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[OPINION] The madness of matric balls

I grew up on the Cape Flats yet went to a private school. The insights this gave me as a young woman into life across bridges were enormous and invaluable. Where I lived my friends had a matric ball which was elegant and formal and parents did a layby for a dress, some people had their dresses made locally by a seamstress or an aunt and some parents could afford to go to an upmarket shop to buy an outfit.

Everything seemed balanced, how you lived was how you showed up and there was less judgement because people knew each other and their home circumstances, they went to school in the area where they lived. I know those who lived to impress and above their means are found in both environments. To my knowledge there was no real competition or shaming, everybody looked forward to a rite of passage to young adulthood in an evening dress or dinner suit. It was uncomplicated.

The matric dance at the school I attended was a bit more glamorous because parents generally had more disposable income. The outcome, however, was the same. Excited teenagers gearing up for a fine-dining experience with partners, teachers and friends. Dresses were also made or bought. As much as we could do at the school and by ourselves we did. School hall decorations and catering were done by pupils, parents, volunteers and the eager Grade 11s were selected to be the servers and wait on the tables. It was a sought after selection as you got to be at the matric dance.

So far my husband and I have survived two matric balls, and have two more to go. In 2012, we met some of my son’s friends and their parents for the first time in 12 years, at the pre-drinks of the school dance. On request, we hosted everyone at our home and the committee facilitated everything. Tasks and costs were reasonable and shared. It was generally stress-free and not over the top. My son and his close friends hired a stretch limo and all got their own lifts home. The collective cost of the limo meant the expense was minimal. They had a phenomenal evening in their school hall. We made some new friends we wished we had met during the preceding school years.

Our second son went to a school for children with disabilities. Their matric ball was held at a function room which accommodated all the matriculants, one of whom was in a wheelchair. They had a Great Gatsby theme. His white blazer, red waist coat requirement was met by a suit-hire place up the road. He looked smashing and on the Monday we could return the outfit which he would never wear again. The menu was a popular three-course meal; the photos were lovely and standard. They had a memorable time as a class of 2014.

It is overwhelming how much things have escalated since 2014. Recently in the media, a family spent R40,000 on matric dance preparations for their son. He was then not allowed into the dance because of objections about his hairstyle. Now I find myself amused and horrified. R40,000 seems a vulgar amount of money to spend for a matric farewell for twenty people. Until you pass matric you are a grade 12 learner, not a matriculant. You have no formal work experience or appreciation for living expenses and general costs. As parents our job includes raising our children, educating them, covering their costs and teaching them how to be in the world.

What messages are we sending if we have young girls going through the same preparation some brides do as independent adults when they marry? It feels like a big production where the focus is everywhere except on the final gathering as scholars, as classmates who have sometimes spent five or 10 years together. The fanfare must put undue pressure on teens whose parents are less inclined or able to afford ticking off the now obvious checklist. Two outfits for the dance and after-party, make-up rehearsals and then on the night, manicured nails (hands and feet), teeth whitening, hair straightening, perming, braiding or extensions. Instead of a rite of passage, it has turned into a pretentious red carpet event for young people who have not yet attained the goal of their matric year.

This may be a loud call for help to our society that we have to keep ourselves in check, our priorities are becoming other people’s priorities and not those that are core and workable with our families, workspaces or society at large. It’s consumerism and missed opportunities for young people to be celebrated as they are and as they aren’t.

My younger children’s schools are starting to implement different ways of operating in this over-the-top society in which we are raising them. When they have cross-school events such as sport derbies which happen after school, everyone is required to wear their school sports uniform or the school uniform. Uniforms are still an equaliser. YOU have to show up, not the car that you are dropped from; the brand you wear is yourself, not Gucci, Armani or Prada.

It is my sincere hope that we might be moving back to basics. Keeping it simple, keeping it real are authentic ways to be. It is sustainable. There is plenty of time to show up as an elegant well-heeled young woman or a dapper young tuxedoed gentleman. That time is later, on the stage of your own life, at your own expense and when you have earned all the privileges that come with hard work and achievement.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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