Dear Year 12 graduates,
I spent most of my schooling career worried about my next exam. It felt like no matter the subject or topic, the real matter under examination each time was me and my fragile sense of self. If I did well in an exam, I would be happy momentarily, fleetingly, thinking I’d lived to fight another day; if I did poorly the self-criticism was almost inescapable.
My favourite Year 12 course ended up being one that revolved around a major work. No exam!
It felt very strange having to unlearn all of that hardwiring – how I had trained myself to judge my success (and my value) by the exam mark on my report at the end of the semester. Suddenly, instead of a defined exam, there was an undefined blank page in front of me.
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It felt very daunting, starting with nothing, not even a question to respond to; a page manifold with possibilities. It took a while to shake off that weird sense of not having the final motivational threat of an exam hanging over my head.
Slowly, however, I began to revel in this sense of openness. The page became a playground, and that major work came to life, like a sculpture hewn from a block of rock by a thousand small and careful edits. I began to love the work rather than rush to the outcome. Looking back, that major work is the thing from my schooling of which I am the most proud.
Your life is not some single point in the road that you have passed or failed at the age of 18.
The truth, Year 12 graduates, is that it is tempting to want to measure the success of your life in exam-like outcomes and measurements, as if your 12 or 13 years of schooling can be adequately captured by four digits and a decimal point.
Instead, you need to know that you are the major work. The blank page is you: your life is not some single point in the road that you have passed or failed at the age of 18; but, day by day, hour by hour, you have the opportunity to write the next line, the next scene; to reread and edit and to go again. Remember that “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies are new every morning” (Lamentations 3).
Whenever a student of mine questions why my subject (English) is the only compulsory one, I think of this speech from the inimitable Mr Keating in the film Dead Poets’ Society:
“And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for … The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
So, Year 12 graduates, the exams are over. School’s out.
Life is a blank page ahead of you – a major work masterpiece waiting to be written. The sun is only now just beginning to glint on the horizon.
What will your verse be?
Brendan Archbold is Acting Secondary English Coordinator and GATEway Teacher at Regents Park Christian School in Sydney.