Graduation Day is a milestone in any student’s life, and a great occasion at any school, and today it was our turn. For the students, of course, it is a day of very mixed emotions; the joy of graduating, and the sadness of saying goodbye to the school, their friends and teachers. For the teachers, it’s a formal day, but also a day to celebrate with the students as they come to the end of their school career.
Attire is formal, which in Japan means black, very dark grey or, at a pinch, navy. For men, that translates to a black suit, white shirt and white (or pale and discreet) tie. For women, a black suit, pearls and maybe a corsage. We were ready in the school auditorium by 9:45, and the ceremony started at 10. Since it’s a Christian school, its official title is Service of Thanksgiving and Graduation Ceremony, complete with hymns and prayers.
We started with a hymn and prayers, a psalm (the 23rd) and a reading from the Bible (1st Corinthians Ch.12), then the Choir sang an anthem. Next was my favourite part of the ceremony; the reading of an account of the school’s history, the names of our Founder and first principal, and the total number of graduates over our long history. (This year we are celebrating 125 years, so it is a very long history.) The first graduating class was only one student, but this year (as every year now) there were over 160 and in 125 years there have been over 10,000. This year the account was especially touching and beautifully written.
Then came the most important part; each student received her graduation certificate. It took about 45 minutes for them all to go up to the stage one by one, and was lovely to see each student one final time, and to think about how each one has grown in six years. After that we sang the school song and there were speeches; the principal, the invited speaker, and then an 11th grader wished the graduating class on their way. Finally, there were Speeches of Thanks in Japanese and then English.
Finally, the students (the graduating class plus the 10th and 11th graders who are there to share the occasion) stood to sing the Hallelujah Chorus, we had some prayers and another hymn, and it was over. The new graduates filed out, followed by the invited guests and senior staff, and then the students clambered onto precarious-looking stands to take commemorative photos.
We teachers retreated to the staffroom, where we scavenged for food in the kitchen and wondered when lunch would be. Once the mothers and students had finished their preparations, a delegation was dispatched to the staffroom to summon us to the sports hall. The mothers sat together, and the students and staff (teaching, office and ancillary) sat together at the remaining tables. More speeches, and then the Chaplain said grace, and we could open our boxed lunches. For me, this year, it was an unpleasant surprise, since I don’t eat meat and it was almost all beef and steak. Even the sushi was steak! I quickly shared out the meaty bits to the students around me and ate the remaining rice and fish.
There were more speeches; from the Old Girls’ Association and the PTA, both accompanied by presentations of gifts to the new graduates. The head teacher of the 12th grade made a speech, and then it was announced that there was an addition to the programme. A small group of about eight students came to the front, carrying descant and tenor recorders, said that they hoped we would find their performance relaxing,and tooted their way through a very pretty tune. Then we were back to the published programme, and the whole graduating class stood around the hall to sing two songs in what amounted to surround sound for the mothers and staff sitting at the tables. The songs were rather sentimental, and by the end of the second one a number of girls were crying, but still singing and smiling through their tears. There was a half-hearted attempt to sway with the music, but different clusters of girls swayed in opposite directions, leaving other parts of the long line not knowing which way to sway. It was almost the end of the ceremony. The vice principal spoke and then it was time to put all the remains of our lunch in a carrier bag and leave the hall. We walked back to the staffroom and by 3:30 it was all over.
I’ve worked at the same school for fifteen years, so I have seen a lot of these ceremonies. We even managed to keep going and have one two years ago, only four days after the Great East Japan Earthquake. It’s a formal day and with hours spent sitting on folding chairs listening to a lot of speeches it’s not something I look forward to with unmitigated enthusiasm. But for the students it’s a hugely important day. At some time in their school careers I have taught them all, and the whole day is a very slow goodbye to them. I didn’t cry today, but do feel emotional when I teach them for the last time and think about all the adventures and opportunities that lie ahead for them.
I am deliberately not naming the school, but I wanted to include a photo. What struck me today was the joy of all the students, how much they have enjoyed their six years at school, and how much they will miss each other. Japanese teenagers are more childlike than their British and American counterparts, and sometimes, even in the senior high school, can be endearingly goofy. We spell out the name of the school in pansies in a flowerbed at the top of the drive, the students will happily compete in a quiz and get excited about stickers, and this is a reasonable get-up for fund-raising at the annual Bazaar: