I have never thought of myself as a "crier" or a "sap", but that's what I turned into for this year's graduation.
Objectively speaking, I would probably still consider my first graduation (with students I'd only taught for about half a year) the highlight of my career as an ALT and one of my all-time most memorable moments because their messages to me were so touching and thoughtful. (You can read about the graduation here and their messages here.)
And I probably felt closest to the class (as a whole) that graduated last year.
But this year's graduation was truly special. These were students I'd taught for all but 5 months of their time in junior high. I helped them make their mascot, watched them rehearse their play, and helped them decorate their classroom for the school festival each year. We went on the school trip to Tokyo together. And--this is what I think really made the difference--I worried more about them more than any of the other students I was teaching or had taught before at Kirita.
I remember how in second year for a period of two or three weeks almost every single English class started with a lecture from T-sensei about how they needed to shape up, to take their studies more seriously &etc. Most of our conversations about the students revolved around the question of "What are we going to do with them?" and "What will become of them when they become third year students and have to prepare for high school entrance exams?" This year too, I was really worried about their study habits and whether they'd be able to pass the examinations for their high schools of choice.
But amidst the worries, I also saw a lot of things that made me really proud of them. There were lots of small things, like seeing them interacting with the first years (the boys were especially cute, with the third years patting the first years on the head, picking them up, etc. etc.) as well as many bigger things, like seeing their leadership during big events like the 体育祭 (Sports Festival) and 切中祭 (Kirita School (Culture) Festival).
I was especially impressed by their play for the 切中祭 this year. Even though I watched them practice it many times, I was still surprised at their amazing performance (they really gave it their all) during the real thing! 本当に最高でした - It was truly the best.
So yeah, with three years full of memories in my heart and mind, I couldn't help but start tearing up during the ceremony rehearsal the day before--right at the part where they were practicing receiving their certificates (卒業証書). The thing is, the first student to go up was one of the "cool" boys who never really did a proper bow for any of the regular あいさつ (greetings--like during cleaning time or various school assemblies). But even for the rehearsal he stood straight and tall and did a properly deep and respectful 90 degree bow. Seeing that made me get teary over how much the students had grown.
Then of course was the actual ceremony. Again, right at the presentation of the certificates I started tearing up. Even listening to 校長先生 (the principal)'s message kept my eyes damp since he recounted memories of each student during his speech--which of course made me reflect on my own memories of each of them.
I managed to regain my composure during the speeches by 課長 (my boss at the Board of Education) and PTA 会長 (chair), but I had to pull out the tissues to blow my nose a little during the song presentations. Out of all the song presentations I've heard at various events in my three years at Kirita, I've got to say that this year's graduation ceremony's was the best. Usually I kind of feel like the singing drags in places or I get distracted by their deadpan faces, but this year I felt like they really put their hearts into the songs (even though their faces were still not so expressive). It also didn't help that one of the second grade girls was crying while singing...
Still, I did manage to "manfully" hold back actual tears until right before the very end. For the last part of the ceremony, the students were all supposed to stand up, bow and thank the teachers, the guests, and their parents/fellow school mates before departing. But after thanking their parents, they all turned back towards the teachers instead of preparing to leave.
I'm pretty sure all of us teachers were a little confused until the students thanked their 担任先生 (homeroom teacher) for everything she had done for them over the past two years. When I heard that, I was so touched by their thoughtfulness I couldn't hold the tears back any longer. I wasn't sobbing or anything, but as I was applauding (while they were exiting the gymnasium), tears were streaming down my face. (And since I was clapping, I couldn't get to a tissue or anything to wipe away the tears.)
Thank goodness I decided to wear glasses for the ceremony. If I had to deal with the eye strain of wearing contacts on top of the strain of holding back tears for the better part of an hour, I would've had a massive headache by the end of the ceremony, I'm sure.
I also ended up tearing up a little when the students were leaving the 卒業お祝う会 (graduation party). All the teachers lined up and as the students passed they shook each of our hands as they made their exit. Even though I knew I'd be seeing them at school the next day (they were supposed to come after getting the results for the high school entrance exams), it really felt like a "final" farewell.
But as much as I "cried" (teared up, really) throughout the day, that was nothing compared to that evening. Right before bed that night, I finally sat down and carefully read the messages they had written for me on a large card. The messages weren't as...thoughtful as the messages I got two years ago, or even last year, but they were so completely in character for each student. Reading them made me remember so many things from the past three years that I was just suddenly swamped with emotion and started truly crying--hard enough that it took a good 15-20 minutes for the tears to stop.
You know, I always say that I "love" my students, but I think I didn't really know how much I truly loved this particular class until I found myself sobbing out those tears of joyful sadness. (As the saying goes, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.")
I felt this overwhelming sense of pride and joy that I was able to see them grow from devil-may-care, mischievous little first/second years into still mischievous but nonetheless wonderful sempai and school leaders. But at the same time I felt really lonely at the thought that I would no longer be seeing them at Kirita and moreover that I might not see some of them ever again.
Meetings and partings are a natural part of life, but knowing that really doesn't do much to make the partings any easier. It was quite an insanely emotional wringer of a graduation.