A mature student on Leaving Cert maths. ‘What if I failed?’ wonders Pat Costello

Pat Costello from Dalkey, Co Dublin  stuying for her Leaving Cert maths exam at her kitchen table. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Pat Costello from Dalkey, Co Dublin stuying for her Leaving Cert maths exam at her kitchen table. Photograph: Aidan Crawley


In our house there’s been a lot of clucking and fussing since the elderly mother – me – took up maths after five decades. My sons, although they had excellent teachers, claim not to remember anything when I ask for help. They’ve taken to calling me Macavity after TS Eliot’s mystery cat and telling friends who call that I’m to be found “doing complicated long division sums”.

My husband is extremely non-plussed and not at all welcoming of this interloper in our ménage a trois. He’s adopted some agony aunt’s advice and is pretending it’s not happening under his nose, hoping it will all go away.

For me ordinary-level Leaving Cert maths was hard. I had a lot of ground to make up since my pass Leaving Cert in 1963. Since I sat the exam in June, I had been getting more and more doubtful, but still hoping I passed. That’s all I deserved, not having completed the second paper. A couple of weeks ago, I printed out the two papers – 19 pages each, on which you write the answers – but I was too afraid to ruin my sunshine-days by checking the content.

Out of curiosity, I asked the Department of Education to send me the maths papers for 1963. Back then, we had three papers, arithmetic, geometry and algebra, each taking two and half-hours and each an A4 sheet. A typical question 50 years ago would be two lines and rarely have other sub-questions. It was just about maths. In Project Maths the questions are more about the English and whether you can grasp the mathematical concept. This year, one question about percentages and statistics gave details of how many people paid property tax and even asked why some people had not paid it. I could have written an essay on that.

What if I failed? Well, there’s nothing at stake and I’ve had the best of fun with my maths. Really, I should be embarrassed at the fuss I’m making over a few sums. I’ve got really bright friends who’ve toiled over master’s degrees and doctorates while doing a full day’s work but my little hobby has been the centre of interest wherever I go. At two family parties recently, young Leaving Cert students were, I’m sure very unwillingly, directed my way but once the ice was broken we chatted about the exam paper. Yes, they advised, I should do honours next year and I’d love applied maths and should give that a go.


Results day

There’s always been a great chasm between language and maths students. I studied modern languages and love to chat wherever I go. But in my day, languages were taught in a very structured way, just like you study maths. I understood the grammar and could apply it to other languages just as I apply a maths formula now. Maths is all about relationships and connections; so too are languages. Languages are for those who love to chat and maths is just as engrossing – it’s my quiet, non-verbal communication pleasure.


The day the results came out, the family hovered around discreetly. I had hidden my log-in number and at noon when the results were released on the internet I intended to lock myself into the loo and check online on my tablet.

To keep calm I went out to do some shopping and came back to find a huge white plastic envelope with an orange border from the State Examinations Commission.

It was marked urgent. Trembling, I cut it open. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Yippee, I screamed. I got a C1. Much, much more than I expected.

So what about Leaving Cert higher-level in 2015? Well, how could I resist the irresistible? I have my new four-volume Text and Tests and am going to get the e-book for clandestine study.

I’ve started on the algebra, which I adore, and September will see me in the honours class promising to work harder this year.