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The creak and scrape of tennis ball-footed chairs on the polished wood floor.

The sounds of a few last winter colds, coughing dusty in the echoing gymnasium. Bright spring sunshine slants through the high windows overhead.

Rows and rows of boys and girls, unusually crisp and regimented in navy blue and black. The diagonal white slash of forty-nine neatly tied ties, the coppery flash of forty-one sets of suit jacket buttons. No tracksuits today.

Parents like a garden of variegated color, fathers and mothers, gathered off to the side, murmuring, gently wielding handkerchiefs.

The strong musty-sweet smell of lilies from the flower arrangements.

The solemn strains of Kimigayo, the national anthem, as sung with deep gravity and understated dignity by two men willing to set aside self-consciousness about voices that just manage to quietly carry a tune, in honor of their obligation to emperor and country as Principal and Vice Principal.

Onodera-sensei in the middle of the gym as his graduating homeroom class files past, standing besuited and stiff and not quite smiling, like a father giving fifteen daughters away.

Kids marching to and from their seats, turning neatly on a dime as they pass over the red strip of ceremonial carpet. Every one bows differently, accepts the teal plastic diploma case differently, head high or shoulders slumped, feet bouncing up onto the platform or trudging down, mournful-eyed or suppressing a grin of triumph. Take it carefully in your right hand, then your left as well. Hold it out in front of you for a moment, to show reverence. Step down from the platform. Bow. Retreat.

Interminable speeches. School board president. Mayor. PTA. Bits and pieces are intelligible: Man does not exist alone, but in a society of his fellows. We give thanks today to those who have helped us come so far. A shining future awaits you. Schoolday sentiments are universal.

The graduating class clustering together, voices raised, while the class clown conducts from a stool with unusually grave sweeps of one hand. Something catches the light from the nearby window with a bright sparkle. I look for it, curious, and suddenly my eyes fill with tears; the shyest girl in the class is crying silently, a smile on her face, tears dripping from her uplifted chin. Her friends nudge her and grin.

Pachebel's Canon. Pomp and Circumstance. Ninety kids' voices in unison, singing a slow Japanese pop song. Make your courage into wings, and fly into the wide night sky...

Thunderous applause, by Japanese standards. Onodera-sensei leads his class out, every young face schooled and serious and proud. I don't smile, because nobody else is smiling, except the class clown, who grins brightly as he saunters out. Not counting his irreverence, this is a moment of gravity. These children are moving out into the bigger world; they will never attend school in their little hometown again.

The measured applause fades, and in the silence that follows, suddenly we can hear them out in the hall, shrieking, laughing, hollering, pounding on each other's backs. And everyone in the gym, from the mother whose handkerchief has bobbed up and down for the last hour, to the school nurse to the principal to the mayor...


And so, finally, do I.
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December 2011

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