As the Class of 2023 around the world prepares to enter the world of ‘life beyond school’, it's a moment to pause and acknowledge the journey that they have been on.
Born in or around 2004-5, many of them actually share a birthday with Facebook and, for this particular generation of students, phones have always had cameras. More significantly, a large part of their High School experience has taken place in the shadow of a global pandemic. Few generations of students before them would have been able to speak so eloquently on the relevance of “grade boundaries” for their future prospects.
And now, with their childhood behind them, it’s time for them to move on and join our carefully crafted Alumni programmes - the red thread that keeps them connected and helps them, wherever they find themselves in the world, to find their way back ‘home’.
Over the course of their life, we’ll reach out and ask them to tell us how they are doing, to share their successes, to mentor younger students, and meet us somewhere in the world for a drink and a moment of nostalgia. We will post their image on our website if they invent something, win something, or say something profound. We might even take the wealthy ones out for lunch and ask them for a gift.
But I’m worried that many of our programmes have a significant blind spot. Yes, there are many (perhaps, even the majority) who will look back wistfully on their school days and smile. But what about those for whom the experience of our schools was not a happy one? These, I believe, are the invisible ones; the ones that never show up to the 5 or 10-year reunions; the ones that quietly unsubscribe to our emails, no doubt because it’s just too painful to be reminded of these childhood memories.
The reality is that no school in the world is able to deliver a consistently happy experience that students will remember for the rest of their lives. But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that those of us who design alumni programmes are morally obliged to design them with the simple acknowledgement that not every student has a happy experience of school.
What this means is practice is that we look again at the language we use when we script those upbeat newsletters or reunion invitations; that we take the time to actively seek out the “felt experience” of our graduates; that we even sometimes acknowledge, on behalf of our school, that we got it wrong. At least for them.
Over the coming days and weeks, young people from the Class of 2023 will walk across a stage. For many, these really are the “best days of their lives”. But not all.
I want to hope that, in the future, our alumni endeavours will extend to providing moments of authentic reconciliation and healing to those who would otherwise live out their days, invisibly in the shadows.