Most people don’t have to tilt their head up to look at elementary schoolers. But every year from November to February, I do. It’s not because I’m short; it’s because these children are walking on stilts, and I am one of their instructors.
I used to be one of those towering West Portal Elementary school kids, trekking up and down the hills of San Francisco’s Chinatown on wooden stilts for the annual Chinese New Year Parade. Meanwhile, I had to remember to smile and wave to the countless parade-
goers who filled the side walks.
Having mastered the unique ability to strap long clunky wooden poles to my feet and perform, I was getting ready to leave the program that had consumed my time from fifth to eighth grade. Then the adult coordinator of our group unexpectedly offered my friend and me positions as instructors. This was a lot of responsibility — though wary at first, I decided to step up to the challenge. How hard could it be to organize and teach 40 hyper children in preparation for the parade?
As a naïve freshman I was optimistic about everything, so I was eager to see the fresh faces and expected to run the program with ease. You can imagine my horror when I realized that the work was physically and mentally taxing and that the Chinese Performing Arts Program at West Portal Elementary expected me to be an instructor for the next four years.
It takes a lot of work to teach people how to stilt-walk, as they need to be constantly held up by their spotter. Supporting a nine-year-old kid for the first 30 minutes is easy, but when my shoulders and back begin to ache and the blood drains from my arms, I feel as though I have been supporting the weight of a linebacker! On top of that, most novices clutch their spotters’ hands so tightly that when they finally let go, I have to flex my fingers for a few minutes to restore circulation.
The worst part about being an instructor is managing a huge group of kids who are empowered by their newfound height. Some of the children are truly sweet, attentive and well-mannered — others enjoy running off to break the rules. The minute the adults step away, the chaos starts. The kids talk non-stop (with a mini-mob mentality, often with smartalec comments), form cliques, break rules and have a hard time accepting that though I am a teen, I am in charge. Of course, I vaguely remember my friends and I being just as much of a nuisance to my instructors, so I try to be patient. And though I’m sure that several of my students might have memories of me as a bossy girl who liked to yell and nag everyone about rules just to feel superior, I toughed it out to keep practice running as smoothly as I could.
After months of preparation, ready or not, Parade Day always rolls around. The kids finally get to don extravagant costumes and make-up to portray characters from the classic story of the Monkey King. After several last-minute bathroom runs, our group gets the cue to strap on our stilts and hustle through all the floats and firecracker remnants to get to our spot in the parade, behind banner holders, ribbon dancers and drummers. Despite weeks of chaos, every year without fail, something clicks in their minds as soon as they hear the firecrackers go off — they miraculously remember everything they have learned: they smile, wave, stop chatting and march elegantly in their rows.
When we finally finish our two-mile route and I lead the tired and sweaty children back to West Portal, I smile. I’m proud that I was able to help our one-of-akind group keep up the tradition and give children the same joy of stilt-walking that I and many other generations of West Portal alumni share. If nothing else, these kids get the chance to have their heads in the clouds, literally.
A version of this article first appeared in the Feb. 25, 2011 print edition of The Lowell.
Illustration by Karen Chin