Last week, my elementary school 6th graders graduated and… oh my god, it was emotional.
I planned my day so that I could say goodbye to the kids from both schools. I would attend the graduation ceremony at Menda Elementary (my biggest school) and then drive to Ue Elementary for the send off.
Unlike in the UK, elementary school graduation is a very formal event.
The kids had been practising the ceremony for weeks, as well as cleaning and decorating the school to the max. There were farewell boards made by 1st-4th grades hung in the gym and the walkway was lined with freshly potted plants. The 6th grade homerooms were all decorated too.
I got to Menda feeling pretty strong, confident that I could fight back the tears.
Everyone was seated pretty quickly and we were ready to start. The ceremony kicked off with the children entering the gym one at a time, to a room full of applause.
They all looked so beautiful.
Instead of their usual crazy outfits, basketball shorts and t-shirts plastered in hilariously random and nonsensical English, the boys wore suits. Where they would normally have their hair facing every direction, fringes stuck to their forehead with sweat after lunch time, it was all styled and neat.
The girls were stunning, dressed in their soon to be uniforms with their hair in all sorts of new styles. One girl had a ribbon corseted up the back of her head, with her hair in pigtails.
(no pictures sorry, privacy reasons!)
In a very organized manner each child went up to collect their certificate and after that came the speeches. There were quite a lot of speeches from a lot of important people and, with my excellently basic knowledge of Japanese, I couldn’t understand it, but I’m sure that they were meaningful.
After the speeches, the 6th graders stood up and started to sing. I got a little teary here, Japanese songs are emotional anyway, never mind when they’re being sang by a chorus of angelic little voices.
I shattered when I saw one of my 6th grade girls start to cry. I couldn’t hold back the tears and pulled out my pre-prepared handkerchief. Seeing this, another girl started crying.
After the song, the students recapped their memories- starting from 1st grade and I broke again when one of the girls couldn’t tell her memory for crying. After a few more songs and a lot more crying the 6th graders left the gym to applause and I helped the 5th graders tidy up.
One of my 5th grader boys is moving to another city, so he was really upset too. After giving him a big hug, amongst the chaos of clean-up, I left, waving goodbye to as many 6th graders as I could before I headed off.
Next was Ue Elementary School. I got there and they were having homeroom (when the students and parents get to spend time with the homeroom teacher). I waited with the other teachers until 12:30, when we lined the staircase ready for the send off.
This school has one 6th grade class of 42 children and I love every single one of them. If personality had colour, that classroom would’ve been full of rainbows. One at a time, each kid came down with their parents, big grins on their faces.
It was hilarious to see the surprise on their faces as they didn’t expect that I’d be there. Two girls handed out letters to all of the teachers and even had one for me! Funada Sensei, the 6th grade teacher, came down in her kimono and I burst out crying again.
Funada Sensei is, quite frankly, my idol. Her teaching style is amazing and I’ve learned so much from her it’s unreal. She had a genuine relationship with the 6th graders and wasn’t afraid to be strict. She is unfathomably strong and it’s her strength above all else that inspires me.
When I saw her in her kimono she looked so beautiful. I honestly can’t describe how much respect and admiration I have for this woman. All I know is that she will influence and inspire my life for decades to come and I know she will have the same effect on the children too.
After we said goodbye to the students, and the teachers stuffed me with celebratory ‘happy rice’ and pickled vegetables, I headed back to the office.
At this point I’ve been in Japan for nearly 9 months, two terms (the school year in Japan restarts in April).
I was distraught saying goodbye to the kids, so I can’t imagine how it’s been for the teachers; some of whom taught the children in earlier grades and have stayed around to watch them grow.
My first Japanese Graduation blew my mind. I saw beauty, sadness, happiness, nerves and excitement all at once. I saw humanity break through and spill all over formality and in a society often depicted as cold, I saw so much love. Love between students, parents and children as well as the strange, wonderful and genuine bond between teachers and students.
Even if I’m just a flash of ‘明るい’ (akarui) light in these children’s lives I know that they will always remain a part of mine.