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Writing matric – a rite of passage for parents



For Fay Weldon, the “Greatest advantage of not having children is that one can go on believing that you are a nice person. Once you do have children, you realise how wars start.” I would argue that this is just as true for parents going through the trials of the matric year. Most families seem well adjusted and functional until the stress of the matric year comes along, the hitherto unnoticed fault lines are opened, and the very foundations of the world quiver.

I’m almost sure it was the mothers of the matric dance committee who, in a meeting to plan various fundraising events, were unanimous when a date, three days before prelims, was proposed, chorusing, “No, we’re writing exams that week.”

Matric exams may well be an ordeal and a rite of passage for school-leaving teenagers, but it’s also an ordeal for the whole family to a greater or lesser extent. Holiday arrangements, family gatherings, even weddings, Bar/Batmitzvahs are planned around them, and the exam timetable becomes a tyrannical voice, out-shouting the rest of the family, sometimes even louder than their illnesses, financial ruin, or potential psychological collapse.

The narrative of the pre-eminent importance of the matric exams is one to which we all contribute: that success depends on good matric results, even though the proof of this not being the case is overwhelmingly clear and parents, themselves, may sometimes embody evidence of it not being the case. More to the point, if ever matriculants needed a fixed point in the ever-widening gyre and the swirling maelstrom of chaos, it’s during their matric year. Matriculants don’t need more hysteria, they need calm, sane, adult parents to keep things in perspective and to keep things from falling apart.

To add some insult to the examination injury, the South African matriculation system, like almost all high-stakes examinations, is a deeply flawed system for measuring learning and an even worse system for predicting tertiary – or any future – success. But, like the obviously flawed democracy, it’s the least flawed system we have available. We have known this forever. Even in the 1830s, Charles Cotton pointed out that exams can be formidable, even to be best prepared. Even the greatest fool can ask questions that the wisest man may not be able to answer (although this may be overrating the sophistication of the matric exam questions). Like the 11+ exams and the GCSEs in the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent, the more core skills testing exams such as the SATS or the Israeli psychometric tests, these can be stressful periods in a family’s life, however one slices it.

Matric is, however, not just a broken system that needs to be wisely and maturely mediated, it’s a system which has the potential to break people. School halls boast boards with increasingly long lists of gilded names of matriculation triumph. But in some alternative universe, there are hidden boards of matric casualties written in crimson – those who have been crushed and wounded by the matriculation machinery. Most families come out with, perhaps, a slightly squashed digit, but some get entirely sucked into the workings and are properly mauled. And it’s not necessary.

Extra lessons, teachers, educational consultants, facilitators, readers, scribes, planners, prompters, and community invigilators, not to mention the battalions of psychometrists, psychologists, and suppliers of exam-accommodation material have created an entire para-educational industry off the back of desperate pupils and parents. This applies just as much to the purveyors of chemical calming medication (for parents and their children), anti-depression, concentration, anti-anxiety, sleeping, or energy tonics. It’s no exaggeration to say that considerably more than half of any privileged school’s cohort of pupils use all, some or one of these artificial supports to deal with the challenge.

The sobering truth is that many of these supports aren’t really necessary. Almost every head of any academically high achieving school would confirm that the most successful pupils are those who remain balanced in their matric year – the pupils who remain involved in extracurricular school programmes such as sport, community outreach, debating, plays, musical performances, and also have a healthy sporting and social life.

The matric year, like making progress on a bicycle, calls for balance. To mix metaphors somewhat, pupils who relentlessly and unrelievedly hack away at their tasks without taking time to sharpen their tools aren’t just being ineffective, they are exhausting themselves and making their mothers fret at the sight of their febrile, drawn, pale, and anxious faces.

To somewhat adapt what Mark Twain had to say: “Adam and Eve had many advantages, but the principal one was that they escaped teething … and matric.” All this turbulence and anxiety can sometimes turn nasty. Many well-adjusted, functional, and even congenial families suddenly realise how tenuous their family agreeableness is when the matric exams come along and the universe explodes.

To come back to Fay Weldon’s idea: there’s an advantage – as a parent – of having a matriculant. With the benefit of age, wisdom, and balance we can do better for our children (and ourselves) than we might have done in years past. We have the perfect vision of hindsight. This time, the mothers of the matric dance committee have the opportunity not just to write matric – a dull and futile undertaking – but to rewrite it and give their children the benefits of their experience; they are in a position to provide adult guidance, sane support, and balanced advice for their fantod children, to draw them back from the precipice of the Malebolge on which they teeter, and with humour and an adult sense of perspective, guide them to make this a proper learning experience. David Brown may well have been talking about matric specifically when he said that matric “can age an adult faster than ten years in prison. Parents can have the same effect on their children.” Thankfully, the opposite is just as true.

  • Marc Falconer is a previous headmaster of King David Linksfield and more lately, Herzlia High School in Cape Town. He is on sabbatical undertaking a PhD on the importance of literacy in education.

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