The Art of Growing Up

This post was originally published as an ICHK Teacher Insight.

The process of becoming an adult is one of life’s main preoccupations: it takes a long time, and requires the investment of a considerable amount of personal, familial, societal energy. As a secondary school teacher I feel privileged to see my students pass through a significant chunk of this process: students come to ICHK as children, and leave, we hope, ready for the adult world.

But how can we meaningfully define adulthood? As a species, we like to put artificial and arbitrary milestones on the road to adulthood. The fact that these are so diverse, should tell us a significant amount about the variability of this particular part of the human journey. Consider that, according to the World Health Organisation, in Antigua and Barbuda it is legal to drink alcohol in a bar from age 10: an adult activity that Americans need to turn 21 to enjoy. We find variation too in the age at which citizens of various countries can drive, vote, own guns and create new humans.

In more traditional societies, the answer is more black and white: you are a child until you pass through a rite of passage, emerging into adulthood. In such a rite, you are removed from your family, endure a difficult experience with the guidance of your elders, and then emerge into adult society, via a celebration. Such rites are, according to Arne Rubinstein’s The Making of Men, essential in setting the tone for adult conduct in a dangerous world, where only sound judgement can keep a tribe alive.

Modern society has, for the most part, dispensed with such rites. Gone is the hunt, the scarification, the debutante ball, the formal coming of age. Yes, we have a public examination system that offers a weakened, extended rite of passage. And school graduations offer something here too. But on the whole, these miss the essential hallmarks of a real rite. As Rubinstein sees it, this situation is a significant contribution to many of contemporary society’s ills. We are the only society in history, it seems, that pays such scant respect to the art of growing up.

As a school, under the guidance of our Director of Creativity: Deep Learning and Head of PE Ray Chan, we have begun the work of introducing elements of rites of passage back into the lives of our students. At current, we can claim Year 7 induction, Senior School expedition camp fires and Year 12 IB Orientation as genuine, practical examples of such rites. These experience build upon existing Human Technologies curriculum work, where rites of passage are covered in the classroom. What we offer today may not be full-blown child-adult rites, but they meaningfully mark turning points in the lives of our students, offering the experience of age to temper the uncertainty of youth. They represent a step in the right direction, and point, perhaps, to the future development of a more formal and substantial rite for our graduates.

To this mix we have recently added another rite of passage, initiated by a small number of our recent graduates. For these 3 students, all long standing members of a group of technology enthusiasts known as the Nerdlings, school is now finished, and they are waiting to head off to university. Before leaving, they wanted to visit my home, hang out, talk and share a drink. Having experienced a similar occasion with my old maths teacher, I recognised immediately the positive benefits of such an encounter, for it represents a shift in relationship from teacher-student, to something much more akin to friendship.

And so it came to pass that the four of us spent an evening together, sitting on the deck outside my home, listening to (generationally incompatible) music and talking of old times. With parental and school permission, I was able to offer my guests a few different beers to taste (there is, it is worth noting, no age restriction for private drinking at home in Hong Kong). And, rather than simply swilling mass market, watery lager, they were introduced to a range of ales of differing styles and flavours. We chatted about how beer is made, and what makes beer beer. We relaxed, we talked of the future, we learned more about each other. We were social humans, using an ancient technology to drop our guard, to open lower barriers, to relate.

The most wonderful thing was seeing these grown men, who I’d known as boys, and watched develop, come to the table as equals. They were eloquent and funny, inquisitive and reflective, full of hope, yet humble and empathetic towards others. They sought wisdom whilst relishing levity. They had, through all the ups and downs of adolescence, come to represent those things that any parent or teacher could ask. They were able to engage in the world of adults, meeting eye-to-eye, and hold their own.

To me, this event, and the way in which it came to pass, is proof that the ICHK approach really does work. We lead children and teachers to transact with others as adults, to build positive relationships with each other. We don’t simply “do school”, we educate for a complex, uncertain and changing world. We understand the transformative power of rites of passage, both on the participants and on their elders. We select our human technologies wisely, and with care. We are adult, and human, learning and growing. Here’s to Isaac, Ray and Jonny, our graduating friends: we wish you all the best. Come back soon.

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