Purpose filled each countenance as they marched from
the amphitheater, banners of their respective city-states floating jewels in
the spring sun. Sparta, Athens, Corinth,
Thebes: each citizen knew why he or she had come – to participate, to offer one’s best effort to the gods. The discus offered on an outstretched hand to the sky, javelin pointed toward the heavens, the intricate dance in the wrestler’s circle, the perfect form of a runner, the attempt at flight in the long jump: the elements of the pentathlon were as much art as sport, offerings of the best efforts of humanity.
Once upon a time, in an almost mythic past, athletics were art – examples of beauty, grace, and style offered to one’s deity of choice rather than efforts of extremism offered to the almighty dollar. Considering that, with weekly examples of athletes behaving badly rampaging through the media, even the notion of sportsmanship seems quaint, it may be laughably naïve to plead a return to a standard of art in athletics. Yet, our societal impulses regarding competition seem in dire need of an overhaul. At one end of the spectrum, we have athletes justifying the use of illegal drugs because superhuman feats of strength and speed are expected of them. Somehow, public demand for spectacle trumps ethics. On this side, too, lies the hypercompetitive, cutthroat realm of youth sports. We’ve all heard the horror stories: high-schoolers (or is it down to junior high now?) doping with steroids or cheating on exams to maintain eligibility, parents screaming abuse at coaches, referees, and kids, fights between adults on Little League playing fields. At the opposite pole, we have trophies for 10th place, medals for “participation”, elaborate graduations from pre-school and kindergarten, certificates for “best smile.”
What lessons are being taught to our future adults? From my perspective, it seems that kids learn that money, power, and glory belong only to the strong, fast, and sneaky, and that for the rest of us, just showing up is good enough. I’ll grant that some of the ideals of the ancient inhabitants of the Hellenic peninsula were less than, well, ideal. Abandoning one’s infant to the elements for physical weakness has to be the ultimate example of horrific jock parenting. But, bear with me for a minute, the point will come.
Now, go back to the first paragraph, return to the sunlit hills and ancient oaks and pines. Look closely at the athletes marching behind the banners of their city-states. The faces are still slightly round, features not fully formed, faint hints of what they will become; most of the bodies are under 5 feet tall, some are lanky and awkward, some delicate and lithe, some plump. None of the bodies are draped in linen, nor, for that matter, nude. Jewel toned T-shirts are the uniforms donned by these warriors, these proud Hellenes-for-a-day. Welcome to the Waldorf Schools Pentathlon for Northern California.
In the Waldorf curriculum, fifth grade academics focus on ancient civilizations. Beginning in Mesopotamia, the children journey over the year throughout India, Persia, Egypt, and conclude their expedition in ancient Greece. This journey trains the body even as the mind learns. Games class in fifth grade is devoted to pentathlon training. At Davis Waldorf School, our much-beloved games teacher Brian Wolfe worked tirelessly and thoroughly with the fifth grade, teaching them technique and form for each event, training their muscles and minds. This coaching was thorough to the point that when Caitlin came home the afternoon prior to the event, she very seriously informed about her nutritional needs for the evening. My daughter, who normally guards all school-related information with CIA approved security, went on to tell me exactly where they were going to go once they arrived at the host school in the morning, and what would happen at each point during the day.
In the Waldorf pentathlon, the children are assigned to city-states based on temperament. Thus competitive kids compete against those of like mind, the more mellow against their peers. The maternal cameras instinctively picked the kids from “our class” out of the T-shirted multitudes of each city-state. On each of the familiar faces that day, I saw the same expression of resolve. These kids were here to participate, and each intended to give it his or her best. Watching one of Caitlin’s often flighty classmates take her position for the discus, I stopped mid-sentence, mid-breath. Holding her disc aloft, the girl dropped to one knee in a position taken straight from Greek art. “She’s beautiful; she could be on an urn,” I whispered to her mother.
“I know;she told me, ‘Mom, I know I’m not going to throw it the farthest, so I’m going to go for beauty, grace, and style.’” That was the effort that each of our kids showed that day. They may not have all been the fastest, the strongest, or the biggest, but they all went for beauty, grace, and style. These attributes manifested in the perfectly positioned arms and upright heads of the runners, in the angle of the javelins, the extension of arm with disc, and they showed in smaller things, things unrelated to technique. Beauty, grace, and style were present when one of Caitlin’s classmates fell at the beginning of his long race. Not tripped, fell. Total face plant. Grace, you ask. Yes. Grace when he regained his footing and ran, catching all but the first two runners by the finish, though all had at least a 50 yard lead. Beauty, grace, and style were shown by a boy, from another school, who stopped during his race to check a fallen runner. Beauty grace and style came to the fore as the kids cheered each other on and wrapped consoling arms around the shoulders of those whose muscles had failed them. I saw nothing but beauty, grace, and extraordinary style as I watched Caitlin run her quarter mile with perfect form, dead last, but never once faltering in her effort to catch the runners in front.
When the laurels were awarded to each city-state, wreaths were bestowed for first, second, and third place in each event, and two wreaths were given for beauty, grace, and style in that event. From DWS, some of our kids placed in some events, some won laurels for beauty, grace, and style, but all of them left the temple of the gods standing straighter, shining in the sun, and knowing that they had accomplished what they came for. For them, the winners were not only the big, strong and fast, and just showing up wasn’t nearly good enough. They strived to please the gods.
Side note: As a proud mom, I have to mention that Caitlin received a laurel for beauty, grace, and style in the 40 yard dash.