Tuesday March 10th was a sad day for me. It was the day that my favourite students here at Minato Junior High School graduated. It was my first time experiencing a Japanese graduation ceremony so I didn’t really know what to expect. I had attended a couple of the practices the week before but nothing really prepares you for the day.
I arrived at school a bit earlier than normal, dressed in a black skirt, white blouse and my black blazer. I had asked what to wear and was told a white shirt would be fine, however the other female staff members were wearing black blouses or black dresses or traditional Japanese Hakama (a type of kimono).
It wasn’t a big deal but for the next one I will probably wear black on black. Surprisingly enough after not having any snow for around a month, it decided today was a good day to snow. This meant that the gym was extra cold and even with the extra heaters it was still a bit chilly in the gym.
Anyway we had a brief morning meeting, everyone looked super formal in their suits. My Principal was even wearing a tail coat. He looked so fancy, I felt very under dressed. After the meeting, I popped upstairs to take some photos of the 3rd years in their class before the ceremony.
At around 8.45am the teachers who weren’t with the students in their classrooms went to the gym, where the parents had already been seated. We took our places at the teachers table to the left of the main stage. The 3rd years sat in front of us, with the 1st and then 2nd years behind them.
At 9am the 3rd years walked into the gym in pairs lead by Mrs H. who was wearing hakama. Every one clapped as the 3rd years took their seats. The Vice Principal introduced one by one the special guests, members of the PTA, the Principals from the two local Elementary schools, some officials from the City Board of education, some policemen and so on.
Then my Principal gave a short welcome speech. After that it was straight into the certificate ceremony. Mrs H. called the students names one by one and they marched in well-rehearsed formations to get to the stage. The Principal would then congratulate the student and hand over their certificate in a special folder. The students walked down the central steps of the stage and returned to their seats. There were only 24 students in the 3rd year class.
After receiving their certificates there were proper speeches. There were about four speeches given by some of the special guests. I sat directly opposite the head of the PTA Mr. Tanaka, who was pretty much crying and slapping his face to calm down the whole way though the ceremony. Later on we made eye contact as we both bawled our eyes out at the student speeches.
After the guest speeches was a song that the whole school sang, called さよなら友よ or Goodbye friends. Teared up when the 3rd years sang a verse to the 1st and 2nd years.
Next was what really made me lose control and break out into crying. I had held it together for the ceremony so far, for about an hour but I completely lost it when the new School council President, a 2nd year girl, gave a speech thanking the 3rd years. She told stories of how they had helped the 2nd years ever since they started Elementary school.
She talked about how they would never forget them. Tears were rolling down my face. Thinking it couldn’t get any worse her speech ended, then the class rep for the 3rd years gave her speech and that was me gone. I was sobbing uncontrollably by the end. It was so heartfelt and earnest, it still makes me sad thinking about it. So while I was trying to cry and sob quietly the 3rd years did their goodbye song. They stood and faced the school and sang, most of the 3rd year girls were unable to sing as they were crying almost as much as me. Good old Mr. Tanaka across the gym was a mess too. I couldn’t look at the 3rd years while they sang I was crying too much. It was so heart-breaking. They sat back down and I calmed down a little, enough to see that a lot of the students throughout the gym were crying. Even some of the tough, often misbehaving, 2nd years boys, which was surprising to see… they would later tease me in class the next day and I teased them right back.
After the song the ceremony was closing, the 3rd years left in pairs again and disappeared back to their homeroom for one last class meeting with the homeroom teachers and their parents. This was supposed to take 20 minutes but an hour and a half later they were still in the classroom. They didn’t want to leave.
Since it was still snowing the kids were unable to do the parade out of the school grounds so they walked down the main corridor to the student entrance area. The 1st and 2nd years lined the corridor and held wire arches decorated with paper flowers. As the 3rd years walked down the corridor they were given message boards from the 1st and 2nd year students, each student having written a message for each of the 3rd years.
The teachers and parents lined up too. Lead by Mrs H. again they made their way to the entrance. Yet again they didn’t want to leave. They were supposed to grab their outside shoes and leave with their parents but an hour later they were still in the entrance way. Taking photos with each other, talking, and crying. I hung around in the entrance until they had all left. I took as many photos as I could with them and gave out my contact information in case they wanted to contact me. And that was it. 2pm and they were gone, never to come back. But I am grateful they stayed later, they were supposed to leave at 11.40am.
We had a late staff lunch in the library/meeting room. Everyone thanked the three 3rd year homeroom teachers and talked about the ceremony. We had a special lunch set that I ate most of but was not game for the tiny octopus. The teachers made mention of my crying that started at the student speeches and were surprised that I understood even though they know that I can understand Japanese, they just tend to forget until I do something that shows understanding.
Because my school is so small (there were only 80 students this year, from April there will be around 75), I have one class per year level, it means that I was able to teach these kids four times a week. When I first got to Japan, the moment I walked into the 3rd year class I knew that I would have trouble seeing them graduate. Literally the first day with them I was dreading March.
They were so friendly and welcoming. They were the kids who would just flash me a smile in the corridor. Talk to me outside of class. Laugh with me at the Japanese teachers jokes. Wave to me when they saw me on my bike going to get groceries.
I have so many fond memories with them, sports day relays, dancing yosakoi with the girls, seeing them perform at the cultural festival, watching them destroy the 1st and 2nd years at dodge-ball, playing karuta (a Japanese card game) with them, many strange conversations in class like about time travel in space and seeing that they were all obsessed with a windmill building man in the textbook called William Kamkwamba.
Moving to a foreign country is tough. It’s really, really hard. At times it seems like it might not be worth the hassle. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. They were the class that really made me sure that coming here wasn’t a mistake, they were the reason that I decided to stay for another year at the least. They are the reason I try to improve my Japanese every day.
Long story short, a big thank you to all of the graduating 3rd years. Good luck for the future and at Senior High, I’ll never forget you all!