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As school days come to an end, the greatest lessons are just about to begin


If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught Queensland’s graduating Year 12 students, it’s to be more adaptable, writes Madonna King

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Imagine planning your own biography, at age 17.

What might be the highlights? And how different have they proved to be?

From next week, our Year 12s get to write their own stories and it might be worth, if you have a Year 12 student in your life, asking them how they expect their life story to play out.

Do they plan to run the New York Marathon or a not-for-profit organisation?

Get married? To the right person? Live in Brisbane or Bermuda?

Have no children,  or seven?

And then tell them about your own story, and how it’s taken so many detours since that final exam bell rang out a few decades ago.

Tell them about the dream job you lost to a better candidate.

Or the house fire that stole your childhood photos.

The partner-for-life who found another partner-for-life.

Talk to them about the child you raised with high needs.

The struggle, keeping mental illness at bay.

Saying goodbye to the person you loved more than anyone.

Seeing the look in your partner’s eyes at the very moment you said “I do”.

Tell them about the nights you lay awake worrying about them.

The friend who beat cancer.

The magic of holding a newborn.

Of voting for the first time. And buying your first home. About the book that made you think differently.

Tell them about the challenges and the victories; the unplanned opportunities and the unfairness that came from left-field.

Because these external exams, that are now the focus of their every waking moment, will mean nothing in the big scheme of things. They need to know that.

These exams won’t determine their happiness or their career trajectory. They won’t determine how many friends they have, or how they deal with life’s curve balls.

Ask Christian Porter. He studied at the London School of Economics. This week that meant nought.

This cohort of Year 12s has missed so much – from formals to graduation ceremonies, weekends away to stage performances. So have many other cohorts – from preschoolers to sporting teams, debating competitions to 10-year-old birthday parties.

But the lesson delivered by COVID-19 might prove to be the lesson needed, in an age where the focus on academic achievement and winning and knowing the minor idiosyncrasies of a two-bit character in a very good Shakespeare play is far too exaggerated.

It won’t matter in a couple of weeks after those ATAR marks are delivered to our school-leavers.

Those who want to do medicine will get to do it. They just need to find another route. And our universities need to work harder to make that easier.

Those who want to play music or football, become teachers and nurses and tradies will find a way, if that’s their passion.

Not much is made of a person’s ability to be able to alter direction, be flexible, respond to changing circumstances – but the disruption brought on by technology in the past decade has shown what a cherished skill it should be.

COVID’s done that too. Those who have been able to adapt – in their work lives and at home – are more likely to flourish than those locked into pre-pandemic models of doing almost anything.

It’s a lesson our businesses and churches, schools and politicians have all had to learn. And some have found it easier than others.

Perhaps COVID can gift our Year 12s that skill; to embrace the unexpected and find new ways around it.

That’s what one teacher, of a big girls’ school, was trying to explain last week in the wake of an external maths exam.

Some girls were crying. Others were reconsidering their life plans. Woe and worry dominated the conversation, as this maths teacher wandered by.

Now this story comes from another group of teen girls, so there may be what we call, in our house, “an exaggeration factor’’, but the message is worth its weight in gold.

“Look girls,’’ he said. “Have you ever had a bad haircut?’’

They responded with tentative nods. “And it grew back, didn’t it?’’ More nods.

“Well it’s the same with that exam. You planned for it, it wasn’t what you expected, you might not have done well, but soon it will be nothing more than a distant memory. Just like that bad haircut.’’

We’ve all had a bad haircut. Some of us more than one.

But each time it’s grown back. That’s the message our school-leavers need to hear.

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