The pandemic lockdowns revealed hidden reserves of resourcefulness in many communities, including the close-knit boarding cohort at Melbourne’s Xavier College.
The mullet haircut may be a divisive fashion look but for boarding students at Melbourne’s Xavier College, it was a unifying statement that helped them support each other through the recent COVID-19 lockdowns.
Xavier College is a Catholic school founded by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in the suburb of Kew in 1872. Buildings on what is now the 17-hectare senior campus were completed in time for classes to commence in 1878. The current senior school houses more than 1000 students from years nine to 12. They included a tight-knit cohort of 56 boarders from all over Australia, but mainly regional Victoria and NSW, plus a few from overseas, who called the boarding house home during the long lockdowns of 2020 and ’21. A further 700 students from kindergarten to year eight attend the junior school, which is called the Burke Hall campus, also in Kew.
A recent masterplan by MGS Architects outlines a broad vision for the school to coincide with its 150th anniversary in 2028. It incorporates new facilities alongside the core heritage buildings and chapel that are landmarks on the present senior school and includes a building that will accommodate years seven and eight on the site. Other aspects of the plan include an underground carpark to ensure greater pedestrian safety, as well as environmental measures such as water recycling, photovoltaic cells generating energy and maximising green space to reduce the heat bank effect of the buildings. The whole campus will be surrounded by a rich biodiversity track, further enhancing a spacious segment of Melbourne inner east.
Jesuit concepts, including cura personalis (care for the whole person) underpin the Xavier experience, and this is doubtless one of the reasons most of the boarders opted to remain at the school during the extended lockdowns. Access to study supervision, consistency of routine and mutual support are among the many reasons Xavier’s head of boarding Alexander Smith nominates for the decision the majority of boarders made to remain on campus rather than return to their families during COVID-19. “Backed up by the staff, the students have supported each other through these tough times,” he says. “They were still doing online learning and even though we were maintaining distance from the majority of the teaching staff, the boarding house was a large family bubble caring for each other through the lockdown.”
Alex and his wife, Amy, and their three children live in a building adjacent to the boarding house, which Alex says contributes to the family atmosphere. “We share a lawn with the boarders so our kids frequently interact with them,” he says. “My three-year-old often joins me on my wake-up walk-through in the mornings.” Frankie, the resident Golden Retriever, is another common presence around the boarding precinct, a comforting and popular addition to the school community.
The boarding house went to great lengths to provide extra care for the students, including arranging click-and-collect deliveries of necessities and the odd treat and lots of on-campus recreational activities.
“We were mindful of keeping the boys healthy physically as well as mentally,” Alex explains. “We had a strength and conditioning coach come in to monitor everyone’s wellbeing and we organised a lot of games and diversions to keep everyone occupied. In fact, I think many of the day students were envious of the boarders, because they were missing out on the social interaction.”
The school also went the extra mile when it came to facilitating any opportunities that did exist for returning home during the holidays. A Xavier staff member accompanied the Darwin cohort to support them through two weeks quarantine at Howard Springs before the holidays and the school also arranged private bus transfers to the NSW/Victoria border so students could travel home for the longer breaks without their parents having to cross the border.
For this year’s captain of boarding, Nick Honeyman, who comes from Canberra, and his year 12 colleague, Ed Plunkett, from Avenel in central Victoria, the decision to remain at school was almost a no-brainer. “We have such a strong culture that the boarding house almost feels like home,” Nick explains. “The school encourages the students to be themselves and feel comfortable with who they are and while we live in our year groups, there is lots of interaction, such as playing games and having dinner together, with the younger students, so we feel like family.”
It was after one of those dinners, when everyone was discussing the common lockdown lament of the need for a haircut, that Ed came up with the idea of mullets for mental health. Community service is one of the school’s core values, and with students’ opportunities to participate in their regular activities such as volunteering at a soup kitchen and helping with a study support group for disadvantaged school children curtailed by the pandemic, they decided to face the clippers as a group activity.
“We got everyone who remained in the boarding house on board,” Ed recalls. “Nick was the main mullet master and he ended up giving about 20 people, including Mr Smith and the college rector, Father Chris Middleton, haircuts.”
About 40 boarders made the leap into the land of the long back and short sides, and the whole school community jumped online to support their efforts. Having set a fundraising target of $7500, everyone involved was pleasantly surprised when their final donation to the Black Dog Institute reached a grand total of $25,500. When Australian Country caught up with the boys, they were working on their next fundraiser, which involved a 24-hour continuous relay around the school oval.
“No one escaped tough times during lockdown,” Nick observes. “But the boarding community really rallied to look after each other. We call each other brothers because that’s how we feel. And it probably explains why numbers are growing and this year we have 72 boarders, our biggest cohort for a long time.”
By Kirsty McKenzie