A rural Japanese elementary graduation
I’m in a room with maybe 30 other people. In an hour, almost all of them, including myself, will be crying. A couple will be rolling on the floor, unable to maintain composure, unable to do anything but weep.
I’m sitting on a little wooden stool from the science room next door. I’m part of an elaborate spectatorial structure: parents, teachers, students, a delegation of town officials, each older and more tired-looking than the next.
The emcee says, “Please applaud the entry of the graduating class.” One of the delegates claps once in anticipation. His hands hang in front of his face, prone.
The graduating students’ teacher, who is short but build like a train, strength-wise, enters. In my head I call him Buff-sensei but that’s not his name. The applause rears up. Five students follow Buff-sensei in. They’re dressed in their junior high school uniforms. They look serious and walk at right angles to the wall, take their seats.
After the national anthem and the school song, the graduating students cross the stage to receive their diplomas. This is where the crying usually starts. The kids say something like Thank you mom and dad for always supporting me and taking care of meand the parents cry and the children cry. Japanese graduations are very sad, generally speaking. But here, the students just say something along the lines of, “I’m going to try my best in junior high school,” or “Thank you mom for always making me breakfast.” No one is crying, no one looks moved.
The principal then makes a speech, a poignant, attractive speech. The kind of speech that a speechwriter would write. The work of someone who gets paid to do that work and that work alone. Then the PTA director talks for a while, and the head of the education department, whose speech is actually more like an interview without an interviewee. The vice-superintendent is leaning back with his bottom lip jutting and his eyebrows raised, like he’s just been impressively checkmated.
In the middle of these speeches, I notice one of the graduating students is sobbing a bit. The school grandma — and every school has one of these, a mythical old lady who has worked there longer than anyone except maybe the janitor — the school grandma gets up and offers a handkerchief to the sobbing girl. This sort of brash defiance of etiquette is characteristic of the Japanese school grandma. Most people don’t know whether to defer to age or tradition and so the grandma typically gets off totally scot-less like 99% of the time.
The adults done talking, the non-graduating students stand. They do this elaborate thing where they each shoot off a couple words, a clause, a short phrase, to make some longer speech. It’s very well-choreographed, considering that half of these students are under 8 years old. The girl who was sobbing before is actually crying at this point. She pulls a small towel, like a dish towel, out of a pocket in her skirt and wipes her eyes. The girl next to her is looking somewhere above her fellow students’ heads, her eyes darting around like she doesn’t know where to look. The boy on the other side of her — the confirmed leader of the class — is staring into the middle distance, stoic. Maybe he’s not even listening.
Then the graduating students do their own speech, again all fractured and phrasal, like, “Thank you for everything,” “You’ve done for us,” “Throughout the years.” “We’ll never forget,” “You.” In the middle of it, the girl who doesn’t know where to look starts sobbing a bit. The girl with the towel can’t find the pocket again in the folds of her skirt. She struggles for a couple of seconds and then just decides to hold the towel. The vice-principal of the middle school is leaning forward with this weird smile on his face. The kid in grade 1 looks confused, like Why is everyone crying? At the end of the speech, the student recite their last goodbyes, all together, which everyone seems to agree is very moving, because a fresh wave of crying breaks over students, teachers, and parents alike.
The students limp through one last song, as a full school. You could cut the pathos in there with a knife. Full verses are sobbed over, gasped over. The keys of the piano are wet with tears. As the song finishes, Buff-sensei leads the graduating students out of the room. The school grandma follows, dabbing her eyes — but she doesn’t actually appear to be crying.
There’s a short silence. Then the principal stands up way too fast and gestures for the delegates to leave, who also stand up pretty fast and move with undeniable purpose out the door.
The remaining students mop their faces and rearrange chairs. I’m standing, not sure whether I should follow the delegates out or not. Then the graduating students come back and it with the non-graduates, and the principal says, “We also have to say goodbye to three of our teachers.”
The first is the vice-principal, who has been at the school for 2 years. She’s very businesslike about it, saying things like “Thank you for the time here,” and “I’ve had a wonderful two years,” and “You’ve all grown up so much.” A couple of students start crying quitely, shoulders jerking, sucking air.
Next is the school grandma, who has been there for 7 years, which in Japanese schools is basically unheard of — that’s far longer than anyone stays at one school. She’s retiring, which means she’s not going anywhere, but she’s very genuinely upset that she doesn’t get to spend everyday with these kids anymore. The students can’t handle this; they break back out in tears. Bury their faces in their elbows, their knees, shake with grief. They don’t look up. They don’t know the third teacher to leave until he speaks up.
It’s Buff-sensei. He starts off steady. He always is. He’s a rock of a man, unflappable. The students don’t believe what they’re seeing. He’s been here for 7 years as well — longer than any of the students. There’s not a kid at this school who can fathom the school without him. The tears come silently now. The students are rapt. Buff-sensei says he’s moving to Kitami, an hour or so away. He says he’s sad that he won’t get to see the kids on the street, get to play soccer with them in the summer or cross-country ski with them in the winter. He pauses, screws up his mouth. I don’t think anyone in the room has seen him like this before. He clenches a fist and quickly unclenches it. He says Kitami isn’t that far away, it’s likely they’ll see each other again. Another pause, twisting his mouth. Muscles bulge on the sides of his head. The students are now weeping openly. There is no pretense of decorum. Even the grade 1 kid, who has known Buff-sensei for one year, is crying. Buff-sensei says he came from a big school to this small school, and he has had more experiences in the past 7 years at the small school than the previous fifteen years put together. A students falls out of his chair, he’s crying so hard. Buff-sensei pauses for a long time. His brow is knit, his lips pursed, his face a mask of pain. Shit, now I’m starting to cry, at school, in front of teachers, in front of parents. There’s not a dry-eyed person in the room. Buff-sensei sincerely thanks the whole school for the time he’s had the opportunity to spend there. He’s breathing pretty heavily. He looks like he’s lifting a huge weight, his whole person braced against it. He says thank you one last time and steps backwards.
We form two lines and the departing teachers walk between us. Buff-sensei gives a couple of the students high fives or squeezes their shoulders. At his touch their burst anew with weeping. I’m desperately trying to hold back the tears. My eyes are full. I watch the teachers leave. I’m upset and surprised. I feel like I’ve lost my cool in front of my coworkers. But they’re all crying too. We watch them go. They’re gone.
A couple of hours later, eyes dried and removed from the grief, I say my own goodbyes to the teachers. I shake their hands one by one. They smile and joke, I rib back, speaking half-English and half-Japanese. Their laughs are good-natured, light. When I shake Buff-sensei’s hand, he looks me in the eye, which I think is the first time that’s ever happened. The handshake feels good, firm without being overbearing, friendly. We’ve never been super close, Buff-sensei and I — he’s staid, a little unemotional. An unforgiving person might say he’s distant. But the handshake he gives — the first I’ve ever received from him — is textbook, the Platonic Form of handshakes, the handshake that so many men hope that they give, hope that they get, the kind of handshake that says, Good job, it’s been great, see you soon.