Thoughts on Graduation

I’m sure I am not the only Gaijin in Japan blogging today about their thoughts on graduation. Across Iwate at least, today was graduation at many high schools including my own, and it’s a very strange day in so many ways. For starters, we are saying a big goodbye to many students, students I have now taught for two years. A second year really builds an understanding of the different students, and that goes both ways. So I feel that I had a little more to do with the students graduating this year compared to last year. If I was staying for a third year, it would be even stronger for the group of students finishing second year right now.

And that’s my regret I guess, that I won’t get to see the students that started here when I did graduate. That’s quite disappointing for me. As for those who graduated today, well, when I first started teaching them, generally I found them to be the most troublesome of all the year levels, with the exception of the ‘B’ class.

My school from afar

My school from afar

The C, D and F classes I taught seemed to have little to no interest in English for the most part, bar a handful of students, and I really had to work hard to keep their attention in the class room. There were a number of students in different classes who were class ‘clowns’, for want of a better word. They were so easily distracted and even my fellow Japanese English teachers were at a bit of a loss.

However, that said, the more you work with students the more you understand them and connect. And slowly I could recognise there were a number of students interested in English and keen to progress and learn. Not only that, but I could identify students that struggled, and those who could do the work but couldn’t be bothered. And thus adapt and try different ways to reach them. And I must have reached some of them. Today I was signing year books and getting presents.

But also after a little bit of time it was clear that there were no ‘bad’ students, although I always believed that beforehand. Students have pressures and lives and different upbringings and they all lived through March 11th, 2011, a year before I arrived to teach. I have heard people say that my school is low level, or even a ‘bad school’, but it simply isn’t true.

This year’s graduates are fine young people. I have heard of some pretty bad stuff going on in classrooms via other Gaijn teachers, but I had nothing too bad in mine other than the occasional all-boy class getting a bit loud here and there and… no that’s about it.

But this year’s graduates have so much character and life, it was almost bizarre to see them at the graduation ceremony to be honest. I think of them in the class room laughing and asking me questions, and clearly having an incredibly strong bond with each other. The ceremony was, well, what can I say?

Decorations at school

Decorations at school

It seems traditional first of all that everyone in the hall must be as cold as possible. The giant gas heaters are incredibly ineffective and probably should have been turned on yesterday and left on. The graduates walk in, blank faces, looking straight ahead and follow a strict line to get to their chairs at the front of the hall, it’s almost army like. Of course, some of the students cut a corner or two, but for the most part they were emotionless. In fact, the entire hall including the other students, teachers and parents had not a smile among them.

As the graduates walk the walk, everyone else claps in time to the music provided by the brass band, which incidentally was the same choice as last year. This takes ten minutes, ten minutes of clapping in time. Sounds like fun? Remember, not ONE smile.

Then every student gets their name read out, walks onto the stage and receives their diploma from the principal. That’s around 200 students and it took 40 minutes. Not a smile. They bow to the principal, with varying degrees of bowing. Some seem very orthodox and dip their head low, others it was barely a movement at all. Not a smile. 40 minutes. Did I mention? They reply ‘Hai!’ when their name is called, and occasionally one student shouts it really loud. One student from my 3F class does this, and I couldn’t help laughing a little. Luckily, the teacher next to me does too, she knows him well. Nevertheless we are still the only ones to crack a smile in nearly an hour.

Speech by the principal. No applause for speeches. Then a member of the PTA. Then another. Each are 5-7 minutes. Straight faces. Two students give speeches – one from a second grader wishing the graduates well, one from a graduate, I think the student council head. It ends in tears. We’re over 90 minutes now. I look around and there are teachers and parents asleep. There’s also an NHK crew (Japan’s main TV network) here today, one camera, filming bits and bobs of the day. Probably for a piece in the Iwate news.

Then it’s time for the school song. I’ve spent time going over the hiragana and know the tune. I do pretty well, it’s not perfect but at least I didn’t confuse the hiragana for ‘ra’ with the one for ‘chi’ which I keep doing and vice versa. There’s a few more words and thankyous. The teachers stand up and bow to the PTA, sit down again. Finally the music starts up again and to continuous applause and no smiles the graduates walk out of the hall, with a look on their faces saying they have just been through pure hell. Except – there was one student whom I never taught smiling! It’s a minor victory at least.

Afterwards there are smiles and happiness, taking of photos and thanking teachers and the like.

A student thanks me in their own way, sigh.

A student thanks me in their own way, sigh.

おめでとう- that’s Japanese for congratulations, all round. ‘Thank goodness!’, I thought. The end of high school is something to feel happy about, to celebrate, yet the event honestly felt like a funeral. The teachers almost all wore back with white shirts. I had dark grey and didn’t stand out too much, I hope. One teacher had a light grey suit and another a blue suit that was 5 sizes too big for him.

And so a new chapter begins for 200-odd students at my school. I’m going to miss every single one. I hope with all my heart the future brings them nothing but happiness and security, and that they chase their dreams. They were a year full of colour, exuberance and character. Japan, and the world needs a bit more of that.

Scholl through the trees

Scholl through the trees

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