Sixteen Orchard Prairie third- and fourth-graders watched with rapt attention as Jacob Schultz spun his kendama through the air, under his leg, twirling the string from his fingers before landing the ball in the cup.
“You’re really good,” one of the kids said.
This summer, Schultz, a senior at West Valley High School, competed in the 2020 Kendama World Cup against 422 players from 85 countries. He placed fifth in the world and first in the U.S.
When Orchard Prairie teacher Kirsten Schierman saw his mother’s Facebook post, she got inspired.
“I actually learned to do kendama in Japan when I was 17, and can still do some basic tricks,” she said.
Kendama is a traditional Japanese skill toy. It consists of a handle (ken), a pair of cups (sarado), and a ball (tama) that are all connected by a string.
Schierman thought it would be a great activity for students at the school.
“It’s a naturally socially distancing activity and incorporates mindfulness and movement,” she said.
She reached out to Facebook friends and asked if they’d be willing to help her raise $600 to buy kendamas for the kids.
“I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my awesome friends,” she said. “In 20 minutes, we raised $680, enough to buy all the kendamas for 16 students (one for home, one for school) and to pay for Zoom classes with the Kendama Institute.”
While Zoom instruction is fine, in-person demonstrations are more fun, so she asked Schultz if he’d be willing to come to Orchard Prairie to introduce the class to the ancient Japanese toy.
He was delighted because he was the same age as the students when his fascination with kendama began.
“When I was in fourth grade, everyone had them,” Schultz, 17, said.
“I worked really hard all summer. I wanted to come back to school and show my tricks and beat everyone.”
To his dismay, his friends had already moved on to the next new thing.
“My friends were like, ‘We’re done,’ ” he said.
But Schultz was just getting started. He saw a pro team at a toy store in Coeur d’Alene, and that opened his eyes to just how big the world of kendama could be.
At 13, he first competed at the Minnesota Kendama Open at the Mall of America.
“It was a magical experience,” Schultz said.
He continued to compete, learning new tricks and moving up in ranking. His eye was on the prize; the 2020 Kendama World Cup.
Then COVID-19 hit, and he though the event would be canceled. Instead, organizers moved the competition online.
“We competed live,” he said.
Schultz was thrilled to make it to the final round where players had to perform 10 tricks in 3 minutes.
At Orchard Prairie he demonstrated some of the tricks that earned him first place in the U.S., and then the students received their own kendamas and set to work trying to master the toy.
“If someone messes up, it’s good to encourage them by saying, ‘Nice try, try again,’ ” Schultz said.
Sure enough, when he missed a trick, the children shouted, “Nice try, try again!”
Soon the grassy field looked like it was dotted with kids with ice cream cones, as the students balanced the ball of the kendama in the big cup.
Minutes later, Schultz had them place their kendamas on their heads with the spike pointing outward.
“It looks like a bunch of unicorns out there,” he said.
Then he asked the kids how long they thought he’d been playing kendama.
“Twenty years?” guessed one child.
“Good guess, but I’m not 20 yet.”
As the students worked to scoop the ball into the cup, Shultz asked how they were doing.
“Terrible,” a girl shouted.
The teen nodded.
“It’s hard. You’ll feel frustrated, but if you believe, you can achieve,” Schultz said. “The effort you guys put in is incredible to watch. With time, you’ll all be masters. Plus, it will give you something to do besides video games.”
A child raised his hand.
“Are you still learning stuff?” he asked.
“There’re still tricks I haven’t done,” he said. “I learn something new every time I pick it up.”
And that’s what keeps him hooked on kendama.
“It’s easy to learn but impossible to master,” Schultz said. “It’s like chasing an endless goal.”
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