It felt like a true portrait of Jamaican life, in a small community, up in the mountains, away from the touristy polish of Montego Bay.
To start with, the whole thing felt rather authentically spontaneous—I first heard about the graduation only a few hours beforehand, on our way home from church. I debated a little over the decision, particularly because my Sunday afternoon nap was looking quite precious after a long week full of short nights. But I knew that the graduation would be a cultural experience, and a chance to see the school that our mission sponsors. I decided to go.
According to the program, the ceremony started at 2:00. The principal told us it would be at 3:00. And knowing Jamaicans and how they view time, we decided that, since she had asked us to bring the diplomas, which still needed to be filled out, and some decorations, and since it takes over half an hour to get there, we should probably leave here around 3. Our timing ended up being just right.
About those decorations—the principal called Karen the day of the graduation, asking if she could bring some. Karen asked her what she wanted, and told her we didn’t really have much. “Just bring anything blue or white!” the principal had replied. So we brought some white balloons.
We parked and had to walk the rest of the way in, carefully climbing the steep hill on the narrow trail that wound through the lush vegetation, trying not to slip in our flip-flops that offered little traction against the slick mud. The Jamaican women navigated the slope in their best dresses, with their fancy heels in their purses or held in their hands.
The graduation was held at a church that is right next to the school, which has about 30 students, all in kindergarten. Here in Jamaica children often start school at age 3, and then have 3 levels of kindergarten before graduating into first grade.
We entered the church, pausing first to wipe off our muddy feet. Graduates in bright blue caps and gowns mingled with well-wishers inside, as music played and people milled about. We set up the chairs we had brought for extra seating.
They had asked our group to take portraits of the graduates, and we had to use the school building as our studio, since it was raining outside. The building was already occupied by several people blowing up Karen’s white balloons, and a small dog.
The graduates came in one by one to get their picture taken, navigating through the muddy, wet yard, and then returned. The girl standing guard at the church door examined them as they came through to make sure they were spotless for their portrait.
Girls in their heels had a hard time making it through the mud and puddles in the yard.
The decorating ladies carried the filled balloons into the church in bunches.
We returned to our backless benches to wait for the service to start. Behind me, a young boy ate a meal of rice and peas in a bright yellow plastic bowl. It was nearly before 4:30 the service actually started.
The graduates marched in to an instrumental version of “You Raise Me Up,” their faces concentrating as they walked with a sidestepping gait, as they had obviously been instructed and practiced.
A woman got up and welcomed everyone, and introduced the “graduation coordinator”—the MC for the night. She rattled off a long list of his credentials. As the afternoon wore on, we realized that this sort of ceremony was normal for the occasion–every new speaker was formally introduced before he spoke, and then officially thanked when he was finished. The thanking always included at least one round of applause, and sometimes three or four.
As she spoke, one of the school teachers stood at the front of the church, staring out the window, completely oblivious.
(A quote from the Graduation Coordinator’s Message in the printed program: “I have served in this capacity for approximately some years…”)
Another lady got up to lead us in worship songs. Most of the people in the room seemed to be unfamiliar with the songs, and the volume was a little lacking. Meanwhile, the principal sat at a table in the front corner, filling out diplomas.
It was time to sing the official school song. The lady leading the song struggled to remember the tune, so a lady in the front row took over, belting it out for all she was worth.
Meanwhile, the man in the suit on the platform—the Guest Speaker, as we would later find out—rather obviously pulled out his phone of his pocket and checked it, his face and body language radiating boredom.
As the service wore on, more and more people clustered in the doorways, observing. I don’t know whether they were friends and family who had come on purpose, or just curious neighbors. It felt like the whole thing was kind of a community event, though.
Eventually, the guest speaker got up to deliver his message. It was directed mostly at parents, berating them and encouraging them to help their children more with their education. Nobody seemed to pay him much attention. There was a constant hum of conversation from all over the room. His voice competed with the patter of the increasing rain on the tin roof, and a screaming baby.
The graduates, who were seated at the front on the right, facing the audience, would randomly get up and go talk to their parents or friends in the crowd, whenever they felt like it.
The principal still sat in the right-hand corner, filling out diplomas and awards. There were often several people grouped around her, chatting or helping or maybe just bored. She sat up straight to talk to one of them, and fanned herself with one of the diplomas.
After the speaker was done, the graduates all stood to sing a song. One of the little boys had had enough. He stuck his fists in his eyes and sobbed through the whole thing.
One lady, two rows in front and a couple seats over, filmed the entire service with her fancy phone.
Several interesting things to note in this picture: the teacher (in the pink dress) randomly walking across the front of the church, the principal in the front corner still filling out diplomas, the lady filming, the guest speaker sitting up there looking bored, the blue and white decorations, and the lights dangling from wires strung between the rafters.
They handed out diplomas, and then other awards, amid much cheering and picture-taking. Unfortunately, I missed most of this because we were supposed to get photos of the graduates getting their diplomas, and Sarah had asked if I could since her camera doesn’t have a very good zoom. But my camera’s flash decided to be temperamental, so I spend most of this portion of the service frustrated and annoyed, and have very few decent pictures to show for it.
They had one final little ceremony—“passing the torch.” The two top graduates sat in chairs at the front of the building, holding candles. Two young girls, holding candles of their own, were supposed to walk down the aisle in their colorful, too-big dresses, light their candles from the ones the other kids were holding, and then sit down in the chairs while the two graduates walked out. Since this endeavor involved young children and a drafty building and candles, all did not go smoothly, but eventually they got it to work.
At the end, we sang the Jamaican national anthem. A random parent who happened to be standing next to the drum that hung from the rafter by a wire decided to add percussion. “Jamaica!” (boom) “Jamaica!” (boom). Everybody laughed.
And then the service was over, and people clustered and talked some more. We took more pictures—graduates with their diplomas and parents and teachers.
Ranita found a cute baby to hold—the daughter of one of the teachers.
The rain picked up again, so a random lady decided to offer them the shelter of her umbrella.
We hung around and chatted for a while, until the crowd was fairly sparse, and then hiked back down the mountain. Muddy trails can be rather treacherous and dirty in flip-flops. 🙂 We couldn’t even wipe all the mud off the bottoms of our shoes when we were done, so we had to take them off before we got in the van, and hose them off when we got back.
We arrived home to find funnel cakes, popcorn, and chips waiting for us—not the most nutritious of snacks, but it sure was tasty! It was a good end to a great day.