Firstly let me say I was one proud parent the other day when my daughter was presented with the Principal’s Prize at her Year Seven “Graduation” ceremony. I never won any awards at school, and she’s gone and done it at the first opportunity. However, sitting through the 150 minute assembly the other got the mind whirring. As I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, it was not just the length of time that got to me, it was the word “graduation” (deliberately put in quotation marks) that got under my skin, and the creeping ‘over the top’ Americanisation that rankled.
This was not a graduation. These children are 12 and 13 years old, they are not graduates. They are moving from primary to secondary school. They are not leaving with any diplomas, certificates or degrees. They have only just completed their first year of the Australian curriculum. In five years’ time they won’t ‘graduate’ from high school either. You can only graduate from university. While at uni, you are under graduates. After that, assuming you pass through your degree you are graduands.
Before you ‘bar humbug’ me for being unseasonably cold and Scrooge-like, please consider where and when did this ‘graduation’ word come in. Where did the tradition of a ‘graduation’ dinner and dance that evening begin for that matter? And while I’m asking these questions, may I also ask when did lolly bags come in as a birthday party tradition? I believe all these questions are linked and have the same root cause.
I doubt many of you reading this had lolly bags at your parties when you were growing up. Back in the 1970s, the deal was you organised a simple little party, invited your 10 or so of your closest friends. They each brought pressies, your parents put on bob the apple, pass the parcel and lashes of jelly, orange squash and birthday cake. A great time was had by all. But sometime during the 1980s and 1990s I’m guessing, while I was in my pre-kids 20s and early 30s, giving lolly bags to those attending your child’s party entered and became the expectation. This was slowly followed by the lengthening and engrandisement of the parties themselves (with bouncy castles, hired clowns and balloon animal people, hiring fun rooms and the like). I doubt the kids these days have any more fun than we did. But the bar kept getting lifted.
Allied to this shift, the ‘leavers’ assembly (itself a borrowed item from secondary school) came into primary school. At one of my first board meetings at the local primary school four years ago, I remember listening to empassioned debate that parents wanted better acknowledgement of the year 6 leavers (who were off to private school) as the school only really tipped their hat to the year 7s (which up to this year has been the final year at primary school). Last year the year 6 leavers had their own party funded and organised by parents. This year, with both years 6 and 7 going off to high school together, an immense beast had been organised which involved two graduation ceremonies, with leaver’s shirts, signing ceremonies, throwing hats in the air, etc, American style. Teams of parents now run fund raisers throughout the year to pay for the graduation night (it’s NOT a graduation!).
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. There was a tear in my eye. My little girl had grown up fast, had been taller than her mother now for over a year, and was already a sensible, dependable, conscientious person, admired by her peers and teachers. The school and staff had done a fine job. The effort put in by parents and community was amazing. That’s fine.
But somewhere behind the scenes, over the decades there has been a growing, ‘space race’ like “my kids’ will be bigger than your kids'” competition among parents seeking to outdo each other. However well intentioned, the lolly bag incursion won the day and became the norm, birthday parties have become bigger than Ben Hur (from aged 1 – the kid has no idea!) and the leavers assembly became a graduation ceremony of 2 and a half hours duration, along with graduation night dinners, dresses, make up and presents. Are we forgetting what this is supposed to be for? The kids right? Or is it more about how good the parents look?