My last day of school was a lot less exciting than my first one, and oddly enough – because it’s a more recent event, naturally – I remember much less about it as well. I was sitting in the main auditorium of the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration, almost furthest to the right.
I don’t even remember what I was wearing. Probably not a suit and tie. Most likely just a sweater and jeans. Or..? I just can’t remember, and: there are no photos of the event.
What I do remember was looking back at the door to see if my father had made it to the event. He was supposed to be there, but I think the ceremony was scheduled for 10am, and he’d had to drive 400 kilometers first.
Maybe he overslept, I thought, when I didn’t see him.
The headmaster of the school was reading the names of all the graduates, and each one would stand up, walk to the stage, extend his (or her) left hand, grab the roll of a diploma, and shake hands with the right one, then keep walking and exit the stage.
My son got up, or actually, climbed down from his seat in the front row, dead center of the classroom, and walked to the teacher. He stood there waiting for her to stack all the papers – the timetable, the weekly newsletter, the first assignment – and the ABC book, and then grabbed them, and walked back to his place with a huge smile on his face.
He started to read all the papers right away, swinging his bare feet under the desk, happy to finally be a schoolboy. He had spent the last few weeks telling everybody how he’d be on class 1A soon.
A minute later, one of the parents asked the teacher if the code to the front door had changed because she hadn’t been able to open the door. The teacher turned to her pupils and asked: “Can somebody here tell me what the code is?”
A dozen arms shot towards the ceiling.
“Hannes,” said the teacher.
My son told her the code, and had officially began his school path. I was standing by the window, snapping photos with my iPhone, admiring my son, and looking at all the names that had been written on the blackboard as a welcome message.
On my first day of school, we were all asked to come up to the blackboard and write our names on it. At that point, I had stopped crying, and I think my father had also already gone home. Or, to work, of course. But, left the school grounds, meaning that I was all … boohoo … alone there.
I didn’t know much about school to begin with. The only thing I knew was that my best buddy, Pekka, was not in my class and that I had got the absolute worst teacher possible.
“Ilona Attila,” said Pekka, “is ruthless, and she can actually take the ruler and slap you on the fingers with it. That’s why she’s called Ilona Kattila,” he had told me, and I wasn’t street smart enough to question the nickname. “Kattila” is Finnish for “saucepot”, which I now realize, has nothing to do with being ruthless.
Anyway, Ms Ilona Attila – who did look like a man, though – asked everybody up to the blackboard to write their names. I guess I scribbled my name like I was told, but I remember being very puzzled by another name on the blackboard.
It was surprising for two reasons. One, this was Finland in the 1970s, I don’t there was anybody named Yussuf living in Finland at the time. It was also a strange coincidence because I had just the same day, or the night before, read a Tarzan comic book where the villain was called Yussuf. I felt the chills go down my spine.
Ms Attila was just as surprised as she read the names out loud as in a roll call. When she came to “Yussuf”, she stopped.
A boy raised his hand.
“You’re Yussuf?” Ms Attila said.
“Yes,” said the blond boy.
“OK … In my papers, it says that your name is Jari.”
“Well, it is, it’s just that everybody always calls me Jesse,” the boy said.
There are no Yussufs in my son’s class – but there might just as well be. The world has gone global.
I spent the rest of the ceremony with my diploma on my lap, just waiting for it to be over. There was no party afterwards, no throwing of the hats, and no big speeches dripping with wisdom.
Four years earlier, I had been sitting in the same building, crossing out alternatives in the entrace exam. Because everybody was seated alphabetically, I ended up taking the exam next to my cousin, who was there for the second time.
I sweated there for a few hours, then turned in my paper, and walked out, and walked from the university to the Helsinki Main Post Office where my Dad was waiting for me.
“How did it go?”
“Pretty good, I think,” I said, and got in the car, and we drove home to spend the midsummer on the boat.
It was my mother who got to deliver the good news to me late that summer. I was in Harbor Beach, Michigan, and feeling down, just wanting to go home when the phone rang.
“Hey, it’s not all bad,” my mother said.
“You got a letter from the Helsinki School of Economics and so on today, and I was too curious so I opened it. You got in,” she said.
The last graduate had received his diploma, and we all walked out of the auditorium. I felt a slap on my shoulder. It was my Dad.
“Congrats, Mr. Graduate,” he said.
Then he did something unexpected.
He removed his watch from his wrist, and gave it to me. It was a nice watch, really nice, worth thousands of markka at the time. In fact, such a nice watch that when I was working at the Canadian Embassy, whenever I met Italian colleagues on my travels, they’d admire the watch.
“Thanks. Did you make it in time, I didn’t see you?” I said.
“Yeah, I snuck in just as the ceremony began.”