We have just completed an intense week of events which mark the annual departure of our Year 12 students. Of course they are not actually leaving – they have the small matter of their exams to complete – but Preshil traditionally celebrates the completion of their time at the school on the night following their last classes.
The Valedictory Dinner is one of the rites of passage everyone at the school takes very seriously and everyone is involved. The Kevin Borland Hall is cleared out and decorated to represent a theme chosen by the children who are themselves about to complete their primary schooling at Arlington. These Grade 6 children meet up with the Year 12s and each child makes a gift designed specifically for one of these older students. The 3 and 4 year old children contribute beautiful paintings to adorn the walls of the Hall, the 5 year olds create astonishing lengths of paper chains to festoon the ceiling, the 6 and 7 year olds make glorious table mats from laminated paintings, the 8 and 9 year olds create the centre pieces for the tables and the 10 and 11 year old children have the final responsibility for the layout and all other forms of decoration. The Hall is transformed.
A final element of the ritual is the hanging of the stage curtains. Every second year the 10 and 11 year olds make a handcrafted and painted curtain for the Hall stage. It is a gigantic, artistic project which certainly tests the children’s collaborative capacities and always produces something uniquely wonderful, even if it has teetered on the brink of disaster along the way.
Preshil has always put great store on the creative value of “making”. Every classroom at Arlington has a “making table” with all manner of materials and ideas under construction. In the lead up to the Valedictory Dinner the whole 10s and 11s classroom seems to be engulfed in one huge “making” storm. The room becomes gloriously chaotic, but there is a sense of unmistakeable purpose and calm determination to produce items which will pay a fitting tribute to the Year 12 students as they prepare to leave. Each year the curtain made when the Year 12s were themselves in Grade 5 or 6 is unpacked and rehung for their graduation.
The dinner is hosted by the Preshil School Council for the Year 12 students and their teachers dating back from their earliest years at the school. Many teachers who have left are invited back and so the night has some of the poignancy of a reunion with memories dating back to the years in the Preshil Kindergarten being relived and retold.
The highlight of the evening comes with the invitation to all the students to take the stand and speak about their experiences at the school. This is not an occasion for teachers or invited guest speakers to deliver rousing messages of encouragement or inspiration; it is simply an opportunity to share any particular memory or acknowledgement that seems appropriate. What is striking to me, having now attended five of these events, is the consistency of the message conveyed in vastly different styles and levels of articulacy in these impromptu speeches. These young adults have understood that they have been valued for who they are. They have been allowed to be themselves, to find their own values and their own voices without being shaped in to someone else’s idea of a collection of desirable characteristics designed to reflect well on the school and achieve the school’s idea of success in life. They are willing to share personal experiences and to express themselves honestly and openly.
Our teachers leave the Valedictory Dinner with a shared sense of being engaged in something much more significant than their classroom successes. The Year 12 results will, of course, offer each teacher the opportunity for pride and delight as we see the students achieve their goals, exceed their own expectations and go on to tertiary pathways in a host of different forms. Some of our students will achieve excellent results, some of them will need to reconsider or redirect their future plans. But all of them will leave Preshil knowing that they have contributed to the school community in their own, unique way and that their value can never be summed up by a single numerical score, no matter how outstanding or how disappointing that score might be.