Saturday 25 November 2017

Abie Philbin Bowman: My Leaving Cert

Abie Philbin Bowman
Abie Philbin Bowman

I learned a lot of things the year I sat my Leaving Cert. I learned about Hamlet, French irregular verbs and the Causes of World War I. I learned that under the 1980 Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act, if a product you buy isn't "of merchantable quality" you're entitled a full refund, a replacement or a repair.

 I also learned that if you go into an actual shop insisting to the sales assistant that "this isn't of merchantable quality, so I want a full refund, under the terms of the 1980 Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act", they'll look at you like you're Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

I learned that all Leaving Cert students suffer the same curse: two weeks of glorious sunshine leading into the exams, followed by a month of lashing rain, as soon as they're finished. It happens every year. Maybe God hates students . . . hardly surprising at His age.

I learned that Irish people have an inherent distrust of hard work leading to success. If a German student were to describe sitting a high-pressure exam, they might say: "Well, I worked steadily all year, followed a thorough revision plan, and I think I really earned my grades." I've met Americans who boast shamelessly about writing exam papers in which they pioneered cures for cancer and viable strategies for peace in the Middle East.

But in Ireland, comments like that can get you deported, on charges of being "up yourself". In Ireland, you're supposed to mumble something like: "My Leaving Cert? Ah Jesus. I didn't do ANY work for it all year . . . then I panicked the weekend before, pulled two all-nighters, back-to-back . . . crammed everything, had a few pints . . . then the alarm didn't go off . . . I got into school 45 minutes late, in a total panic . . . honestly, between the hangover and the sleep deprivation, I don't know how I got an A1 . . ."

The day before my last Leaving Cert mock exam, I learned that my brother Jonathan had been drinking, fallen over, and banged his head on a pane of glass. I learned that I would never have another conversation with him.

I learned that when someone in a family dies, everyone mourns a different person.

I learned that Ireland is an incredibly supportive place to be, at a time of tragedy.

I learned that people who say quite nasty things about someone when they're alive, often change their tune, when it's too late to be of any use.

I learned that you can't fit grief into a study timetable. You can't schedule it. Grief appears, unbidden, and can linger for hours, or evaporate in a moment. I learned that resisting its arrival, or departure, is futile. All you can do is leave all your doors and windows open, and allow it to come and go as it pleases.

I learned that after a week off school, grieving, you really need something to think about other than your brother being dead. I learned that throwing yourself into study is a brilliant distraction.

I learned that inter-schools debating is a brilliant way for kids in single sex schools to meet smart members of the opposite sex. I learned that if you win the Leinster schools final, you get a CD player. If you win the National Schools Final you get a small cheque. If you win the International Schools Final, your school gets an insurance bill for a ridiculous looking medieval mace.

I learned that if you kiss a girl the night your brother dies, she won't necessarily go out with you. But you can tease her for years afterwards – even after she's married, with children – by making repeated passing references to "our anniversary".

I learned that if you lose your brother at the age of 18, your group of friends unanimously appoint you Honorary Spokesperson on Death, Pain and Tragedy. Every time something apalling happens to someone they know, you'll be consulted.

I learned that the only thing to say to someone who is grieving is: "How are you feeling?" Then to listen.

I learned that – contrary to popular wisdom – your Leaving Cert isn't the most stressful thing you'll ever do. It's an exam. You walk in. You write stuff down for three hours. You walk out. It's worth studying for, but it's not worth losing sleep over.

I learned, from one of my brother's last broadcasts, that "boredom is when you're not learning".

Abie Philbin Bowman is a broadcaster and comedian with RTE Radio 1's 'Arena' and 'Callan's Kicks'. He is performing in The International Bar, Dublin, on April 20th.

Irish Independent Supplement

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