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Wars, terrorist attacks, fires: HSC students have faced them all

The days following September 11 were frightening for everyone. Planes were grounded, and the world was in a state of uncertainty, not knowing if there were more attacks to come.

Fatma Hafda, a teacher, sat her HSC amid the global uncertainty caused by the September 11 attacks

Fatma Hafda, a teacher, sat her HSC amid the global uncertainty caused by the September 11 attacksCredit:Janie Barrett

But they were especially frightening for some. When Hafda arrived home from Wiley Park Girls’ High that afternoon, her parents were anxiously listening to the Arabic news. They remembered the hostility directed at them during the Gulf War.

“My dad and mum were starting to feel that same unsettled feeling,” she says. “They were worried not only about the world, but also about their family. [During the Gulf war], mum went to the shop with me in a stroller, and someone threw a rock and yelled at her because she was wearing a veil.

“Dad said, ‘back then I only had a wife [wearing a veil]. Now I have four daughters.”

Her parents tried to warn their children they might encounter similar hostility without alarming them. Her father was especially worried about the walks Hafda took alone near her home in Bankstown as breaks from study.

“Dad would tell me, ‘that’s okay still, but be mindful that some people might feel anger and nervousness, and they may act stupidly’,” she says. “Not frightening us, but saying we need to be strong, and put ourselves in safe places’.”

Hafda, who is now a teacher, tried to focus on her goal; to be the first in her family to go to university. Her father had arrived from Lebanon when he was 16, and her mother had to abandon education as a child because of the civil war. She loved the smell of books, because it reminded her of her brief, cherished school days. Her father would tell Hafda, “I want you to get a degree, even if you just hang it on your wall’.”

So she avoided dwelling on the US attacks. “Not to ignore it – it was affecting me and my family, and I knew we would be dealing with it for years,” she says.

“But I needed to try my best, and focus on what I was doing. In a way, the HSC was a blessing in disguise. It was keeping me away from all the ugliness around the world. It was giving me something to focus on while all this was happening.”

Hafda’s youngest sister is doing the HSC this year. Like the rest of her cohort, she is worried how the pandemic will affect her results and her future.

“The advice I’m giving her is that everyone who has done the HSC before you has come across a difficulty,” says Hafda. “At the moment, you need to take care of you, and focus on what you want. You can’t control everything around you. Right now, just worry about you and what you need to get through this.”

Class of 1967

In 1967, the Vietnam War still had eight years to run. Israel began and won the six-day war. And, in an event of far greater consequence for Australian teenagers, NSW held its first-ever Higher School Certificate examinations.

Rod Mackay Sim was among the HSC pioneers who called themselves the Wyndham Bunnies after Sir Harold Wyndham, whose education reforms included making them the first cohort to suffer through a sixth year of high school.

The Class of 1967 did not have past papers to prepare them for the exam. “They were still writing the text books,” says Mackay Sim. “Even the teachers didn’t know what they were supposed to be teaching us. There wasn’t this built up expectation.”

Rod Mackay Sim was among the first students ever to sit the HSC

Rod Mackay Sim was among the first students ever to sit the HSCCredit:Edwina Pickles

There were no assessments during the year, so everything depended on their performance in that final exam. And his teachers at North Sydney Boys’ were not as concerned about student wellbeing as their successors. “We were continually told how hopeless we were,” he remembers.

The possibility of conscription in the so-called Birthday Ballot – a biannual event in which 20 year olds born on a randomly selected day would have to do national service, and potentially be sent to Vietnam – also loomed. But there was no internet or 24-hour news cycle, so it was much easier to avoid distressing dispatches from war zones overseas.

“We were ignorant about what was going on in the world,” Mackay Sim says. “The population got a filtered story, and that was all we had. We were ignorant of really anything beyond what we were being spoon fed about the yellow peril.”

For Mackay Sim, from Paddington, the real challenge came when his left university amid an economic downturn, and jobs were scarce. Few of his friends found work in their chosen field – after studying engineering, he became a salesman – but they got there eventually, or discovered a career they liked better.

Class of 2019

When Lana Pelser left for her HSC biology exam late last year, a fire burned around her home near Port Macquarie. She was not overly concerned; it was on the far side of a lake that no blaze had ever jumped. But she would come to realise there had never been a fire like this one.

During her three-hour exam, sirens blazed. “There were water bombing planes and helicopters flying constantly over, it was quite loud,” she says. “You could see the smoke, and you’re trying to sit this exam.” Even then, she was not too worried. “Everyone assumed the fire fighters would put it out. The next day, it got out of control.”

Pelser fled her property the following day, as the fire jumped the lake and roared towards her house. “I packed my uniform, a few changes of clothes, all my study stuff and some jewellery and photos,” she said. Her family spent a sleepless night not knowing whether the house or their cattle had survived.

The house was spared, but spot fires were burning across the property, threatening to erupt. The days she had planned to spend studying for her final two exams were spent putting them out.

“It was really stressful the whole time,” Pelser remembers. “Even though the fire had already came through, they were saying, ‘you can’t put your guard down’. I definitely missed out on quite a significant bit of study.”

Pelser, who attended St Columba Anglican School, made a misadventure application, to ensure the interruption was considered in her final mark. But she was also philosophical about her performance in the exam, which she was happy with, especially considering the circumstances. “I’d done the best I could,” she says.

“It was very stressful, a very full-on thing. But in a way it was quite a formative moment, and I don’t hate that period because of it. It was almost humbling. It put things into perspective, and made me realise that school was not the be all and end all.”

Class of 1944

In 1944, no one knew WWII was almost at an end. Australians had endured years of rationing, and had lost many young men in Europe and the Pacific. “The oldest boys at school went straight into the army, and many didn’t come back,” remembers 92-year-old Arthur Pulford.

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Pulford, who sat his leaving exams in 1944, remembers digging air raid shelters in the grounds of Sydney Boys’ High, and watching the “bedlam on the harbour” when a Japanese submarine arrived.

What he does not remember, 76 years later, is being terribly worried about it.

“There was very limited information released on the news,’ he says. “Only the good information was released. I was only 16 at the time, you were more worried about how you were going to get on with the next game of football.”

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