About ten years ago, I had the idea that a good way to mark the end of Sixth Form would be to get my A level students to spend their final lesson decorating gingerbread people. It turned out to be a lovely thing to do. I took in lots of squeezy icing, cake decorations, jelly strands and the gingerbread people themselves, and we had a great old time. Most years, I put everyone’s name into a hat: everyone drew out a name and had to make a gingerbread portrait of that particular person. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen yourself represented in gingerbread, believe me.) One year, I got my English Literature group to make a character from one of the texts we’d studied. We had several Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a forlorn Willy Loman and a particularly memorable Duke of Gloucester from King Lear, who took up an awful lot of red icing.
Rites of passage are an important thing. Final assemblies, awards ceremonies, speeches from departing staff: they mark an end and help you to move on to the next phase of your life. At my previous school, there were no end-of-year celebrations and no chances to say a proper, formal goodbye. My current school is much better. There are speeches and thank-yous and a sense of tying up loose ends. It’s a ritual that matters, one that shows a proper valuing of the time you’ve spent in a particular place, the work you’ve done there and the things you’ve learned, whether it’s as a student or a member of staff.
Last year, with a global pandemic and one day’s notice that we’d be closing, we had very little time to organise anything, but we still managed to sign shirts and hold an impromptu disco. This year, conscious of the ongoing risk, we didn’t do gingerbread people, but we still pulled names out of a hat, and this time we drew each other, instead.
Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ is a fabulous, atmospheric poem about the end of primary school: I love the sense of impending change in the final stanza and the sky splitting open into a thunderstorm in the last line. And C. Day Lewis’s ‘Walking Away’ looks at departure from a different angle, that of the parent taking his child to school. I always think of the penultimate line whenever students leave school: the idea that selfhood begins with a walking away, moving on to an unknown future with all the chances and uncertainties life brings.