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Why the Leaving Cert is the last ritual that can turn nation to jelly


Alva Casey (left), who got 625 points in her Leaving Certificate with her twin sister Niamh, who got 595 points, from Loreto Dalkey

Alva Casey (left), who got 625 points in her Leaving Certificate with her twin sister Niamh, who got 595 points, from Loreto Dalkey

Alva Casey (left), who got 625 points in her Leaving Certificate with her twin sister Niamh, who got 595 points, from Loreto Dalkey

There are certain things that each generation never forgets. For my generation, who will never again see 40, except on the front of a Finglas bus, it is where we were when David O'Leary scored that unlikely penalty against Romania in Italia 90.

But one event has united all generations since the introduction of free second-level education: the nerve-wrecking ritual of going back to your old school to receive your Leaving Cert results.

I still recall queuing to enter a parlour in Beneavin College in Finglas. The knot of fear in my stomach was worse than even when I sat my first Leaving Cert exam. My future seemed to be hinged on the impossible weight of all the expectations contained within the lightweight envelope I was handed.

Things were simpler back then: I don't recall obsessive talk about a points race. For many of my class, we were leaving education to enter the world of work, back when the term "internship" only featured in American sitcoms and if anyone had mentioned a made-up name like "JobBridge", we'd have probably thought they referring to an experimental Dutch prog-rock band.

That August morning in 1977, I reached the terminus of my formal education. But the pressure surely feels a hundred times worse for this year's Leaving Cert students, when their envelope answered the riddle about whether they gained sufficient points to get their first choice from the myriad of courses on the CAO form they are confronted with midway through sixth year - when many have no idea about what they want to do.

Congratulations to those who got the points for the course they wanted, but I won't say commiserations to those who didn't, because, in certain cases, missing out on a course by a few points may, retrospectively, be a blessing in disguise.

While I had fine teachers at school, my true education about life began in my first job in a welding rod factory, thrown in with men twice and three times my age. At 3am some nights, in the flooded toilets, I'd chat with a Bob Dylan aficionado who worked on the conveyor belt. One night, he explained how he never knew if a new Dylan album was any good until the following album appeared, when you could make sense of where Dylan's music was going. It's a rule I've applied to most things in life: wait 18 months before deciding if anything that happens is good or bad.

An extra 15 points may have allowed students to study something for which they feel a true passion, but could also have sent students down the cul-de-sac of a course chosen simply because they had enough points. Students who don't get their first choice in the CAO offers next week should remember that 17 is too young to definitively know what you want. Often we find our true vocation, in the way that Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and most of us discover sex - by accident.

Your Leaving Cert can't tell you who you are going to be. The joy of a voyage of discovery is that you never know where you will end up. Wait and see what evolves. In two years' time you may realise that the course you are offered next week, which was originally your fourth choice, was actually perfect for you.

Only two things are certain. Firstly: in five years' time nobody will ask how many points you got in Leaving Cert French. Secondly, the Leaving Cert differs from mumps, measles, first love and other infections you normally only get once. The pressure ingrains itself into our consciousness like a sleeper-cell of spies, waiting to be reactivated for years to come.

Like most playwrights, I've a recurring nightmare of being forced to attend the premiere of a play I haven't finished writing. And hundreds of people I know still dream - during times of stress - about having to still sit one final Leaving Cert exam, even though they did their Leaving decades ago.

The Leaving Cert remains within us: a litmus test of stress, the memory of standing on the cusp of adulthood. It marks the moment when you leave the sheltered world of being part of a class to enter the different world of college or work where - although you will make new friends - you are essentially on your own.

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All I can tell those who got their results this week is that the Leaving is the most precious and pointless piece of paper you'll ever hold. It's precious because there is such fuss around it during your most impressionable years that it has achieved equal mythical status as the third secret of Fatima. It's pointless because those points add up to a number that tells you nothing about who you may actually become.

Certainly the points decided what college course - if any - you take. But the greatest thing is that your future is a blank canvas. This week's points tally may seem like the realisation of a dream or the end of the world, but over time, it becomes a dot on a canvas, growing ever smaller as the canvas gets filled by your real achievements in life.

Ultimately, there are only two truly great human achievements: to be able to say that you have loved and been loved.

If you can say both these things in 30 years' time, then your life will have been a success and the Leaving Cert will merely be a dream that occasionally reoccurs during times of stress.

Dermot Bolger's new novel, 'Tanglewood', is just published

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