What is “žetonvakars”? The closest translations seems to be “badge night.” Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. I will do my best to explain another new Latvian tradition I have learned about since moving here!

I first heard about this celebration,  a month or so ago when my colleague and I were planning presentations for our 12th graders. She said they would be very busy this week because of this Žetonvakars. I kind of asked her about it, but I didn’t really understand what it meant. She said that students would get pins, badges, or rings with the school emblems on them, and there would be some kind of a performance.

As the date came closer and closer, I came to realize that this was a big deal for both students and the school.

I think that every school in Latvia had the event on the same weekend, the first Friday in March. I teach at two schools, and for the entire week, it was what people were talking about and focused on. There was a buzz in the air.

My main school is Rigas Second Gymnasium. Here, I was given two fancy invitations. One was a gold scroll and the other a wax-sealed folded black engraved cardboard letter. Both were hand-made and impressive. One of the girls said she spent 20 hours making them, and I would not be surprised to find out she wasn’t exaggerating.

At the other school, the Engineering High School at RTU, students were practicing for the big night. As I understood, each of the 12th grade groups was to prepare some kind of performance. It is like a talent show without the whole contest element.

In Latvian schools, classes are divided into groups of 20-30 students. Each “klase” has a teacher. It is kind of like our homeroom system at Westside, except all of the students are in the same grade, and the bond seems to be pretty close after four years. At the Second Gymnasium, there are about 900 students. So the 12th grade has about 8 of these individual klases. I only teach the International Baccalaureate group, which is the smallest with only 14 members. There are so many 12th graders, that the Žetonvakars is divided into multiple nights. At the engineering school, each klase is only 28 students, so all of them can perform at once.

When I showed up for my teaching duties at the Engineering School, I heard music from all the way downstairs. The school is on the third floor, and as I climbed the steps, the music became louder, and eventually I could make out the base line. I heard students singing, “We don’t need no education…” I peaked into the performance hall to see students on a stage dressed in all black with red accents dancing and marching to the beat. They were playing live and singing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.” It was pretty awesome.

As I continued to teach, I heard them singing different songs. The hallway had become a dressing room, and they seemed to have several costume changes planned. The younger students all seemed pretty excited for the big show which was to be at 5 p.m. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend because I was meeting Rita at Gaismas Pils for a Herders and Barons presentation with blue statues!

I was able to make the 6 p.m. performance at the Second Gymnasium. I went in by myself hoping to find my colleague. Instead, I ran into two of my 11th grade students. I asked if I should just sit anywhere, and they said, “Yeah, sure.” I didn’t see anyone I knew, and I was feeling a bit anxious, so I just sat toward the back hoping that no one would ask me any questions. It was a pretty formal occasion. All the parents and guests were dressed very fashionably.

The show began promptly at 6. The school song was played as younger students dressed in traditional costumes walked in. Then the three klases walked in and took their seats to much applause. Then they played the Latvian National Anthem. The boys wore suits and even tuxedos, and all the girls wore very nice gowns. The headmaster, Guntis, was also in a tuxedo. Two younger students (I think) were the emcees for the night, and they made announcements. Everything was in Latvian, so I can only guess at what was being said. Guntis gave a speech to the students saying how terrific they all were. Then each klase teacher helped him hand out pins (the badges in “badge night”) and each student was called by name. Then the klase teacher talked directly to the class, and one of the students gave a speech to the teacher. It was quite moving, and one of the students was crying so hard she couldn’t even get through her whole speech.

All of this took just over an hour. The 12th graders then got up and handed out flowers to parents, teachers, and friends. Two of my students found me in the crowd and gave me roses. What a nice gestures! Then, they set up a band with a drum, a couple of guitars and a fantastic singer. He sang “I Would Walk 500 Miles” and another song in Latvian. I thought that was the show, which was weird because I had been told the 12th graders were preparing, and this singing group was made up of 11th graders.

Everyone got up to leave, and I thought it was over. I got my coat from the coat room, and started to exit when my colleague, Inga, caught up with me. “Jeff, where were you?” she asked. I explained that I didn’t see her, and she said that teachers were all sitting together in the front. Now was time for a break with coffee and snacks. The performances were to reconvene in 20 minutes. I was so glad she found me. I would have left thinking, “That was it?”

We had a lovely break in the teacher’s lounge with delicious snacks and coffee, then I took my seat with her in the second row for the real performances.

Each group had a planned production, and it is really hard to believe how hard they worked on this on top of all of their studies!

The first group made a clever video of a fake news television station with lots of funny skits. Then they came together to sing a song.

The second group were the IB kids. They also had a neat video where they did one take of questions and answers. The camera person walked through the school running into each of the students and asking them questions. They were dressed in the same outfits as they were wearing for the Žetonvakars, and after they finished, they came running into the auditorium as if it were a live broadcast. The one take thing was impressive. Then they played a song and performed a little sitting dance with meaningful gestures. It was touching, especially because their klase teacher was a part of the performance and you could feel the love.

But the third group really went overboard. Their teacher also helped them. He is a chemistry teacher, and they had this whole theme of “The First Day of Kindergarten.” And all of them came out with matching outfits, white shirts and black pants and skirts. Then, they had a series of funny skits like judo, boxing, and dancing. Each one was a full production. Then they performed a song, and had people dancing which was very cool. But it still wasn’t over. They had another big song and dance routine in the end! Everyone joined in. My favorite part was the guy in full hockey gear and rollerblades skate dancing with one of the girls. How much time did it take to prepare all of this with the costume changes, signs, and everything? It was incredible.

At the end, I had Inga ask the headmaster if the other groups who had their Žetonvakars the night before were as good, and he said, “Yes, all of them. Every year.” Rita later confirmed that she remembered her own Žetonvakars as having been quite a production. So has this been going on forever? I wonder if Vitauts would know what žetonvakars was? He left Smiltene before his 12th grade year, so he never had one… unless they also did it in the DP camps. I can totally see him dancing and singing for fun.

So, it isn’t quite graduation, but I guess it represents a coming of age. It takes place a couple of weeks before the final state exams, and the 12th graders are showing that they are ready to move on. Later, they will have a formal graduation where they receive their diplomas and everything, so that will be more like what we have in the States. But I can’t think of anything equivalent to the tradition of Žetonvakars. In all honesty, it felt like some throwback to the 1950s. Something that people might have done back when we all had more time, and no one was too self-conscious to just let their hair down—when there weren’t so many rules about what was and wasn’t politically correct. It was a reminder that if you let these kids just work together, they can create something wonderful on their own. Well done, Latvian 12th graders, well done.

Side Note:

After the final performance, I checked the tram time, and good old number 7 was going to be at the National Theater a block away in one minute. I said goodbye, and I ran out the door thinking that there would be no way I could make it. But I did. I have become a Tram Runner!

Some more pictures…

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