Graduations and appreciations

Graduation season has rolled around again here in Japan. I don’t remember how much I’ve talked about graduations on here offhand, but today was the graduation at my elementary school. Back home, the idea of graduation from elementary school seems silly, but here in Japan it’s a big rite of passage. As part of the ceremony at my elementary school, the students make a short speech after they get their diplomas, thanking their parents for raising them up that point. After that, they go to meet their parents in the audience and hand off the diploma, a gift from the PTA (which has been a Japanese-English dictionary every year that I’ve been here), and a small bouquet of flowers they receive so that they can go back to their seats and do their part in the rest of the ceremony unencumbered.

Usually the speeches are all very similar; some kids cry and some don’t, but in Japan affection is generally expressed by actions rather than words and the kids thank their parents for things they have done. Thank you, Mom, for getting up early every day to make my lunches. Thank you, Dad, for playing with me and helping me with my homework even though you must’ve been tired from working all day. There are variations on this, sometimes specific/recent things that really stood out to the kids, but for the most part it’s all more or less the same.

Before the ceremony today, I was talking to Mrs. Awesome* and this subject came up, which prompted this post. She told me that when her grandson graduated from elementary school, he surprised everyone with his speech. Instead of the usual things, he talked about how much he loved watching his parents work with the cows on their farm. He told them that he wanted to be a dairy farmer just like them. Mrs. Awesome said that her son and his wife had no idea that he planned to follow in their footsteps; many parents in Japan still pressure their kids to take up the family trade, but they hadn’t.

*Mrs. Awesome is a nickname, of course. I’m sure I’ve her mentioned before, though it’s been a while; she’s one of the older folks in town and spent ten years as an international phone operator before taking up a job as cultural ambassador and interpreter for the U.S Navy. Her mind is still sharp as a katana, though she’s a lot more bent over than she was when I arrived, and she has such an interesting range of experiences to share. I love talking to her, both in Japanese and English.

This reminded me of an unusual speech we had just last year, from one of the boys. When I first got here, this boy’s family consisted of just him and his dad. I don’t know what happened to his mother; I gradually became aware of the fact that he didn’t have one through roundabout evidence. He and one other student, a girl who was a few years behind him, both got very attached to me very quickly. Her dad was another town employee, so I saw him a lot, and I realized that their family was just the two of them because of the unusual situations in which I saw them together and all the times I never saw the girl with a woman. Once I figured out that their family was lacking a mother and that this lack was probably why the girl took to me so hard and so fast, I realized that this boy must not have one either, and it turned out I was right. The boy’s father remarried, though, while he was still in elementary school. His new mom had also been running a single-parent household, though with two kids instead of one, so when they came together the family became a five-person family (which had risen to six by graduation).

When the boy got to the microphone, he had barely gotten the word “Dad” out before he was in tears. Thank you, Dad, for getting up early to make my lunches all those years, even though you had to work long hours to pay the bills. Thank you, Dad, for playing with me and helping me with my homework, even though you were tired when you got home. Dad had tears rolling down his face, too. They were tight, those two. Then the boy addressed his stepmother. Mom, I’m so glad we’re a family now. I’m glad to have you and my brother and sisters in my life. I love you all.

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