Like birth, marriage or realising there is nothing at all stopping you from owning a pet hedgehog, the Leaving Certificate is an important milestone in anyone’s life. And like all milestones, it’s absolutely overgrown with a thicket of cliches.
I have managed to retain exactly none of my knowledge regarding an Modh Coinníollach or the innards of a cell. But the phrases “you’re doing this for you, I don’t care whether you pass or fail” (they do), “these are the most important days of your life” (they aren’t), and “you’ll miss school when you’re gone” (not yet) are burned indelibly into my memory.
It’s been 11 years and what I remember most clearly about the Leaving Cert is how everyone in the country had an opinion on it but me. I, like the majority of students doing the exams, was just trying to survive them.
I didn’t care about points, beyond wanting to do okay in English and not wanting to fail higher Irish (I had been told I would). I cared about what the points would get me, namely freedom to choose what I studied instead of having to balance seven subjects, six of which I planned to avoid like the plague for the rest of my life.
Afterwards, of course, there was the scramble to play the Leaving Cert down, to airily state how little it all meant.
“Sure I didn’t even study!” (I did, that D3 in Irish did not come easy). I tried my best to forget all about it, denying that mad little thrill I felt the very first time I made a CV and got to leave the points off.
I became an English teacher, and had to stand in the exact same classroom I’d sat in three years before, trying to avoid using any of those cliches myself.
Because the Leaving Cert does matter. You have to go through it. Of course it matters. It isn’t the single defining moment of your life, but to say it doesn’t have any importance devalues all the work you’ve put in. It’s also definitely not what you need to hear just before running the gauntlet of the next two weeks.
What it most certainly isn’t is the end. Of anything, really. It certainly isn’t your cut-off point for career choices, or even college choices. It took me until I was 20 to decide what I wanted to be, and five more years to decide I wanted to study it.
When The Irish Times asked me to complete one of the essays in English Paper 1 (see full version here), it brought back many of these memories.
Normally, when I'm writing, I show people the second draft of a story. The copies of Knights of the Borrowed Dark currently sitting in shops are a 10th draft. But I just completed one of the compositions on English Paper 1 and to keep within the time limit could only submit a first draft. It's a scary feeling showing people that, without a chance to go back over it, to edit, to realign, and that's just one question on one paper.
Real life gives you more than one draft. It’s easy to look forward and imagine your life as an arrow in flight, the trajectory set from the release of the bow, but there will be innumerable corrections to that course, some you control and some you won’t. It’s important to recognise the ones you can.
Life is full of airlock moments. Moments where your life seems to contract to a decision, a choice, an experience, with the world looking very different on the other side.
The Leaving Cert is one of those times, but it is not the most important, and it’s definitely not the last.
For me, it represented the first time in my life I had a choice about how I was going to live it. Whether you join the workforce, start college or decide to go back – that’s a choice, one you get to make. That’s why everyone is ladling advice on you (myself included – 17-year-old Dave would be disgusted with me) – the exam room door is one person wide.
Whoever you were before, that’s all left at the threshold. And how you do, good or bad, isn’t as important as the pressure change that happens when that airlock door opens.
You’re stepping into a new world. The gravity’s different here. The world and the people are bigger and stranger, and though that might be scary, this is just one step of many. I wish you the very best of luck.
'Travelling Light': An extract
This is an extract from novelist Dave Rudden’s answer to an essay question in this year’s higher level Leaving Cert English (Paper 1). The essay was written in long hand in 70 minutes.
Q. Write a short story that centres around two characters and a car journey.
Your father fills the passenger seat of his ‘62 Plymouth like moving day, the blocky boxes of his shoulder threatening to spill out over the seat back, his hands messy-huge on the dashboard. You don’t remember ever seeing him sit in the passenger seat before. He never needed to slide on the faded leather the colour of butterscotch – he could reach everything from ‘captain’s chair.’(his name for it)
You, in comparison, are dwarfed by the scale of things. The gearstick is a femur under your palm, your fingers barely closing around the cool metal of the steering wheel. There is a treasure trove of buttons and dials and levers, not the slick console of a new car - more space race than space age. You would have given your right arm to play with them as a child. You have no desire to touch them now.
‘Are we moving?’
There is a new and querulous edge to your father’s voice. You both notice it, and when next he speaks it is ironed out, once again the rich burr it has always been, deep and solid and bearish.
‘I said, are we moving or not? Places to be, you know.’
You lift your hand in mock-salute, and at the barest touch the car growls to life. You’d always thought that strange. From the outside, it looks like the kind of vehicle you’d need to turn a crank for, all coughs and splutters, but instead it wakes easy as a kitten, eager to explore.
* Dave Rudden is a novelist and former English teacher. His latest novel, 'Knights of the Borrowed Dark', is published by Penguin Books.