A Monday in April when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, my daughter had her entrance ceremony at the local elementary school. She was restless with excitement. I helped her change into her formal attire and put up her hair in braids. She donned a yellow walking-to-school safety hat and a red randoseru, an expensive sturdy school backpack made to last all 6 years of elementary school. She was beaming.
I do not remember my first day of school. Nor does my husband. We just… went to school. In Japan, the entrance ceremony is a special formal event that marks this milestone in a truly unforgettable way.
We walked to her school together. Nature conspired to be at its most beautiful on this day. At the school entrance, everyone took off their shoes and changed either to uwabaki (indoor shoes) or slippers. We accompanied her to her classroom and I was impressed with how clean (thanks to the indoor footwear), organized, well-equipped, and fun it looked. And this is a public school in the countryside. It certainly trumped the austere classrooms I had in a private school in Manila which — other than the basic chairs, tables and blackboard — were furnished with a crucifix and bulletin boards.
All the parents of the first graders went to the gymnasium where students from the second to the fifth grade were already waiting. The four walls of the gymnasium were decked with festive red and white striped canvas, and the stage was filled with potted flowers.
At the commencement of the event, a stream of people marched in. Aside from the teachers, administrators, and school staff, there were over thirty people who came: representatives from the Mayor’s office, the Board of Education, the PTA, various neighboring pre-schools and kindergartens, the junior high school next door, the after-school program, and the leaders of all the surrounding neighborhoods.
The fifth graders stood across from each other and held up big colorful garlands of paper flowers. In marched the first graders through this floral tunnel accompanied by sixth graders, to the warm applause of the entire audience.
There were speeches welcoming the first graders and their parents into the school community.
I was moved by this reception. Going to elementary school is a monumental step. For my daughter, it will be the first time she walks to school without either parent. I’m nervous too but I know she’s going to be all right.
That is a huge deal. All my school life, my dad drove and dropped me off because it was unthinkable to go to school by myself. All my classmates were also escorted by parents or nannies. It is a huge deal because I would not feel the same if my daughter went to school in America where schools are not safe from gun violence.
Here was an entire community pledging to take care of, look out for, and support my daughter through these important formative years of her life. It takes a village to raise a child. I look at my daughter. Her formal attire was lent to us by my coworker whose own daughter is a year older than mine and goes to the same elementary school. The randoseru is from our neighbor whose daughter graduated from the same elementary school last March (like I mentioned, it’s so sturdy it still looks new and will last another 6 years!). Many of the things my daughter will use for school were passed on to us by kind neighbors and friends. Many of her classmates are kids we know, and their parents have told me to ask them for help when I don’t understand Japanese circulars. More than the material things we have received, I was deeply affected by how much we owe to the kindness of the people around us.
The kids stood up to sing a song entitled Dokidoki Don Ichi Nensei (Dokidoki is a wonderful onomatopoeic word that captures the sound of a heart pounding with nervousness or anxiety, and ichi nensei means first grader). I love the fun melody and the lyrics that ring true about the worries of a first grader (and probably of the parents too!). The song reassures the kids that this is perfectly normal and that everyone goes through the same thing. Here is my rough translation of the song’s lyrics.
When the cherry trees are blooming, I’ll be a first grader.
Will I be able to go to school by myself?
Will I have a nice seat mate?
Will I be able to make friends?
Will my backpack be too heavy?
What if I get sleepy?
Will the school lunch be delicious?
Will I look good in my school hat?
Will I be okay when it rains or get windy?
Will I be able to do well in my studies?
Everyone goes through the same thing when they entered first grade.
The very next day, my daughter waved goodbye to me and walked off with her schoolmates and I know that she will be just fine.