


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