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The Leaving Cert revisited
Tripe+Drisheen asked some readers to share their memories and anxieties about the formative exam.
The Leaving, or Ardteist, hasn't changed a whole lot since it was introduced in 1924 (next year it turns 100!). New subjects have been introduced, and As and Bs have given way to H1s, H2s, etc. While talk of reforming the senior cycle is constant, the Leaving Cert remains an educational and cultural institution. It quite possibly highlights a massive failure of our collective imagination that we haven't found an alternative to it. Or perhaps, is the status quo what we are seeking? Maybe that should be a question on the Leaving Cert itself? Discuss.
We asked a few veterans of the Leaving Cert to share their thoughts and reflections about the exam. Some have a written a letter to their younger pre-Leaving Cert self, while others have revisited those few weeks in June when Shakespeare, algebra, oral exams and the modh coinníollach were to the fore.
To all the thousands of students facing into the last few days of revising, the very best of luck to each of you. Perhaps, the words of a few who have come out the other side might be of some service.
Good luck, and enjoy the summer.
1998, THE LEAVING, and the feeling of 2 As, 2Bs and 2 Cs - I tried my best
The Leaving Cert sounds so final for something undertaken so young. For me, in 1998, I got 485 points. What came of it? A place at Trinity reading English, which I didn't take. My English Literature career ended with many memorised Soundings poems. (Remarkably, the only woman in the book was Emily Dickinson – not something we would have noticed at the time.) I still have a book about outer space from my childhood that talks about astronauts in exclusively male terms. But to quote Dickinson, "Hope” is the thing with feathers" – feathers that grow on wings and will one day fly.
I'm not sure if it was by virtue of my girlhood that I worked hard. I didn't need the points, but I did need the self-esteem (then and many times since). Instead of Trinity, I went to Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa and spent a year doing a portfolio course which led to the National College of Art & Design – messy hands and messy hearts. It was a place where words, thoughts, colors, and pictures would collide into some kind of version of "work." If the Leaving was the end of school, then art college was the beginning of life.
With painting, there's a sweet spot that, if you're deep into concentration, it will flow and can even seem easy. But if you miss that window, perhaps due to too many emails to handle, forgotten food shopping to order, or some other administrative or worrisome thoughts invading your brain, you will get a second chance at it the next day, or the next month, or in a year. However, it will require more work, and the paint will not shine so brightly or flow so smoothly.
I'm glad I only did the Leaving once. School had become tedious for me about two years before that, and I couldn't understand why on the last day, there were people crying. My future was waiting for me, and it smelled of pigments, paper, and materials yet to be tried. It promised adventures to places I hadn't been and conversations with people I had never imagined meeting. I danced out of there willingly, into town and into the night, with 2 As, 2 Bs, and 2 Cs that I never needed.
Chloe is a painter from Cork, living in London.
“Remember you don’t have to stick with one pathway in life”
The Leaving Cert exams are nearly here, but don’t worry, it will be grand. Ironic of course, after years of near-perfect attendance, that you missed nearly a third of ‘the most important year’ due to illness. Yeah, your results won’t be as amazing as they might have been, but you’ll do great. Very soon you won’t even remember what you got in the Leaving Cert. There are so many options out there for you that it will be hard to choose.
Remember you don’t have to stick with one pathway in life – you won’t follow a straight path, in any sense - your life will be full of joy and adventures alongside the challenges. I hope you enjoy the Honours Maths exam, given how hard you fought to be allowed to do it. Crazy that they still think that Honours Maths isn’t for girls. I’m still laughing at how the three of you who wanted to do Honours Maths convinced the school to provide a class if enough pupils signed up for it – you persuaded your classmates to sign up for Honours Maths, a teacher was assigned and, once the class was established, they all dropped out. Clever strategy but crazy you had to go to such lengths to be able to do a basic subject.
Remember that conversation you had with yourself, where you acknowledged you are attracted to women but not sure where that would all go? Well done for being so brave and honest. Let’s just say you acted on that attraction and it is wonderful.
Activism will continue to be a central part of your life: anti-nuclear, peace activism, feminism, lesbian and queer activism. Many years from now you will write a book – Diary Of An Activist – charting this journey of social activism. It will feature that dreadful drab brown uniform you will soon be able to shed.
I write this letter to you as my child – my wonderful, amazing, clever, caring child - your child - is finishing 5th Year and about to start that final school year. They are still piling the pressure on, trying to ram in reams of facts to be regurgitated on paper. There are other ways to teach and learn than this but we stick with this stressful stifling system. We could do so much better than this.
It is now 40 years since I/you did the Leaving Cert. My life is crazy, full, exciting, stimulating. I am a parent, a queer archival activist, an author, documentary director, a lover, a friend.
Don’t worry too much about the Leaving Cert – you’ll be grand. There will be bumps and challenges and bad decisions along the way, but life will be an amazing adventure. Enjoy.
Orla Egan is an activist and author.
“It’s okay to go into this exam without any idea of what you want your future to be.”
Dear 18-year-old Kilian,
There are two things that I know about your Leaving Cert for certain – I know how many points you got, and I know that it hasn’t affected your life one bit.
You will do quite well in my Leaving Cert, but only because you’re good at languages. Half of your points came from being good at French, Spanish and Irish, and we know that that’s because your mother is French and you go to a Gaelcoláiste.
I remember that I bungled my history exam and only managed to finish half of it, but it ended up meaning nothing, and you’ll go on to study history in college anyways. Try and avoid it though, still.
Your hack is putting you at ease, and you’re feeling really chilled out about it, even though so many of your peers putting themselves under lots of pressure. That’s normal, the Leaving Cert and points system rewards learning things by rote, and some courses require an insane number of points. Luckily, you only want Arts. Maybe put Arts International first on the CAO though.
Learning things by rote for one exam is not a good measure of your intelligence, nor will it teach you anything. It doesn’t reward your creativity and is just a reflection of the discouragement of individuality that happens in many schools.
I’m not saying school won’t teach you anything, and your best teachers are those who encourage and reward your creativity, the English and history teachers. They both encourage students to think for themselves. Listen to them.
You’ll remember them, and what they teach you, more than you remember the exam. In a school where we are required to wear strict uniform, and remove any piercings, beards, or anything that reflects individuality, they are both a breath of fresh air.
The exam is only important because we give it importance, if even. I have not once been asked about my Leaving Cert results when looking for work. If you don’t get an answer or do well on one exam, don’t panic. Because you won’t remember.
It’s okay to go into this exam without any idea of what you want your future to be. It is once you leave school and go to college that you will figure anything out, if even. You will learn far more about what you want in life in the seven years since the leaving cert than the six you spent in secondary school. Your life will get so much better.
It is experiences in college, in work, abroad, that will inform your future decisions. It was through doing research in college, and hanging out with similarly minded people, that you realise what you enjoy. And you will get to meet some really cool people.
It’s been through meeting people that you will learn about the world. Not a silly exam.
Kilian is a freelance writer and contributor to Tripe+Drisheen.
Only this week, I came across my old secondary school badge. It brought back memories of friends, foolish fashion fads and…the fear. That deep, unsettling, nervous, terror only the Leaving Certificate can instil. Now, I must admit, I prided myself on being good at school. The report cards home always mentioned “conscientious” and “diligent” but I was no match for the omnipresent preparation that was required to survive the Senior Cycle. No matter how many ring binders and multi-coloured folders I bought and painstakingly maintained, I always felt like there was too much get my head around: French verbs, Maths theorems and the diabolical, An Modh Coinníollach … the most frightening three words in any language.
At some point, I gave up. I became battle hardened. It was every man for himself, so, I just cast-off all the difficult stuff, under the heading of “what am I ever going to use that for?” and just concentrated on what came naturally: History, English, Art. I pushed on through doing as little as I needed to get by in my favourite subjects. You can go a long way with an essay on Bismarck, a comprehension question on John Donne and…a smile.
I have a distinct memory of watching “Dante’s Peak” on the telly in the front bedroom the night before the exams started. Of course, this Devil-May-Care attitude came crashing down on me in that week of reckoning between the points being publicly released and the course places offered. I was racked with guilt and lonely regret: the harrowing of shoulda, woulda, coulda. The climax came waiting in a state of nervous exhaustion on the stairs for the postman to bring that large brown envelope.
I can still see myself grabbing it out of his hand as he put it through the letter box and running upstairs to my room with my father, frantically, shouting after me, “did you get it?” Now, to this day, I still do not know if he meant the results, the college place or just my life back. With his anguished cries and my tormented mind, as I scanned the computer printout, I believed all was lost but, there, at the bottom of the page, it was: a place on the college course of my dreams, in the university I had always wanted to attend. Victory, at last, was mine!
I always thought I should get a tattoo of CK101 (Arts in UCC) to mark that moment of relief when I realised I had made it through the Leaving Cert. But to be perfectly honest, though I took my place in the hallow halls and strode through the quad (always around the edges, mind, never through the middle – you don’t want to jinx yourself), in my heart of hearts, I never forgot the fear or torment of sixth year. Even now, I don’t have an alarm clock. I sweat when I think of beating the relentlessly ticking hands and am reminded of frantically scribbling, time-managed, paragraphs and lines drawn on graph paper.
Yet, despite these anxiety inducing memories, it must not have been all bad … I kept my copy of Soundings. I still have the Graduation magazine that we produced to mark the end of our time at the school. I treasured my enamel school crest badge and I have to say, whenever I pass the old secondary school, I am drawn to strain my neck to peer in through the windows. Maybe somewhere among the Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan and the French verb to sing, in between simultaneous equations and ox-bow lakes, I learned a valuable lesson.
Victoria is from Jew Town in Cork city but now lives in Derry. Find her at @vpearsonduffy where she tweets about history and all things Cork.
“How you get on in the Leaving is the beginning and not the end”
Does an exam you do at age 18 matter that much?
To be honest, I don’t really know.
I did the Leaving in June 1999. That’s 24 years ago. Back then, Ireland was very much transfixed by the whole Celtic Tiger thing. Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach, the ink on the Good Friday Agreement was only 14 months dry. And we were still spending punts instead of Euros.
In June ‘99, my parents’ generation were obsessing over how much money they would make off their Eircom shares (spoiler alert: shag all). The funny thing is that the fruits of the supposed economic boom of that time were hit and miss. While awaiting my Leaving results, I took on a part-time job at Tesco Douglas - the artist formerly known as Quinnsworths.
My negotiating skills brought to me IEP4.04 an hour - even more on Sundays. Best of all, the cranky manager in charge would send me out to the car park the odd time to corral the stray trolleys.
That was where the big bucks could be made - each abandoned trolley yielded an extra Pound coin - all tax free. A good day would see my lunch order upgraded from Cheeseburger to Big Mac.
But back to the Leaving Cert.
And back to 1999.
During one of my exams, a horrified invigilator whipped up the can of Red Bull on my desk.
“Is that alcohol,” he gasped.
On another occasion, it was rumoured that one of my boozy peers had turned up to one of his Leaving Cert exams - fully sober. The jury’s still out on that one.
Fast forward 24 years. I live over in Australia. I have kids of my own. I’m in my forties. You probably think I’m boring - and you’re probably right.
But, the question is, do your exam results really matter?
I don’t honestly know.
Do I want my boys to do well in their school exams? Yeah, probably. But if they don’t, is it the end of the world? Definitely not.
Truth be told, the end game is for all of us to be happy.How do we get there?Earn more money? Do better than our peers?The evidence is surprisingly inconclusive.
All I know is that waking up each morning and being able to look forward to the day ahead is a good start.
If you get high scores in your Leaving Cert, is that guaranteed to happen? I dunno. I also don’t know if getting low results in the Leaving will assure you of that outcome.
My advice is that if you spend your day doing what you love doing, then you have damn good chance of being happy - enough of the time anyway.
I’m also pretty certain that if you spend most of your 24 hours doing stuff you can’t stand, then a few extra bob won’t make much of a difference. You’ll hate your life - and the financial rewards will pile up proportionately.
Let’s be honest: people who do well in the Leaving end up earning more money - on average.
All I’m saying is that more money doesn’t necessarily make you happier. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s also probably true.
If you’re on the big bucks, you’re also at risk of getting locked into a heavier mortgage and a more expensive lifestyle. Which is all grand - until you lose your job or get a pay cut. Try explaining that one to the bank manager.
I’m also around long enough to realise that not being able to pay for housing, food and your energy bills isn’t great. It’s shit, in fact.
In summing up, I would say that how you get on in the Leaving is the beginning and not the end. If you do great, congratulations. But beware the risks and traps of doing well too soon. For those feeling disappointed, be inspired by the success of the many people whose adult lives began with a stutter.
Shane is an economist from Cork, living in Canberra.
Spirogyra and O’Douls
My abiding memory of the Leaving Cert is not the exams, but rather the results which came a few months after the ordeal. Maybe I have repressed the exam part. To paraphrase Tolstoy: all exams are alike, you just want them done.
When the results came out I was in Denver, Colorado living with a host family who were very nice and very conservative. Bless them, they had no idea what the Leaving Cert is. That’s worth bearing in mind; the most important exam you’ll sit through in your life thus far matters not to the rest of the world. Anyway, my host family very generously produced a six pack of beer for me to celebrate my results. I got 470 points. As if anyone now cares, but back then, as is now, the Leaving Cert is a points race.
In Denver, I drank my celebratory beers one after another (and by myself), even though I was legally underage, slowly getting drunk thinking of my friends back in Ireland, and wondering how they were feeling, what they were doing. I’m pretty sure I thought of the life of spirogyra, a seaweed, which may or may not have featured in the biology exam, but which our biology teacher who was christened “the Atom” had a great way of pronouncing. It’s funny, the shite you remember from the Leaving Cert.
Except, I only thought I was getting drunk. My American housemate informed me about three beers in that I was drinking O’Douls, a famously non-alocholic beer. Drunkenness was only a state of mind.
I remember very little of what I learned from the Leaving Cert. I surely learned something, or showed that I was capable of memorising the correct information and regurgitating it. A friend of mine with dyslexia aced the English test because he learned off an entire English essay word for word. But as big as the Leaving Cert is, it really is just a step in a meandering road that will take you who knows where?
The only reason we still have the Leaving Cert is that we haven’t figured out a better alternative. As I said to my fellow contributors for these pieces, it’s a stressful exam and I still have the occasional dream/nightmare in which I have to face into the Leaving Cert math exam (surely a type of maths anxiety). The Leaving Cert is a big deal, because we’ve mostly been unable to talk about it in any other way. Or get rid of it.
But no matter how much you think you've learned, or haven’t, or how prepared you are or aren’t, remember the Leaving Cert only prepares you for the Leaving Cert. Some of the smartest people I know never did the Leaving Cert. Do your best. There will be far harder tests to come. And enjoy the summer.
JJ edits Tripe + Drisheen. He wishes he was better at maths.
The Jigsaw Support Line is available for free mental health support and advice to young people aged 12 to 25 years old, and parents or concerned adults in Ireland.