Remember when…

Remember your Year 12 Graduation; that proud milestone that marked the end of 13 years of schooling? Then there was the Formal, remember that? I’m sure most of us have fond memories, even if some may prefer to relegate that adolescent moment to the annals of history never to be retrieved again. Whichever one best describes you, I guess we at least had the choice. Spare a thought for this year’s HSC cohort where the typical milestones, including assessments, exams and even the HSC, have constantly been on the precipice of being pulled away only to be told last week by the Premier that graduations and Formals would not be going ahead this term, at least not in their usual way … a virtual graduation … a virtual Formal? For some Year 12 students the heartache is not so virtual and all too real.

We are told repeatedly that disappointment is part of life, we are even told that sometimes things are out of our control, and we can learn to live with what life sends our way but most of the time you can read and learn from the experience of others; not so in this case, not unless you can find memoirs from the Spanish flu but I’m not sure they did Formals back then. Part of me wants to commiserate and tell these students to admit defeat in the wake of this modern global pandemic and be done with it, it’s bigger than us and anything we can throw at it; while the other part of me is saying be inventive with how you mark this ending and choose how you let it define you as a group. My sympathy ends, however, when I read articles about sobbing teenagers who won’t be able to wear ‘that’ dress or ‘those’ shoes. Really, there are more important things in life. Ok, so I’m not a walking Hallmark card but let’s focus on the important things, shall we.

Amid all the doom and gloom it doesn’t entirely feel right to be focusing on festive milestones but if the mental health experts are right, and their statistics are glaring, every young person really needs to feel a sense of hope right now. Oppressed by the weight of the unknown and the immediate concern of how the tertiary sector will respond to these soon to be graduates, the tone has dropped several notches as they complete exams without knowing what it will lead to or even when. It’s times like now that I am so grateful and relieved to know that our students have several social/emotional protective factors in place, including: strong family and extended family ties; a strong supportive school where teams of people are at the ready to help; and, a myriad of social networks with religious, cultural and sporting aspects that facilitate their sense of connectedness to their world and the people around them.

With strong supports in place and reassuring messages it’s easier to see the light from the dark, and there is a great deal to feel hopeful about. This pandemic has not just been about the misery and loss – as heartbreaking as those stories are, particularly the plight of our most vulnerable in society, we have also learned about what is possible when the universe allows. Mother nature pressed the reset button and we have seen images of smog-free blue skies in areas now unaffected by the fossil fuel industry, reminding us that zero emissions is not just a dream; and then there are the ocean forests, fish reserves and deep waters regenerating themselves. We’ve seen how business men and women dug deep into their entrepreneurial hearts and reinvented themselves to address emerging markets, juxtaposing the long lines outside Centrelink; and we saw our Government take strident bi-partisan leaps to give its people much needed security in the wake of unprecedented times. We’ve seen cultural groups cooking for others in less stable circumstances. In the face of disaster, we have seen what is possible. So, as tempting as it is to characterise the pandemic solely in dramatic binary terms, that all important ray of hope sees those polarities collapse, giving rise instead to innovation, compassion and basic human decency.  After all, there had to be more to this global pandemic than every three-year-old knowing how to say and spell the word epidemiologist in their native tongue.

Perhaps the longest felt impact though will be in the workforce. Pre-pandemic surveys had already declared that our class of 2020 would eventually graduate with a semi-relevant degree and go on to hold multiple jobs. What we didn’t know was how quickly some jobs would change even if just the location, ‘working from home’, and how others still would be reified once more, as we came to understand that society just doesn’t function without the previously invisible parts of the blue-collar workforce.

So, back to our soon to be graduates. Never have the fields of research, engineering and design been so relevant. We look to them and their wider cohort of fellow 2020ers to chart new paths and create new emerging industries, knowing that they will have the versatility to respond to whatever the world throws their way. Next time, they will be able to look back, draw upon and learn from the experiences of their own era.

For now, though, we just want them to look forward – to life, love and the road ahead.

About the author

Assunta Di Gregorio is the Deputy Head of High School, Teaching and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW

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