D-Day

It’s the first day of the Leaving Cert exams, and I can’t stop thinking about my godchild, whose christening I remember as if it were yesterday, going in to sit what she’s been told are the most important exams of her life.

I was listening to the radio yesterday (not sure who – Matt Cooper, perhaps?) who was talking to students on air and generally saying listen – the Leaving Cert is important, but not that important. Study, but don’t stress. It’s not the end of the world. The Leaving Cert is not the be-all and end-all.

That’s certainly not the impression I somehow got when I did my Leaving Cert, fourteen years ago. I did Transition Year the year before, and I had been on a respite break with seven other friends with disabilities during that year (incidentally, that’s where I met my husband). The message I got from that week was that the best prospects for disabled people was in doing a computer course or going to the National Learning Network to do an endless string of courses in job preparation. Has my journey through mainstream education been a waste of time? I thought glumly. Now don’t misunderstand me, or interpret my reaction to be borderline snobbery, but I was afraid that society was trying to mould me into something I wasn’t. These courses are great, but I do think that students with disabilities should feel that anything is possible.

So, as a statement against the status quo, and because I wanted full control over my future, I decided that the only way I was ever going to do this was to get 500+ points in my Leaving Cert (yes, I am a little mentally unstable-how did you guess?) For nearly two years, I threw myself into my studies. I don’t know how I still had friends at the end of it because I never went out to the Harriers or the Bridge House. I don’t exaggerate when I say I spent a solid six hours after school, studying. Soon I became obsessed. If I was going to spend the time studying, I had to be the best. If I got 75% or less in a class test I would openly bawl my eyes out.

I remember my dad saying to me about a month before the exams that if I didn’t slow down, I would have a massive heart attack and be dead before the Leaving came around. He was so worried that he threatened to stop me sitting them altogether. I looked at him incredulously! What did he know? How could he possibly understand how it felt to be the only person in my year with a (visible) disability and so much to prove? Didn’t he know how important these exams were to my future?

No, and he didn’t care. Neither did mum. What they did care about was the fact that I had no friends apart from John Paul, about the fact that I couldn’t relax, or take an evening off study without having a massive panic attack, about the fact that at 12 o’clock they would walk past my room on the way to bed to find me still studying, my books sprawled all over my bed and me panicking because I couldn’t memorise that Irish poem or the ins and outs of the heart in spite of studying all evening, probably on little or no food and definitely no rest (food and rest is for the weak, yo.)

And yet, it paid off. I got enough points (bang-on enough) to get into Trinity to study English (the DARE scheme may have helped a little). The relief was immense; it took a long  time to get used to not stressing out over the Leaving. And just when I became accustomed to calmness, I had my dissertation and exams to worry about! I really wanted an Honours Degree, and I did study just as hard (albeit in the final few months!) and it paid off…

…and now I am a writer, spending day after day writing and researching, blogging and editing. Did I need a good Leaving Cert to do this? Was it worth the hardship? Personally, in spite of the hellish experience that was my Leaving Cert, I don’t think it’s fair or right at this point to be dismissive of its importance. How can teachers, parents, society think it’s okay to spend two years of a student’s life drumming into students that this is the most important exam they’ll ever sit, and then turn around afterwards and say that it wasn’t that important?

Yes, it’s true, no-one ever asks how many points you got twelve months later or (unless you’re an Irish teacher) you’re never asked about the main themes of A Thig Na Tit Orm. And yes, many of us do want our children to have a strong work ethic, but at what cost? Why are we still sending out the message that your worth as a person is based on one set of examinations, and lying to our young people, saying that it could shape your future for the worst or the best?

Because I’ll let you in on a dirty secret: your worth is not how many points you get. It’s how you use your talents to shape the future, be that through medicine, teaching or volunteering to help others. And guess what? Learning is fun – it’s true! I don’t mean school – I mean the learning you choose to do. I’ve done three correspondence courses so far and it wasn’t about the marks, it was about accomplishing little challenges. I loved them and can’t wait to do more.

So do your best in your exams, and spend the summer doing some proper learning. Learn how to cook, how to use the washing machine, how to budget. How to get a week’s worth of groceries for €25 so you can go out on a Thursday night. Meet new people and learn how to tolerate their quirks and annoying habits.

There are no grades, but these are lessons you won’t forget.

And Caoimhe, best of luck. No matter how these exams go, never forget that you are a kind and wonderful person and we all love you so, so much xx

Just take it easy…!

I’ve been sitting here for the last half hour staring blankly at my laptop, opening website after website, reading dodgy articles on thejournal.ie. That’s not why I sat down. I sat down to finish off a journalism assignment that I started two months ago. This sounds like I’ve been dragging my heels, procrastinating this assignment. I have not. In fact, I have researched four thoroughly different articles, all half-written, because I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to write more. Don’t get me wrong: this information will undoubtedly come in handy on a later date. But this article was going to be amazing. I mean award-winning amazing. That’s not quite what I see when I read it back. I’m now afraid to open it in case I feel an uncontrollable urge to delete the whole lot (again). I’m a relentless perfectionist to the point of neuroticism: in other words, I think I am losing my sanity.

The first half of my life was dominated by people pushing me to achieve my potential. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing at all: if it wasn’t for these people (my parents, teachers, Occupational, physio and speech therapists, etc), there is no way that I would be sitting here in my own house writing this blog. Somewhere along the way, I took over, setting ridiculous standards for myself. I wrote a play in Transition Year and later helped to produce it when it was staged by my classmates, some of whom were less than thrilled when they landed male roles (it was an all-girls school). It took the best part of a month to recover from  the exhaustion and my mental health was in tatters. Did I take it easy that summer? Nah! I instead got a summer job with the Tullamore Tribune, where I worked until two weeks before fifth year started, putting aside the money for a holiday in a feckin respite centre in Roscommon (not Ibiza) a year later. I know what you’re thinking. I’m wild. Woo! Then fifth year saw me abandon all forms of human contact as I threw myself into studying for the Leaving Cert. Worried by the prospect of ending up permanently unemployed, I spent eight hours a night (4-12) studying in Fifth Year, much to the despair of my broken-hearted parents who were actually expecting me to collapse dead on the floor with exhaustion. I have  to do this, I would say to myself. I have to prove to everyone what I am capable of. I will not be defined by my disability.

Somehow, I managed to dodge a prolonged stay in a facility with padded walls and men in little white coats and I made it to Trinity College. Phew, I thought, I can relax now. And I did for the first two years, until my marks counted for something, and guess what? The  old Sarah  came back in third year, and so did that irritating voice. You got a scholarship to study here, for God’s sake. There’s no point in doing things by halves. And without the nagging of my parents and (then) fiancé (now husband) I was free to stay up  working till 2-3am on  essays, presentations and my dissertation. I lived off sugar and cereal like every other student. I would turn up for tutorials, bleary-eyed, wondering which book was being discussed today (I only read a selection of novels. Anyone on that course-and you know who you are- who read every prescribed novel/play please step forward for your gold medal). Although I let my hair down a little, I didn’t exactly have a roaring social life in college. I will admit that I did go on three foreign holidays during my college years with friends from home, but the details of those are a little hazy (though not nearly hazy enough)!!

Earlier this year, I was thirty. Like many, I looked back on the aims I  had set myself for when I reached the  big milestone: have a  Master’s degree in Journalism and be actively working in the field; maybe write a novel or a book of poetry;  do a Masters in Disability Studies. None of these were goals I ever reached, and sometimes I feel as if I’ve let myself slide into complacency. On the other hand, I have such a wonderful husband who supports everything I do and without whom I’d be lost, my daughter who makes me smile from the start of the  day to its end with her hilarious antics and a lovely place to call home. I am so lucky, and it wouldn’t hurt me to stand back and count my blessings every once in a while.

Ugh, look at this blog. Look at the dust on the mantelpiece. Look at the laundry piling up in the back hall. Maybe I’ll do some dusting. Maybe I should fold more clothes. Or maybe I’ll just … take it easy and watch some TV and deal with it all tomorrow. It will be still there tomorrow, along with my unfinished assignment.

Maybe, one day I’ll learn that everyone has their limitations.

That nobody is perfect.

Sometimes I  need to take it easy, and hopefully one day, I’ll be okay with this.