Is this Prom or Graduation? BOTH!

This week in Sokyriany (and throughout Ukraine) we had two major things to celebrate: Victory Day on Wednesday celebrating the former USSR’s triumph in World War 2, but then on Saturday another sort of victory that many of us teachers were uncertain would ever happen—that of our 11th formers making it to graduation!

This was actually my first time attending graduation in Ukraine. Last spring my school had no 11th form, so last May our 10th formers just got promoted to 11th form and that was that. We had the “Last Bell” ceremony which marks the conclusion of the school year, which was interesting, but nothing compared to the graduation ceremony that I observed this weekend in Sokyriany!

The entire week before graduation, our 11th form students were busy taking exams and carefully rehearsing the waltz and their other dance routines outside after school (no school event in Ukraine is complete without at least 5 dance numbers). Out of 30, only 3 of my 11th formers speak English, and one of the other English teachers was in charge of giving the English exam (probably because if it was up to me I wouldn’t allow cheating and I’d fail the other 27 students who can’t speak English at all). But of course that can’t happen (even if it should), so I hadn’t seen any 11th formers all week until Natasha came to find me and give me an invitation to the official graduation day festivities. Natasha is a dear pupil of mine who comes to me for tutoring and attended camp last year with me in Odessa. She’s one of those people that I know I’ll stay in touch with after I leave Ukraine, so of course I agreed to attend her graduation.

The ceremony started at 3pm in our school courtyard, where the whole town gathered (or so it seemed) to see the presentation of the 11th form. The parents of the students formed a line from the entrance of the school, and each couple held a traditional embroidered table-runner (called vishyvanka) above their heads to create a tunnel for the 11th formers to pass under as they emerged into the courtyard. It was a sweet way to start the ceremony, and the whole day I was impressed with the level of involvement from the parents—it was definitely a combined effort between the parents and the teachers (many of whom had students graduating so they fit into both categories) to make the graduation ceremony so elaborate!

The students lined up on the far side of the courtyard for the presentation of the Ukrainian flag, followed by the singing of the national anthem.

The 11th formers then showed off the results of all the long dance rehearsals I’ve observed after school by dancing a beautiful waltz. The boy-to-girl ration in the 11th grade is very disproportional, so some boys from the 9th and 10th grade dressed up and danced with the 11th form girls who didn’t have a partner. And here I thought chivalry was dead ; )

After the waltz, there were many speeches from the director of our school and other important people, which I mostly tuned out. But then we had the presentation of the ceremonial bread, which is part of every important occasion in Ukraine, and two of my favorite students (Natasha and Sergiy) were honored by being chosen to receive it.

Traditional Ukrainian bread on an embroidered table-runner (vishyvanka) being given to Natasha and Sergiy by their home-room teacher, Valentina.

After the presentation of the ceremonial bread, the students coupled up and formed a line, and then marched to the House of Culture down the street for the official graduation ceremony. This created an impromptu parade, as people lined the streets to watch them pass, and parents and teachers followed in their wake to the next ceremony.

Natasha saw me taking pictures and smiled—I love this shot! I also love all the beautiful dresses—there’s no “prom” in Ukraine, so graduation is an opportunity for the girls to all buy fancy dresses and dress up!

In the House of Culture, there was a mad rush for everyone to find seats, and every seat in the house was taken. People were refused admission at the door if they didn’t have invitations, because there was simply no room for anyone besides the teachers and the family members of the students graduating.

The fourth graders even had a dance slot in the graduation ceremony, and their costumes were precious.

Here is a picture of Natasha graduating!

The students were called up in groups of six, beginning with the best students in the class and working downward to the barely-graduating group. Natasha was called in the first round, because she’s definitely one of the brightest students in her class. After each group of students received their diplomas, they did a little dance number for us. So it took a while for us to make it through the whole class! When the diplomas were all handed out, about 2 hours later, I assumed graduation was over. But it was really just getting warmed up—the talent show started next, and lasted another 2 hours. It was a hot day outside, and with so many people jam-packed into the House of Culture, it was really hot inside too. I was so relieved when things came to a conclusion at 8pm!

Outside the House of Culture, the students again coupled up and formed a line, and this time the parade marched to the fountain in the center of town. The parade was even accompanied by a band!

In the square, the students again performed their waltz. Like I said, for my Ukrainian students this is the equivalent of Prom and Graduation combined into one long day of festivities!

Most of the town assembled in the square to watch them dance and admire their beautiful outfits, and my friend Olha closed her shop early so she could come observe. Together we discussed the dresses, pointing out which ones we would wear and which ones we wouldn’t. This conversation again proved to me how different Ukrainian style is from American style! We also watched the Father/Daughter, Mother/Son dance, and discussed which girl had the cutest father. Oh how I love my Ukrainian mama Olha!

I’d been waiting all day to catch Natasha at a good moment to congratulate her on her graduation, and finally she came to find me and ask for a picture. I told her that she looked beautiful and I was so proud of her. She said she’d been practicing something she wanted to tell me in English but forgot how to say it, so she told me in Ukrainian, “thank you for everything, you changed my life.” And I’m not often the overly-emotional type, but as she hugged me I felt tears coming to my eyes. I know as a teacher you’re not supposed to have favorites, but with Natasha the line between teacher and friend has definitely been blurred and I have no problem telling you she’s my favorite student. It was bittersweet watching her graduate, knowing she’ll be leaving Sokyriany for university in the fall and that I won’t be seeing her as often as I do now. This is just the beginning of our separation, with a much more permanent separation looming when I finish Peace Corps and leave Ukraine.

Watching Natasha graduate also made me think of my sister, who will be graduating soon in Ohio. I won’t be there to see that either, which is a sad thought. Life is moving so fast for these young ones! I’m glad my time in Ukraine included getting to know and love Natasha so well, and I’m glad this summer will include an epic adventure with my sister Tori before she begins the college chapter of her life.

Natasha and myself: words can’t even tell you how much this dear girl means to me : )

So congratulations on your graduation Natasha, and Tori, congrats on your impending graduation! I’m so proud of both of you, and honored to know such smart and lovely young ladies : ) 

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