Dr Arne Rubinstein
True story 1: I’m working in the Emergency Department and my patient is a 15-year-old girl with hair dyed bright red and she has been deliberately cutting herself. When I speak to her, I realise that she is obviously depressed but as she slowly trusts me I also realise she is highly intelligent and her main issue is she feels nobody understands her or sees her for who she really is.
True story 2: The 16-year-old boy I meet in the street and who was my patient when I was a GP is proudly sharing about his love of flying airplanes and how he has an after school job in a restaurant washing dishes, the proceeds of which he is spending on flight school. His first solo flight is scheduled for next month. He has no doubt he will one day be a commercial pilot and I believe him.
Why do some teenagers struggle so badly whereas others thrive? Is it just luck? I certainly don’t believe it is a lottery and the high levels of mental health issues, risk-taking behaviours and number of kids on medication tell me that we do indeed have a major issue.
My research into indigenous communities around the world revealed that Rites of Passage (ROP) were a part of all cultures and that around around the onset of puberty a significant ceremony would take place for boys and girls. Many of these ceremonies have remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years and were considered essential to the development of the young man or woman.
Interestingly, despite not having had physical contact with each other, these ROP ceremonies around the world all had the same elements of separating the initiates for a period of time from the community, a transition phase from one stage in life to the next, followed by a re-integration back into the community with a new social status.
Increasingly, it is being recognised that we need to be recreating community-based coming of age ROP and schools are the perfect place to do so. Students have regular times for camps, for example, and it is very possible to develop a program somewhere between Year 8 and 10 that utilises the elements of a rite.
There are two key outcomes from these ROP, which I believe are missing in our modern education system.
The first is a shift from child behaviour or psychology to healthy adult behaviour or psychology. This means moving from being the centre of the universe, not taking responsibility and being ruled by emotions, to understanding we are part of a community, we need to be responsible for our actions and to be able to stand with our emotions.
The second is identifying that each child, boy or girl, has innate and unique gifts and talents, genius and spirit. The role of the elders in a ROP is to identity and name that which is within each child so that these gifts and talents can actually shine and, importantly, benefit the greater community.
The greatest physical, emotional and spiritual changes a male or female will ever go through occur at the time of puberty. It is a time when they most need support, mentoring and guidance from their elders, and teachers are perfectly placed to lead the way.
The actual elements that are required in the transition phase include the sharing of stories, creating appropriate challenges and honouring or recognising the genius within each student.
Students sharing their own stories as well as hearing from elders who may be parents or teachers is deep and powerful.
Challenges can be created and examples include spending time solo in the bush, going on a long hike or even taking on a community project.
Finally, an opportunity to be honoured by peers and elders who name the gifts and talents they see in each boy or girl is a process that has incredible impact on the self-esteem of the individual and can be a life-changing event.
By introducing ROP into the education system we have the perfect opportunity to create beautiful celebratory ceremonies within classrooms and on school camps.
This process can support students to progress through the stages of their development both emotionally and educationally (which should of course be combined anyway). Importantly, it can also bring the whole school community together to celebrate every individual, and bring meaning and a sense of purposeful responsibility to young people on the cusp of adulthood.