Or, The Fall Ball
A yearly tradition at Kazakhstani schools is the Fall Ball. Although the name seems to imply a dance similar in importance to the American Homecoming tradition, in actuality the event bears almost no resemblance to anything American students participate in. Rather than a school dance, the Fall Ball is a competition, either between different classes (I guess in that way it remotely resembles Homecoming Week) or between girls from different classes. My school followed the latter pattern, and each class sent a representative to compete for the honor of receiving a special certificate of a different color than the ones they gave everybody else.
My school hosted two separate Fall Balls: one for the fifth through seventh graders, and another for the eighth through eleventh graders. I was asked to serve on the jury for both events. The jury is a highly respected institution in a Kazakhstani school. Its function is approximately equivalent to that of the panel of judges on American Idol, except that the jury in Kazakhstan has all the power and the audience doesn't get to call in to vote. There are juries for just about every special event at our school, from the New Year's celebration to classroom competitions. Usually, the jury is composed of whatever three teachers are standing in the teachers' room 15 minutes before the competition, and who are unable to think of an excuse about why they shouldn't have to sit through the whole two hour competition and actually pay attention. At least, that's how I ended up on the Fall Ball jury.
The Fall Balls for both the younger and older students were run in almost the same way, so I'll just describe them as one event. It started with the competing girls from each class parading out on stage wearing ball gowns whose elegance (not to mention amount of glitter) would put any prom dress to shame. I should note that, when I refer to a class, I don't mean the entire grade, but rather each group of students within the grade that take all of their lessons together. At my school, there are between two and three classes per grade; for example, in 7th grade we have three classes: 7a, 7b, and 7v, named after the Russian alphabet. Therefore, at the younger students' Fall Ball there were seven girls competing, while the older students had eight girls vying to be the winner. (I'd like to call the winner the Queen of the Fall Ball, but I don't think they use that term here.)
Once the girls were seated in a row onstage, the competition began. There were various tasks that they had to do, and for each task they received a score between one and five. My job, as a member of the jury, was to award these scores, which would be combined with my fellow jury members' evaluations and totaled to determine the winner. It didn't take long to convince me that I was probably not the best choice for a fair and honest jury member. The very first task for the girls was to recite a poem they had written introducing themselves. Since I hardly understood a word of their Kazakh, I was reduced to judging the competition based solely on facial expression and, most of all, copying the scores that the other judges gave them.
The range of tasks was varied. In addition to the poem, the girls had to solve riddles (I based my score on the reaction of the MCs as to whether they were correct or not) and perform a talent, ala the Miss America pageant. (Actually, a beauty pageant is probably the closest equivalent I can think of to this competition, except there was no bathing suit segment.) Most of the girls sang a song or danced for their talent, although one girl recited some poetry. There were also several tasks based around the theme of “autumn”: the girls had to see how many onions they could throw into a garbage can, and also who could peel and chop two potatoes and one onion the fastest. That last task was definitely the easiest for me to judge; a race to peel vegetables, despite any cultural objections to the implications about what girls are best at, still has a clear winner: the girl who puts her knife down first.
In the end, it didn't matter that I used unreliable and arbitrary methods to assign scores. When it came time to add everything up, one of my fellow jury members took her pen and crossed out each girl's total, saying that we should just ignore the numbers. She then proceeded to circle the names of her favorite students, and she and the other jury member debated the relative merits of each based on I-know-not-what criteria. I nodded along, relieved that my lack of language ability and cultural understanding had not affected the judging in any way, since my opinion was completely ignored. Thankfully, every girl up on that stage was a model student and deserving of the different colored certificate, so it didn't matter to me who received it. They all got a pretty certificate anyway. And even though I didn't get a certificate, I still have the self-satisfaction that I have served my civic duty on a jury.