Sunday, May 25, 2008
The Last Bell (Последний Звонок)
High School Graduation is soooo different than it is in America... We never learned about the differences in "school culture" in my Russian classes--beyond those that are superfluous, such as the black and white uniforms (during Soviet times), frequent recitations, no school sports teams-- and this year I've had surprise after surprise.
Since moving here with school-aged children, however, we had learned about the importance of September 1st, "The Day of Knowledge." That's when schools all across Russia begin the new academic year, often regardless of whether the date falls on a Saturday or Sunday. Children are dressed in their best (school uniforms or formal suits for both boys and girls, huge bows in girls' hair) and they bring big bouquets of flowers to their teachers. Parents escort their kids and the classes all line up for the opening ceremony, the "линейка," the youngest first-grader rings "the first bell" ("первый звонок") to signify the start of the new year, and the seniors (eleventh graders) help the first graders to their classrooms.
Here was Katya at the opening ceremonies for her school last year.
Two girls from the first grade helped a senior to ring the "first bell," to great applause.
The whole elementary school then gathered on the playground to release celebratory balloons. (Balloons are BIG, I mean BIG, in Russia. They often are used to create lavish sculptures, swirling garlands, etc. for celebrations).
It stands to reason that if there's a "first bell," then there would then be a "last bell." I hadn't realized what a huge affair it is! The students at my school prepared for the ceremony for a few months. I wondered why they needed to rehearse so extensively; in my mind the seniors would walk across the stage, accepting their diplomas, someone might give a speech, and perhaps a few songs would be sung.
That's not-- even-- close!
The "Last Bell" is an incredibly involved ceremony, with students from all grades participating. Each first grader at Katya's school memorized an original poem about each graduating student, highlighting some special talent or characteristic. Katya got to talk about a boy who had been particularly good at English. I don't know much more about that ceremony since I wasn't actually there; Katya didn't exactly fill me in on all the details... and she was only there for a small part of it.
I did, however, get to watch the whole ceremony at the school where I've worked this year. The sense of a "full circle," of the school year coming to a close was reinforced by the fact that we had the exact same cold rain on Friday that we had had on September 1st. (The sun is shining in the pictures of Katya's first day of school because her school chose to wait until Monday, September 3rd, to hold the opening ceremonies). The same balloons decorated the school and there was the same level of excitement. This time, however, the attention was focused on the eldest--and not the youngest.
I already knew to expect the girls to show up in Soviet-era schoolgirl garb. It was rather strange to see the girls who usually wore designer clothing in black dresses and white lace pinafores--with the big white fluffy bows in their hair! I'd seen seniors dressed like that during the last week of May for the previous three years we've lived here. Nevertheless, expecting to see them like this didn't make it less of a surprise! (Nataliya? Olga? I'd love to see any pictures of you guys at your Последний Звонок!)
The ceremony lasted two and a half hours! Each grade participated, performing elaborate dances, singing, and reciting farewell poetry. I particularly enjoyed how the ninth graders picked poetry by famous poets that reflected something about each senior's character. One of the poets cited was Alexander Blok, about whom Chris wrote his senior thesis in college.
Once the younger grades had finished, the seniors themselves took the stage, putting on a song and dance variety show of their own. They sang traditional songs from the '70s through the '90s, thanked each teacher individually with poetry and song, and then performed a final number with children from each grade. It was exceptionally moving to watch their tribute to their first grade teacher, who is still at the school teaching second grade (her currents pupils were very involved in the Graduation celebration). Teachers and parents also participated, sharing anecdotes and good wishes. (I spoke, too). One first-grade boy whom I adore was given the honor of ringing the "last bell" and the ceremonies came to a close.
Afterwards we all moved outdoors, where every grade lined the school square and the seniors stood in the middle to release their farewell balloons. It was then time to come back inside for refreshments and cake. Not just any cake, mind you... Isn't this fancy? Russians are also really into fancy cakes... for all occasions. I'm not a "cake person," though, so I can't tell you how it tasted.
Note the refreshments: alongside the delicious fruit, chocolates, soft drinks and juice are bottle after bottle of CHAMPAGNE and rare Georgian wine. Yup! And not just for the parents! It was so strange for me to see all my students mulling around with their champagne glasses, toasting each other and their parents. A few of those kids are headed to the England and New York for post-graduate years at boarding schools; I made sure that they knew that drinking and smoking at such schools could get you expelled!
They were given school "medals;" they won't receive diplomas until next month after they have passed the rigorous national exams in all subjects.
That's a KEY difference between graduation in America and Russia... When you graduate in America, you're done. You're already into college (unless you're wait-listed) and you have completed all of your schoolwork. There aren't any national exams looming over you. You. Are. Done. When Graduation Day arrives, it is a TRUE CELEBRATION. Afterwards you can truly relax and breathe a sigh of relief.
Russian seniors, however, still have to take a variety of grueling national exams before they have actually met the high school requirements. AFTER they have their exam results, they apply to their various universities. Somehow these exams are graded in time for students to apply to college, get accepted, and start at the beginning of September. I *STILL* don't understand this process.
So they've "graduated," so-to-speak, but they still have all these exams ahead of them, exams that determine if they actually get a diploma or not, and they still don't know where they'll go to college in the fall.
Give me Graduation in America any day... I really feel for these students here. The pressure is acute! The national exams are so demanding that seniors split their time between school and tutoring by university professors--so much so, that they often miss school--and this is normal.
The pressure on the seniors at my school this year was doubled: due to the changes in national exams, the parents and administration chose to have the tenth graders complete the tenth and eleventh grades simultaneously. That's right--the students finished 9th grade in May '07, then did tenth and eleventh grade this year. Many of them are still fifteen-years-old! And they'll start college in the fall??! University here is much more intense than in the USA; you already know your major when you apply and your studies are sharply focused. I can't imagine being ready to do that at fifteen... As a result, three of the ten students who graduated this year are doing post-graduate high school programs overseas before heading to college.
For some reason, the school Katya attends is rather different; students there complete all eleven years (finishing at age eighteen since you start first grade a year later in Russia than in America) and senior year is still a regular year (unless you plan to attend a university requiring special entrance exams and need extra tutoring--law school, for example, since you go straight to law school after high school). Not that we'll be here through high school, but I'm glad that her school isn't so stressful. I hope this difference will influence the atmosphere for me as a teacher there; it would be nice for my students to be able to focus more on our coursework--and not the impending national exams--when I join the faculty at Katya's school next year.
I have one more school day with the younger classes this coming Tuesday, then the year is over. Katya is already finished; she'll stay home with a babysitter while I teach that day. I feel sad about leaving; none of the students know that I won't be back (I was asked to not say anything, so I've dodged students' questions about next year--when they ask about the fall, assuming I'll be their teacher) and I want them to have a good teacher next year! A replacement hasn't been found yet... I really grew fond of many of the kids and I'll wonder how they are as they grow... I know I'll still run into one very sweet ninth-grade girl, however, since her family is good friends with the family of one of Katya's good friends.
Here's a quick video clip of the end of the ceremony; the first graders and seniors ballroom danced together and it was so, so sweet... And then the ringing of the "last bell."
Here's a video montage of scenes from the whole day, mainly for those of you who are Russian-speaking readers and might get a kick out of hearing songs you perhaps sang at your graduation! After watching this, you understand why karaoke is so darn popular in Russia; people are trained to perform like this from age seven!
The students and their homeroom teacher then went for a "photo-taking" tour of Victory Park and Sparrow Hills in this Hummer. (Most graduating classes and newlyweds do this--drive from spot to spot for special pictures). I was invited to join them, but I had to hurry to Katya's school for my final parent-teacher conference of the year. (More on that later).