Friday, June 3, 2011


Yesterday was the last day of school for the seniors. It was graduation without the "Graduation."

For the last six school days, the seniors have been taking their final exams. In the Georgian educational system, in order to exit high school, the seniors have to take and pass exams in all their subjects. Their overall score on the exams dictates which university they will be able to attend. The exams ended on Wednesday, and yesterday was their final day of school.

After the last class of the day, the teachers pulled all the chairs out of the teachers' room into the wide hallway. As usual, I had no idea what was happening. When I asked Tea, she shrugged her shoulders and said they must be having a program of some sort for the seniors. She asked if I wanted to stay. Even though I was starving, I said that I would like to see what was going on.

The general hubbub of the day after classes are over was multiplied ten-fold. Everyone was still at school. (Usually classes trickle out of school over the course of the afternoon.) The seniors passed around white shirts to be signed by students -- sort of like a yearbook, but without the pictures. The throng worked its way to the hallway where the program would take place -- parents, friends, teachers, students, and the seniors.

I almost didn't recognize the seniors; they were dressed up. The boys looked very grown up in their suits, and the girls looked beautiful in their party dresses and stilettoes. Before the program started, Tea and I sat together, deciding whose dress and shoes we liked the best. I commented that the girls all looked like they had just stepped out of the Mexican telenovelas that everyone here watches. Tea cracked up. (As an aside, there is something to be said for old-fashioned finishing school. Parents don't teach their children how to behave when they are dressed up. Decorum should be an accessory to a dressy occasion. There is something very unattractive about a young person acting as if they had on a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers when they are dressed up.)

The seniors lined up at the end of the hall, and the other students gathered around behind and beside all of us teachers who were seated in the middle. The program began.

Students from various classes spoke, sang, danced, and recited original poems. One of the elementary teachers stepped forward with a stack of papers in her hand. She had been their teacher for grades one through four, and she read the notes that she had made about each student at the end of their fourth grade year. I understood some of what was said, but mostly I enjoyed everyone's reactions to what was read. Halfway through some of the descriptions, everyone knew who was being described; and at the end of others, they all hooted with laughter and surprise when the name was announced. The seniors' homeroom teacher said a few words, and then one of the senior girls read a speech, thanking the principal and the teachers for all their hard work and dedication. And then the huge, antique bronze school bell rang and rang and rang -- pealing out a resonant proclamation to the whole village that these students were finished with their high school days.

It wouldn't be a Georgian celebration without a suphra to finish off the day. All the teachers were invited, but Tea opted out of going. She knew how late it would be and had too much work to do, so she didn't go. I did.

At 7 p.m., I hopped on the marshutka that the teachers hired to take us all to the hall in Zugdidi that the seniors' parents had rented out for the graduation suphra. We arrived at the hall at 7:45 and sat in the marshutka waiting for the students to show up. And we sat. And we sat. And we sat. For two hours. Finally, at 9:45 they arrived. We piled out of the marshutka and followed the students up to the second-floor banquet hall where the long tables were already set and the sound system was set up next to the dance floor.

We ate and toasted and drank and danced until 2:30 a.m.

This was one of those times when I wished that I knew more Georgian. I would have liked to understand fully the toasts that were given -- from parents to the students and to the teachers -- from the teachers to the parents and to the students -- and from the students to their parents and to the teachers. I gave one toast (in English) for the students and downed the whole glass of wine. I won't do that for just anyone, but for students, I will.

Drinking with students is something that takes a little getting used to. In the U.S. legal drinking age is, of course, 21 (which I think is too high -- at 18, kids can join the military and kill people, but they can't have a beer? Incongruous). But here in Georgia, where drinking is such an integral part of the culture, the legal drinking age is 16. Sitting around with students, toasting and drinking is normal here. This is a topic that I may explore a little more in a later post.

As always, I danced with the students and dragged some of the other teachers out onto the dance floor. The kids love having their teachers dance with them. Each teacher who either came out on the floor of their own accord, or were reluctantly led there, was received with cheers, applause, and intensified dancing in a circle around them. It was great fun -- dusty disco ball and all! One of the funniest parts of the dancing was the music set-up. One of the guys sat with someone's MP3 player and scanned through the songs to find good ones to dance to. So often, he put on a song that everyone started getting into, only to switch it off abruptly -- everyone groaned and hollered to at him to turn it back on. We really needed a real DJ.

A few of the students came up to me at different points through the night and either in English or Georgian (with Lika translating), thanked me for coming here to Georgia. Even though I did not have any of them in class, they were thankful to me for working with their fellow-students and their teachers. They expressed gratitude for what I have done for their community and their country.

So humbling.

There is something to be said for marking Life's milestones. Finishing school is one of those times in life that should be celebrated. Whether with a "Pomp and Circumstance"-accompanied march down an aisle wearing robes and mortarboards or a traditional-Georgian-music-accompanied suphra -- a celebration is necessary to place weight and importance on the completion of one part of Life and the beginning of another. So raise a glass to the graduates and their futures -- bright and full of promise.


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