Thursday, March 19, 2009
In the days leading up to the ceremony I tried to think back to my own elementary school experiences and remember what, if anything, we did to commemorate "graduation." First, I doubt we used that word to describe the occasion. Second, I can remember wearing a nice shirt and pants on that day. Third, I can clearly recall Principal Rubin, who had served in his position since before I came to the school, announcing that he was retiring during his speech to all of us. And lastly, I can remember walking home with my close friend David which was unusual because we almost always went home by bus.
Besides these snippets, I can't remember what else there was. Did we each receive a certificate or diploma? Was there any singing or coordinated "ceremony" of any kind? Or was it just an assembly like any other where the principal said a few words and we all left afterwards? I have to assume our parents attended and took pictures, but then why would I remember walking home? Surely my mom or David's mom would have driven us home had they been there.
Whatever I can or cannot recall, I can promise you this: elementary school graduation in Japan is way nicer than it is in America. Hell, yesterday's ceremony was nicer than my high school graduation. It may have been a little dry at times and formal to a fault, but if there's one thing Japan does right it's ritual. There's a reason they spent weeks practicing, and that's because they wanted to give these kids a proper farewell.
I got very lucky in that this year graduation fell on a Wednesday which meant I got to see some of my best students at the good school where English is taken fairly seriously. Since I have worked with these particular students every week since I got here, I actually had an emotional investment in seeing them off. Had things worked out differently and I ended up at one of the big schools where I don't even know the students' names, yesterday would have felt truly hollow. Instead I came away with a new appreciation for all the seemingly mindless rehearsals I had watched in the previous weeks.
I will admit the day started out on the wrong foot. I wore a suit which of course looked nice but neckties are hardly comfortable to wear for long periods of time. I was feeling the tightness by the time I got off the bus in front of school. The ceremony didn't get started until 10 but I had to arrive at my usual time and then just sit in the staff room and wait. I actually went into the gym early to take a look around at the numerous decorations before the younger students filed in early and - you guessed it - practiced everything one more time. Thankfully, there was precious little nitpicking about sitting down together.
When the parents trickled in I got to play the matching game in my head - whose mom and dad is that? There were more moms than dads, of course, but I was happy to see how many couples came together. Good to know that this qualified as one of those special occasions that could draw Japanese men away from the office. I didn't see many grandparents though, and there were only two young siblings among the guests.
After the parents sat down, there was a group of people who came in to the gym alongside the principal. These were "distinguished guests" (来賓 raihin) who collectively sat at their own special table across from the teachers, giving them a closer view of the ceremony than the parents. This struck me as bizarre. Why would these people get a more intimate perspective on the proceedings than camera-carrying relatives?
When the sixth graders finally entered the gym, we started applauding. This turned out to be the first endurance challenge of the day. Even though there were only seventeen graduates, they each entered the gym one at a time and walked slowly and deliberately to their seats, making each step and turn in a robot-like fashion. Have you ever played Resident Evil? They moved just like that, stopping and rotating at each juncture. The entire entrance seemed to last forever and my arms got tired.
From that point, things slipped into extreme formality for about a an hour and forty minutes. Each step in the ceremony was announced by a teacher with a microphone. We all began by singing two songs: the national anthem and the school song. While I had heard both many times before I didn't know the words to either. The school song's lyrics were written in the program but the anthem was not. Maybe they should have been because I looked around and noticed that most children didn't even know the words. To think, all that practice and they forgot something? That can't be an accident. Maybe it's just for adults to sing?
Curiously, the very next step was handing out the diplomas. I would have thought that would be a nice climax, but that's not how they do it in Japan. The principal inched his way up to a podium, then the vice-principal rigidly carried up the diplomas to him before slowly returning to his seat. The sixth grade homeroom teacher, wearing a kimono nearly as elaborate as the one I wore for my wedding, stood up and called out the students' names in an authoritative bark. He didn't use the microphone which was right next to him because he didn't have to. Think back to Chairman Kaga from Iron Chef and you can imagine what this guy sounded like.
When the principal handed out each diploma, he said the student's name, birthday (?) and what "number" they were. I'm not sure, but given the alarmingly high numbers I am presuming that was a count of all graduates in the school's 100+ year history. Of course, the students did not merely take the diplomas. There was a strict order of operations: take the paper with two hands, pass the paper into the left hand, tuck it under the left arm, step back, deep bow, turn around, and then bring the paper to another teacher who rolled it up and put it into a tube.
Then came the most absurdly formal thing I've ever seen. With all the diplomas handed out, the principal marched across the gym back to his seat. The teacher announced that "the principal would like to say a few words." The principal then stood up and went all the way back to the same podium. What the hell was that about? Keep in mind that the teacher and the principal were in two separate locations. There was no scarcity of microphones, they just had to make sure that each phase of the ceremony was distinct from the last. I have to wonder what that accomplishes.
The principal's words were the first of a long line of speeches. Indeed, the rest of the program was just "so & so says a few words." Each of the guests had a few things to say to the graduates. The man at the mike read aloud congratulatory messages from former homeroom teachers, going all the way back to first grade. Eventually he gave his own speech because he had been their fourth grade homeroom teacher. And yet at no point did their current teacher, the man who also taught them last year, say anything other than their names. I really found the whole thing inexplicably stiff and awkward.
But the longer I sat there, I slowly began to feel moved by the process. Maybe it was in spite of the coldness of it all, but I started to come to terms with the fact that these kids were no longer going to be my students. I kind of liked them, even if they didn't necessarily like me. They were noisy at times, bored at others, but mostly they listened to what I had to say. They asked questions when they didn't understand something. In fact, these had been the only kids to actually ask me questions in English when I delivered my clumsy introduction back in September of 2007. This was their moment; their elementary school finale. It's funny, but even though this graduation doesn't mean much in the long run (later ceremonies and school events will carry much more impact on their lives), six years is an eternity for kids at this age. The middle school may be just up the road, but they are leaving behind a huge part of their lives. I'd probably be scared if I was in their position. Could the elaborate formality of this ceremony be designed to suppress anxiety and emotional outbursts?
Eventually it all wrapped up with the oft-rehearsed exchange of encouragement and thanks from the younger students. They sang a song, the graduates sang two songs, and then it was time. When they filtered out of the gym, we all stood and clapped again. This time I managed to pace myself better, knowing it was a clapping marathon that lay ahead. Once we left the gym as well, we all gathered outside the main entrance where we saw them off again, this time with a lot more smiles and handshakes because (surprise) it was clearly not as structured. After spending the morning watching them hold everything inside, it was a relief to see them act like kids again.
Everyone (students and parents) seemed to leave at that point, surprising the hell out of me, but it proved to be only temporary. After we ate lunch in the staff room (again, there were speeches and posturing) we all went to the gym for a kind of goodbye party. There were tons of snacks and soft drinks, two cakes (one chocolate, one not) and everyone just talked for a while. I was a little sad that no student or parent ever approached me during this time, but I had a few conversations with other teachers instead.
At some point they broke out musical instruments and then things got weird. Someone started playing a song I've never heard before and all the teachers (me included) got up and did a dance. No, I wasn't prepared for it but I just followed the others' lead. Then the students played a tune or two and tried to sing, but the instruments were louder than their voices. By this point I was actually in danger of missing the bus home, but it all came to an end and I made my exit.
Looking back on everything I saw and felt yesterday, I'm still kind of processing it all. I was initially questioning the gravity of it all but I now can see the reasoning behind the (at times) heavy-duty seriousness. I wish those kids the best, certainly, and I'm glad I was there to see them go. I wish I had gotten a chance to actually say goodbye to them (I had my hopes dashed for a farewell lesson last week) but I can only blame myself for not trying harder to talk to them at the party.
In the end, little has changed. I'm still the foreigner here to teach English and in a few weeks, there will again be a full compliment of students for me to work with. In three months I won't be able to remember the graduates' names - will they remember mine? I'd like to think so, but the real goal was getting these kids to think about English and foreigners in general as less "foreign." Even if they forget about me I hope they don't forget what I tried to teach them. I know won't forget what they taught me.
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