Monday, March 17, 2008

Why I'm Here

As a teacher there is nothing more rewarding than seeing your students graduating and moving forward on the path of their choice knowing that you have touched their lives in some way, large or small.

Wednesday (March 5) was graduation day for the sannensei at Kirita. It was a very formal, organized affair, so in preparation we spent the first half of Tuesday in rehearsals. But somehow, even though we practiced the entire ceremony two and a half times on Tuesday, when it came to the real thing, it was still very moving.

The ceremony began with the entrance of the sannensei, led by their teacher, Ito-sensei. It was interesting because in Canada everyone rises during a processional (like at weddings) but here everyone remained seated and there was no clapping, so it was very solemn. (Well, it should have been solemn but I couldn't help being amused at the awkward way most of them were walking--with slightly exaggerated arm and leg movements, like toy soldiers.)

After the introductory greetings and singing of the Japanese national anthem, they went straight into giving out the diplomas. Again, this was all very formal and solemn with no clapping. Then we went into various speeches--from the principal, the Board of Education, the PTA, the class valedictorian, etc. This was a little tiring because for different people we had to do different things in terms of bowing. Sometimes we had to stand up to bow to them, and other times we could stay seated.

Following all the speeches, the ichi- and ninensei sang a song for the grads. It was very cute, particularly since some of the girls had already started crying but were doing their best to sing and not sniffle/wipe away their tears. Then the sannensei joined them and they all sang together. Finally, the ichi- and ninensei returned to their seats and the sannensei sang by themselves. Again, it was touching because many of the girls were crying but still doing their best to sing--this was particularly important since they weren't miked and there was only twelve of them altogether. Since I have sympathetic tear ducts (i.e. when I see people crying it makes me start tearing up as well) I had to look at the boys during the song to maintain my composure.

Once the ceremony was over, there was an organized photo time with the grads. Then they went upstairs to get all of their stuff while the ichi- and ninensei and teachers lined up downstairs to congratulate the grads as they left. I stood in the little alcove where first came down the stairs so I could hand them their presents right away. (The previous day, the vice-principal and some of the other teachers had discussed the best time for me to give them their presents and it was decided that it would look good for them to be holding the gift bags as they walked through the "reception line.")

After that there was a short post-mortem meeting for all the teachers. We also had a small lunch: sandwiches of the type that could be purchased from any local convenience store ("konbini")--tuna and mayo, pizza, gratin croquette, etc.--and sakura mochi. Then it was off to the "after party".

At the party, all the grads were sitting at the front (closest to the stage) tables, separated by gender, and the teachers were seated with the parents, in an alternating arrangement. There was a heck load of food--nabe, sushi, sashimi, fried onigiri, salad, fruit, etc. and there were many presentations by different groups as well.

The male grads (5) did "sushi Russian roulette": they put strange toppings in some of the sushi--a lot of wasabi, jam, etc.--and we all watched their reactions as they ate. There was about three rounds and then they got some of the teachers and parents to try their luck as well.

The girls (7) had three different performances. Three girls sang one song and three girls sang another with one girl accompanying them on the violin (she's going to a Tokyo high school for violin). Then all of them sang a song together.

After that, all of us teachers performed a graduation version (written by Ikeda-sensei) of "Sen no Kaze ni Natte". ("Sen no Kaze ni Natte" is a Japanese song based on the poem "Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.") It's a very well-known song, plus we had already performed it at the Kirita graduation party the previous week, so when we invited everyone to sing along, many of the (female) students (along with some parents) joined in.

Once we had finished, the students gave each of the teachers a bouquet of flowers and an envelope with messages from them. (It worked out perfectly with twelve teachers and twelve students) and we took a couple of group photos. After that Ito-sensei and Ikeda-sensei, i.e. the teachers in charge of the sannensei, gave short speeches.

Next the mothers performed a dance routine. It was hilarious! They were wearing brightly coloured wigs and (homemade) flapper-style fringe dresses. When the call for an encore came, all of the students plus a couple of teachers (but not me!) joined in. It was a lot of fun!

In between the various acts there was a slide show of the sannensei from the time they were ichinensei up to the present. It even had a video of their Kirita entrance ceremony. They were so small and cute back then!

The final presentation was messages from each of the graduating students. It was really cute. The guy I would peg as the "coolest" guy in the class started crying during his speech. And he wasn't just teary-eyed, he was nearly sobbing--but he manfully kept on going . (I don't know why, but I find it really cute when boys cry in public, like in the hockey World Junior Championships.) Almost all of the girls were teary-eyed/crying during their messages as well. It was very moving to see each of them sincerely thanking their teachers and family.

One student moved me to tears as well (and not just because I have sympathetic tear ducts). She started off her speech by saying, in English: "First I want to give a message to Melissa. I will study English very hard in high school. I want to be like Melissa."

By itself I guess that doesn't sound so meaningful, but you have to realize that this is the student I worked with for hours on preparing for an extra-curricular speech contest (held in a high school?). We practiced during her lunch breaks and after school, plus she went to see another English tutor afterwards from 8pm-10pm (or something like that) for 3-4 days a week. We also spent several lunch hours together practicing interview questions for the interview for a special English program at a Hachinohe high school.

Moreover, in the program for the graduation ceremony, in the section where the grads wrote about their future aspirations, she wrote this:

Watashi no akogare wa, ALT no Melissa-sensei desu. Jibun no kuni wo hanarete, shitteiru hito ga daremo inaku, bunka mo kotoba mo chigau tokoro de, tsurai koto bakari no hazunano ni, itsumo egao de iru koto wa totemo sugoi koto to omou kara desu.

(I admire Melissa-sensei because I think it is amazing that, although she is away from her own country and facing difficulties alone in a place where she doesn't know anybody and the culture and language is different, she is always smiling.)

So when she said her message at the graduation party, I knew that she sincerely meant every word. And they were exactly the words I'd always wished to hear--right from the time I decided to become a teacher--from a student, but didn't think I ever would (because I was such a poor teacher in Canada).

It wasn't just that student, either. I was moved by the message I received from each student (even as I was amused by some of them). (But I'm posting those messages in a separate post.)

But yeah, after the students gave their individual messages, all the parents and teachers lined up and formed a human arch (with our arms) that the students went through to leave. Then they all got onto a bus and (presumably) went home while the teachers and parents got to stick around and drink (alcohol, of course) and talk.

It was fun. Some of the parents told me that their son/daughter always looked forward to classes with me, and/or that they were always bringing home things "from Melissa." One mother told me how her son would come into the car and immediately eat all of the cookies (or whatever else I'd given them) by himself, without even offering to share them with his three younger siblings. =P

After about an hour and a half to two hours, we closed the party. There was a nijikai (second party) but both my JTE (whom I'd gotten a ride from) and I were pretty tired, so we went home. I was happy to have received my first invitation to a (Kirita) nijikai, though.

That night, as I reflected on the day, there were two dominant thoughts running through my head: "This is why I'm in Japan," and "I can totally see why people end up staying for three, four, or even five years!"

I mean, I was only with the sannensei for half a year and I already miss them now that they've graduated. I don't know how I'm going to be able to leave my students after being with them for two years!

But that's something to think about at a later date.

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