Rites of Passage

Last week I spent three days at Newington boys college in Sydney, speaking to the senior boys as part of their school literary festival. Driving in the stone gates I felt like I was at Hogwarts, half expecting to see a game of quidditch being played on one of the three immaculate sporting ovals.

I sat somewhat nervously on a wooden bench in the sun waiting for my assigned buddy to usher me to my first class – year 12 advanced English. A passenger plane flew so low it drowned out my thoughts. Here to talk about my year living in the bush, and the writing of my memoir, I wondered how it would be received in this environment.

I greeted the class by asking them to imagine that instead of waking up to an alarm in their room this morning they woke instead to dawn birdsong under a thatched shelter roof. Instead of a hot shower, they wandered barefoot down to the creek and dived headlong into the misty billabong. And rather than the habitual flick of a kettle and toaster, they had to build a fireplace, collect tinder, and rub sticks together to produce a flame to make their breakfast. And now imagine that, I said, for an entire year.

Their mouths dropped as they grappled with the concept. I had their attention.

After sharing some of my stories, I asked them to share some of theirs.

I was pleased to discover they weren’t strangers to the bush. Their curriculum includes an annual week-long hike, carrying all they need on their back. A self-selected leadership program goesa step further, the participants spending three days and nights on ‘think out’ – a solo sit in the bush with food and water only.

“My brothers said it was one of the best experiences of their life. I can’t wait to do it,” said Darcy enthusiastically.

I reflected back to them that their ‘think out’ is a version of the rites-of-passage offered to teenagers by almost every indigenous society throughout history. Be it a multi-day fast, a walkabout, or a hunting ritual, the traditions generallyinvolve extended solo time in nature with some degree of challenge or renunciation. The recognitionis that there is something fundamental about being alone in nature that facilitates a maturing of self,a sense of service to something greater; an opportunity to discover their essencebeneath the social masks.

The destructive risk-taking that is a feature of adolescent behaviour in our culture has been suggested as an ill-attempt to create their own rites in the absence of any offered.

My fears were unfounded, the class riveted by my photographic presentation. At the end I open for questions.

Dressed in head-to-toe cadet camouflage, one young man calls out “Would you do it again?”

“Yep, I would,” I say, surprising myself with the certainty of the answer.

“But more importantly,” I throw back to the class, “Would you?”

A dozen arms shoot up into the air, looking around at each other in excitement. Now that would be a gap year fit for the task of transition into adulthood.