It is the morning of 21 October 2021. Jacarandas cast purple hues about the place. The Johannesburg air is crisp with a fresh Spring breeze and the sound of laughter and happy voices begins to build as the school gates open. It is not an ordinary day for this small school. It’s an extraordinary one because it has been more than two full years since such tangible excitement descended on the campus. It is not a ‘normal’ day, although in the fifty four years of the school’s history the event ahead has had pride of place on the annual school calendar. It is an unremarkable day because school communities worldwide have days like these, well almost. It could, however, be described as a remarkably unremarkable day: a primary school interhouse sports day in the midst of a pandemic while the ‘waves’ are at a low ebb.
The outdoor sound system ramps up the atmosphere as cohorts of children in red or blue or yellow attire lead on to the field to take position in their demarcated house zones. Their leaders are dressed in festive gear – make up, hair spray, tutus and other garb that sets them aside as being the source of the competitive spirit. House captains and teachers confer over lists and ready groups for the first events. With a slight speaker squeal, quickly corrected, the Principal welcomes the contestants and staff. There are no parents about. The regulations at play this October do not yet allow for spectators at sporting events and, thus, they kindly allowed us to proceed unhindered.
Attendance is at a remarkable, record high on this particular unremarkable day. The participants are keen, athletic prowess or not. In fact, the levels of participation are higher than those on the staff can ever remember. No child is bleating or negotiating their way out of supporting their friends or running their races. On the contrary, they are waiting in an orderly fashion to be called, neatly turned out in all the right kit in the main. Within the first hour, staff are quietly asking one another, with some puzzlement, about the spontaneous behaviour of the children. It is remarkable; compliant, cooperative and enthused. No discipline problems, no developing ‘ailments’ and no call for extra water or snacks, apart from the Grade Ones who need a quick top up at the usual school snack time. These events, you see, are usually culprits on the calendar that trigger sensory dysregulation, restlessness, complaints about the sun, the wind and the prickly grass, or whining to leave the group and get refreshments from parents in the crowd who have iced juice on hand. The exemplary conduct of the children endures for four hours. The morning sweeps by and supporting the children is an absolute joy. Even as they filter off the field to head to midterm break, teachers still murmur, “Did you notice how good the children were? What a pleasure!”
Sometimes, we see tangible results from training and practice, but only with those who have talent and great enthusiasm. It is accepted that athletics is not for everyone and, in some cases, the stalwarts who run really are not doing it because they love it but because they have to for their house. Things are different on this remarkably unremarkable day. The children prove fitter than ever. Universally, their form is on point. They run with gusto, pounding out their personal best. Every. Single. One. of them. Coaches run along the track to set pace. No one drops out of their race. Everyone is cheered on by their peers. The morning showcases their diligent effort and training over months. For months, at least three to five days a week since lockdown, the children have participated in daily intensity and duration physical training in a 5:1 ratio with a coach. Perseverance over time towards a lifestyle goal delivers the results on this sports day. They came ready to reach their personal best. Their performance on this is remarkable in a school not established as a sporting academy, but perhaps, it is expected in a school that knew kids coming out of lockdown needed to move and release stress to cope with the disruptions.
The third point of remark sits around the concept of gratitude. Not the ‘please and thank you’ kind of gratitude, but a deep, cellular appreciation of the moment – being together, playing and competing, using our bodies with a feeling of competence, working as a team. The event in question moves from unremarkable to remarkable on this sunny October day. Deprived of such festive coming together for months and months, the children and staff savour every single minute, willing time to pass slowly while calling on friends to pick up pace. The staff in the building make their way down to enjoy the mood. It is unspoken. We all just know. Unremarkable events like sports days on a school calendar are no longer to be taken for granted. They are a privilege to be enjoyed in the moment. In gratitude, everyone there is mindful and present.
Comradery and connection make up the last remarks although these are not the least. Something happens on that day… something remarkable. In the Principal’s thirty three years of attendance at interhouse athletics events, she’s never experienced the same. The children are working hard to focus on being competitive. You see, they are completely caught up in seeing everyone succeed. Winning seems to be secondary, although certainly delicious as contenders cross the line in first position. Everyone finishes. Everyone a champion. To place first, second and third is exhilarating and brings cheer from the stands who celebrate the successes. Children are also seen running alongside others, encouraging their friends to go the distance. The levels of comradery from children who are developmentally at a very egocentric age are unprecedented.
Then comes the pièce de resistance (defined in the dictionary as the most important or remarkable feature)… the teachers, therapists, admin and support staff join in. They can’t help but be led by the example of the children. A quick call for the usually unremarkable staff race (provided it is allowable to strike torn hamstrings off the list of remarkable consequences of such races) sees unprecedented levels of participation. And, the game is upped as our coaches join in! What might be fun becomes edgy as soon as Shimi Makhanya, our school receptionist, takes position. As a member of an Olympic development squad and an athlete in continuous intensive training, he sets a tough pace. From the ‘set go’ he is the out and out winner, but Max and Vincent stun the crowd of children who are, at this point, besides themselves with enthusiasm and pouring out encouragement to all the staff participants. You see, what is remarkable is that the teachers thought they might entertain the children by racing that 100m sprint, and they do, but they are actually the recipients of the same support that they offer the kids each ordinary school day. The reciprocity is stunning. It is, indeed, remarkable.
Why is this unremarkable event so remarkable this year? Perhaps because it is like fresh water on a hot day after months of deprivation through the pandemic. Perhaps the spirit of gratitude and appreciation for our joy, delight and freedom drives our collective mood because we haven’t had this type of occasion for an age and we are not sure when we might have it again. Perhaps it is the absence of spectators who unwittingly bring dynamics of fluster, anxiety and fierce competitiveness that drive the pace of the morning and distract the participants who want to please them. Perhaps the children are simply fit. Perhaps it is none of the above at all. Maybe, just maybe, we hit the sweetest spot of all in that, on this day, it feels good to be alive. Period. Perhaps, let’s not go back to normal after all.