HSC and VCE and QCE and the rest of the national alphabet spells “torture”. It’s the word for the season. The good Year 12 student knows torture as noun; synonym for torment. They knew this by Year 2, which was when they started all this prep. Torture is a student tradition, but one now apparently shared.

Not with everyone, just a special few. Like the young writer, Ellen Van Neerven. Last year, the novelist and poet had a short work selected for inclusion in the HSC. The poem happened to be about sexual pleasure, and female sexual pleasure, which happens to be a thing most teenagers are mostly weird about. Even the good student will be weirded out by a happy vagina, even when modestly covered in metaphor.

What were the examiners thinking? Not about the teenage mind, and not about the young writer, whose work Heat and Light is pretty damn good. I can say this with a little authority because I studied fiction even after Year 12, and now I don’t know anything about it. Except that I hate it, but I liked that novel, which I would never have read if I had never accidentally spent a day living with Ellen Van Neerven at a writers’ house. She was Promising Young Artist by the book; strong and confident when talking about the work, frail and unsure in other speech. A rare sort of person with rare commitment to work, above anything. The sort of person you would meet, and think about sometimes, and always hope that no one ever harmed her, because she’d feel it in a way you wouldn’t know, unless you were also this rare artist type, born to live somewhere much nicer than the world.

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I was upset for the young artist I met, as you would have been. I was sympathetic to the pain of student torture, as you can’t be. Not unless you are one of our elite club: people who are not Year 12 students and are not personally known to the Year 12 students who torture them.

You could be a member, one day. You could, perhaps, run a little café that happens to have the same name as a fictional café that appeared in an exam question. Probably the sort of question likely to torture even the disciplined teen brain. One that takes the risk of talking teen language. Which is a stupid risk, because no one but teenagers speak teen.

The Calmer Café is in Melbourne, and so was the VCE, which featured some sort of post-hipster online review of a fictional Calmer Café. Remembered fragments of the question appear in all news media today and these indicate some sort of bad imitation of Teen Talk by someone who rarely hears it. Or someone who read an article about it and felt they had the hang of it. Even though no one ever in history who is not adolescent can successfully translate adolescent cant, which makes no sense.

The poem about vaginas was a “hip to the teen beat” decision. Yes, let’s give them a vagina. A vagina is a thing teens will like. Or, let’s give them something from that youth, Helen Razer. The one who is hip and barely out of her teens.

A few years back, the VCE took a thing I wrote, which was awful from the start. I wrote it because the editor of a large newspaper had sent a request down for an opinion piece that objected to tattoos. The opinion editor asked me if I needed the money. I sure did, and I sure objected to something that didn’t merit objection and hadn’t since the 1990s, when I was actually young. I was over 40 when I wrote that bad thing, which was made worse when it was substantially charged with “Teen Beat” language and presented to students as a “blog”, which was a form dominated by much older people. It was published under a name not exactly mine, but close enough that the teens shared a little torture.

I get why they hated the thing. I never liked it, and I know that if I had been a teen, I would have started one of the 30 or so Facebook hate groups made in honour of torture. Their torture, of course. They didn’t care about mine. They only cared to celebrate the end of torture.

Exams are torture. Being teenaged is torture. An adult who tries to speak with you Teen Beat style is both extreme torture and extremely funny. Ellen remembers this. I remember. A café proprietor will remember. Examiners should use our adult names as an aide-memoire.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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