Free tractor ride into adulthood

19th June 2009 at 01:00

As a nation, Sweden is not known for its outpourings of emotion or dancing in the streets. There are only a few events at which Swedes allow themselves to forget their natural reserve and display unbridled emotion, shouting, dancing, singing and celebrating with gay abandon.

One such event is Studenten, or the day you leave gymnasium. (I should point out that in Sweden, as in most of Europe, gymnasium has very little to do with sweaty jockstraps and aerobics but is roughly the equivalent of the sixth form in UK schools.)

The day begins with a champagne breakfast before students go to the school to pick up their final grades. There is a dress code, with boys in suits and girls dressed in white. But most important is what goes on the head: the student cap, which to the untrained eye looks like a sailor's cap with a white top and a black peak.

Reassuringly for the reputation of the Swedish education system, Studenten doesn't mark the end of an education, but the beginning of a new one, the caps being the traditional uniform of the university student, the Swedish version of the mortarboard.

Nowadays, whether or not university beckons, everyone leaving school takes part in Studenten. It is a rite of passage marking the end of school and the start of independence and becoming an adult.

After a farewell from the school, the students are free and leave for the final time. Outside, proud parents and families wait to greet them with embarrassing baby photos and homemade banners bearing messages of congratulation. The students are given flowers, have teddy bears hung around their necks, and the Swedish colours are waved, wrapped and tied around teenagers and other objects.

The day belongs to the white-capped students who are given licence to take over the town and are chauffeur-driven in a cortege through the streets - although the words "chauffeur" and "cortege" are used here in the loosest sense. That is how it is described officially, but don't be fooled. Instead, picture tractors pulling trailers, decorated with birch branches and balloons, big enough to carry 30 ecstatic revelling teenagers, driven by local farmers who have been paid, bribed or bullied into taking part in the event.

More formal celebrations take place in the evening with several schools holding black-tie balls. For me, however, it is the daytime anarchy and the sense of liberation that are most appealing, with the balls looking more and more to the American prom for inspiration.

I can't remember exactly what I did when I left school in Birmingham. We were probably given a stern talk by the headmaster about being responsible, and then spent the rest of the day writing on each other's shirts and chucking eggs and flour around.

Looking back, I would love to have worn a little white cap and been driven around Birmingham by tractor.

Ben Kersley on the huge pull of Sweden's Studenten celebrations.

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