Graduating high school is a rite of passage. Not only for American teenagers or western nations, but also for high school students in developing countries such as Georgia. I have been a high school teacher for most of my adult life. So I have seen masses of teenagers come and go. I have seen them leave high school with a haste similar to if a building was on fire; determined to put the unfortunate and sometimes painful experience behind them. I have seen students cling to every last moment of their high school experience as if they would never again have life that good. I have seen trends come and go. I lived through and survived the sequined dress era… thank God. So it was really special for me to document and watch how they mark the event of high school graduation in Georgia.
Several weeks ago, Lado and Eka, my host mom, went to Tbilisi for the weekend to shop for an outfit for Lado’s graduation party. Tbilisi, mind you, is a 6 hour bus ride or an overnight train ride to the other side of the country. A couple of days ago, Eka, came home with her hair cut and colored. I knew from those two major ventures that this was going to be a special event.
The weekend of, I came home from an overnight trip celebrating a friend’s birthday in Batumi. I could hear the music from our house a block away. Lado and a friend of his were in the driveway washing his dad’s Jetta. They were intensely buffing and scrubbing to make the car shine. The plan was to go cruising the next day with several other friends with access to cars– the quintessential high school moment.
The afternoon the day of, the host dad tells me that the party starts at 8. And that was confirmed by a call from Lado that I was supposed to meet the other teachers a little before 8 at the church, which was only across the street from the banquet hall. (There’s only one Georgian Orthodox church in Oz. And it’s in the center of town.)
I brought a suit with me to Georgia. I have only been able to wear it once so far at the TLG End of Year event. I thought I would have the opportunity to wear it more, especially with all the weddings going on. But I have still not been invited to a wedding! …But I digress.
I put on the suit, which no one in Oz has seen me wear, which means they had yet another thing to stare at me for. I then walk through town to the church. Waiting there were the four other male teachers that work at the school. They were lounging under a tree passing around mineral water… pre-gaming. They were dressed in different phases of ‘dressed up’. The principal was the most dressed of the others by wearing a leisure suit. We could see the kids arriving at the venue across the street as 8 o’clock came and went. I asked why we were not going in and they said ‘not until 9.’ Ugh.
So we headed down to wait in front of the venue with the other teachers and early arrivals of kids. This I realized was the first phase of the tradition. All the teachers were to assemble first; hang out and take some pictures with the early arrivals.
I didn’t really know what to expect of the girls, but having a pre-party look at Lado’s outfit and his friends’, it became apparent the trend for the boys was suit vest, tie and button down (no jacket). Okay, I can respect that.
What I was not prepared for was the variety of the girls’ dresses. Mind you we are in town of Georgia, a developing country no less. A country known for it’s conservative traditions. These girls were sporting dresses straight out of Vogue: Prom Addition. And they ranged from modest to flashy to … wow. And the hair styles followed suit varying from ‘My mom did it’ to ‘I had this done in Tbilisi’ to ‘I had my French hairdresser fly in from Paris’. These girls were FLY!
We, the teachers, were finally able to go into the venue. Inside there was a dance floor flanked by tables already set with food. And I don’t just mean set with salad. I mean the tables were loaded with food and wine. There was no space to even put anything else. And if that had been all the food, I would have remained impressed. But no, they kept bringing out more and better food! It was like a Georgian version of a seven course meal. And the wine just kept flowing.
The second part of the tradition I noted was the teachers were to come in and sit, followed by the parents. Then the graduates entered to the intro music of “We Are The World”. Yes, USA for Africa. Yes, ala Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Lionel Ritchie and co., circa 1985. I am not making this up. They entered escorted, which meant some boys had to escort two girls. They then made a semi-circle around the dance floor. They looked and seemed so awkward as the parents were proving to be more than adequate paparazzi for the night. But then the kids did something that was even more painfully awkward. They all started slow dancing to the tail end of “We Are The World”. Yes, the same Michael Jackson, circa 1985 version. I couldn’t look.
After the song, everyone sat down. The teachers and parents to one side the students on the other side of the dance floor. I was sitting near the end of the teacher table with the principal who had the microphone and therefore served as Tamada. Which prompts me to mention two other things. 1. When I say ‘parents’ table’, there were only mothers there. No fathers were present. 2. When I say ‘…the wine flowed’, I mean flowed only by the males present. And that totaled the male teaching staff and the male students. I don’t think any female drank wine in any significant amount.
The principal then proceeded to toast to the elementary teachers, the high school teachers, parents, the graduates, and on and on.
A troubling trend of American pop culture dancing is that it has descended into nothing more than ‘bump ‘n grind’. Now don’t get me wrong, I can bump ‘n grind with the best of them. But dancing is so much more than that, and American youth are losing that perspective. It’s so bad that chaperoning high school dances is a mix of shocked older teachers and embarrassed younger teachers, neither of which knows where the ‘line’ of appropriateness should be.
Thankfully that assimilation has not reached Georgia yet…at least not to a small town like Oz. The dancing was started, as all dances are, by some brave but awkward students. The next dance was a rehearsed couple dance by some of the more talented students. There was of course some current pop (not a lot), Georgian pop and American oldies/ swing. The parents and teachers were often asked to dance by the kids and they obliged cheerfully. Interweaved with all that, there was of course the traditional Georgian dances. I had imagined that all Georgians knew and could do the traditional dances, but that’s not true. (Simialar to how all older people who live at the beach in NC and SC knows how to Shag dance. The same kids who did the dance routines were the ones doing the traditional dances. It was so fun to watch and see the joy they got from doing dances everyone in the room were familiar with from since they were babies.
Then Lado found me and asked if I knew the traditional dance to the current song being played…
For those who know me, I am a weird mix of exhibitionist and timid. I love being in front of a crowd. I get incredible energy from people simply by being around them. But I also get the most crippling anxiety and fear from the thought of performing in front of people. Lado started pushing me onto the BIG dance floor to do my thing. I almost started crying and pleaded for at least a shot first and to get my head together. (Lado and his friends brought their own bottle of whiskey to the party). The song ended before I could get ready… but they started it again.
My saving grace was a great dancer who captured the attention of the entire room when she danced. (She is the girl in the red dress in the video.) She is the type of dancer that makes others look good by simply dancing with her. Due to a head nod from Lado, she continued to command notice and solo status on the dance floor. I was surrounded by Lado’s friends, and they were ever increasing their push of me onto the dance floor. And so I went.
I didn’t do too bad. And again, my partner was simply amazing. Towards the end of my performance when I felt comfortable enough to look up, I noticed the other student dancers where flanking me doing their thing, too. The parents and teachers were unable to express their joy and excitement. Even my host mom came over and kissed me. Well worth the dance lessons.
Some of the boys found out I know how to break dance. I was pleasantly surprised some of them did, too. We had a couple of battles to the delight of the crowd. But an unfortunate habit of boys here is they are ‘close dancers’. Yes, there were some couples dancing, but I think they were as the Georgians call them, ‘sweethearts’. For the most part, people danced in same gender pairs or groups. And when the boys danced with me, they danced so close and intimately I felt like they should at least buy me a drink after. But all was good hearted and had none of the cultured nuance of questionable sexualized advances found in the States.
Another funny thing about dancing. I have chaperoned and attended proms and weddings on end back in the States. And what inevitably happens is that the girls will discard their heels when they ‘really’ want to start dancing. The higher the heel, the faster their separation from the shoes. Here in Georgia things are different… kinda. The heel size of the average Georgian woman is an easy 2 inch increase over the average heel wearer in the States. The more the occasion calls for them to be dressed up, the higher the need for a taller heel. Before the first song played, (sans ‘We Are The World- USA for Africa’, circa 1985, I saw a few girls bee-lining to a back room. They came out with flats on! Either they were getting ready to get serious, I thought, or they didn’t even want to risk breaking an ankle. Come to find out, they were the students that were doing the rehearsed dance. Immediately afterwards they put the heels back on. (And only took them off to do rehearsed dances again.) For the most part the all the other girls kept their heels on the entire time. I was in awe.
The picture poses that Georgians take. It makes me giggle. There are three major categories. 1. “Blue Steel”. They don’t crack a smile… at all. To the point where it seems they are afraid someone will make fun of them for smiling in photos. And they learn this at an early age. My elementary students rarely smile either.
2. The “Hooker/ Facebook Look”. When they get into the mood to do these poses, they have no shame or sense of embarrassment. They will take them over and over until they get it right. In the park, in front of the church, wherever. The more seductive and sensuous the look, the better. All the while not smiling. 3. “Posers”. These are poses and shots they have seen on pictures from magazines or iconic photos of friends, i.e., the photo of friends’ feet in a circle, or posing in cool stances in front of swing sets. Smiling is allowed in these photos it seems. It just cracks me up!
Continuing with tradition, they later went outside to light the lanterns and fireworks.
The food was still coming and the wine still flowing when I had to force myself to leave at 1:30. I was spent due to a crazy, undocumented weekend in Batumi a couple of nights before. I guess after living here for almost a year, I still can’t go Georgia hard.
“We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me”
We Are The World (USA for Africa)