My Leaving Cert: ‘The marathon is over – now it is time to sprint’

Síofradh O’Sullivan is trying to remain composed ahead of the exam starting gun

Síofradh O’Sullivan, a Leaving Cert student at St Caimin’s Community School in Shannon, Co Clare

Thirteen years, eight months and 28 days ago, I embarked on this journey.

It has brought me through homesick respite, the measles, a spartan Gaeltacht, the subjunctive, calculus, wounds on my fingers from hours playing the harp and to places where I was left alone to defuse abstract academic landmines.

Back in those early days, the final destination wasn’t important. I had more pressing issues to worry about, such as the characters on my lunch box or the contents of my pencil case.

We were told things such as “Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon”, and so the distance to the horizon appeared endless.


What I didn’t know at the time was that some great power had set my journey’s compass firmly to June 2018 and the big one: the Leaving Cert.

Just like Kathy in Kazuo Ishiguro's tale of lost innocence, Never Let Me Go, I've known for a while that my days were numbered; this trip, which started off softly, has an expiry date on it.

What if Frost appears instead of Hopkins?

My supports, my frustrating allies, like my teachers, family and friends, will walk me to those State exam papers, but in there I will be alone (albeit without farming out my limbs, as poor Kathy had to endure.)

Everything I have learned must be squeezed into a series of a few quiet hours cooped up in an exam hall.

So, the marathon is finally over and now it is time to sprint with every parcel of energy I can muster. In the flurry of that final sprint, will I offload surplus baggage?

But what if Frost appears instead of Hopkins?

Will my mind race to Miss McSweeney’s English class on a warm sunny day in April?

Will I hear her chirpy voice and remember everything she said, as I scan over the pink paper that was just dropped on to my desk as the starting pistol blasts me into the Leaving Cert? What if that gunshot paralyses me and my mind goes blank?

Maybe on the last night before history, study will shove something else from my head, and I will be bereft because the moon landing appears on my history paper instead of the fallout from the Vietnam War that'll be foremost in my mind? I can't put up my hand and ask a question like I did in Mr Keane's class!

So, is that it?

Will my future be decided by some clandestine examining authority locked up in an obscure government building, choosing which section of my education is relevant for the rest of my life?

Out of reach

If I get it wrong, will those severed top rungs of the academic performance ladder, the Leaving Cert, put my third-level choices out of my reach? It’s possible – and I will deal with that in August.

There are the friendships that moved to other schools but still burn bright that I will nurture, or those that faded but will still hold a place in my heart

Although the exams place a large shadow of self-doubt and worry across these early summer days, it would be a big mistake to think the results of these 14 years of education can be squashed into a month of trials.

After it’s all over I’ll join forces with my fellow Leaving Cert survivors in west Clare for a week of beach time and trad music sessions like we played in Ms Fahy’s music class.

There are also the friendships that moved to other schools but still burn bright that I will nurture, or those that faded but will still hold a place in my heart.

These will be as much a part of me as my performance in the exam hall, like Ms Condron who taught me the subtleties of French – or 4D (Mr Forde), who taught us that there’s humour even in darkest corners of trigonometry.

They’ll walk with me long after I last struggle to remember the piano overture I played for my music practical.

The truth is I’ll never be 100 per cent ready for the Leaving Cert.

But, armed with sharpened stationery and a solid grounding, I have learned how to deal with anything it might throw at me.