The Class of 2020: Coming of age under COVID-19’s shadow

By Tom Cowie

Andrew Leap is the captain of South Oakleigh College, so he is missing out on the opportunity to lead his school at sports carnivals and graduation events.Credit:Joe Armao

Turning 18 is a moment unlike any other. It's an age when everything out of reach suddenly becomes attainable. Alcohol, the right to vote, driving. A child in society's eyes one day, an adult the next.

And, for tens of thousands of people, the final year of school. An ending punctuated by milestones – formals, dances, athletics carnivals, valedictory, muck up day, schoolies – a time that, good or bad, most will remember for the rest of their lives.

But what happens in a coming-of-age story when those occasions are experienced alone or cancelled, probably forever? This is what Melbourne's class of 2020 faces, as COVID-19 puts growing up on hold.

"The whole year has been like this, I've had so many letdowns at this point that I’m just used to it by now," says Sophie Glover, who turns 18 on Tuesday.

Sophie Glover turns 18 on Tuesday and will have dinner with her parents rather than the usual party.Credit:Justin McManus

"It is quite sad, I've been looking forward to this birthday for the majority of my life."

It's a story repeated across the city for this unlucky group of teenagers reaching adulthood during a pandemic. They understand the serious health reasons but are still a bit mournful that they won't get the experiences those before them have had.

That's not to say they haven't tried. In the beginning, 18th birthday parties were replaced with virtual events. But, as it has for most of us, the enthusiasm for Zoom is starting to wane.

For Sophie, what would have been a get-together with family and friends is now going to be a dinner with her parents. Her friends are sending presents in the mail, which she appreciates.

But it's not just cake and speeches that 18-year-olds are missing out on.

"I'm pretty bummed out by not being able to spend the final year with my friends," says Wai Yan Moe, a Cheltenham Secondary College student.

We don't really see the light at the end of the tunnel': Wai Yan Moe.Credit:Simon Schluter

Moe is acutely aware, like many his age, that year 12 is when lifelong friendships are forged. VCE is a pressure-cooker environment and doing it in the presence of others creates lasting relationships.

That's not happening, at least not in the way it used to. Classes have been held remotely online for at least part of the year, while the small moments that build up — like studying in the library together for an exam — are gone.

Even reuniting in term four, which the state government has flagged could happen, will only provide fleeting sustenance, with exams looming a month later.

"We don't really see the light at the end of the tunnel," Moe says. "With VCE coming to a close really soon, there isn't much time for us left to spend with each other."

Tahlia Selzer thought 2020 was going to be a series of Jewish festivals and dances that were for senior students only. But she also misses making toasties on Fridays in the year 12 common room at The King David School in Armadale.

Missing out on rites of passage: Tahlia Selzer.Credit:Jason South

"It's those silly little things when our whole year level was all together that by themselves may seem insignificant," the 17-year-old says.

This is also the point when young people become school leaders. For the captains and prefects, it's been a series of missed opportunities to run events such as assemblies.

"You go into year 12 and you get a mindset about this is what you're going to do," says South Oakleigh College captain Andrew Leap, who is 18 next February.

"You see other year levels going through the same thing and you look forward to that. Because we're at home we kind of don't get that anymore."

South Oakleigh College school captain Andrew Leap.Credit:Penny Stephens

Then there's the typically packed social calendar, which has now been all but deleted — at least in a physical sense.

No big deal, some may say, other generations did it tougher by going off to war or full-time work at their age. But that would downplay the importance of many cultural rituals. There's a reason why just about every coming-of-age movie made by John Hughes in the 1980s featured the high school dance.

Graduation events, typically one of the last for the school year, are also under threat.

"I understand that I come from a privileged position to talk about it. But these are really important rites of passage. Not just 18ths but things like formals," says Methodist Ladies College student Charlotte Young, who turned 18 in April.

Charlotte Young wanted to get her P-plates this year so she could go on road trips during summer. She won't be able to get them as she couldn't get the practice hours in due to COVID.Credit:Justin McManus

"It's almost like a point to look forward to, to work towards when you're getting through those trying hours of study. It's just an emotional cathartic release."

For those who play school sport, it was also due to be the final year to compete together after several seasons building up to this point.

"As a younger kid, we always looked up to the year 12s playing in the footy team," says Darby Hipwell, the captain of the Brighton Grammar School firsts football side. "It was kind of our year and our chance to do that."

As captain of the Sandringham Dragons, a team which regularly produces top-level talent, Darby has the extra challenge of trying to get drafted into the AFL when all junior leagues have been cancelled.

Darby Hipwell is the captain of Brighton Grammar first football team and the Sandringham Dragons. Neither team has played a game this year.Credit:Justin McManus

Like many, and not just those his age, he is hopeful that 2021 turns out to be better than this year.

"At the moment the celebration of turning into an adult is not living up to its expectations," he says.

The first summer after graduating is a big deal for school leavers. No more exams, maybe a job and some disposable income. And for those going to university, four whole months off until classes start.

For VCE students, true liberation usually comes after the release of the ATAR results in early December. But even that has been delayed, prolonging the stress for a few more weeks.

Rumaan Baryalai, 17, was planning on a family holiday to Uzbekistan, working in his father's Afghan restaurant and preparing for his next studies.

Now he is dealing with the uncertainty of what going to university will look like, as the pandemic wreaks havoc on tertiary education.

"A lot of my mates are annoyed about missing the uni open days," the Minaret College student says.

Rumaan Baryalai says missing out on uni open days has added to uncertainty for him and his classmates.Credit:Simon Schluter

Letting loose in the way young people like to do also seems a long way off. The first visit to a pub as an adult, another milestone in Australian cultural life, can't happen under lockdown. Packed nightclub dancefloors are even further away.

"Everyone talks about the summer after year 12 being the most freeing but I don't know how that feels for us," says Chloe Williams, 17.

This week, the Queensland government announced that it was cancelling schoolies week due to the threat of COVID-19. The organisers of Falls Festival, a major event on the music calendar, also threw in the towel.

"We started talking about schoolies last year, all that pent-up excitement is sort of quashed now," says the Ivanhoe Girls Grammar student.

Delayed independence was a recurring theme for many 17 and 18-year-olds who spoke with The Age about their experiences this year.

For Chloe Williams, her first summer after school arrives under a shadow.Credit:Jason South

A drivers' licence is key to that freedom; no more relying on parents for a lift somewhere. But Victoria's various lockdowns have put paid to learners being allowed to practice their skills on the road or book a driving test.

Even just being able to drive somewhere for no reason, a staple of youth culture since the invention of the car, is off the table.

"I was going to get my licence the day I turned 18," says Glover, a Melbourne Girls College student.

"I planned out all my hours when I needed to drive, but I’m not able to."

Katherine Ellis, CEO of Youth Affairs Council Victoria, says young people have made enormous sacrifices in their lives to keep the community safe from COVID-19.

"Many of these sacrifices are a vital part of their transition to adulthood, from missing once-in-a-lifetime rites of passage like graduations, school trips and schoolies, to being stuck in isolation with family at a time when normally they would be expanding their friendship networks, exploring their identities and asserting their independence," she says.

"These are crucial aspects of growing up that other generations have all experienced."

But despite this year looking different to what they ever imagined, many 17 and 18-year-olds feel that what they have dealt with may help them in the future.

Williams says she tries to stay positive. "I look at it as being unique, I'll have great stories to tell," she says.

Baryalai has a similar view: "I'll remember that it was a hard time, but I feel it will help us out for university and things like that."

After missing out on his 18th party in July, Moe is getting excited for his 19th. "I like to think of my friendship groups as tight-knit," he says.

Selzer doesn't see it as a missed year. "I've realised the resilience of myself and of others," she says.

"You're just forced to deal with so much change, we've had to step up or be lost in the change."

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