Through my work in public speaking, I'm pretty fortunate to visit a lot of different schools. It may as well be one school.
The classrooms are different, the lessons are not. The teachers are different, the premise is not. The students are the same people you went to school with yourself, in different bodies. It takes only a little time with them before you begin to figure out who they really are, in some Scooby Doo-esque demasking process.
This makes every school feel familiar. Dependably, reliably, unchanged.
When I arrive at schools, I am usually greeted by the head students, much as I used to greet visitors to the school when I was head boy of my school. They're always well-spoken and polite, their teeth gleam and sparkle. I ask them how their job is going, and they say it's great, and they beam.
Later on, I try to catch a moment with just the two of us, and I ask them again, because I know their first answer is rarely the full truth.
I know from my own experience as a school leader that the role comes with a set of challenges that are nuanced and subtle, unwritten and generally unspoken. Above all, they can be unexpected, confusing and demanding to navigate for a 17 or 18-year-old.
Why is this important? Is it not a jittering bundle of teenage angst, which will burn itself out into a big load of nothing at all?
From what I have seen first hand, no. These challenges seem to break head students - perhaps as much as they make them.
I suppose I should set the scene first. What are these nameless challenges? In the very few words I have:
The role creates an abrupt social shift that changes your relationship with almost everyone in the school. Within your friend group, within the year group, with teachers and staff.
Some people seem personally slighted that you should be chosen over them, and to think that you have been acknowledged as being better in some way for having been chosen for the role. They shun you.
Others are fully receptive of you in the role. These people look up to you as a role model, which is a true honour. But unless you've got an ego the size of a small car, you don't want to feel superior to your peers. They see you not being akin to them, which creates a disconnect.
These two categories form the majority of peers, which makes the job an indescribably lonely task.
Regardless of how symbolic and redundant the title may or may not be, it creates pressure and expectations, which are certainly not imagined.
You're now recognised by every student in the school. They greet you by name, and it's lovely, and it's terrifying. Again, if you've got a normal ego, to go from being a faceless year 12 student to being the only person who stands out in a crowd is completely bizarre. Parents and kids come and chat to you in public out of school hours. The role absolutely never ends, and certainly doesn't stop out of the school gates or class hours.
To try and sum it up in the few words I have does not do the difficulties justice, nor does it help to paint a picture bigger than plain old teenage angst. Perhaps how much you as a reader can understand the issue will come down to how clearly you can remember those turbulent teenage years, and picture additional pressure being added on.
Regardless, reflecting on the undeniable changes stemming from these challenges is what made me want to write this today. Not so much my own story necessarily, but what I've seen in other head students I know and knew, which is a fair few, because it seems to have a profoundly negative impact on the lives of many of them.
The instinctive solution seems to be trying to be "normal" and fit in as much as possible, which for an 18-year-old, often means being a bit loose.
They attend all the parties they can, and drink enough that people take note that they drink just like anyone else, like them, because that's normal. Some head students I know take it further, and try to be "hyper-normal", by drinking more than normal and partying more than normal. They take risks. They break laws.
I met the head student of one school when he was perched in a tree about four metres above the ground, throwing full beer cans at people walking down the street, including me. Another one I knew once got high at school before class, to prove she could.
These behaviours are atypical of most young people, let alone the apparent leaders of the pack. The issue is consistent, and it is not necessarily one with incorrect selection of head students. Rather, it seems to be one of flawed coping strategies and escapism by lost teenagers.
I've had a lot of conversations about the role with other present and past head students. The terms "hospital pass" and "stitch up" are thrown around a fair bit. Many don't think that it's fair to put that weight on a 17 or 18-year-old. Some of them don't think the role should exist. Some of them deeply regret having been selected for it. Almost all of them agree the support offered by schools is not adequate for the weight of the role.
It's irrelevant where I stand on those points, but for what it's worth, despite these challenges I still believe that getting picked as a head student was one of the most positive and defining factors of my life, an honour, and I wouldn't change it for the world.
It is an undeniable fact though, that there is more that schools can and should be doing to provide support to these young adults who have been selected to stand apart from their peers - so we can nurture their leadership skills, without risking their mindsets or futures.