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'I'm a Year 12 parent who opposes the ban on formals. This is why.'

I’ve been tutoring HSC English students for many years now. I love it. There’s something special about the relationship you develop with an ungainly adolescent who has been forced to study the poetry of T. S. Eliot or Rosemary Dobson and doesn’t see the point of it. 

Many of the kids I’ve tutored over the years have lacked confidence. You can do this, you tell them. It’ll all be worth it. To distract them you talk about the future - what they’re looking forward to. The formal, their plans for schoolies, the travel they’ll do in a gap year.

The HSC is a gruelling year. This year it’s my daughter’s turn. Watching her trying to learn online during Term 1 was difficult; trying to tutor other HSC students online was almost impossible. But that was just the start. 

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Now instead of conversations at the dinner table about exciting events in the school calendar, we navigate cancelled 18ths, cancelled sports events, cancelled musicals, cancelled university Open Days, fee hikes for particular university degrees.

Then a few nights ago, as my daughter was preparing for her second trial HSC English paper, the news came through. The State government no longer permitted school formals. Graduation ceremonies would be restricted to students only.

As a parent, what are you to make of all these disappointments?

Best not look at social media, where you’re constantly reminded that what these students are going through is... well, nothing.

Take the Facebook post that’s making the rounds: Londoners huddled together in the Underground, enduring the Blitz. The disappointments of 2020 are compared to much more trying circumstances. Why complain about trivialities - being “forced to stay indoors”, or “difficulties streaming Netflix” compared to the privations of the Second World War: “I’m not going out in case a bomb drops” or “Your kids have to be evacuated and live with random Good Samaritans for their safety.”

Or it can get more personal. Twitter reactions to the Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage of student disappointment about the cancellation of formals is illustrative: "Sounds like a first world problem." Or this: "Nothing compares to the heartache this self-absorbed generation is feeling right now because they can’t go to their formal." 

Leisa Aitken is a clinical psychologist who is currently counselling a number of Year 12 students struggling through their HSC year. We all know how serious that has become for some.

Aitken also happens to be in the middle of a ground-breaking PhD researching Hope, with supervisors at Sydney and Oxford universities. She questions the dismissive attitude taken towards this year’s cohort of Year 12s, finding comparisons to past historical events unhelpful. 

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Aitken’s PhD reframes ‘hope’ around three indicators. Firstly, a sense of meaningful possibilities in the future is vital for human wellbeing. 

The students I tutor live with constant uncertainty. They worry about the survival of universities with no international students; their chances of employment.

“The obvious issue here is so much uncertainty with COVID that as young people look to their future, their possibilities seem so reduced,” says Aitken. “These in addition to young people's already deep concerns about climate change and the impact on their future.”

Missing out on significant ‘rites of passage’ and not being able to share things with your cohort also impacts a young person’s sense of belonging. Aitken explains that feeling that your life now and in the future is meaningful is connected with whether you have a sense of belonging. 

“My research found that the more people you feel you really ‘belong’ with, the more meaning in life you experience and the more hope you feel. The issue with COVID19 is that the sense of belonging is being disrupted on multiple levels. And there is no enemy “out there” to [create] a sense of a common cause. In our case it is an insidious virus - potentially lurking within your own social group or even family."

"Adolescence is a time of exquisite sensitivity to a sense of belonging, so it hits this age group very hard.”

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Year 12 rites of passage also represent harbingers of future successes - what Aitken calls “small glimpses” of the future. So events like graduation ceremonies or formals represent practice experiences of the day when a young person might pursue bigger hopes as an adult like graduation from university, a wedding, or success in sport or work being acknowledged. 

Finally, hope is tied to agency—the importance of feeling that either we or someone else can act to bring about what we hope for. While schools are rightly concerned with safety, students have lost agency as governments determine more aspects of their school lives. 

“We [want] a certain amount of autonomy, and there is a tipping point where the loss of the choices they expected to have can lead to a type of grief,” says Aitken. “This loss of confidence - that they or others can act to bring about their school-based hopes - can begin to permeate into other aspects of hope in their lives.”

It’s easy to dismiss the cancellation of a school formal as trivial. But a loss of events that mark life’s significant moments is not nothing either. I’m proud of my daughter and her friends for the way they have coped this year. But as the pressure has mounted in the lead-up to exams, there has been a conspicuous lack of relieving moments of fun and the energising anticipation of celebration. Instead, there’s been one disappointment after another.

This week a Change.org petition calling for the state government to reconsider its ban on formals and parents at graduation ceremonies was signed by over 35,000 people. I was one of them. I know it’s not World War II, but the students I see sitting next to me at my desk, wrestling with Shakespeare’s Richard III, look like they could do with something to keep them going.  

Michele Smart is a freelance writer who tutors HSC English. Her daughter is in Year 12.

Feature image: Getty.

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