A Very Happy Birthday to You, SMAN 10

Last week was SMAN 10’s birthday.  And birthdays are not to be taken lightly here in Indonesia, it seems: we had a whole week of celebrations and programs for the students.  (I was later told that part of the reason the celebration lasted so long was because there was a workshop planned for the teachers, and since substitute teachers do not really exist here, there needed to be something else for the students to do.  I only half believe this.)

There was singing and dancing, competitions ranging from cooking to designing lanterns, and, in keeping with the Indonesian experience I have had thus far, more food than I think could possibly be consumed.  I was even able to sample a very traditional Indonesian celebratory dish, nasi kuning, which literally translates to “yellow rice.”  It is just what it sounds like.  The nasi is shaped into a mountain in the center of the platter, and it is surrounded by various other foods which differ from region to region. One of the history teachers patiently explained in his limited English the tradition of nasi kuning.  The mountain shape of the rice is an allusion to the power the Javanese traditionally believe volcanoes have over their futures, which is completely understandable considering the active volcanoes in Indonesia fairly regularly spew ash onto the surrounding land, killing crops and fertilizing the land.  The foods surrounding it represent hills and villages, which will hopefully be blessed by the mountain.  The top portion of the mountain is usually given to a guest of honor, one of the teachers, in our case.

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One of my favorite events from this week was the traditional dance competition.  I had yet to see much traditional Indonesian dance, and since I was on my school’s second campus, where the students come from all over Indonesia, I was able see a whole array of dance styles.

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The dancing was indescribably beautiful, as were the costumes, which the students had created themselves.  If I was not already aware of the endless array of talents students around the world somehow inherently possess, I most certainly would be now.  I felt completely humbled to be in the presence of such gifted people.

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I was somehow deemed worthy to be one of the judges of this competition, the irony of which still makes me laugh.  I stumbled through the scoring sheet, written entirely in Indonesian of course, and probably gave the most inflated scores SMAN 10 has ever seen, but I could not have cared less.  I was too in awe of my students’ abilities to worry if my scores were higher than those from someone who had seen something so incredible before, or if the student organizers had never seen so many scribbles and arrows on one scoring sheet.

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Later in the week there was a traditional poetry event, for which students wrote their own poetry and set it to music, singing parts of their poems and shouting out others.  It reminded me so much of the spoken word poetry events I have attended, and sometimes participated in, back home.  I was completely engrossed, even if the combination of a poor sound system and a language barrier kept me from understanding most of what was being said.

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This session was interspersed with other performances as well, including one from the students who are from Papua, who performed traditional Papuan songs.  They reminded me of a Southern Baptist choir, choreographed to move as one unit of song, with voices I am sure any god or goddess would whole-heartedly adore.  I had come across the students practicing the night before, and so I had heard both of their songs many times before the actual performance, but it did not dim their magnificence in the slightest.

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And no student event would be complete without some modern dance on the stage.  Though my students are often surprised to find that not all Americans go to concerts regularly (in the same way that they do not really believe that I do prepare rice at home, even if I don’t eat it every day), but the truth is I still might never go to one when I do return to the U.S., because I’m sure no professional group could be as entertaining as my students.

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In the end, the birthday week was a time for me to further develop my understanding of my students outside of the classroom, and to become somehow more grateful for the opportunity I have to live with my students, and see on a regular basis the amazing young people they are beyond the four walls within which they spend so much of their time. At one point during the festivities, I texted one of my co-teachers about how talented I thought the students were, and she replied, “They are always creative.  We do not know all that is in their heads, because we only see them in class.”  I could not have said it better.

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