As the Leaving Cert exams loom, I’ve been thinking about “our day”. I was 17 when I did my Leaving Cert, for the first time. I was in love with two things: smoking and a young farmer, both in equal measures. I could while away study hours each night in my room, smoking out my bedroom window, thinking about my future on the farm and how I could possibly fool my father that I needed to buy yet another book, to square away the cash for another box of Silk Cut Blue.
I was the youngest child and only daughter of a teacher and traditional 1980s father. He played a lot of golf and rarely registered that we were even doing exams. She held down a job, ran the house and tried to get us over the line. She despaired of me and would occasionally check my progress in that bedroom through assessing what page number in my textbook I was on, returning two hours later to find the pages of the book unturned. A lot of shouting ensued.
Results arrived that August and Múinteoir Ma almost needed to be sectioned. The farmer had realised I was not the “farming” type of gal and had left me. I was now being told I couldn’t join my pals in college and had to repeat.
There had been relative peace thus far in the house with two studious older brothers doing well and the eldest, although not a good student, doing well enough in the Leaving Cert to maintain the dignity of the family. Devastation. More shouting. Dad wondering if the shouting would hamper his golf game. I was sent to a repeat school where Múinteoir Ma was also, conveniently for her, a teacher. I had a better time that year than I ever did in college – which she hadn’t quite counted on. But, thanks to her, I did somewhat better the second time round when the results landed.
Fast forward 32 years and things are quite different. Eager Múinteoir Ma would find herself reflected as an underperformer in this new world. Parents have taken on the Leaving Cert as a whole full-time job for themselves at which we must excel. I met a mother shopping recently who told me she had taken a four-month leave of absence from work as she had a “Leaving”. A whole new phrase for me. The equivalent of a death or new baby. It was a noun all on its own.
I told her I had a “Leaving” and a “Junior Cert” and she offered to buy me a coffee so that I could talk about how I was coping. My neighbour called last month suggesting we join forces as parents of a “Leaving” and ask the community to refrain from cutting the grass for June. The “#NoMowMay” movement would love to recruit us. The Leaving is way more important than the future of the bees – and the racket of the lawnmowers could be catastrophic to the concentration on English Paper 1. Soon, I will have a vision of the army trundling up and down estates with a tannoy system, shouting: “Keep small children indoors! Keep noise down! Do not cut your grass! There is a ‘Leaving’ in number 69!”
My local pharmacy is packed with us. We are inquiring about hay fever, allergies, vitamins to boost energy, pillow sprays to induce calm and hence sleep. I even saw a dad of in the pharmacy the other day, urgently outlining that a “mouth ulcer” had arisen for his son who was studying for this most important State exam. Such was his level of upset, I felt the pharmacist should have given him a Xanax along with the Bonjela.
Did our parents have it right? A bit of pushing, a few rows and you went in to do the Leaving followed by the Matric. I cycled to all my exams and cycled back again. There was no sixth-year holiday, no inquiring about you every minute of the day, checking on your health, your mental health, your anxiety. No driving you everywhere for fear you might get tired. No sending younger kids off to camps so that the house can be quiet for the month of June.
So, how are things in our house? Well, thankfully, I gave up smoking. That farmer sold up the land for millions and now spends half his year in Spain where I am sure they don’t care as much about this State exam that is so central to Irish culture. I could definitely have pretended to be an interested farmer for a few years had I known semi-retirement in Spain was on the horizon.
My “Leaving” is fairly calm. I am just trying to encourage him, like my mother did. I try to stay out of the pharmacy. He loves chicken. He has it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I am somewhat concerned that Catherine at the checkout in Supervalu is going to report me to Tusla for his malnourishment. I keep thinking: “It will be over in three weeks, if us parents can just hold it together.”
Life is about so much more than the Leaving Cert. We all did okay, regardless of how we did. It is only one small element of what we hope for our kids will be a bigger future. We all find our path, even though it takes some of us a little longer.
And, if you are very worried, Múinteoir Ma is alive and well and has moved her efforts on to her grandchildren. There aren’t really enough of them to keep her busy so, if you need some help, she is open to a call.