English Paper 1 is on. Break out the bikini

Hilary Fannin's Fifty Something column


Cruel, isn’t it? Our children are like winter woollens swollen with damp, having endured endless months of mist and rain and withering cold. For months they knock their chilly knees together on camogie pitches and football fields, they shiver on sidelines, shake in scrums, and spill Lemsips over mildewed copybooks.

Then the State exams start and that caustic, mocking sun moves in and puts her feet up on their desks. Day one of the Leaving Certificate and the country mistook itself for Marbella. Forget asking whistling postmen or climate gurus to predict the weather; just find out when English Paper 1 is on and break out the bikini.

One could almost begin to feel sorry for our teenage children, especially the ones who will be stalking the exam halls till the bitter end, having had the temerity to attempt Japanese or quantum physics or whatever scary papers they leave until last.

One might be tempted to feel sorry for young people, until you remember that they are young people, that most of them can’t even spell “cellulite”, and that they’ve never gone through the middle- aged tedium of waking up in a cold sweat because they forgot to buy a bin tag.

Anyway, any minute now they’ll be invading the streets in ankle-breakers and micro-minis, clutching their results, and resorting to high-pitched squealing and the kind of weeping formerly reserved for war widows.

It’s an insane system expecting children – who are usually very busy losing things and running out of phone credit and checking their reflections in the draining board – to write until their fingers blister, in an attempt to divest themselves of two years of learning in one single sweating afternoon.

The man on the radio the other morning said that the Leaving Cert brings out the very best in some candidates and has a deleterious effect on others. Deleterious is one of those words with more vowels than consonants that I would have avoided had I sat an English paper without a spellcheck. I can barely write my own name without one.

A friend of mine who is a language teacher, when instructing my teenage son on how to approach a State exam, told him to think militaristically. It is an adversarial contest between the Department of Education and the candidate, he said, and the only way to win is to give the – I’ll use a more fragrant word than he did – “chaps” what they want by hitting the targets and not trying to be creative.

It’s hard to believe that the Leaving Cert has barely changed in the 34 years since I attempted it. I suspect the same flies are buzzing in the same sun-drenched hall, the same rulers are falling with a brain-slap thwack on the same parquet floors, and the same invigilators are shifting in their seats and thinking about their diets.

It didn’t work out too well for me, that crucible that grown men and women apparently still have nightmares about. I put my hand up for the higher English paper despite having spent two years in the pass class. I was academically weak and the higher class was reserved for girls who knew what a prime number was and what year Cú Chulainn did the rumba.

I got a C, which glowed fat and proud among the Ds and Es and the sniggering F. The only other potential reason for optimism in an otherwise deleterious landscape was my art exam, which I slept out.

I was alone at the time. My parents were away; they’d given me “space” and 40 quid, and borrowed a friend’s apartment in Nerja for the duration. I was pleased with the independence, pleased with the 40 quid, but then someone borrowed 30 of it, and there was a lot of schlepping around deserted houses and sand dunes and hiding out on the banquettes of noisy bars pretending to be 18, in order to get some of it back.

And then there was the evening when a friend and I deep-fried turkey legs until the outsides were crisp and golden. We then bit into their bloodied interiors like a pair of knee-socked vampires at the kitchen table.

We had a laugh though, found a willing dog to eat the raw carcasses, walked up the long hill to buy 10 Grand Parade cigarettes for 37p, and came home again to make toast and sway to Aladdin Sane.

Oh, them was the days, Joxer, before you needed 80,000 points to be a trapeze artist. It’s been said a million times before, but somebody please remind those stressed children trooping in next week, gripping their futures in their damp little palms, that there’s always more than one way to fillet a feline.

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