Mar 23, 2014

Junior High Graduation Day

The third year junior high students file into the gym two-by-two, led by their homeroom teacher dressed in an elaborate traditional kimono. They take their seats at the front of the gym flanked by rows of teachers and school board administrators. The first and second year students clap in practiced, timed unison until everyone bows and sits down.

The following two hours are an exercise in standing up, bowing, sitting down, rinse and repeat. Unable to understand what's being said, I soon grow bored listening to the speeches. Instead I look over the rows of students whose hands and legs are perfectly still in the exact same position. It makes me fidget. I re-adjust the pink flower pinned to my lapel that matches their corsages. When I look up at the clock, it hasn't moved.

The social studies teacher approaches the stage carrying a wide, varnished tray in his white-gloved hands. He holds it up high in the air and bows before handing it over the principal. The chemistry teacher, who switched out her lab coat today for a golden-pink kimono, unties the bow around the tray. Inside are the graduation certificates.

One after the other, the students march up to the stage for the principal's announcement of their graduation. They all follow the same movements, holding up their certificate with two hands before bowing in unison.

At its heart, graduation is a ceremonial ritual to mark the passage of one life stage to the next. That's the what and the why of it; how you celebrate is a reflection of your country and culture. This is where culture shock smacked me upside the head. It crept up on me, long after I thought I had adjusted. I thought, Why are they clapping like that? Why are they marching up to the stage in straight lines? Why is the principal wearing coat-tails?

Everything is the same, but everything is different.

After the ceremony ended, the third years lined up at the front doors to run between their junior classmates as they exited the school for the last time. I thought about how I'm just a blip in the course of these kids' lives. This graduation day will soon be a fuzzy memory in the back of their minds as they worry about the more immediate preparations for high school. But, if I've made their experience at junior high better for them in any way, my coming here was worth it.

Then I received this message from one of my girls:
Thank you very much. I enjoyed all. I was happy to make friends with you. I can('t) speak English well. sorry. But, you always tried to undestand me. I was glad it. Someday,I want to go to Mishigan, too!! Thank you.
No, thank you. Being a part of your lives has been the best part of this entire experience. Happy graduation, 三年生!


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