‘I did my Leaving Cert aged 33 in one academic year’
With Leaving Cert results due tomorrow, Caroline Farrell recalls how she got the confidence to pursue education in her 30s
Caroline Farrell: ”I didn’t fit in at school, mostly due to the fact that I had spent a couple of years in Goldenbridge orphanage as a child.”
For many, a scenario involving an exam hall, a maths paper and several teenage students sounds not dissimilar to a particularly unsettling recurring dream.
Yet it’s a waking reality for a handful of mature students who sit down every year to tackle the teenage milestone they didn’t get to first time around.
Caroline Farrell enjoys a varied and eminent career in creativity. A writer, filmmaker and literary-film event manager, she has amassed festival awards for her scripts and plaudits aplenty for her current novel, the psychological thriller, Lady Beth.
Yet her path to success was a circuitous one and saw the Dubliner leave school at 14, get married and have a child at 18, and eventually sit the Leaving Cert at 33.
“I didn’t fit in at school, mostly due to the fact that I had spent a couple of years in Goldenbridge Orphanage as a child,” recalls Farrell. “Having experienced the negative, and sometimes terrifying aspects of institutional care, religious bias, threats of violence and rules for rules’ sake, I was rebellious, though I didn’t act out. Instead, I was introverted and silent, and stubborn as a mule. I was inquisitive, with urges to question everything but I had been taught early on to keep my opinions to myself – so I stayed quiet.”
Being comfortable with silence and being a good listener would clearly stand her in good stead in her later career. But in the main she was left largely to her own devices at school. By 14, Farrell couldn’t wait to leave secondary school in Lucan.
“I was already working a part-time job in a local shop (by then),” she says. “I bargained with my father that I would do a secretarial course if he would let me leave school after my Inter Cert. He was okay with that, so I left. I studied typing, shorthand and business studies. I never became a secretary and never intended to.”
Farrell got a job in retail at 15 and was pregnant and married at 18. “Any navigating that was done (in life) was around myself and my teen husband staying together and making a secure home for our son,” she recalls. “This was in the early ’80s, during a brutal recession, and a society still rife with secrets, shame and double standards. We were, in effect, on our own.”
By 33, Farrell – then a homemaker and mother of two sons – was ready to take on a career of her own. She had a job as a librarian in her crosshairs. That same year, she entered a writing competition, barely daring to dream that she would profit from her own work. But with the prize money from her success she took the family on their first holiday abroad, to Disneyland.
“Without a Leaving Cert, I couldn’t even get an interview (for a librarian job), so that was my initial motivation,” she recalls.
“We lived in Clondalkin at that time and the local VTOS [Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme] were running a Leaving Cert course. But when I made inquiries, I was told I wasn’t entitled to enrol because I was not in receipt of any social welfare payment. I met with the co-ordinator of the course anyway, just to seek some advice. Perhaps she took pity on me, as she agreed that I could sit in on the classes if I was serious about doing the exams.
“It was daunting at first, very much so. I needed that piece of paper to move forward with my life goals. So even though I was willing to jump right in, I wasn’t so confident that I could achieve it.”
Yet taking exams as an adult, she would find, has its advantages.
“I had a grown-up life at that point, with experiential learning that no curriculum can teach,” she says. “I wanted to learn and I had also gone through the study, homework and parent-teacher meetings processes with my sons and was still doing so. It was all very fresh and familiar and I had their perspectives as well.”
The course only covered four subjects. Maths, English, Geography and Business Studies. To achieve the certificate, Farrell took an additional two subjects: History and Home Economics.
“I did it all in one academic year and it was pretty hectic. I think my family thought I was crazy. The studying was relentless and they would inevitably find me sitting on my bed, surrounded by books with pens sticking out of my hair,” she reveals.
“I enjoyed English and History anyway, but I can’t say the same for Maths and Geography. My heart still tugs at exam times when I think of how much information kids have to remember. What I found worked for me was that I bought loads of previous exam papers and practiced written answers based on the samples, over and over and over until my arm – and brain – ached. The fear of failure was there for sure, I won’t lie.”
Cometh the hour, she sat her Leaving Certificate alongside a classroom of 17-year-old boys and a handful of local adult learners.
“The atmosphere was of a palpable unease at the onset. The school I studied in was in quite a marginalised area and some of these kids had probably fought a lot of odds just be sitting these exams at all,” she says. “It’s such a tough experience for young adults anyway, regardless of how much support they have or have not. Maybe they thought I was a teacher or a departmental spy or something. I did get a couple of funny looks – but once those exam papers hit the desk, it was all eyes down, and I stayed on to the bitter end.
“There were some very worried faces at the end of each exam and I’d have loved to have been able to tell them that this moment was not the stuff of life or death. If they didn’t get the marks they or wanted, they could repeat, or they could go out into the world and live.”
In the end, Farrell passed all six subjects, with honours in History, Home Economic, English, Geography and Business Studies.
“I can’t quite remember what I did to celebrate. Probably drank a lot of wine with the better half!” she smiles. “I do remember being exhausted though. Brain tired.”
Job done on completing the exams, Farrell eventually secured her dream job in Kildare Library & Arts. In time, she would study for a Higher Diploma in Adult Education at NUI Maynooth. Until recently, she had been working as an Executive Librarian, but left to pursue writing full time.
“If you are motivated to try (the Leaving Cert), just go for it,” she says. “Push through – and you just might enjoy the experience. (But) sitting the Leaving Cert is not for everyone. I know many very successful people who don’t have it, and will never need it. To some, it is just a piece of paper, a means to an end. And at the onset, that is exactly what it was for me. To others, it’s a challenge – a rite of passage even.
“In hindsight, I think the fact that I opted to do it gave me an impetus to succeed,” she surmises. “And the process definitely unleashed my thirst for learning. There is also a certain amount of discipline involved, and once that is harnessed, it is such a positive trait to have. I tell people to enjoy the process and don’t stress about failing. Failing is learning. And it is never too late to learn. Never.”
* Caroline Farrell’s novel Lady Beth is out now.