In Defence Of Schoolies

Throughout this month and next, thirty thousand school leavers will partake in a celebratory ritual known as Schoolies. They will descend – innumerous, inebriated and wild – upon the beachside communities of Australia where pleasant climates are conducive to both hedonism and walking around with one’s shirt off. 

They will flock to Byron Bay in Northern New South Wales, a town prized for its natural beauty, its surf and its proximity to Nimbin – a township where marijuana can be bought for prices and at volumes unheard of since the late 1980s. They will descend upon the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and Lorne in Victoria and overseas too – to Fiji, to Vanuatu and to Bali – where they will dance to forgotten Mariah Carey hits in a Balinese approximation of Ibiza, decline to buy ecstacy from a cab driver and return home, tired and ecstatic, armed with one too many Bintang shirts, knockoff Louis Vuitton bags, excruciating sunburn and an unshakable sense of worldliness. This after all, will be the first time they have travelled abroad without supervision, a fact betrayed by the dirtiness of their underwear and their inability to understand a flight itinerary.

The majority though, the overwhelming majority, will descend upon the salubrious boulevards of The Gold Coast, Schoolies’ spiritual home for the past three decades, and, one could safely assume, forevermore. This is where our defence of Schoolies takes place, on the front lines of debauchery which some have called paradise. But how do you defend an event that’s ostensibly about getting drunk and convincing members of the opposite sex to touch your genitals? Well, I lack the intelligence to justify Schoolies’ existence in any logical manner but in terms of Australian rites of passage, this annual celebration of leaving school and beginning life is among the few shared experiences most 18 year olds can appreciate.

That’s not true actually. We have music festivals too, that ubiquitous rites of passage involving camping, drinking, partying and singing Summer anthems in the sun. Both events are similar in feel but they’re also totally different. Where music festivals celebrate other people’s (the musician’s) cultural capital and attract a diverse range of people, Schoolies celebrates the common experience (leaving school) shared by one group. A group of which you’re a member. It’s pretty important that idea of membership, because unlike other cultural events around Australia, exclusivity is not only tolerated, it is encouraged.

Toolies for example (to use the Schoolies vernacular), are opportunistic party-goers, usually men, who have long left high school but prey on the impressionable young. They also go by the more visual moniker Droolies, which I prefer because the predatory vibes are way more apparent. On the flip side there’s a comparatively innocuous group known as Coolies, Foolies or Pre-schoolies – attendees below graduating age who may or may not have an older Schoolies sibling, a fake ID, or an unnatural amount of facial hair. This lasting derision of tools and fools, of those slightly above or below the intended Schoolies cohort, illustrates the sense of ownership and belonging felt by legitimate Schoolies participants. Even if it’s for that one year alone. This is crucial. It isn’t just my graduation worth celebrating, but all of ours – a collective “I guess this is growing up” as a band who was popular when I left school might have said. That wasn’t too long ago but taste in music isn’t the only thing that’s changed since I left school.

In this day and age, according to publications such as the New York Times, leaving school is particularly significant because traditional benchmarks of adulthood (child-rearing, marriage, financial independence) are being reached increasingly later in life. In other words, we’re postponing or completely doing away with that which distinguishes us as adults. And with Gen Y’s elongation of early adulthood comes an increased significance of those benchmarks we do reach. So yeah, enjoy the achievement while you can school leavers! Your next will come with many years and a five figure debt. Note: Discount that last sentence if you end up marrying someone you just met at Schoolies five days prior.

Also, for purely indulgent reasons, Schoolies is the only time in our lives when education and hedonism will dovetail so grandly. Unlike our American cousins who have Spring Break and a plethora of storied, in some cases sordid (have you seen The Skulls starring Joshua Jackson?) fraternities and sororities to choose from, Australian Universities pride themselves on vanilla neutrality. This is not so much a cultural failing as a reflection of our infrastructure. Look to the hallowed halls of Oxbridge in Britain or the brownstone Ivy Leagues in America – these are towns built around Universities and not the other way round. Australians by contrast gravitate toward Universities which are close to the parental nest and almost look down on those in campus colleges. Uni bars does not a culture make and sad though it is to say, Schoolies will be your biggest chance to act a fool after taking an exam.

But this isn’t just about partying. In almost every conceivable metric except the obvious benefit to hapless virgins and Gold Coast tourism, Schoolies has a negative effect on society. Crime increases. Safety decreases. There’s sexual health to worry about and drug and alcohol abuse too. There’s street fights and drink spiking and property damage and any number of things that naturally happen when large groups of young people come together, which, really, isn’t a reflection of Schoolies but of human nature itself. It’s all pretty damning, insidiously reported too, and maybe those annual calls to ban the event forever are justified. But in one glorious, immeasurable way, Schoolies is worth that cost to society – it’s your last chance to be a stupid fucking kid.

Not that you’ll never err again or drink too much or speed or do drugs or wrong another human being or act as childish as adults invariably do – but as a recent high school leaver, your past twelve years would have been dictated by this one fucking thing. And suddenly that thing’s not a part of your life anymore. Also, you’re also old enough to drink now! You should feel relieved and scared and hopeful because being an adult is hard and confusing and I still have no idea what I’m doing with my life. But when you’re 18 and celebrating this seemingly important milestone with friends and complete strangers in a coastal adult wonderland – it galvanizes this fanciful idea (which, with much cynicism, you will later identify as naivety) that everything you could possibly want lies ahead and good things will happen. That feeling is the only thing I remember from my Schoolies experience and not because it was uneventful or because I was too wasted to remember anything with clarity. I remember because I periodically revisit that feeling still – that fleeting window of opportunity when complete autonomy collided with zero responsibility. It was probably the happiest moment of my life up to that point and despite the collective blood, tears and vomit spilled throughout the event’s short history, that’s a realization worth protecting. The world’s a strange and imperfect place but for a few days it is paradise. Then it’s off to the big, sobering grind of real adult life – and honestly – who wouldn’t want a weeklong bender before they contend with that?