If that’s the worst that ever happens to you…

If we want our young people to grow up resilient it is surely unwise to give any encouragement to the idea that not having a school formal to mark the end of their schooldays is a major tragedy.

I say this as a grandparent of an imminent school leaver, and as one who feels very sad for this year’s HSC students who have had their routines and expectations disrupted.

But whenever I hear or read laments about the cancelling of school formals, I hear my mother giving voice to her frequent message — “if that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, you will have had a charmed life.”

My every scowl, sulk or pout of disappointment from around the age of five evoked this pronouncement.

I never asked my young, caring, widowed mother to elaborate on her theme. But if I had, she would probably have drawn my attention to forebears who left their native land to escape poverty and famine; or she may even have alluded to the fact that we each came into the world during terrible wars.

I am likewise tempted to remind those who are currently even mentioning school formals, let alone turning their cancellation into a human catastrophe, that there will be many of our fellow humans fleeing famine, persecution and even genocide on the night of the cancelled formal. Many young people have developed the mature capacity to put aside their own anxieties when reminded of the sufferings of others, including those in vastly different and worse circumstances or those who have been long dead.

I have now learned from a younger and wiser family member, however, that this is not the best way to assist anxious, angry and disappointed people at any stage of their lives, let alone when they are so young. Better to empathise and support by referring to their own experience and to remind them of past challenges and disappointments, even tragedies, which they themselves have survived or overcome.

Just the same, if you have reached the age to sit the HSC without having had anything worse happen to you than a cancelled school formal then you have had, so far, a very privileged life indeed. And, if this is the case, then you will be sitting the exam along with many of your peers for whom this is not the case.

This may seem an odd contribution to a public policy forum but the point is that one of the roles of our leaders and those making policy decisions is to help us citizens to keep a rational sense of proportion and priorities, while caring for each other in times of crisis. Going to a school formal is not a human right and missing out on one is not a calamity. Unless human nature has changed completely since I left school over five decades ago, there will be quite a few school leavers who are quietly relieved at not having to go to their school formal as well as those who are devastated.

Referring to a school formal as a ‘rite of passage’ is inflating its importance in my view. The real ‘rite of passage’ is the parting from your teachers and from many school friends companions to enter the adult world. The party is nothing compared to this. In this troubled year of COVID-19 a cohort of our young people will be leaving the adults who have inspired, cajoled or chided them into learning things they need to know about the world. They will be saying farewell to these adults who have performed for them the duty of care and shared with them a love of ways of engaging with the world that will last them a lifetime – words, books, music, art, history, science, mathematics.

Along with my very best friend, I was farewelled by our English teacher assuring us that we were the two cleverest girls she had ever taught in her long career. Oblivious to the odds of this being true, we were sustained by her words for a brief period until we encountered, in the next stage of life, all the other people whose teachers had given them similarly encouraging advice. On reading a recent history of my dear old high school, I was delighted rather than disappointed to find that she had been farewelling girls over decades with the very same words. For that is what teachers do and leaving them behind is the real rite of passage.

As for the school formal, I have met only one or two people over the years for whom events like their school formal did seem to feature in their adult lives as a rite of passage and have felt myself thinking (and I blame my mother for this) “If that stands out in your experience as a rite of passage you must have had an extremely unremarkable life”.

As for those who have invented other personal catastrophes to draw attention to themselves in the midst of a pandemic, I would quite enjoy a PM or Premier pointing out to them “If wearing a mask is the worst thing that ever happens in your life then you have been very lucky indeed”. There are still occasions when my mother’s pronouncement is appropriate and justifiable.

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Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she co-authored Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement.

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