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Faire day at Ye Olde Garden of the Nile
King of Nile Garden Schools Medieval Faire 2014 David Farfan gives a toast after the announcement that he was going to reign over the celebration on Friday. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

Adam Gonzales was just a spectator last year. He was in sixth grade. His sister was in seventh grade, a special time if you are a student at Nile Garden Elementary School. That’s because this campus in rural south Manteca is the only one in Manteca Unified that celebrates a non-celebration that transports the school back to medieval times.

The Medieval Faire, put on by teacher Timothy Lewis and his seventh graders during the merry month of May, is a non-celebration because it’s not like the open events in, say, Hollister’s Casa de Fruta or Marin County which are for general-public consumption. It’s actually just a regular day in the school life of Lewis and the students in his social studies class. The big difference, of course, is that they all come to class on that day dressed in period costumes, to taste-test a sample of the food the people of that time may have eaten, enjoy some of the social activities of the day like dances and games, and to some extent, relive by dramatization the dark aspects of the medieval period such as plague and pestilence.

The class even gets to select its own king and queen of the day. This year, David Farfan and Megan Oblin were king and queen of the day. The role of King with a capital letter not just for that day every year during the school Medieval Faire always goes to their teacher, referred to as King Lewis the Wise at every occasion.

Central to this celebration, which includes the students’ extended family members, is the dining alfresco in the school’s courtyard which always gets transformed into a typical medieval-time outdoor celebration setting. Some of the parents play an active role in the staging of the event especially in the food preparation. All of them, as parents, also get to be involved in the school project by helping their children create or procure their period costumes, and even style their hair especially for the girls. A few grandparents had a hand in their grandchildren’s costumes.

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Learning history by re-enacting

While many of the students in the lower grades look forward to the time when they can come to school all dressed up for this special occasion, there are those like young Adam Gonzales whose attention is riveted to the scrumptious food set on the long tables outside. Now a seventh grader, Adam, who was dressed as a medieval blacksmith, finally was part of the Medieval Faire celebration. Last year, as he watched his sister and her classmates enjoying the noonday meal, “I was thinking, man, this food must be delicious,” Adam grinned as he proceeded to chomp on a piece of KFC drumstick.

“I really liked it,” he said of the lessons he and his classmates learned about life during the medieval ages. “But we learned that you didn’t shake hands with the left hand because it means you are being disrespectful,” he added, noting one of the darker sides of the culture during that period.

Outside of the lessons learned by the seventh graders from this single event – the culmination of their school year-long social studies class with their teacher – are the priceless bonding moments that take place between the students and members of their family. Kyanna Bingham’s gown, for example, was made by her mother.

“I helped her with my hair,” she said, pointing to her braided tresses topped by a wreath of flowers with wispy ribbons dancing in the gentle breeze around her face. As for the hair accent, “I made it myself,” she said with a smile.

Her story, and that of the other students, took me back a few years when my own two sons were part of Mr. Lewis’s Medieval Faire celebration. My husband and I spent long hours coming up with a design for the kids’ costumes, then getting down to the serious business of putting them together. In the interest of truth and fairness, my husband put in more hours than I ever did simply because the kids’ costumes involved plenty of metal parts that needed to be cut individually. If this were a quilt project, I was the one who did more of the piecing-together.

Nile Garden’s Medieval Faire has come a long way since Mr. Lewis started it 19 years ago. The decorations, handmade by him and members of his close-knit family especially his mother who is a retired Manteca Unified school teacher – that lend authenticity to the outdoor presentation have multiplied. There are more students today who are participating in the entertainment portion of the event by way of period dances and performances such as juggling. When it comes to juggling though, the star is none other than Mr. Lewis whose mastery of this art financed his way through college. His juggling feats involving actual fiery torches and knives alone are enough reason to be there.

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Something they will tell their children

Like his students, Mr. Lewis is always dressed for this medieval occasion complete with a fake crown. He always reminds me of the story shared by Edward Burroughs, former counsel with San Joaquin County and Stanislaus County, years ago. One enduring memory from his law school days at UOP’s McGeorge School of Law was that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He taught at the University of the Pacific’s Law School before he was elevated to the nation’s Supreme Court. Burroughs, who lived in Manteca with wife Norma and their children for years before they moved to Modesto, would laugh as he remembered his former law professor sometimes coming to class in period costume complete with a powdered wig.

Mr. Lewis’s students may forget some of the things they learned from his social studies class, but I’m sure their one Medieval Faire day in the sun at the Ye Olde Garden of the Nile is something that they will be telling to their children and children’s children in years to come.