Ten years ago, my high school formal was held at an infamous Toowoomba venue called Rumours International, formerly a nightclub for horny Boomers to pick up throughout the 1980s. American prom-night movies had since inspired the booming formal industry, so the entrepreneurial landlord of Rumours rebranded the seedy facility as a crematorium for teenage dreams.
My alma mater, St Mary’s College, was a factory for macho athletes. I enrolled at the age of ten with serious delusions of being a professional rugby league player. My cousin was Broncos and Maroons legend Allan Langer. My brother Steven played in the St Mary’s First XIII with Johnathan Thurston. Unlike them, I was a perennial benchwarmer, cursed by a preternatural lack of speed and hand-eye coordination, a wannabe jock trapped in the brain and body of an academic.
My sports-obsessed father was pragmatic about his youngest son’s failure to meet high athletic expectations. A local Labor Party official, my dad had named me after Lech Walesa, the Polish electrician who helped liberate Eastern Europe from communism.
‘You don’t need a six-pack to be Prime Minister,’ he told me in all sincerity when I was eleven, after missing yet another rep team.
So, I settled for a back-up dream of becoming PM. Parliament would be my substitute for Suncorp Stadium. I was one of those insufferable kids – predominantly middle class with white skin and a penis – who not only believe it is their birthright to become Prime Minister, but grasp the social manoeuvring needed to remain popular in the face of such weird dreams. I overcompensated for creative curiosities and a straight-A average with militant school spirit and strategic public displays of machismo. The self-betrayals of high school were the perfect traineeship for Australian politics.
The faculty of my Catholic high school was bewildered by me. I was a high-achieving atheist obsessed with The Silver Jews and John Ashbery, who shotgunned Bundaberg Rum and Coke cans on the oval before leading the chants at Friday night basketball games. Bizarrely, given this compulsion for being a loose cannon, formal organisers didn’t prevent me from making a speech – an oversight that I wasn’t going to waste.
Since grade eight, students had vetted potential formal dates like future draft picks for a major sporting franchise. We made final judgements based on which mirage generated the most Facebook likes from the imaginary audience inside our heads.
The night itself was an outlandish pastiche of bogan motor show and faux-Hollywood awards ceremony. A traffic jam of hot rods and stretch Hummers extended 500 metres up the main street of a big country town. The red carpet was greeted by a high-pitched symphony of yews, yips and yahoos. Teenage girls shrieked like they were being stabbed. Our prize for thirteen years of tedium was getting to pretend we were celebrities.
The formal itself was an outlandish pastiche of bogan motor show and faux-Hollywood awards ceremony. Our prize for thirteen years of tedium was getting to pretend we were celebrities.
Inside, the mood was unexpectedly subdued. Sterile smiles belied an inadmissible disappointment. Young men had waited impatiently to have true love at their fingertips – wasting vast amounts of money on gym memberships, protein powders, cheap colognes, borrowed tuxedos and overambitious stockpiles of contraception – only to discover that we were in fact the same tongue-tied teenagers as before.
Luckily, my publican father had smuggled in a hip flask of vodka as a graduation present for his youngest child. I mixed the liquor into schooners of Coca-Cola between my knees, and quickly reassumed my alter ego as a larrikin. I strode onstage and proceeded to take the piss out of the Catholic Church and half the faculty. Most of the crowd was in stitches. This was my natural habitat: half-smashed and laughed at by a large audience.
As the Class of 2009 converged on the dancefloor, I led a final rendition of ‘Oh When the Saints Go Marching In’. Blue and white balloons descended. I flailed limbs with Pentecostal energy and choked vocal cords into a confessional whisper. The graduates shoulder-charged each other while repeating after their leader. I was a simulation at the centre of a spectacle, grinning to disguise a private identity crisis, a mystery as much to myself as those around me.
A decade later, against all reason, St Mary’s invited me back to make a keynote speech at the 2019 formal. All but a handful of my teachers had departed over the previous decade; my reputation as enfant terrible of the western suburbs had apparently been rehabilitated by a professional writing career.
The theme of the speech was Success. Since the beginning of 2019, the ‘Ten-Year Challenge’ meme had been proliferating across the internet, showing the sudden or ongoing hotness of the posters. My social networks trumpeted the success of their sex lives and exercise regimes, publicising novel jobs, bodies, holidays and dogs with a catalogue of camera-friendly accomplices. It was easy to believe that at any given moment all of us were having transcendental sex with lovers who provided unconditional satisfaction. We compare the worst version of ourselves with the best version of perfect strangers.
Ten years ago, I had believed that it was my destiny to be a famous politician. Where did I see myself now? I was a 27-year-old freelance writer with greying hair, long ago grasping that my gift was composing prose rather than legislation. Life had disabused me of the illusion that I was travelling on a hero’s journey with triumph at the halfway mark, a fantasy destined for failure, because it was subject to the unreliable adoration of strangers, rather than the predictable intimacy of friends and family.
I was no longer gripped by the sly conviction a more exciting life was happening somewhere else. That I might find happiness by slipping into a different skin, tricking an immaculate stranger into loving me, or reaching an arbitrary marker of success by a certain age. Human existence is about swimming anonymous laps towards the abyss rather than riding the crest of an amazing wave for rapturous applause. This was it, and that would need to be enough.
So I accepted the invitation, perhaps motivated by a sense of unfinished business. A part of me was eager to re-do the formal speech as the serious artist I’d become, not the narcissistic class clown I was at high school. To the youth of 2019, I planned on dropping a few truth bombs about the fleeting nature of existence and the saving graces of failure.
A part of me was eager to re-do the formal speech as the serious artist I’d become, not the narcissistic class clown I was at high school.
The formal had been moved from the run-down Rumours to a swanky function centre on a mountainside, but the event sounded and smelled the same. Revving engines and shrieking teenagers. Burning rubber and cheap cologne. But the layers of surveillance had multiplied since 2009. Fake celebrities took pictures of themselves with selfie sticks. A big screen TV displayed live footage of spray-tanned minors arriving on the red carpet.
Overwhelmed by pre-emptive regret at agreeing to make the speech, and feeling more like a creep than a wise alumni, I retreated inside to get a beer. The bartender told me that the formal was a zero-alcohol event, due to teachers getting perpetually shitfaced, and students having Snapchat now.
During dinner, seated between the new principal and the priest (neither of whom I knew from a proverbial bar of soap), I realised that nobody had done much research about their star alumni. My reputation as a left-wing atheist didn’t precede me. The priest suggested I return to write a history of the Catholic education system. The new principal bragged about how he’d been able to quadruple tuckshop revenue. I felt like a fraud, betraying every prank I played as a disobedient senior.
Ten minutes before my speech, I had a chat to the Master of Ceremonies. ‘Don’t stress too much,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to change anyone’s life. We don’t want anyone jumping off a bridge!’
It was at this point that I realised what I’d written didn’t fit the gig. My speech had been leading to the conclusion that vulnerability, rather than toughness, could help stop young men from wanting to jump off bridges. It was like getting Quentin Tarantino to direct a feel-good romantic comedy.
The speech was a disaster. Not wanting to freak out a room of horny juveniles, I skipped the serious sections about mental health. Not wanting to seem like an arrogant boaster, I downplayed the success of my writing career. As a result, none of the students had a clue why I’d been invited to share the best night of their lives.
I was left with little more than a series of anecdotes about how bad I was at sport, and jokes about failing to measure up athletically to Allan Langer. I realised that none of them had even been alive for his career. As the speech continued to bomb, I delivered punchlines with intensifying dejection rather than humour or hope. My wise oration about embracing sadness and failure to achieve success – which I’d envisioned as David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water for Generation Z – became the jaded rant of a failed high school athlete.
Around 150 teenagers stared with holy disinterest into the bitter smithy of my soul. The speech received a few chuckles and lukewarm applause. I sat back down at the main table, relieved that it was over, a lapsed class clown deprived of dopamine.
‘Nice speech,’ said the principal quietly, without eye contact.
The only glowing review came from the new rugby league coach, who appreciated my poorly received references to 1990s State of Origin games. He gave me a bone-breaking handshake.
‘Cracker of a speech!’ he said. ‘Love ya work, champ.’
Ten years since celebrating graduation by cutting myself a mullet on the first night of Schoolies Week, and subsequently reinventing myself at least five times, I ended up becoming that same enigma – a neurotic writer moonlighting as a rugby league jock – even more than I was before. This was the single bittersweet epiphany of maturity; you can never be cured of who you are.
For my peers and I, 2019 has been a calendar packed with tributes to the past and commitments to the future. At the age of twenty-seven, we are confronted by a carnival of materialistic rituals not dissimilar to the climax of high school, when all of our private anxieties and disappointments were fed steroids by public demonstrations of joy and success. Cunning advertising gurus monetise the resulting inadequacy, compelling desperate young adults to buy cars, homes, overseas holidays and engagement rings with borrowed funds before they turn thirty.
We are old enough for mortgages, marriages and procreation, which also means that we are old enough to go bankrupt, commit infidelities, suffer ugly divorces and then die of natural causes if we’re lucky. Fear of the latter makes us more eager to accumulate the former, as if one might blackmail failure into a ceasefire with real estate and babies.
At the age of twenty-seven, we are confronted by a carnival of materialistic rituals not dissimilar to the climax of high school.
Within a week of my humiliating capitulation at the formal, I went back to Toowoomba once again to be best man at a wedding. I’d met the pending groom, Dom, at a sleepover a decade ago. We used to skull goon and punch durries together before sneaking into socials at the Catholic high school where he was now getting married, the same location where two years earlier he had made me atheist godfather to his daughter Billie.
The sound of Billie’s voice sweetly pronouncing my Polish name without tripping over the silent-h nipped my nihilism in the bud. She always made me feel like I was enough, even when pinching my skin or punching me in the nuts – because she wasn’t old enough to compare her godfather with any previous version of himself. I was just one person.
The ceremony was on the front lawn of a sprawling campus. Rain pitter-pattered across umbrellas branded with bank logos. The elders claimed seating at the front. The young and mostly unmarried hovered at the back, beautiful yet doomed to repeat history. The dresses, suits, shoes and jewellery had grown significantly more expensive – and the fake tans less reminiscent of Jersey Shore stars – but the emotional landscape was basically the same as a high school formal. We tiptoed around invisible desires to love and be loved, frequently slipping up because we needed the touch of some people too much, and others not enough.
As the bridal party arrived, the drizzle cinematically ceased. The hipster celebrant played Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Into My Arms’ on a Bluetooth speaker. Cave crooned, ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’; a sentiment I could get behind.
My goddaughter Billie climbed out from the back seat of a 4WD squeezing a white rose. She has the groom’s creamy skin and dimpled chin, and blonde hair long enough to be done up in a double bun. Even more sublime than Billie’s beauty is the tender diligence with which Dom protects it. He was studying education while working part-time and being a primary carer, taking responsibility for cooking and cleaning, while his wife-to-be worked full-time as a nurse.
At that moment, standing at the altar with my friend, I was struck by a sudden sense of contentment – I was totally sober, so I know it was organic, and not induced by alcohol or the vibration of an iPhone. I’d been reborn into a complicated present, rather than nostalgic for lost opportunities, either professional and romantic.
Life is a daily battle to accrue these little beauties in the midst of brittle bodies and formidable traumas.
But this wasn’t the denouement of a hero’s journey, where the beauty of birth blinded the protagonist to life’s absurdities. I didn’t lift Billie above the kingdom like Rafiki with Simba, a la the Lion King, and we didn’t all link fingers and sing ‘The Circle of Life’.
Instead, as she walked down the aisle ahead of her mother, Billie’s smile disappeared. She pouted at the spellbound crowd, before bursting into tears and sitting down in the front row. Cave sang, ‘But I believe in love,’ agnosticisms crooning into the humility of a secular union.
There were no priests offering the carrot of heaven with the stick of hell, or careless prayers parroted by cross-fingered sinners. The bride and groom didn’t pretend they were eternally perfect; the blemished audience felt invited into the event, rather than isolated by the weight of memorable regrets and unmet expectations. The married couple’s kiss elicited a gasp of kindred astonishment from the crowd. Life is a daily battle to accrue these little beauties in the midst of brittle bodies and formidable traumas.
Later, at the reception, I waited for the MC to call me up to the podium. I was anxious, because I needed to make a speech to a hundred people, but I resisted the temptation to get obliterated beforehand.
When the time came, I put my iPhone on the lectern and got underway without any icebreakers. All that remained was a short story about human evolution: two oversensitive youngest children – one comfortable with vulnerability, the other mortally afraid of it – who became best mates a decade earlier. We made our failures, breakups and bereavements less insufferable for each other, and the good times more fun, in thousands of ways that mostly went unnoticed until I tallied them up.
‘A marriage doesn’t live or die on the strength of a bank account balance,’ I said, ‘or a wedding day hashtag. It’s about the sacrifices you are willing to make every day for someone you love in hundreds of subtle, unsexy ways no one else will ever appreciate.’
I opened up about the uncomplicated bliss of holding Billie as a newborn baby, and her parents’ willingness to share a pristine existence with someone who usually felt more cursed than perfect.
The audience laughed and then cried, cried and then laughed. Disturbing the peace, rather than just taking the piss like I did as a 17-year-old, or obfuscating serious emotions with rugby league trivia like I did at the formal, was a successful public speaking strategy. Nobody jumped off a bridge; indeed, nobody seemed bothered at all by the admissions of grief and imperfection, because most people feel like failures, not heroes.
The more masks I peer behind over the passing years, the more I realise that everyone is running from ghosts that no one else can see. Our mutual dreads and envies stay segregated from social media feeds. We remain enslaved to the matching delusion that everyone else is supernaturally happy. That there is something uncommonly wrong with us. It takes a minor miracle for someone to admit that none of us have a clue what we are doing. Decades get wasted premeditating perfection and success, when the most transcendent moments end up happening by accident.