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Sunday, April 11, 1999


Kindergarten graduation: the great transformation

There's no escaping the formalities of spring in Japan: graduation ceremonies, entrance ceremonies, retirement parties, etc. And each of these events is orchestrated as if it was the Academy Awards. If you've ever wondered where all the pomp and circumstance comes from, it starts in kindergarten, when 4- and 5-year-olds have to sit through lengthy, meticulously planned kindergarten graduation ceremonies as their last requirement to get into elementary school. The kindergarten graduation ceremony is the training ground for tomorrow's retirement-party emcees.

The kindergarten graduation ceremony is the point of a great transformation for children, when they go from being swirling masses of pandemonium to being bashful, obedient Japanese children.

Recently, I attended the Shiraishi Island kindergarten graduation ceremony, where I can no longer say that I am a volunteer English teacher since they started paying me a salary (5,000 yen per year). However, despite my promotion to a salaried position and my master's degree in Teaching English as a Second Language, I've never attained the status of "sensei." Everybody still calls me Amy-san.

At the ceremony I sat with all the other "sans," including a representative from the island's post office, on one side of the room. The senseis sat on the other side of the room.

The ceremony began as one of the senseis clicked on the portable CD player and triumphant music blasted through the crackling speakers. The graduates filed into the room in their kindergarten uniforms: smocks and hot pants. All had grown a few centimeters due to their recent discovery of correct posture. They marched counter-clockwise, single file around a large imaginary square in the room, turning on the ball of their left foot at every corner. Military glue held their hands to their sides. The students marched until they came to their seats, which were lined up in the center of the room. The portable CD was clicked off and the students performed a bow to some strong, dramatic chords on the piano. Then they all sat down at once.

This is very unlike kindergarteners, who normally don't move in any kind of order deemed appropriate by adults. I looked to see if the mothers, sitting in rows in the back of the room, were operating their children by remote control. None were.

The students, nervous and unsure of themselves, looked at their senseis for approval. But the senseis flashed stern looks at the students -- painful reminders that The Great Transformation had already begun and they would no longer be permitted to pick their noses, put their hands down their pants or have temper tantrums ever again.

After the dean opened the ceremony, various grown-ups from the audience went up to the podium and opened envelopes with short speeches written on them. Most all of the speeches started with something like, "Welcome to The Great Transformation."

Next, the dean awarded graduation certificates to the students individually. As he called out each name, the student stood up, marched around the imaginary square, again turning on the ball of the left foot at each corner, and approached the dean. At the X marked on the floor, the student stopped, gave a full bow to the dean, then walked up to receive the certificate. The kindergarteners, still at that awkward bowing stage, bent forward but often left the head dangling just below the waist as if their heads weren't fully attached to their necks yet.

What happened next appeared to be a shouting match but was actually a goodbye speech recited by all the newly graduated students to the younger classmates being left behind. The younger students retorted by reciting an equally prepared response, all at a decibel level rivaling that of a chain saw.

The climax of the ceremony was the graduation address given by the dean. After all, what do you say to 5-year-olds? Perhaps, "Never accept sushi from strangers" or "Always set your tadpoles free," but the dean didn't say this. He said, "Never forget what you learned in kindergarten."

How sweet. After all, I had worked hard to teach the students English. I hoped they would remember the English they learned in kindergarten.

The next day I saw one of the recent grads playing in the street. She had been my best English student. I said, "Hello, Arisa!" Arisa smiled bashfully and said, "Kon-nichiwa."

E-mail your comments and questions to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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