‘A night they deserve’: Lismore’s year-12 formal endures

After two once-in-a-generation floods and a pandemic, Richmond River High’s class of 2022 dress up, dance and put a truly harrowing year behind them

The final years of high school are normally plagued by an uncomfortable combination of weird body things, long afternoons on public transport and the looming pressure of exams, but the graduating class of Richmond River High 2022 have survived much more than the usual tribulations of adolescence.

Richmond River high students show off their manicures at the year 12 formal.
Richmond River High students show off their manicures at the year 12 formal. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

Richmond River High is in Lismore, New South Wales, in the part of town that was completely submerged in floodwaters in February just as the school year was getting under way. The class of 2022 have weathered crisis after crisis. In the years they’ve been at high school, global heating has inflicted two once-in-a-generation floods. Their town faces acute shortages in housing, alongside rising costs of living. Not to mention the small matter of a global pandemic. But happily, a time-honoured tradition of graduation has endured: the high school formal.

Last week, along with two other graduating classes, from Lismore and Kadina High, students dressed up, danced and put a truly harrowing year behind them.

John Eakin, the year 12 advisor at Richmond River high.
John Eakin, the year 12 adviser at Richmond River High. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian
  • John Eakin, the year-12 adviser at Richmond River High

A hard-working group of teachers sought out a venue, decorated it, arranged catering and made sure families were able to afford tickets, while the charity Thread Together ensured every student had a brand new dress or suit to wear.

Over 60 students were outfitted across the three schools. The month before the formal, a styling session was held with dresses from Bec and Bridge and suits from Tarocash, while RM Williams and Wittner provided boots and heels, respectively. This meant each student could find an outfit to suit their personal taste. “The quality is so nice,” said school captain Connor McDougall. “It was really, really generous of Thread Together to do this for us.”

John Eakin, the year 12 adviser at Richmond River High, says his cohort are “kids that just missed out on so many enjoyable parts of school”. So it was particularly special to see them have, “a night they deserved”.

Bonnie Bennetts.
Bonnie Bennetts. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

Bonnie Bennetts

“A lot of the people that dropped out are coming to the formal. Some of them had to drop out after the flood, because they had to get jobs. They couldn’t do school and a job at the same time. It’ll be so good to get the whole year together again.

“The majority of the people at Richmond have been severely affected by the floods, and people that weren’t flood-affected were helping students who were. It was so nice because they were cleaning their houses – it was the sweetest.

“[Tonight] I’m wearing a black cocktail dress, with a split up the left side, and high heels. I can walk a little bit in the shoes, but I’m not really good at it. Like, I can walk, just not elegantly.

Lismore formal for year 12 students 2022.
Guests arrive for the Richmond River High year 12 formal. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

“We’re incredibly thankful for Bec and Bridge and Wittner because so many of us wouldn’t have been able to afford a formal dress or shoes. It’s helped so many people.

“I’m really looking forward to the end of the formal where we can all leave and go to the after-party. I feel like that’s just going to be really tranquil. Like, wow. I actually did it. I graduated. What the hell?

Elwood Bird.
Elwood Bird. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

Elwood Bird

“When the floods first hit, obviously the school got wiped out, and half the town. My home was fine, so me and my mates went out and helped people we knew. As weird as it sounds, you’d go into town and even though it hadn’t been raining for days, everything was still wet and smelt damp.

“I remember going home every day with a new sense of appreciation for the fact I could get into my bed, and it was nice and dry and warm. That was a bit of a wake-up call.

“I think everyone’s looking forward to the formal tonight. We’re all together, it’s not Richmond River High school as we knew it, but it’s still here. It’s the students and the teachers and the people. Our acting principal, Mr Woodward, said at graduation, ‘Richmond River’s a people, not a place’. That really makes sense to me.

“Everyone that graduates high school has got that sense of, ‘yay … we’ve all done this, and now life begins’. But I think it’s definitely more special for us.

Lilly Williams.
Lilly Williams. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

Lilly Williams

“In the last major flood, we went to bed and when we woke up there was a bit of water around our ankles. We called [my partner’s dad] and he came around. By then the water was up to our shins. I was the first to go out on the little canoe. I was getting bitten by spiders, but that’s better than drowning, I guess.

“I consider myself lucky that I got out when I did, and I have my life. I have the majority of my possessions because we closed the windows so everything didn’t float away. It was all flood-mud covered but I’m glad to say that I can still walk around in my own clothes, whereas other people can’t. In that respect I’m lucky. It’s still pretty traumatic, but not as traumatic as it has been for other people.

Lily Williams and Indi Nicholls.
Lily Williams and Indi Nicholls. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian
  • L-R Lilly Williams and Indi Nicholls.

“I’ve had this dress since 2020. I got it from [my partner’s mother]and I was like, ‘well, the formal would be the perfect time to wear it because it’s so classy and elegant’. I wouldn’t really wear it anywhere else.

“This is the last hurrah. [After school] I would like to move away and expand my horizons to anywhere and everywhere there’s more job opportunities, life opportunities. Lismore is a beautiful town, beautiful people, beautiful community – but in the bigger picture, the bigger sense of the world, you’d be better off moving away. Especially because it floods every couple of years.

Lily Shepherd.
Lily Shepherd. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

Lily Shepherd

“I’m pretty excited about tonight. I’m wearing a black dress. It’s like a square-neck, full-length gown. Obviously we were focusing on our HSC exams for a good while, and essentially just getting through the year. With everything that’s happened, everyone was pretty overwhelmed and exhausted. We definitely had a lack of motivation. Tonight is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m intending to travel next year. I’m working three jobs at the moment, saving lots of money. After that I’m planning on going to uni, either in Brisbane or Sydney, studying secondary education and becoming a high school teacher.

“Being a teacher has always been on my mind, because my dad was a high school teacher. This past year has helped inspire me a bit more. As school captain, I’ve really loved advocating for people and trying to help as much as I can. And I think definitely some of the teachers have really inspired me, like Mr Eakin. He went out of his way to help us and make sure we were supported. I appreciate them so much, and I would love to be a role model like them.

Sorren McSherry.
Sorren McSherry. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

Sorren McSherry

“I’m taking my boyfriend [to the formal] and one of my other best friends who dropped out. I have a really classy red dress with a lace-up back, [and] my shoes are so tall. We’re coming in a Mustang. I’m most excited to see everyone’s cars.

“We really appreciate what everyone did by saving us equipment, bags, uniforms. Shout out to our captains, Connor and Lily. They did so much, they petitioned for our HSC to make sure we got help. Overall, as a year group, we’re more prone to actually lift each other up now. We talk more about things if somebody’s down about anything.

“After this year everyone’s going off to do a lot of different things. Personally, I have a lot of goals I want to hit, but traveling is the main one. I’m very proud of a lot of people for what they’ve chosen to do. People are taking a lot of brave steps.

Connor McDougall.
Connor McDougall. Photograph: Yaya Stempler/The Guardian

Connor McDougall

“We’re going have a good party tonight! It’s a good way to send everyone off because realistically you’re not going to see a lot of the people for a while. Maybe not even ever again. People move away. They do different things.

“I’m going to do a double degree in sport and exercise science and secondary education because I want to be a PE teacher.

“Our teachers really went to a lot of effort for us. They did a lot when they didn’t have to. They did study sessions in the holidays, and just went above and beyond. In the tough years we’ve had, it’s brought us together. Everyone’s friendly with each other now. We know how to support each other.”

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Lucianne Tonti Photography: Yaya Stempler

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