News: 1999-04.24-OakleyKidsFaire

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T: O'Hara students return to Elizabethan times
D: April 24, 1999
C: (c) 1999 Contra Costa Newspapers

OAKLEY -- Earlier this week, a large crowd of Oakley kids paraded around in flowing Renaissance-era clothing, jousted with swords and gnashed on chicken legs.

No, the well-known Renaissance Pleasure Faire hasn't come to East County. But on Thursday, O'Hara Park Middle School continued a five-year tradition of turning the campus into a Renaissance playground.

The event was a "learning day" for the seventh-graders, who are studying the period in their English, social studies and history classes, said teacher and event organizer Colleen Coulon Smith.

The campus was awash in anything circa 1590. All the students, as well as teachers and parents, wore traditional garb. Professional jugglers, jesters, swordsman and folk dancers from a California performing group called Presenters of the Past educated and entertained.

The O'Hara Park event isn't connected with the Pleasure Faire, whose organizers are considering a fair site in Antioch. Even so, organizers tried to mimic the popular event as much as possible.

The boys wore robes or dressed as jesters; some just cut their pants to the knee and belted a button-up shirt. The girls wore heavy, long skirts and, on their heads, muffin caps or flowered wreaths. Many wore long braids woven with satin ribbons.

"People covered their heads in deference to God, and their hair was so gross anyway," explained Couron Smith. "The women couldn't show their heads or their ankles, but could show a lot of cleavage. It was a different time."

While most of the aspects of the event focused on England, the Italian Renaissance was addressed as well. In one classroom, students played Michelangelo by lying on their backs and painting a mock ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The gym was transformed into a Renaissance-era hall where students feasted on chicken legs, apple sauce, scones and tarts. Bold-colored crests made by the students were strung corner to corner around the gym. Reams of pink and turquoise streamers cascaded from the basketball hoops.

Before lunch, the students danced. In the center of the gym, a man wearing long hair and multicolored tights played a violin and directed the group through a series of English country dances from the era.

At first, the students seemed shy: The girls pinched at their billowy skirts, twisted their torsos back and forth and gazed at the gym floor. Some boys grabbed each others' arms and pretended to wrestle. But soon they got over it and proceeded to prance and twirl.

"Turn your partner in a vigorous manner!" the leader yelled in an English accent.

"As much as they balk at holding hands, they do it," marveled teacher Joni Whalin.

In the library, students watched a few of their brave friends perform Saint George and the Dragon, which is a "pageant," or medieval story. To the kids' glee, actor Patrick Franz encouraged the group to hoot and holler in the tradition of an Elizabethan audience. The poor patrons of the time were quite rowdy, and were called groundlings because they sat in a pit near the stage, he said.

Kris Price, 12, who wore a brown monk's costume, said he loved the event.

"It's the only time we can (yell) and not get in trouble," he said.

In the center of the quad, the sun shined and the wind sent the costumes flapping. Captain Glover, "master of defense," showed the students the art of sword battle. The kids seemed more content to goof around, however, and some of them whacked their friends with fake foam swords.

Watching the fun, 13-year-old Geoff Spencer philosophically opined, "I think we're still in the Renaissance. They wanted to enrich their lives with beauty and art. That's what we do. We have lots of paintings at our house."

A pungent aroma filled one classroom as students made pomanders, oranges studded with dozens of cloves. Folks of the Renaissance era rarely washed, Couron Smith said, so they carried pomanders around to mask their rank smell.

While most seventh-graders spent the day jovially bouncing from one activity to the next, a few studied quietly in classrooms and others stayed home.

Jacki Coughlin said she kept her daughter home because the expense of purchasing or making a costume was too excessive. The students also were required to pay $7 for the day's events; Coughlin said the cumulative expense of various activities at the school is breaking the family's pocket book.

"I can't sew and it costs $50 to $60 to rent a costume," Coughlin said. "These projects are getting out of hand."

The school told parents their kids had to be in costume to participate. However, a letter sent home to parents a few weeks ago stressed that parents don't need to rent a costume; rather, the letter suggested, parents should use what they have, borrow or scrounge at a thrift store.

Couron Smith said the $7 fee pays for a little more than half of the $5,000 cost of producing the fair. The rest came from the school and the parents' association.

She argued that a real field trip to the Pleasure Faire would be much more costly.

"If they (parents) pay something, it seems to matter more to them. I don't know why," she said.

Kris Price's parents made his costume and paid his way. Even so, he appreciated the fair -- although not for the reasons Couron Smith and others might expect.

Almost awestruck, he said, "We got to scream in the library."