Girls in bright yellows, pinks and reds and boys in deep blues and greens zoomed around a conference room at Catonsville High School Thursday in a frenzy to get changed between lunch and fourth period.
The 20 students were not Catonsville Comets.
They are from Kanagawa, Japan, visiting the area from March 19 through 28 and staying with host families in the Catonsville area.
They were running back and forth from the school library on March 21 carrying large boxes and donning Japanese yukatas — a lighter, summer version of the kimono — preparing to host a traditional Japanese tea ceremony for Catonsville students to show their appreciation to their hosts.
"We would like to thank the school and students," said Yumiko Ishida, who teaches English at Yokosuka Meiko High School in Kanagawa. "To show our gratitude, we do the tea ceremony."
The students from the 450-student Meiko High prepared traditional green tea —made from a fine powder of ground tea leaves whisked into hot water —and demonstrated the Japanese art of origami paper folding while offering common snacks and teas from Japan for about 40 students from Catonsville High School last week.
The tea ceremony was just one of several experiences for the exchange students while visiting Catonsville.
In addition to seeing music, physical education and Japanese language classes at Catonsville High School, they will also visit Washington, D.C. on their last day in the states.
"The school showed us around a lot of different types of classes," Ishida said. "It's very interesting.
"The way we handle curriculum, the way we teach, it's very different," she said.
Though they said they were very nervous about coming to the states, the students were all smiles Thursday as they interacted with their Catonsville counterparts.
"I love the school, because all the students are all so kind and so friendly," said Kyoko Tanaka, an 11th-grader at Meiko High.
She said she really enjoyed attending physical education class.
"We played basketball with ninth-grade students," Kyoko said.
Yokosuka Meiko High School has been a sister school to Catonsville High School for about 30 years, said Gentaro Tatsumi, the other English teacher from Japan accompanying the students.
Once every three years, the students in the school, which only has tenth through twelfth grades, are given one opportunity to travel abroad to Catonsville for a chance to experience the culture and education in the United States.
After hearing about the program over their summer vacation in July, the Japanese students must send in an application and go through an interview process about "why they want to come to Catonsville," Ishida said.
Practice makes perfect
Once in Maryland, the Japanese students are granted an opportunity that rarely arises at home: speaking English with other students their own age.
"These students have good grades, they're smart," Ishida said.
In Japan, the only chances they get to practice their English are with the American soldiers stationed on the naval base in Yokosuka, she said.
Momoka Kanno, a 12th-grader from Kanagawa, confirmed this and said they usually only study English in written form at home.
"To listen and talk is very, very different," Kanno said. "At my school, we study only writing. We don't get to talk to American speakers."
But here, Tatsumi said is proud of the improvement he sees as students practice with Catonsville natives.
"I can see so many times that they're smiling, talking English," Tatsumi said.
"They're facing the intercultural communication," he said.
"Also, there's so many things they're facing, obstacles," Tatsumi said about social and cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.
"They're now improving themselves by facing those and growing up," he said.
That, he said, is, "one of the aims of education."
For many of the visiting students, this is their first time abroad. To smooth the transition into a different culture, the students stay with host families in Catonsville while in town.
Catonsville High School student John Himes and his family are among the local hosts.
"I love Japanese," Himes said. "I'm always fascinated by Japanese culture."
The senior is in Japanese level 7 at Catonsville High and said he really enjoyed the chance to put his studies into practice with fluent Japanese speakers. Much like the Japanese students learning English, he doesn't have many chances to do so.
"It's hard to find people (to practice with)," Himes said.
"It's nice to be able to put into practice what I've been learning," he said.
Himes said he has traveled to Japan before and, after staying with a host family there, hopes to provide an equally amazing experience to the student staying with him.
"My student wants to be a zookeeper," Himes said. "So we're taking him to the aquarium."
Himes said his mother cooked a big Thanksgiving turkey dinner for the student Thursday night and that he hopes the student leaves with a good perception of American culture.
"The things I remember most (from my trip to Japan) were the most ordinary things," Himes said.
"I really want my host student to experience just regular American family life," he said.