Whatever happened to the A1 students?
THE NEWSPAPER PHOTOS are the same every year: a beaming student holding up an impossibly good Leaving Cert results sheet, or an elated brain-box held aloft by his classmates, pumping the air with his fist. These are the elite who make the national press with their stunning results – 17 or 18 year-olds who open those envelopes to see eight or nine A1s staring back at them.
Out of 55,000 or so students each year, they are the ones who come out on top.
Since 2000, about 31 students have earned the title of top student. Out of those, an astonishing 15 have been from Cork. Dublin lags well behind with six top students. The rest are scattered throughout the country: Galway boasts three; Kerry, Kildare, Wicklow and Waterford have two each, while Carlow can claim the remaining student.
High results are becoming more common. Three students achieved nine A1s this year, the first time more than one student has managed nine in a single year, while 10 students shared the top slot with eight A1s last year.
So we’re all familiar with the stories of delight upon opening the envelopes, but we decided to ask, what happens next?
FEARGUS DENMAN is from Maynooth. He got nine A1s in 2001, the top marks of that year. He is a Harvard graduate, has travelled the world and is currently on a break from his PhD research.
“It occurred to me when I was doing nine subjects that I could get nine As and that could be kind of a big deal. I wasn’t looking for high points. I had arts in Maynooth which was about 400 points down on my CAO so I didn’t have any stressful target but of course I wanted to do well.
“When I did, I had a notion that I wanted to go to college abroad. My brother had gone to Cambridge – they rejected me. But really I didn’t know whether I wanted to do linguistics or European studies or philosophy. I was all over the place. I suppose I was fortunate to be a relaxed 18 year-old. I worked in Dublin for a couple of months fundraising (chugging, really) for Amnesty before travelling to Russia and living in St Petersburg, working with various charities. While I was over there I got a call to say I’d been accepted to Harvard and they offered me financial aid.
“Harvard was a bit of a strange experience. I had been very unaffected by the whole Leaving Cert thing but then I chose to go to this very prestigious institution. I was surrounded by a lot of very stressed people and you can’t help but be affected by that. I remember suddenly realising that I was way more stressed than I ever had been but being unable to quite identify why.
“I had bought into the whole status thing but I thought at one stage that I really would have liked to go back and do a course in Ireland or any of the other courses I was offered abroad. But then of course there was the element of shame, I had been in the papers with my nine A1s and there was this feeling that people would be saying, ‘Oh look, he’s back’.
“So there were a lot of people under a lot of stress. I was studying social studies and I left after two and a half years for a break. I came back to Ireland and worked in Carpetright and then I went back and completed my degree. I graduated in 2007 but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s a bit strange, I was a Harvard graduate, I had all of these opportunities open to me but I wasn’t convinced I was making the most of things.
“I spent that summer teaching English. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I applied for a job teaching English to pilots in Kazakhstan. That was a great experience. I travelled throughout central Asia – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, South Korea – and I was earning money in euro so it was comfortable.
When I returned to Ireland I began a PhD researching language ideology in Ireland but while working on that, I ran out of steam, got stressed and depressed and needed a break. At the moment I’m working as a resident life supervisor with the Foundation for International Education, supervising their students who come to Dublin. I’ll return to my PhD in the spring.
“The system we have is a strange one. I have a friend who’s about to begin graduate medicine, but in school, he never thought he was into science or maths. He’s very creative, makes music and for years now he’s been a hobbyist student of brain chemistry. I’d say he’s much more intellectually able than I am but the idea that anyone would see the pair of us and our respective merits in relation to the points we got is laughable. I’ve another friend who got 500 points and he’s an actor now. The fact that the last two years of post primary was a points training programme – you could make the case that he was officially wasting his time.