In Japanese schools, the School Sports Festival is always a big deal. For many students, it is the best day of the year. It’s a day when they can escape from the monotonous tedium of everyday class, and instead spend the time outside, running around, having a fun time with their friends and fellow classmates. This annual event occurs at every school in Japan, and in seeing it in person for the first time provided a unique opportunity to compare my own middle school experience with that of my own students. However, upon the conclusion of the festival, the commonality that I found to be the most potent was the poignant sense of heartache that I perceived in the faces of some third years as they finished their final sports festival. A sense that I too experienced last May, as I neared the day of my Graduation from Geneseo.
To contextualize the significance of the day, it is important to understand the structure of the Japanese school system. Rather than in America, where schools are funneled from one into the next, Japanese middle schoolers take entrance exams in their final year, and the scores of these exams affect the choice in high schools that the students can make come next year. If I was to compare them to American exams, the SATs and ACTs would be the most appropriate choices.
With each exam, the students are gathered into a classroom and take a test to measure their proficiency in mathematics, science, language, and logic, though Japanese entrance exams test both Japanese and English proficiency. And the students are graded based upon a comparison to the mean of all students. Those who earn higher scores are afforded more choices in potential high schools than those who earn lower ones, and because of this, a distinct culture and market has sprung up surrounding the exams.
Books are sold with the purpose of furthering independent study and review for the exams, and cram schools are an integral part of middle schoolers’ everyday lives. In comparison to the after school SAT/ACT Review classes frequented by American high schoolers, Japanese cram schools are weekly if not daily affairs in which students hold their noses close enough to the grindstone that they see nothing but the grindstone, and it is remarkably common for the students’ weekends to be consumed by cram school and its related work.
Along with all of this comes the additional stress of deciding which high school to attend. Japanese high school can be expansive or focused in their curriculum, and in deciding which high school to attend the students must begin to set in motion the momentum that will carry them through their next years of education and entry into the adult world.
To put it simply, the entrance exams mark the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, no matter how minor those beginnings may be, and the sports day is a piece of that soon-to-end childhood. Some of my students recognized this significant change and how its presence loomed over the days festivities, and one girl in particular, a member of the student council, herself soon to take her entrance exams, was the main source of the heartache that I felt at the end of the day.
In the principal’s final address to the student body, as he presented the awards for athleticism and teamwork, this girl began to weep, and by the end of the speech, as the students gathered for pictures with their friends and classmates, this girl was virtually inconsolable. Many of her friends tried to console her, though they were unable to staunch the tears’ flow, and some of them also succumbed to the palpable emotions of the moment. As I saw this unfold, I felt a great desire to give her a hug, and tell her that everything would be alright; and tell her that her friends will still be there when she needs them; and tell her that this is only the beginning of another chapter, one rife with new friends and new opportunities. But I couldn’t, due both to the time I have known her and the cultural limitations of Japanese society. All I could do was watch as she tried to reign in her free-roaming emotions.
Which was exactly what I saw happen.
As she gathered with her friends for pictures and consolation, I saw the tears gradually begin to slow. As the minutes grew in number, her sobs occasionally turned to smiles, and her tears began to dry. Eventually, she had regained her composure, but I could see in her face that nothing was what it once was. She had realized the gravity of the situation, and it had changed her. Yet, as I watched her venture off into the world from the Sports Festival, I knew in my heart that she was going to be okay; she understood the gravity of the situation, but she did not let it pin her to the ground. Instead, she walked away from the school that day with a smile on her face in the company of her friends, and she knew she was all the better for it.
In watching all of this, I was reminded of my own coping with graduation from Geneseo this previous May.
I had not contemplated the significance of the impending Commencement. Sure, I had understood that I would be graduating from college and moving on with my life to begin working in Japan, but I had not yet truly understood what that meant until the eve of my graduation. That night began like any other, as I went to my friend Peter’s house to meet up with him before we met the rest of our friends at the bars in Geneseo for a final night on the town. As we relaxed at his house, we listened to Panic! At the Disco’s album Death of a Bachelor, and album I had urged Peter to check out. Eventually, the time came to leave and we made our way down the street to Intermissions, the bar that we all frequented in Geneseo.
Of our motley crew from the school year, I was the one with the greatest fondness for Intermissions. It was the only place in town that I could get a Perfect Rye Manhattan on the rocks with a twist, and, though the bartenders, all of whom I still consider friends after we have all graduated, hated making them, they would still make the drink and give me some sass while they did it. It was a quiet bar where I could relax with my friends both behind the bar and seated next to me, and it provided a great reprieve from the stresses of class, work, relationships, and the rest of the world. It was a haven for my brothers and me.
Every Tuesday we would go for 50¢ Wing Night to enjoy good food and good company, and every Friday and Saturday night we would end the night at Intermissions with a cold beer and a quiet moment of reflection before we left one another for our homes. All of these experiences and more created some of the best moments of my life in Geneseo, and while I had observed and experienced much of them, I had never considered that they could end. This consideration came as I ordered my final undergraduate drink at Intermissions.
In Geneseo, I was the only undergrad who knew what a Manhattan was, and, more importantly, the only one who liked them; the Manhattan was my calling card at Intermissions. And during my time at Geneseo, I had accrued some free drink chips for Intermissions, all of which I had spent except for one, which I had always planned to use on the eve of Graduation. Coming into Intermissions that night, my intention was to cash in my chip, relish in my calling card, and go on to enjoy the rest of the night with my friends. However, plans never go the way you want them to.
As I sallied up to the bar, Tessa the bartender, told me that the chip is good for any drink of $5 or less, but that a Manhattan is $5.50. I responded with an appeal to sentiment, simply stating that night was my final night as an undergraduate, and, more than likely, the final Manhattan I would ever order from her. This convinced her to make the drink, but it also shattered my resolve. I had verbalized the idea that it would most likely be my final Manhattan in Intermissions, and this devastated me. As I contemplated the gravity of the situation, I sat in the chair I had always sat in at Intermissions. The chair where I had eaten hundreds of wings, had innumerable conversations, debates, and arguments, and where my friends had become my brothers. Under the weight of these realizations and remembrances, I began to cry.
Just as the principal’s speech made my student realize the impermanence of her time in middle school amongst her friends, my final Manhattan made me realize my own impermanence in Geneseo amongst my brothers. These realizations brought us both to inconsolable tears, and our friends were all helpless to stop our emotions from gushing forth. However, eventually the tears subsided, and we were able to go back to our companions, relatively stable, and able to again enjoy the time that remained together, however short it may have been.
For each of us Middle School and Intermissions fulfilled the same purpose: they were the places where we could go to see that our troubles were all the same and where everybody knew our names. They provided comfort and a sense of community for each of us, and while we may have cried that it is over, we are smiling even brighter because it happened. Time persists, and our memories along with it, which are the things that keep us grounded, the things that keep us connected.
Memories help us find the places where everybody knows our names, and it helps those people remember our names after we have gone. And we make new memories everyday, and from those memories our names will continue on. All we have to do it keep making them.
Song of the Week
“Impossible Year” by Panic! At the Disco
With this week’s post being partly focused on my final night in undergrad, I find it only appropriate to use the final song of Death of a Bachelor as this week’s song. As a lover of ballads, particularly those of the slower, Sinatra-esque variety, this song is one which never fails to stir at least something in my stomach. However, the lyrical content is what really makes me love this song. The entire song is about the end of an era, the end of something good, and I am still unable to believe the way that it fits so perfectly into the framework of my life these past few months. In many ways, this has been an impossible year for me, be it graduating college, moving to Japan, or saying goodbye to friends and family so much sooner that I though I would have had to. And for my students, I know this impending year will be equally impossible for them as they move forward and onto new opportunities in their lives. There may not be good times or sunshine, or even you and me, but this year will surely be impossible in one way or another. All that can be done is to roll with the punches and make the impossible situations into the best situations.
If you would like to listen to this song or any of the other prior Songs of the Week, check out the Spotify Playlist linked above!