Hats Off To Graduation


I’m not sure if teachers are allowed to have a favourite, parents certainly aren’t supposed to. But sometimes, chance brings together a special group of kids, and you just can’t help but think to yourself, if I were to have a favourite, it would be this group. March 16th was the day I had to say goodbye to that group at my first Japanese Junior High School graduation ceremony. It was a heart-breaking yet heart-warming experience that I am so glad I had the opportunity to have. This is how my day proceeded.

To my horror I was seated with the third grade teachers, special reserved seating right at the front for all to see. Thank goodness my boss had told me the day before to wear a suit. There wasn’t a person present, parent, teacher or other that was not in formal attire. My original plan to sneak in and hide at the back would have been an absolute failure.

Once everyone was seated, the third graders processed in through the back entrance by class. The clapping was endless. Seven classes walking as slow as a bride walks down the aisle. I gave up maybe around class number five, surrendered to fake clapping, flailing my hands about. Sometimes the clapping would fall into sync, instead of a general applause, it sounded more like we were clapping along to our favourite song. This would fade after a while to become just dull background noise once more.

Everyone stood for the anthem. I always think the Japanese anthem sounds like it has an air of sadness. It certainly is powerful when sung by a group the size we had today, which was perhaps around 1000 people, all crammed into a regular sized school hall.

Each homeroom teacher took their turn at the microphone to read out the names of the students in their classes. The names were answered one by one with a “hai”, and the student stood. There were 247 names called in all. I sat silently fading in and out of a daydream. I wondered what the future holds for these students. Where will they be in ten years time? Will I read about them in the newspaper one day?

Each “hai” sounded a little different. Some of them made me smile, as I noticed their personality reflected clearly. When the class was all standing, a representative walked forward to collect all the certificates from the principle, who was waiting on stage. Even taking the certificate from his hand has a procedure to follow. Left hand first, then right, and step back. Keep the certificates at eye level, bow, put the certificates under the left arm, turn around, and then walk down the stairs, bow left, bow right, return to designated seat. The class finished collectively with a low bow, almost touching the heads of the row in front of them. They could have used a little more room in between each of the rows.

Speeches from a government representative and the PTA followed. By this stage my mind was really wandering. I looked to the stage and noticed that the flower bouquet adorning the lectern was magnificent. I have never seen such an elaborate and colourful design before, not to mention the fact that it was the size of a small tree. It even had plum twigs sticking out from the top. I thought for a while about how to say “This is the most amazing bouquet of flowers I have ever seen in my life” in Japanese. That took up some time.

A second grade student came up to the stage to give a speech. Every speech seemed to start with a reference to the season, the cherry blossoms, plum trees, dazzling sun shine, mild weather, elaborately woven into a compliment for the third grade students. I think the principals speech was actually a series of poems about spring, but I can’t be sure, it was a little above my Japanese comprehension.

One of my forever happy students took the stage as a representative of the third graders. His speech was wonderful and easy to understand. I could see the paper in his hand starting to shake at the end. He managed to hold the tears back, just. He folded the speech and presented it to the principal on stage. Where does that paper end up?

The third graders stood, and turned to face the remaining students and parents. They sang their graduation song. The second and first graders responded by singing the first verse of “Furusato” which is a touching song about longing for one’s hometown. The second verse was picked up by the third graders, and the final was sung by the entire school. The student who was conducting stood on a platform in the middle rotating gracefully around. This was not the same kid that is always talking and playfully ignoring my classes.

The school song began, and the students and teachers sang together. I should have tried to learn the words. I couldn’t even pretend to mouth the words. I just stood perfectly still like during the anthem. Next year I will remember.

The final speech belonged to the representative of the parents. I stood along with the third grade teachers to accept their thanks. I really would have preferred to stand at the back. I caught the eyes of several first grade students as I was pretending to understand. I think they knew that I didn’t get it at all, since I was looking at them instead. They smiled.

The third graders walked out one by one to more endless applause. The second class started a trend of bowing to their teacher and then to the audience. I could see the boys of three-seven plotting in front of me. They were keen to leave the hall with a bang, true to their nature right until the last minute. I hid my smile as they silently tried to convince their homeroom teacher who was sitting in front of me to play along. She was dissuading them with all her might. She won out in the end. I was slightly disappointed.

I finished the day sneaking around outside of their final class waving through the window. I wanted to go in to shake their hands, and wish them all the best for their futures, possibly shedding a tear or two along the way, but there was no time. The parents were crowded around each room, waiting for their chance to take pictures and congratulate them. I snuck out of the school and left them to their big day.

Life is full of people you will only meet for a brief moment, and then never see again. I can only hope that I will be lucky enough to run into some of them in another life. Until then, thank you for allowing me to visit your classes and get to know you. Thank you for making me smile, and for the lovely message cards. All the best for the future.

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