Life Learning

Thursday 28 August 2014

Evelyn O'Rourke: Leaving Cert memories

Published 28/03/2014 | 02:30

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RTE's Evelyn O'Rourke who has just published a memoir

I sat my Leaving Cert some years ago now. Ahem.I was in an all-Irish Convent Secondary School, called Coláiste Íosagáin in Dublin and the pressure was on.

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You were just expected to study. In fact, you were expected to want nothing more in life than to be locked up in your room ploughing through index cards and notes borrowed from some friend who had gone to a cramming course in the Institute.

And I rowed in with this work ethic. I remember at one stage eyeing up a new Maeve Binchy in my local bookshop and promising myself that I would be allowed to read it the day after my exams ended but not before then.

We were so compliant, so motivated, so disciplined, so OBEDIENT.

I did my Leaving Cert before mobile phones and Facebook, thankfully. The most technologically advanced equipment we had was an extra-long phone cord so that you could stretch the phone line and bring it into the downstairs loo if you wanted a private conversation. But getting on to the phone was itself a battle. Other than that, we would make strict arrangements to go for 'healthy' walks every few days. Our parents approved of that. In fact encouraged it. Now as a 'mature' adult and mother of two young children myself, I realise that we were a parent's dream. I imagine my parents now having conversations behind closed doors, high fiving each other that it was my turn 'to do' the Leaving.

The big day finally came around and it was English Paper One and Two up first.

To be honest, Paper Two was all that we talked about. The Leaving Cert spawns its own language and it all centres on 'up'. What's coming up, who is coming up, and when would they be up? Then the big day rolled around, and we gathered in a cluster outside our school hall. Paper One loomed and we came armed with shiny biros. That first morning, little did we think that these innocent-looking writing implements would soon become torture weapons while the groove in our fingers grew deeper and deeper as we clutched them desperately for hours on end.

When the instruction came to turn over Paper One, the words swam in front of me. I was convinced that I had been given a blurry copy of the paper. Then I told myself to breathe calmly as all the 'advice for stressed exam students' articles I had read advised. In and out. Inhale. Exhale. Pick up pen. Read though paper starting with the essay titles so that you can select one and let it ferment at the back of your mind as you answer the other questions. Steady. Steady. Grip the pen. You can do this. Settle. Settle. Inhale. Exhale. All you have to do is read now. You know how to read don't you? Yes. Now, essay titles. They ranged from the dangerous short story one, which EVERYONE knew was to be avoided and then there was a long list of possible options and then tucked neatly at the end was Disappointment.

Excellent. I started on my spider's web of ideas, doing a comprehensive breakdown on the ideas for this masterpiece. I was an unglamorous Irish teenager so had had numerous disappointing experiences to draw from, I thought gleefully. The time flew and Paper One was done.

A quick break. We went in convoy over to McDonalds in Stillorgan for lunch which felt very grown up and then we were back for Paper Two. So, what would come UP? My Shakespeare was Othello, and my novel was Silas Marner. I had swallowed 'Soundings' whole so knew my 'morning morning's minion, king-dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon' from my Billy Brennan's Barn and was relishing the challenge of the paper. I turned over the page and there they were, my ideal questions. A pinch of Iago's deception here, a dollop of Hopkins's preoccupation with God's beauty there, and then a serving of redemption through love in Silas Marner and we were home dry.

Of course, that was only the beginning and we had to repeat the exercise over and over and the exams passed by in a blur.

Eventually, though after three long weeks of this gruelling schedule, it was over and I was released back into the outside world. And on my way home from the exam hall, I asked my Dad to stop at the bookshop. He laughed. A few minute later, with my school bag carelessly thrown into the back seat, I was driving home with a brand new copy of Maeve Binchy's Circle of Friends on my lap.

It was over.

Dear Ross – a memoir by RTÉ Radio 1 broadcaster Evelyn O'Rourke – has just been published by Hachette Ireland

Irish Independent Supplement

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