Friday, September 13, 2013

Saying "Sayonara" to my School

Though my time in Japan wrapped up over a month ago, there are still stories and experiences swirling around in my head that I was unable to put down in writing in my frantic final days. And honestly, since coming home, I haven't wanted to think about Japan too much just yet. But there are stories that I want to remember, and if I don't write them down, I'm afraid of them slowly fading into something barely recognizable.

One thing I still can't get over is how ceremonious the whole goodbye process is in Japan. It's draining when you're the one saying goodbye. But, as someone who likes things to come full circle, and who likes to be aware of transitions and "last" experiences, I appreciate the time that is devoted to these things. My final big goodbye, to my junior high school, especially stands out in this regard.

I remember when my students first found out I was leaving. It was sometime in June. I was eating lunch with a second-grade class (grade 8 in Canada), and the other teacher in the room came over to my table.

"Did you know that Katie sensei is going back to Canada this summer? She will be leaving Masuda," he said, conversationally.

The kids, at first, appeared nonplussed, or as if they hadn't understood. Then they began talking with each other in Japanese, and I realized they were trying to figure out how to respond when one of them asked the others, "how do you say "sad" in English??"

One of the girls looked at me for a long time. "Katie sensei...why? Why?"
I explained that I would be going back to school in the fall.
"Oh. Very sad."
More group discussion and translation ensued, before one of the boys said, slowly and carefully, "please, don't go."

Fast forward a month and a half. My final goodbye lessons came, and passed by just as swiftly. I don't usually get to lead entire class periods by myself, so it was great to get to do so, and to see the kids having fun while doing it. We played a Jeopardy-style Canadian quiz game, and I gave a talk encouraging them to learn about foreign cultures and to remember that every country is DIFFERENT from Japan and that DIFFERENCE is good -- though I'm not sure how much of it they understood. I even managed to play them a song on guitar -- I was worried that I would choke up, but somehow I managed to make it through. Several students came up to chat at the end of each class, asking more about what I would be doing in Canada or the Green Day song I had just played for them; some of them told me they would email me, and some of them did. And just like that, my classes were over, done, and finished.

But as I said, goodbyes are a big, drawn-out deal in Japan, so of course it wasn't all over just yet. The following week I wrapped up my elementary visits, and then it was time for the official last day of school and my goodbye ceremony. Time to drag my suit out of the closet for one last formal occasion, prepare a 3 minute speech in Japanese, and make sure I remembered when to bow and when to stand and sit. Fortunately, I did remember, and the speech even went okay. The students were shocked to hear so much Japanese come out of my mouth at once, and one of my speech contest students in turn gave a touching English speech to me, while others presented me with flowers and books filled with personal thank-you notes from every kid in the school.

I couldn't seem to get this picture up without it being sideways. Anyway, this boy wrote "good luck" on the back and that he's cheering for me :) "FIGHTO!!"

A whirl of formalities, and the ceremony was over. The rest of the day was spent playing sports and having fun, with students traipsing into the staff room throughout the day to hand me notes and pictures and handmade hair scrunchies.

A note from the two special needs students, in which Yasuhiko tells me that at first, he liked me "just a little", and asks me to please come and watch him play basketball in the All-Yokote tournament when he's in his final year.
After school the teachers met for my goodbye/end-of-term enkai (work party), and I had the most fun that I think I've ever had at an enkai in Japan. I had a chance to talk to almost every single one of the teachers, and didn't feel my usual awkwardness when it was officially time to mingle and move around the room. The teachers presented me with a yukata (a beautiful kimono-style robe worn to festivals in the summer), something I had always loved but never thought to purchase for myself. I even got to joke around with the principal, and had a lengthy discussion with the young school librarian about his favourite books, which eventually turned into him just listing English fictional characters -- "Gandalf! Bilbo Baggins!!!"

I was ready for this to be my final day at Masuda, to make the goodbye official. But I still had to go in one more time the following week, after a slew of days off to clean my apartment, pack, and move out. In the end, I'm glad I got to go back one last time, because it was magical. Truly magical. Get ready for a story of Disney-family-film proportions.

I spent the morning calmly cleaning my desk and chatting to teachers. Watarai sensei even taught me how to play a traditional Japanese card game. When it was time for me to leave, I got up slowly, not really sure what to do. I said a hesitant "well, I guess I'll be going" to one of my JTEs, and before I knew it, the entire staff room was on its feet. A few seconds later, and -- I have no idea how -- it seemed all the other teachers had trickled into the room from around the school. With everyone assembled in what seemed like some sort of prearranged spectacle (but which was really just a standard Japanese farewell procedure), the principal and vice principal came forward to say official bowing goodbyes. Eventually, after spending much time bowing and saying "sayonara" and looking around the room at everyone, there was nothing else to do but start toward the door. And everyone followed me.

This was the first time the emotions of it all began to hit me. I was walking down the hall, down the stairs and to the entryway, as I had at the end of the day for two years. Only this time I wouldn't be coming back. And every teacher in the school was behind me. Soon an announcement came over the intercom that Katie sensei was leaving the building. Once again, it took only seconds before the entire school was crammed into the tiny foyer to watch as I put my shoes on and struggled not to cry. Students filled the hall and all the way up the stairs. I was sure the tears were going to hit, when Watarai sensei started singing "It's Time to Say Goodbye" by Andrea Bocelli; then I just laughed. With one final unified chant, the students all thanked me - "arigatou gozaimashita!!!!!!" I lingered just long enough to soak up the moment, then walked outside.

All of the teams who were practicing halted their drills to stand side-by-side, bow, and say goodbye. "Thank you!" "See you!" "I love you!!!!" Just when I thought things couldn't be more picture-perfect, someone shouted my name from overhead. I looked up, and there were another four dozen students, leaning out of classroom windows all around the courtyard, smiling, waving, and calling my name. That image is burned into my mind, of the school building and all of those kids waving in the sun. I don't even think it was actually a sunny day, but my memory has made it sunny. The last group to say goodbye was the tennis team -- the genkiest all-girls club in the school. Ami came straight up to me and just stopped, forcing her face into a pout. "Very, very, very...sad!!!"

And then it was time to leave.

I'm gonna miss those kids.

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