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