A tale of two Helsinkis, on the occasion of national high-school graduation day:
Scene 1, at the Itakeskus high school in the eastern part of the Finnish capital. Members of the senior class, who are 18 to 20 years old, and their parents gather at 9:45 a.m. Saturday in suits and ties, skirts and fine dresses. Many of the parents hold one rose or a bouquet of roses wrapped in clear plastic, tied with a ribbon -- the traditional gift for new graduates. Eventually they all walk into the school, past the Pepsi and Mountain Dew machines in the vestibule. The kids take their places in the procession, the parents and siblings fill the seats of the school's open, bright assembly hall.
The last Saturday of the 22nd week of the year is reserved for Finland's richly traditional end-of-school ceremonies and celebrations. Finns have been doing something like this for more than 150 years. With the exception of the roses and white hats, it would be a familiar event to any American. The families look proud; the teachers hug the students; the students look hopeful and innocent.
Elina Laine, 19, chosen to give the student speech, tells her classmates and their families how lucky they all have been to enjoy "the freedom of the lukio," the Finnish name for an academic high school, which does indeed give its students wide latitude to choose their courses and do their work. It's a three-year course, but Laine, a top student, took four years to complete high school because, she says, "it was more fun that way."
Laine reads her speech, rarely looking up from the two-page text; she is not a polished orator. But her philosophy and religion teacher, Liisa Franssila-Ylinen, is impressed because it is a personal speech with some sophisticated political content. "The age of ideology has ended," Laine declares, freeing the Class of '05 to make its own way in the world independent of stifling views or doctrines: "None of us may become a great man or woman, but we all have a chance at least to try to laugh at the world."
Scene 2, Helsinki's Kaisaniemi Park, right in the center of the city. The Finnish Broadcasting Co. has organized a day-long free rock concert for the day of the school-end ceremonies, on a giant outdoor stage outfitted with strobe lights and smoke machines. Groups named Zen Cafe and Poets of the Fall have appeared. The principal attraction, the 69 Eyes, is due onstage at any moment.
Tens of thousands of spectators, mostly adolescents and young adults, are in the park. Serious money could be made by melting down and selling the silver and steel that pierce the noses, cheeks, eyebrows, lips, tongues and bellybuttons in the crowd. Many are drinking beer from bottles and cans. None can be seen in a white graduate's cap, but several say there are lots of new graduates in the celebrating crowd.
Two guys who are good at shouting (they're Finnish TV veejays) are warming up the crowd, and offering gifts: packs of condoms, part of a "rubbers for the summer" health program. The guys hurl hundreds of condoms into a shouting crowd, many with their hands outstretched.
Rain starts to fall, and scores of kids retreat under the canopies created by the park's big trees. More beer. Lots of kissing and hugging, but no one seems to go too far. Recorded music blares out of the gigantic speakers on the stage. People want the 69 Eyes.
Scene 3, at Elina Laine's house, a cozy and comfortable semi-detached two-story brick structure in a leafy neighborhood just a half-mile (but a considerable sociological distance) from blocks of working-class apartments. Three generations of Laine's family on both her father's and mother's sides have gathered for another tradition -- the family open house after the school-ending ceremony.
More than a dozen guests are seated around the living room, sipping champagne wordlessly. Silence of this sort is a Finnish thing.
One of the older faces in the room belongs to Johannes Laine, 86-year-old father of Elina's father. He wears the red ribbon of a wounded war veteran, one of the heroes of Finland who held off the Soviet army twice, in the legendary Winter War of 1939-40, and again in the spring of 1944. "It took five years and two months of my youth," he said of the war. He still has shrapnel in his badly wounded right wrist and pains in his right shoulder. In retirement he paints landscapes quite well.
Guests continue to arrive, and finally conversation begins to occur. Then several singers who belong to a choir with Elina's father, Osmo Laine, arrive to sing in close four-part harmony. They liven the party, as do plates of food and more wine.
Where will Elina be partying later?
Nowhere, she said. She's a slim, handsome blonde who has a body piercing of her own, a V-shaped piece of silver or stainless steel whose "wings" proceed upward over her gums from the point between her two upper front teeth.
"I'm taking the university entrance exam on Tuesday," she explains. She's hoping for a place in the political science department at Helsinki University, one of the most competitive options for higher education that she could have chosen. There will be 320 students taking the five-hour exam Tuesday, she said, and just 17 of them will be admitted for next fall.
In Finland high school is not distorted by an equivalent of American kids' elaborate search for the right college; the trouble here doesn't begin until high school is over. As a result, the principal of Laine's school, Liisa Pennala, couldn't say what percentage of her graduates this year will go on to institutions of higher learning: None of her students has been accepted by one yet. Ultimately about half will go; nationally 60 percent of lukio graduates attend college.
In political science, the entrance exam consists of written essays about a single book -- a text written by a Finnish professor. Laine has read it 10 times, she estimates, and will read it several more times by Tuesday.
Is it a good book? "No." But it must be mastered, so no parties.
Scene 4, back in Kaisaniemi Park: A wicked drumbeat whacks the humid air. Lights flash, smoke billows. The lead singer of the 69 Eyes, Jyrki 69 (the only name he uses) has appeared on the stage with his four bandmates. He's a tall, slim, good-looking man whose hair (probably blond, going by the Finnish law of averages) has been dyed jet black. He wears it in a wild mane. His eyes are made up with mascara. He sings, first, the old Alice Cooper number "School's Out" to mark the occasion.
The 69 Eyes' last album sold 30,000 copies and raced to the top of the Finnish charts. They've signed with Virgin-EMI in Europe, and are invited all over the continent to give concerts. They hope that before long, they can follow the Finnish band HIM to success in America.
So says Jyrki, a friendly and articulate man in his mid-thirties with a speaking voice that sounds a little like Elvis. You can hear him and see his new video, "Lost Boys," at www.69eyes.com. The rain eventually spoils the fun. The band holds the crowd through its 40-minute set, during which the shirtless drummer, Jussi 69, must have burned 1,500 calories. Just watching his thrashing (but rhythmically very effective) performance is exhausting. As soon as they're finished the crowd begins to disperse.
Scene 5, later at night, downtown Helsinki. The rain seemed as though it would wreak havoc on another graduation-day tradition -- a giant beer bash at Hietaniemi Beach in the city. But the night sky improved by about 9:30, and now, kids in white hats can be seen all over town in groups from two to a dozen, many drinking beer or bottles of champagne, but in a surprisingly orderly manner.
Waiting for a tram to take him home, a visitor from Washington chats up three young women in their white hats. "You did a big thing today, didn't you?" they are asked.
"We really did," said a smiling blonde.
Celebrations: Above, fans of 69 Eyes in a Helsinki park; Left, Elina Laine, far left, and friends toast her graduation.