I expect I’ll always remember March 2013 as one of the saddest times in my life. It’s been a tough week and it will only get worse until the term ends on the 22nd.
With graduation coming up in less than two weeks at all of my schools, classes are drawing to a close and the end-of-year finality is heavy in the air. Yesterday I was invited to a shaonshiki at one of my visiting elementary schools, which is a thank-you ceremony that the graduating students put on for the teachers and staff. I have two more of these to get through (one for each of my schools), not to mention graduation as my third-year junior high students move on to high school, but I’m choosing to write this post before any of those other events. I suspect I’ll be so rubbed raw emotionally over the next two weeks that I’d be dripping all over the keyboard…
What makes shaonshiki so unbearably poignant, I think, is a combination of two potent factors. First, as a teacher, I feel the unavoidable sadness of sending off students with whom I’ve spent hours of classes and exchanged countless greetings and banter; students with whom I’ve shared the desperate frustration of trying to cross the language barrier. (In my *last ever* class with the junior high third-years today, I felt that helpless frustration for the billionth time as a student eagerly asked me a question in Japanese which I couldn’t understand. I thought, maybe by the grace of God I can give this student the small gift of a successful exchange before I say goodbye forever – but no such luck.)
Wrapped up in this teacherly pain is a parental concern for the kids, which leads me to the second stab of shaonshiki: I realize with surprise that maybe the hallmark intense groupism of Japan has rubbed off on me. As I watch my students, thanking the teachers and staff with stiff formality but full of emotion, I find myself feeling everything on their behalf.
These young teenagers fight through tears as they prepare to leave the group of peers and adults that’s been their community for six formative years. Nobody in the class of twenty-six is immune. Not Oyama, who was Mr. Personality all year, loud and confident and always joking; not Mori, who was sweetly silly, constantly smiling, and whose favorite pastime in English class was saying his own full name with an exaggerated American accent. Those students who are dry-eyed still can’t hide their set mouths, tight lips, drawn faces.
And I want so badly to be a grown-up for them: to smile at them, tell them it will be okay, tell them that about a decade ago I was in their shoes, young and scared and uncertain about the future. But my throat is painfully tight as I see in my class of young, bubbly sixth graders the misery that comes with ending a chapter in their lives.
Also, it’s simply not true that I was in their shoes when I was that age. Thinking back on my own commencement ceremonies at elementary and middle school, I remember being a few things – relieved to be done with that level of school; excited to move on; happy and proud to be celebrating with my family and school community. I definitely wasn’t sad. And that’s only natural: in American society, school was nowhere near as big a part of my life as it is for these Japanese kids.
As all ALTs in Japan come to understand, teachers and students have a much closer relationship here than in the United States. And with Japanese adults working famously long hours, plus school and club activities in the evenings and on weekends, many of my students have probably spent more time with the teachers and staff than with their parents.
Somehow the fact that I’ll see these students in less than a month, when they enter my junior high school, doesn’t console me as much as I would expect. Again, I feel that my whole pattern of thinking and feeling has been impacted by this culture, and I can’t escape the collective sadness that this room full of students, teachers, staff and parents seems to feel as one.
All I can ask for during this trying month is to be as strong as these students are forced to be: to face the future with their grace, their maturity, and their bravery. I can be thankful, too, that my job is something I care enough about to shed tears over.