And so it has begun: the week – and, indeed, weeks – like no other in the life of Ireland. It’s a time we all know or will know, and if you’re 17 or 18 years old, right now your attention has turned from the good weather and an enticing outdoors summer to a whole other event: the Leaving Cert.
This year’s exams are different to the ones we sat in our own day, namely that students faced the option of going solely with accredited grades, or sitting the regular exam... or going with both.
For the 61,500 candidates (58,342 doing the traditional Leaving Cert and 3,177 doing Leaving Cert Applied) it’s a big undertaking. After all, they have been told that this State exam will inform the next step in their lives. As reported in this paper almost 40,000 students decided to sit at least five exams. Of the young people, I know some are sitting one or two exams while others are putting their hard work over the last year over to their teachers. It’s a new and strange world.
The whole event, with all the stresses and tension it brings, has got me thinking about my own Leaving Cert (now a long time ago). I’d been studiously preparing for the exams, completing endless mock papers and lighting countless candles in the hopes that the right questions would come up for me.
This was the end game of “the murder machine”, as Patrick Pearse once called the education system. A system that tested one’s ability in rote learning for the most part. It did not, as Pearse had commented, help the child to be one’s true self. It was something, rather, that needed to be done, to be got through so that we could progress to the next stage of life.
What I remember now, at a remove of many years, was the dread and anxiety, though I had not the words for those things back then. I remember now the sun was shining and that on the morning of the first exam, English paper 1 – one of my best subjects – that the nerves got to me, so much so that I woke up nauseous and proceeded to get sick. That event delayed me that morning and part of me wanted to go back to bed and give up on the whole affair. My mother cajoled me and we made our way to school as I nursed a sore stomach.
English paper 1 featured Tim Severin’s The Jason Voyage, with an extract that was all about journeys and travel, something that would become a facet of my own life. But that morning I didn’t think how lucky I’d been to have Severin’s work come up. I thought, rather, how am I going to get through this day?
The exam wasn’t a success and my best subject was soon one of my worst as I battled my nerves and a sick stomach to get to the end of the day.
Upon finishing I knew I hadn’t reached the heights my teachers had hoped for me. It had been a dream to go to university to study journalism or film but that day I thought that perhaps my life on the building sites would come into view. That I’d stay a labourer for my father and maybe make my way in construction, though I had no talent for working with my hands.
That evening my mother spoke kindly to me: she said it was just one exam and there was plenty more to go, that I could turn this around. Upon looking back now it was a quixotic journey, like those of Severin’s, full of unexpected hurdles and some treasures when the right exam question came up.
As the June weather beckoned on the final days I thought of the farm and the silage and hay season and how I’d soon be out in the fields in the land I loved and that no one was going to ask you how you did in the Leaving.
As to the grades I just about passed the English. It wasn’t me, for I knew the answers, but rather it had been the nerves that had upset me. At the time I thought that was the end of me, that the die had been cast and that my future had been set.
I didn’t play the Leaving Cert game properly. I overwrote questions, ran out of time in some exams, and vomited on my best subjects. And yet now, looking back, I still managed to achieve my dreams despite all this. I set out to college and became a documentary maker, wrote books and became a bestselling author, and toured the world with my work.
I didn’t have the wisdom then to know that it was just one point in life, not all of life and that the exams didn’t decide everything, rather the future is ours to hold. It is ours to take possession of.
If there’s a young person in your life this week perhaps remind them of the fact that even ‘the cow man’ just about passed his English and he still managed to write a book. The Leaving isn’t the end, it’s just the start of you taking hold of your adulthood.
Perhaps these predictive grades are the way of the future and – for the tens of thousands of us who still have the Leaving Cert anxiety dream – will put an end to a particular weight we put upon our young people?
I’ll be lighting a candle this week for all the young people who are staking their claim to the future. I hope that for each of them it will be a more pleasant experience and that they know it’s not the be-all and end-all. No one is going to ask you how you did in paper 1 of higher-level maths in a year’s time. Nor English, for that matter.
Go gently and maybe like Tim Severin and me, life’s journey is only just beginning for you.