Learning at the crossroads: You haven’t failed; the system may have failed you

The world can feel very unfair when the exam results don’t live up to expectations

Author Mary O’Donnell at home in Maynooth, Co Kildare: ‘Ever since my own experience, when it comes to August and September, I think of all the students who may have got the wrong results, or results that are absolutely no use to them.’ Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Every August and September, I remember 1972. That was the year I didn’t get what I wanted in my Leaving Cert.

That was the year I spent the afternoon of results day bawling my eyes out, overcome by a sense of hopelessness and of having nowhere to go. I remember my sister, six years younger, watching me as I wept at the kitchen table, with tears of sympathy in her eyes. And, ever since, when it comes to August and September, I think of all the students who may have got the wrong results, or results that are absolutely no use to them.

I wish I could gather them all together and talk to them. Oh, I could tell them all about how things are so much better today – which they are – with PLC courses and many other options. I could say that today they have choices, because that’s how it seems from my perspective, and I could say, truthfully, that there’s more than one way of skinning a cat, which there is.

But I know that little I say would touch the sense of failure and hopelessness that accompanies getting the wrong result, of feeling that you just didn’t measure up on the day, of knowing that the “wrong” questions came up and that if only the questions had been slightly different, that there was lots you did know.


But nobody will ever know how well you had studied biology, for example, and how your environmental studies reflected your very real interest. Nobody will ever know how well you understood the character of Gertrude, or Lady Macbeth, because the English questions were not relevant to either of these characters.

Lots you do know

That’s the scalding thing. You know that there is lots you do know, but nobody in the land of officialdom seemed to want to know it in June. If you’re naturally ambitious, if you have dreams, even half-formed ones, it really is galling to watch all your friends heading off to their various courses or directly into the world of adult work, knowing that they will be able to follow through with something that interested them.

It’s even more galling if you observe people you didn’t consider particularly smart, suddenly leaping ahead.

So I want to gather all those kids into my arms and hug them and tell them to forget all about disappointment being a character-building experience – to hell with character-building – but that it will be all right, it really will.

That’s the odd thing. Due to an extended illness, I missed an enormous amount of school in the year before and during my Leaving Cert. Things didn’t work out. But back then, there really were no alternatives that would help you get to college, which was what I’d wanted.

There was only one thing for it: repeat the year. I refused. Or do a commercial course. Which is what happened. And so began the journey that led me through a labyrinth of experiences: so began a more struggling kind of path, I have to admit, less direct.

It brought me at first straight into the world of shorthand-typing work, initially in an architect’s office in Dublin – a hateful experience, where I was truly bullied by his horrible partner who I have never forgiven, and never will – and then in An Foras Forbartha on the corner of Baggot Street and Waterloo Road.

But after a year and a half out of school, I realised I couldn’t hack this either. I was just not ready for that kind of life. I didn’t even want that kind of life.

I remember hearing one of my bosses talking about going to Molière's play Candide. She was an older woman, relative to me, single and quite carefree. Something about her air of culture influenced me slightly. I wanted to be the woman who went to plays too.

And then, on the bus one day, I bumped into one of my old schoolpals. She was studying philosophy at UCD. What exactly was philosophy, I asked. Well, she’d replied, it has to do with the meaning of life, where we are going, whether there’s a god, the nature of human identity. Oh, I said, immediately interested. Gradually, during the autumn of 1973, I knew I had to do something about myself. I could not simply opt out of education. I was made for it, hungry for more of it.


I will never forget the kindness of Sr Thérèse, who was then the head nun at St Louis Convent Secondary School in Monaghan. All my mother had to do was phone her and tell her about my dilemma.

Without hesitation, this wonderful nun said I was welcome to come back after Christmas to repeat three more subjects for Leaving Cert 1974. Which is what I did. I was almost 20, and although I didn’t have to wear the uniform, Sr Thérèse asked me to conform to the school colours, blue and navy.

And I got my honours, and went to university, and yes I studied philosophy, with German, and never regretted it. That was the point when I began to be a writer, slowly groping my way towards the real dream, of writing for life.

My point is that the element of chance and, indeed, the kindness of a stranger, or a wonderful nun, can and do make a difference to seemingly impossible situations. I hope the students who, like me, may have spent their results afternoon weeping hopelessly, feeling a failure, feeling they’re no good, can overcome such feelings.

Generally, they have not failed. But the system may have failed them in some way, in not finding out what interested them and the important things they do know. They should have been rewarded for that knowledge and insight. Mary O'Donnell's latest collection is Those April Fevers (Arc Publications UK, 2015); maryodonnell.com