One minute they’re shorter than the hat-rack; next thing the whole school journey is over

Watching your youngest child head off for their final day at school can be a tearful affair, even if there’s much to look forward to, writes Michael Blucher

Nov 17, 2023, updated Nov 17, 2023
A prep student is seen at his school bag at a primary school. (AAP Image/Darren England)

A prep student is seen at his school bag at a primary school. (AAP Image/Darren England)

And just like that, it was over – 18 years of “school life”, crowned with a final, clumsy, fully clothed somersault into the swimming pool.

Probably the freshest that white shirt and those grey pants have been all term.

It’s true, by the time the third one is finishing up, you’ve just about run out of steam. To think, we used to attend every parent-teacher interview – this year, the most important year, we were flat out remembering what subjects he’d enrolled in. How do parents with five kids cope?

Instinctively, now that it’s all over, you’d expect there would be dancing in the streets. No more school fees, no more school exams, and perhaps most importantly, no more school lunches.

How many had we made over the course of our educational crusade? Three kids, three tiers of schooling across three decades – I’m going with a ball park figure of 6200, allowing for assorted sausage sizzles, sick days and the odd tuck shop treat. That’s a truckload load of fresh bread and not so fresh fruit.

Granted, just like with the parent teacher interviews, we lost a little enthusiasm in the run to the finish line. Thank goodness his elder siblings chipped in to help with the lunches from time to time. What an asset they were.

I don’t know what a raw potato, a tub of tomato paste (“italian yoghurt” they called it) and two metres of licorice would fetch in the schoolyard lunch exchange market, but I wouldn’t expect much. At least “junior” ate his dinner whenever his elder siblings prepared his lunch.

Hefty fees and fancy feeds aside, we’re not rejoicing, we’re actually lamenting it’s all over.

We relished the school days in our household. When I think back to when it all started, it’s hard not to get swept away by the emotion – uncertain little people, standing at the school gate, tears in their eyes, waving good bye. I’m not talking about the kids – I’m talking about the mothers. Boy could they tear up.

Right from the educational get go, I loved the sense of community, parents coming together, chipping in, bonding over small but important moments and tasks. Miss B’s Sunday morning working bees for instance. Clearing, pruning, digging, painting, mending, blowing, raking, drilling, all for the sake of a cleaner, safer environment for the kids.

Some of the dads were a lot more handy than others, though none were as handy as ‘Chainsaw Boy”. He had every electric tool known to man, including as you might expect, a chainsaw. Why he felt the urge to take it up onto the roof of the kindy, nobody knew, but he did. Strange cat. A little OCD.

As the years slid by, working bees morphed into music recitals, into cake stalls, into award assemblies, into concerts, into school fetes and before we knew it, we were on the side line, watching high school sport.

Wasn’t that a circus! The emotion, the tantrums, the carry on in the face of unexpected defeat. Again, I’m not talking about the kids, I’m talking about the parents.

“I’m warning you, Joshua will be lost to the sport if he’s not promoted to the 13Cs”. The threats from indignant fathers came at levels you’d least expect.

Every now and then, I was tempted to try and help them understand just how little it all matters, the moment their “junior Wallaby in waiting” walks out the school gate for the last time. But then I’d be reminded of the last time I offered “gratuitous advice” on the side line. It didn’t go so well.

While closely monitoring the smouldering tension, I asked my mate “Cav” if he could fight. “No,“ he said. “But I can run. How much do you weigh?” Fortunately, calm heads eventually prevailed, and Cav’s rescue services were not required.

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The accolades – sporting and academic – are of course wonderful, but we encouraged our lot to focus just as heavily on building lasting friendships. Experience tells us that 20 years on, a lifelong relationship is going to be a lot more valuable than lines and letters on a blazer.

While swapping war stories with another dad at the “Valedictory Dinner” this week, I was told of the collection that a bunch of boys had taken up for a boarder who was struggling. He was an international student whose parents had hit hard times. They were demanding he return home – his schoolmates weren’t going to let it happen. They pooled together more than $1000 from their own pockets to ensure the kid saw out the school year and graduated. Not a single parent or teacher was aware of the drama, until well after it had been resolved.

Some 20 minutes later, the school’s newly anointed “valedictorian”, Jacob, an impossibly impressive kid from the country, deflected all the formal accolades and gongs he’d received by zero-ing in on the achievements of the “unheralded students”.

Casting to one side excellence in Economics and Engineering and Rowing and Rugby, Jacob spoke of Jack, the gun helicopter pilot, Coby, the resident racing car driver, Carter, the world ranked mountain biker, Rudra and Josh, the recently crowned national robotics champions, Jasper, the school’s in house chess genius, and Lewis, “the most insanely gifted physicist he’d ever met”. “And let’s not forget Nick, the enigmatic lead in the school play, and all the musicians in the grand concert who a few weeks ago, filled the concert hall to the brim. To that end, I’ve never heard anybody sing like Xavier.”

The point was excellence comes in many different forms – understand what you’re good at – your unique talents – and pin your ears back. Go your hardest!

It was a vivid and timely reminder of how far our education system has come. It’s no longer one size fits all. You can shine brightly on many different stages, and ultimately, receive the acknowledgment you deserve.

Yes, we’ll miss the school days. Maybe not the fees and the preparation of lunches, but definitely the concerts, dinners, the regattas, the father-son breakfasts and of course, the parents’ drinks, where we’re regularly reminded, we’re all pretty much the same.

Hard working people who simply want the best for our kids. All bumbling along, making it up as we go, failing our way to success.

To finish, Jacob treated us to a quote from his favourite Dr Suess’s book, “Oh the places you’ll go”. He presented it to his Grade 6 mentoring class as a gift.

“Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray, or Mordecai Ale Von Allen O’Shea, You’re off to great places, Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way!

Yeah kids, what Jacob said.

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