My 3nensei graduate on friday. The Japanese school year finishes at the end of the spring term, and the graduation ceremonies are held on the 10th, to give the kids time to sit their high school entrance exams. So it's time to say goodbye. Sort of.
At one of my schools, I've taught the sannensei once all year. At another twice. I don't know those kids, and I couldn't name a single one of them. The only way it matters to me is that I'll probably see less of my current 2nensei when they move up a grade come April.
At the Mountain School, I had my last class with the 3nensei on monday. I wished them good luck at high school, and thanked them for our classes together. They thanked me back. And that was that.
Today, I had my last 3nensei class at Shinjo. And I wish it wasn't so. The two 3nensei classes at Shinjo are great. Sometimes, I go to schools hoping for a good class. At a few places, I expect one. With 3A and 3B, alone out of all my classes, I was always certain of one. A lot of them can actually speak some English, which is a shock in itself. More than that, they actually like it! From September onwards, whenever I came to the school, they would drag me to their classrooms to talk to me, sometimes in Japanese, sometimes English. If I had class with another year group, they would come and pester the teachers about arranging a class with them. They have been uniformly great to me, and I knew that saying goodbye wasn't going to be easy.
Today, they gave me a bouquet of flowers in front of the rest of the school. Both classes had made a huge "thankyou and goodbye" card, and every kid had written a message in English. Two of the low-ability boys who've never given any indication of particularly enjoying studying came up to me when they thought no-one was looking to tell me "Thank you, I had a good time." I ended up giving my e-mail address to most of the year group. I dare to think that some of them might even write to me.
I could tell you stories about at least a dozen kids in those classes; about Miki and Chie and Kyohei and Kana and Nakano and Waka and Yoshiki. But I wouldn't know where to start, or when to stop. So I'll just tell you about Chisato.
Chisato is a big soft lump. And I mean that as a compliment. Chisato is tall, and broad-shouldered, and just physically big. Her most distinguishing feature is her unkempt mop of hair, which hangs down over her eyes. Chisato is mature for her age, and kind of quiet (except when she's loud). She's friends with pretty much everyone, and she really, genuinely cares for all of them. At any social event, she's usually the one with standing at the back with moral support and a camera, unofficially in charge of cheering everyone on and recording happy memories for them. With her maturity, though, come melancholy and nostalgia. She thinks about things too much, sad things especially. Coming back from school after helping out with clubs, I usually run into her out walking her dog, staring wistfully at the trees, or the river or the sky. I thought I was a melancholy kid, but she has me beat by a long shot.
Chisato comes and talks to me about random things; asks questions; makes jokes. In any school but Shinjo she'd be unique; even there, she stands out. She's the only kid I've talked to who has some fairly detailed understanding of and interest in Britain specifically. Surprisingly enough, she really loves Billy Elliot, and my living so close to where the film's set sent her into raptures.
She's also into British punk and rock bands. One day she showed me her secret notebook of clippings from the NME (I still have no idea where she would get a copy). and stuff she managed to find in Japanese magazines. At the end of last term, she made me Franz Ferdinand New Year's Card. Outside of the shogakko kids who (often literally) throw themselves at you, Chisato has made the most effort out of anyone to get to know me. I consider her a friend.
The thought of graduation hurts Chisato. Hurts her a lot. These kids have been together for a long time. 3 years for some, 9 years for most. There's enough of them to form a diverse community, few enough for everyone to know everyone else. It's the sort of school community I'd like to have been a part of.
The 3 Tanabe high schools (and the one just over the civic border in Kamitonda) accept pupils based on differing academic ability. So the smart kids go to the Academic High School, the not so smart ones to the Commercial High School or Kamitonda, and those who're just putting off finding a job go to the Industrial High School. So at the end of this week, Shinjo's little community go their own separate ways.
Most of them realise this, and are a little sad. Chisato's been dreading it for months, and its inevitable approach is making her life hell. Oddly enough, I realised this pretty much on my first visit to Shinjo, when today seemed a long, long time in the future. Like I said, Chisato is sensible and mature, but she would cry sometimes. Cry at odd, odd, times, when everyone else was having fun; the sports day, the culture festival, the end of term ceremony. She'd try not to cry, but she couldn't help it. So she'd go and sit off to the side somewhere, apologising and trying to smile hrough the tears, whilst Eri and Nozomi patted her on the head like the family dog, and made jokes about how weird she was.
Once I got to know her, I understood why she got so upset - because each of these events was a Last Time. The Last Time her friends would do these yearly traditions with each other. Everyone's last sports day together. The last closing and opening ceremonies before graduation. The mental markers you erect to count down the time until The End. I know becase I do it myself. And when you don't want The End to happen, each succesive marker is sadder and sadder.
Today was what Kushigami-sensei's lesson plan kindly (if ominously) termed "Farewell to Steve" plus the final practice run of the Graduation Ceremony before the thing itself. The last school events before friday.
Chisato cried twice. She made it until half-way through the second practice of the second graduation song. Very good going, I thought - Japanese graduation songs are the most melancholy, tear-inducing music on the face of the planet. She managed to sing on to the end of the song, with Yuki holding her hand for the last verse. In the interval afterwards, me and her form teacher took over the head-patting role while the other girls tickled her and told jokes about she was getting confused between the practice ceremony and the real thing, and how she should hold off the tears until friday.
After school, I stayed behind for 90 minutes to do clubs with the 1 and 2nensei. On my way home, I bumped into Chisato, out on her evening walk. I thanked her for everything, and asked her to please try to write to me. As I should have guessed, this set her off crying again. So I did what I instinctually do in these situations, even if it is stupid - I got off my bike, and I hugged her and made horrible, horrible jokes until she stopped crying. Then she started apologising, so I had to repeat the process until she stopped that too.
What I really wanted to do next, and in an ideal world would have done, was take her home with me, make her some tea, and spend an hour explaining to her all the things I wish someone had explained to me when I was a teenager. How some of her friends will still go to school with her, and how she'll still live close to the others. How, yes, it *is* sad that you have to say goodbye to a time in your life you love, but that it's inevitable, and not neccessarily a bad thing. That this is a beginning as well as an end. And how someone as manifestly good and kind as her should be able to make new friends and be just as happy in her new environment as her old one.
But I couldn't do that. Obviously. And as a large foreign man in a small town, nor could I really stand about in a public place with a schoolgirl who's clearly on the verge of tears. That kind of thing leads to nasty misunderstandings.
So I told her the things I could get across quickly, and without mistakes. That I'm glad I met her. That I'll miss her. That she's a good person. That she should take of herself. Then I said goodbye.
When I got home and read the thank-you cards, I found she'd said exactly the same things to me.
Without wishing to be melodramatic, I think that tonight, for the first time since I got here last July, I'm going to cry out of genuine, heartfelt sadness.
Goodbye, guys. It's not going to be the same without you.