Monday 27 January 2020

Making your mind up - or not

Decisions: Megan Lewis felt overwhelmed by choice when filling out the CAO form. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Decisions: Megan Lewis felt overwhelmed by choice when filling out the CAO form. Photo: Steve Humphreys
On the field: Megan (right) taking on Emma Flanagan at the Dublin Camogie Annual Dub Stars v Dublin Seniors Match in Parnells GAA Club. Photo: Martina McGilloway/ilivephotos

I'm a college drop out, or so I might be described in the statistics. If you had told me that a year ago, I would have laughed. I was sitting on a beach in Magaluf on my sixth year holiday, the chaos that is the Leaving Cert but a distant memory, when my parents called.

"So, are you sure about the order of your courses, Meg?" I could hear the apprehension in my mom's voice. I wasn't sure about anything.

"There's still time Meg, but you have to make a decision here. Do you want to do European Studies or International Languages?"

I was tired of all this thinking. How was I supposed to know what to do with what I thought would be the rest of my whole life?

On the field: Megan (right) taking on Emma Flanagan at the Dublin Camogie Annual Dub Stars v Dublin Seniors Match in Parnells GAA Club. Photo: Martina McGilloway/ilivephotos
On the field: Megan (right) taking on Emma Flanagan at the Dublin Camogie Annual Dub Stars v Dublin Seniors Match in Parnells GAA Club. Photo: Martina McGilloway/ilivephotos

"Well, you know what I think..."

I knew what everyone thought. I knew what mom thought, what dad thought, what my sister thought. I had heard all my friends' opinions. I had talked to first year college students, asked them all the relevant questions. I had all the information. I had listed all the pros and cons. There was nothing left to do but decide.

"Okay Meg. C'mon. There are three minutes left before this has to be sent in. It's decision time."

Funny. I was never good at making decisions. That's the nature of decisions though. They're never easy.

When I was younger, mom used to take my sister and I to Easons. She was always trying to get us to read. We were each told we could pick one book. Just one book from the stacks of books that lined the shelves. So many stories to choose from, so many words unread, so many characters I hadn't met.

I could pick only one. I would read all the blurbs and scan the first page of every book I picked up, mentally categorising them with yes, no or maybe mental sticky notes. A half hour later, it would be time to go. I couldn't decide, and so I left the bookshop empty handed. Sometimes in not making any decision, in fearing making the wrong one, one inactively decides. In not choosing a book, I chose to leave the bookshop with nothing.

Those three minutes were longer than any other three minutes I have ever experienced. Three minutes listening to my parents breathing on the other end of the phone. Three minutes of watching the waves roll in from the horizon, with each one came a new thought. Three minutes. Mind racing. Deciding.

"Ok. Three minutes is up Meg. That's it. Decision made. Stick with your number one. Enjoy the rest of your holiday. Stay safe."

"Wear protection," Dad piped up.

"Sun protection, that is," Mom made sure to clarify.

That was that. All I could do now was wait until my results came out, try not to think about it and enjoy the rest of the week in Magaluf (Shagaluf as dad refers to it. I won't go into the details. What happens in Maga, stays in Maga. Am I right, girls?)

The Leaving Cert is a bubble. You spend two years in it, doing little else but studying. I even gave up camogie in sixth year. People say that it was a drastic move but I'm a girl of extremes. When I commit to something, I commit 100pc.

It's black or white. No in-betweens. I'm not sure what grey looks like. Never have.

Additionally, you don't have to be particularly smart to do well in the Leaving Cert.

In fact, I know many bright sparks, geniuses, who did worse than I did in the Leaving Cert. This is not because I am a genius. Far from it. This is because the Leaving Cert tests not your academic ability but your ability to work hard under pressure for a prolonged period of time.

Can you handle the early mornings and the late nights? Can you write a five page history essay in 42.5 minutes exactly?

Can you memorize all the poetry quotes, Plath, Bishop, Dickinson? How about the old Shakespearean English or all the biology definitions, the history dates?

Can you rote learn, because let's face it you can't do well in the LC without this vital skill that is ultimately essential in life? Right? Can you handle the heat? Will you crack under the pressure? This was at least my experience of the LC.

I'm not saying there's no merit in the Leaving Cert. The problem is not the syllabus. Plath, Yeats, Dickinson, Shakespeare are important. They force us to see the world in new ways, from a perspective that is not our own.

Algebra is important. It proves that everyday problems can be solved using abstract concepts, x and y.

Languages are important. They are tools of peace that encourage communication between the nations.

History is important. In looking at the past we can understand better the modern socio-political landscape.

Music is important. Art is important. They teach creativity and self-expression.

Education has the power to solve all the world's problems. Education is important. I won't argue otherwise. The problem is not the syllabus nor how it's taught. The fundamental problem lies in how students are assessed.

Maybe you did well in the Leaving Cert, maybe you didn't. You get to college and nobody cares. Everyone talks about how hard the Leaving Cert is. There are even regular stories published about it in newspapers like this one, but few people talk about the transition between school and college. That transition - it's a big one. New friends, new buildings, new environment.

Everything is big and new and you're not really sure who you are, how could you be? The Leaving Cert does that to a person - stunts their emotional and personal development. You've spent the past two years sitting in a library, how could you possibly know who you are or who you want to be? College is about finding that out but I never said that was easy.

At first you think you'll never get the hang of it. As I sat in my first French oral class, I was thinking just that. I had just come from my French grammar lecture which had been entirely through French, not a mention of anything that sounded remotely English.

How was this? No English in French grammar? Now, on top of this I was supposed to speak French! Actually, speak the language? In a French oral class? Unbelievable!

You think you'll never get the hang of it but you do. Maybe then, and only then, when you finally stop panicking about your inability to do the coursework you'll begin to question whether this course is the one for you.

When it's no longer a question of basing your self-worth on your ability to conjugate French verbs or spoof in politics tutorials, when you begin to look past that and look at yourself or for yourself, only then will you realise that this is perhaps not for you.

In fact, it's not very you at all. I struggled with this for a while. To drop out or not to drop out? Another decision. Because the last decision I made worked out so well!

I did, once again, what I always do when I'm trying to decide. I talked to everyone I could possibly talk to - a guidance counsellor, second year students, third year students. I gathered all the information, listed all the pros and cons and did nothing for a very long time. I knew before Christmas that the course was not for me but I spent until March deliberating, going back and forth, pacing the length of my bedroom gripping my list of pros and cons.

When making a decision we want to be absolutely certain we're making the right one. We want black and white, clean cut lines, perfection, but in truth nothing is black and white. If you look really closely, you'll discover everything is, in fact, grey.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert posits that as human beings we really only make three big decisions in life - where to live, what to do and whom to do it with. I was making one of these decisions. However, more importantly, Gilbert shows how human beings have the same chance at stumbling upon happiness by flipping a coin as we do by carefully weighing up all the options.

I took comfort in this. I had the same chance at messing up my life flipping a coin as I did by writing another pros and cons list. So, heads or tails?

In truth, it doesn't matter what you decide, your choice is irrelevant. You could spend your whole life trying to decide, and in doing so, you do nothing. You inactively decide, decide merely by default.

I'm not saying that all the choices you make in your life are arbitrary. However, this one, this one might be. You're unsure of what you want and that's okay. Maybe you're torn between medicine and philosophy or politics and history.

However, the doctor who has the degree in philosophy is a doctor who's better able to understand human suffering, and the politician who studies history will be a politician who better understands why the world is how it is. Degrees are simply opportunities to learn, grow and expand your mind. They are not life sentences.

People associate the term college dropout with failure. I don't. I'm not a failure because I made a choice and there's bravery in that. I'm not a failure. Nor am I a college drop out.

I'm simply changing college courses. It's your first year. You're 18. If you can't make a few mistakes when you're young, when can you? A mistake does not mean you failed. It means you're trying. I'm not a lot of things but hey, I'm a trier.

Non-progression does not mean time lost or wasted. This year for me, was a time of self-exploration, development, growth and discovery. Maybe by the end, you still won't know who you are - but at least you'll know who you aren't.

So, apply for college or don't. Take a gap year, travel, explore (this is done in every other sane European country) or don't. Drop out, change courses or don't. But decide. Take your three minutes and make a choice. Things don't have to be perfect and you don't have to feel ready. Be brave. Be grey. Que sera, sera. Flip a coin. Pick a book.

But decide.

Irish Independent

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