Five years ago I was a Grade 12 house leader for Fraser house at St. Jerome’s School in Vermilion.
It was Holy Thursday and Gymnastics Day had arrived. A few weeks of compelled preparation for the biggest day in the school–a full shutdown of classes, a half day to finish arranging and ordering around the Grade 4-11s, until the afternoon hit and the competition began.
There are three houses for which we all stand: Cartier, Mackenzie, and Fraser. These houses go back to the school’s genesis in the early 1960s. Back then, most school activities were divided into houses. When I was a student, this was the main thread of tradition that remained.
Gymnastics Day is divided into three main categories: Swedish drill, pyramids, and individual gymnastics.
The Swedish Drill is sort of old-timey military calisthenics. As we would do jumping jacks or squats, we would chant “F-and-R-and-A-and-S-and-E-and-R–FRASER.”
Depending on the coordination of the kids filing into the gymnasium, how synchronized the chanting was, and whether the story being told in between these exercises was interesting, the three houses were graded by three judges who determined the outcome of Gymnastics Day.
Then pyramids. The money event.
Sometime when I got into junior high, the school banned any pyramids larger than 4-man. So four people on the bottom, three on the next level, two and then one at the top. Before then, you’d see amazing attempts at huge pyramids.
Again students would file into the gymnasium to some music, get into their positions, and as the house’s theme was being told, students would start assembling the pyramids.
This required the most trust from everyone in your house because you relied on everyone: from your big high school kids to teeny little Grade 4s, to hold their positions on the pyramid until it was time to collapse. And everyone had to collapse properly because if someone grunted or made too much noise, you would be docked points.
In my graduating year, Fraser had the best size of the three houses, so we had a few 4-man pyramids, and then reassembled one at the end to crawl to the center of the mat.
Then individual gymnastics. One person in the house would be given the daunting task of the floor routine, while there were usually sibling combos that would do tumbling exercises. Different balances earned varying amounts of points.
Every other year or so, someone would attempt the walking handstand–difficulty 10.5. Back when I was just an elementary student, Graham Sanson could walk forwards, backwards, and damn near sideways on his hands. What a marvel.
Then Tug of War pacified us until the judge’s results came in.
Many students didn’t like the event because you had to give up your lunch hours (attendance was part of your final score) and they didn’t see the point.
But with my parents as alumni from different houses, I grew up with the stories about how competitive it was and how the students really cared. In turn, I wanted to win, to reclaim old glory new again.
However, like most things this past year, principal Allan Chase explains: “Gymnastics Day in its traditional form is kiboshed.”
My younger brother was supposed to be a house leader this year and it’s a shame he won’t get that opportunity.
The tradition though will remain.
“What we are going to do in its place is we’re still gonna have a house competition, we’re calling it a House Day. And so we’re still gonna have house competitions between the three houses, but it’ll be done individually in each class,” said Chase.
After I moved away from Vermilion and in passing mentioned this school tradition, my friend’s eyes would bug out of their head like I was talking about some Harry Potter nonsense.
And it is strange, anachronistic, and frankly, I’m not sure how it’s allowed at times.
But it’s true, it’s unique, and reinforces the values of teamwork, determination, inclusion, and striving to be your best. And I don’t think many people outside of St. J even know it happens.
I still look back fondly on being a house leader and winning that Gymnastics Day five years ago.
Hopefully, for the school’s sake, Gymnastics Day can return again in 2022 to give those students some joy again.