A Leaving Cert student writes: ‘This is not a normal year. It's taking a huge toll on us’

Opinion: More than anything, we need empathy and a plan which puts students at its centre

“The fact is, whether we are able to sit exams as normal on the ninth of June, nothing about it will be normal, ” writes Saoi O’Connor.  Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“The fact is, whether we are able to sit exams as normal on the ninth of June, nothing about it will be normal, ” writes Saoi O’Connor. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

We are driving through my town. We are coming into the beginning of January, with the prospects of springtime and vaccines on the horizon, and a new year ahead of us. And this evening, for whatever reason, I’m noticing again the mannequins in the charity shop window, whose outfits - usually carefully picked out each week - haven’t been changed since last March.

The same brown and cream dress as from the height of lockdown stares out at me from the shopfront, and lost amongst my musings it feels like a warning. Time has stood still since then, except when it hasn’t.

In 155 days, or 223,200 minutes, or 13,392,000 seconds, I am expected to sit my Leaving Cert, as if nothing has changed. And, as if nothing has changed, the contents of my mind, my character, and my academic career so far will be judged on the results of these exams. As if we are not living through one of the most stressful periods in human memory. As if last September, I didn’t choose not to return to school, and instead study at home myself, because the choice I was given was to not go, or to risk bringing the virus home to my high-risk parent. As if, when I am taking these exams, I will not also be hearing every one of my classmates’ breath, waiting for the smallest hitch.

The fact is, whether we are able to sit exams “as normal” on the ninth of June, nothing about it will be normal. This is not a normal year. And it is not normal, nor is it reasonable, to expect students to do themselves justice under these circumstances.

Exam hall

I try to picture myself in an exam hall, and in my head I no longer measure the passing of time by the ticking of the wall clock. Instead I fixate on the breathing of the other people in the room. I await the smallest irregularity, comforted by the eerie solidarity of knowing that everyone else in the room is doing the same. My breathing joins this backdrop chorus and I wonder if the others can hear the anxiety knotting in my chest. The smells of disinfectant and fight or flight reflexes hang in the room.

The fact is, whether we are able to sit exams “as normal” on the ninth of June, nothing about it will be normal. This is not a normal year. And it is not normal, nor is it reasonable, to expect students to do themselves justice under these circumstances. The government is causing huge harm to the mental health of Leaving Cert students - something that they have professed to care deeply about over the lockdown, when it benefitted them - by pretending that whether or not an exam setting can be provided is the only factor here.

Over and over again, when any of us has expressed distress about the uncertainty and fear surrounding this year’s exams, we have been told that everything the Government was doing - the rolling lockdowns, the closing of certain sectors for weeks at a time - was for us, so that we could go to school.

We were never consulted about this, we were never asked whether we wanted to be forced into this choice of either disconnecting from school entirely or putting our families at risk. Not once was our health - physical or mental - taken into account, only weaponised against us.

Pandemic

Every time this is raised, we are either guilted into staying silent, or the differing perspectives of students are pitted against each other. This is not reasonable. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation, the pandemic has impacted people in different ways and to different degrees, and different people react differently to different circumstances.

Whether one student needs to go back to school in order to protect their mental health has no bearing on whether another student will be crushed under the pressure of trying to do well in school and protect their loved ones. We need different things, and while I recognise that the Government cannot provide tailored accommodations to every Leaving Cert student in the country, it can certainly do better than ploughing straight ahead and ignoring those of us who are being destroyed by this approach.

Every day, I see the Government use “students’ mental health” as a way to justify their decisions regarding the lockdown, yet I don’t see any students that these decisions are not taking a huge toll on.

The Government needs a plan with options to accommodate as many people as possible; right now, it has taken a middle-of-the road approach which suits next to no one.

We need an acknowledgment that this is not normal, we need an approach that understands the strain that everyone is under, we need an approach that allows us to choose what will be safest for us and our loved ones without fear of throwing away our academic prospects.

More than anything, what we need is empathy and a plan going forward into June which has students, not examinations, and not the government’s ego, at its centre. We may not know what this looks like yet, but we can build it together, we owe it to each other to try.

Saoi O’Connor is a Leaving Cert student who lives in west Cork