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Stepping over the threshold of room N226 at Evanston Township High School, a visitor immediately notices young adults kneeling by tatami mats.
A sense of tranquility permeates the room. Members of the Tea Ceremony Club are gathering for a tea ceremony. The purpose of the tea ceremony (chanoyu, chado or sado) is to emphasize four principles: harmony, respect, tranquility and purity.
The ceremony focuses, therefore, on procedure and symbolism rather than on the making of tea for drinking.
The club was established by Michael Van Krey, who teaches Japanese in the school’s World Languages Department, to bring to students what he had experienced when he lived in Japan. The club is open to ETHS students enrolled in Japanese language courses.
Mr. Van Krey said the club started eight years ago when two boys asked him, “Can you teach us the tea ceremony?” There are 35 to 40 club members, but Mr. Van Krey said he limits the tea sessions to a maximum of eight students. He said it is more effective to learn the ceremony in smaller groups than in a room of 35 students.
On Oct. 26 six ETHS students and two visitors attended the tea ceremony. ETHS senior Joseph Figlio and sophomore David Flowers acted as guides to classmates who were unfamiliar with the ritual. Mr. Van Krey said students new to the ceremony observe one or more advanced students.
New students learn to wash, store and care for tea utensils, fold the silk cloth (fukusa), and ritually clean tea bowls (chawan). For example, Joseph Figlio and David Flowers showed students how to properly fold the fukusa to wipe the rims of the bowls. Student demonstrations continued with rotating tea bowls (clockwise three times, then counterclockwise), and placing them precisely on the tatami mats.
The tea ceremony is composed of three parts: purifying the utensils, making the tea, and cleaning the tearoom. Students arranged themselves in a “u” shape around tatami mats placed in the center of the classroom.
At the end of the ceremony, students practiced standing and exiting from the kneeling “proper sitting” position (seiza). To exit, Mr. Van Krey said, it is customary to shuffle when walking on tatami mats; this encourages one to walk more slowly, maintain a straight posture and improve balance. David Flowers emphasized to one student the importance of exiting the mat with the left foot and rotating the body, allowing the feet to end up side by side.
The group used a combination of Japanese and English to perform the ceremony: Prescribed Japanese phrases were used at the beginning and end, while the remainder of the ceremony was conducted in English.
The tea ceremony, while appearing simple, is actually very complex, and mastering it takes considerable time. Mr. Van Krey said a person could practice for years and still pause, wondering what he or she has forgotten. Mr. Van Krey said even the biweekly meetings of the tea ceremony club are not enough to internalize the ritual. The ETHS students said they hoped to gain practice and to improve on skills learned in previous sessions.
Mr. Van Krey said the Tea Ceremony Club attracts a wide variety of ethnicities at ETHS. Freshman Laura Maljaei said she loves Japanese culture, which sparked her interest to join the Tea Ceremony Club. Joseph Figlio said he attends every session.
As the students and two visitors left, the tatami mats remained and the tea utensils were returned to a desk for the next tea session, Thursday from 3:45 to 4:30 p.m.