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Friday, March 22, 2002

MATTER OF COURSE

SAYONARA, SIXTH-GRADERS!

Students give seniors a rousing send-off


My first-grader sighed at the dinner table the other night. "Sakamoto-kun is graduating soon," he said sadly. Who? I had never heard of anyone by this name. "He's one of the sixth-graders," my son explained. "He showed me a magic trick and helps me at school."

How nice! I remember how I felt about the sixth-graders when I started elementary school in the United States. They were big and scary. I steered clear of them.

But the school my children attend in Japan encourages good relations between the youngest and oldest students. Sixth-graders come to the first-grade classrooms to help during cleaning time. They also help with lunch, which is served in the classroom by the students themselves. It's a big job for first-graders, so the senior students help out.

There are many benefits to this exchange. The first-graders feel less intimidated, and they also get kind role models. Meanwhile, the sixth-graders learn to help younger children and can also see how competent they themselves have grown to be.

I don't mean to imply that our sixth-graders are angels. My kids complain that some sixth-graders are bossy and mean. But over the course of the year, many of the young students form real bonds with the sixth-graders, like that between my son and Sakamoto-kun.

This was clear when I observed a school ceremony in honor of the graduating sixth-graders. This event, with the rather cumbersome title of rokunensei o okuru kai (send-off for the sixth-graders), is very common at Japanese schools. Ours was held the first Saturday in March during regular school hours and lasted about an hour. Parents don't usually attend, but I slipped in to watch.

The 52 sixth-graders were assembled at the front of the gymnasium. All around them sat the younger students. One grade at a time, the younger students feted the sixth-graders with words of thanks and special performances.

The first-graders started with what is called yobikake (acclamation). One student called out a carefully rehearsed line. "The first time we saw you at our school entrance ceremony, we thought you were so big!" The rest chorused with "So big!" Another child called out in a clear voice, "Thank you for helping us clean our classroom." The rest chimed in with "Thanks." "You did such difficult things at Sports Day," a third child called out, followed by a chorus of "Really cool!"

Then, the first-graders picked up keyboard harmonicas, xylophones, bells, drums and triangles and played a song. They were so cute, I had tears in my eyes.

The third-graders were also impressive. They thanked the sixth-graders for showing them how things are done during chiiki seiso, the neighborhood cleanup that students in third grade and up take part in once a semester. "Don't forget us after you go to middle school!" the third-graders called out. Then they played "Puff the Magic Dragon" on their recorders. In three-part harmony!

Besides honoring the graduating students, the event fosters a sense of responsibility for the school. This is when the sixth-graders officially pass on their special jobs to the fifth-graders about to take their place at the top of the student body.

First, the sixth-graders handed over the school flag, which they had raised every morning during the year. Then they performed, for the very last time, the march that is always played by sixth-graders at the annual Sports Day. When they finished, they took off their instruments and passed them with due ceremony to the fifth-graders. The fifth-graders promised to do their best at the next Sports Day and performed a rousing rendition of "Anchors Aweigh."

At the end of the ceremony, the fourth-graders held up flower arches made with 300 flowers they'd folded themselves from tissue paper. The sixth-graders walked under the arches and out of the gymnasium to the applause of the other students and staff. What a lovely send-off!

I chatted with the assistant principal after the event. The send-off for the sixth-graders is always a fun and interesting event, she said, because it's different every year. The students themselves decide what they will perform, she explained, adding special praise for this year's fourth-graders. "They can make people laugh! That shows you how creative they are and how much they've grown," she observed.

My older son is in fourth grade, so I asked him for the inside story. He told me that a committee of six kids was appointed to come up with suggestions. The most popular idea -- to quiz the sixth-graders about important events in their lifetimes -- was picked.

The kids came up with three multiple-choice questions, posed to the graduates in game-show format. "Who was the prime minister of Japan the year you all were born?" (Ryutaro Hashimoto); "What was the most popular animated cartoon the year you entered elementary school?" ("Chibi Mariko").

Their final question got the most laughs: "In 2002, the year you will enter middle school, the World Cup soccer finals will be held in Japan and what other place?" Everyone roared with laughter as fourth-graders held up signs with the first two possible answers: A: Afghanistan. B: The sixth-grade classrooms. Smart kids that they are, our sixth-graders all raised their hands for the correct answer (South Korea).

The cheerful send-off for the sixth-graders is just one of many ways the school celebrates the graduating students. Our sixth-graders went on a special pre-graduation excursion to Tokyo Disneyland. They got to set the school lunch menu for two days in March so they could have their favorites one last time. One class requested spaghetti with meat sauce; the other asked for ramen.

And, of course, there is a formal graduation ceremony, attended by their parents and grandparents.

Sayonara, sixth-graders. Sayonara, Sakamoto-kun. O-sewa ni narimashita -- thank you for everything. I'm sure you'll do great in middle school.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.


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