I’ve been studying for my children’s first year secondary school summer exams. Not to boast, but I think I’m going to ace them. I know more about medieval villages than the staff at Bunratty Castle. I could be a guide at the Ailwee Caves with the stuff I’ve picked up about stalactites, the straws of calcite that hang down like tights, not like stalagmites which form upwards from the cave floor.
My Ardagh Chalice runneth over with facts about early Christian Ireland. And don’t talk to me about the Roman Empire, by which I mean actually, go on, do. Ask me anything. Want to know the difference between plebeians and patricians? I’m your woman. Or your pleb, depending on who you ask.
Perhaps you know all this stuff already, having listened attentively in school and retained information about mass movement and fold mountains. For those of us who did not do that, it turns out there are some unadvertised benefits to parenting or having teenagers in your life in any capacity. Not only do you get to keep up with a whole other generation’s lexicon of slang – idk, slay, glow up, fam, etc – but you are also given a vicarious second go at things you didn’t bother much with when you were their age. Like, for example, studying. It is an unexpected joy to me that for some reason, the 14-year-olds we’ve raised seem to care a lot more about their studies than I ever did. This is despite me having no Tiger Mother tendencies to speak of when it comes to their academic progress.
My recollection of being 14 is pretty hazy, unless you are counting song lyrics learnt by heart from Smash Hits magazine, but I know I didn’t spend much of that year studying. Time is a funny thing, as one of the great pop poets Gary Kemp wrote in the seminal 1980s pop hit True: “Always slipping from my hands/Sand’s a time of its own/Take your seaside arms and write the next line/Oh I want the truth to be known.”
It was decades before I learnt, from Kemp himself on Twitter, that “seaside arms” was an allusion to a line from Nabokov’s Lolita. True is no Digging by Seamus Heaney, with its farming metaphors and spades and squat pen resting, but it’s up there. If I was in charge, pop lyrics from Swift (Taylor) to Dylan (Bob) would be on the Junior and Leaving Cert. Probably a good job I’m not.
Everything was fields back in 1980s Ireland, parental neglect was the norm
My own teenage years were lived through different times. Back then, for anyone who was disinclined towards school and exams and study-related activities, it was kind of a golden period, a bit like the renaissance – which, incidentally, happened mostly in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Everything was fields back in 1980s Ireland, parental neglect was the norm, and as long as you weren’t committing actual crimes – and sometimes even then – parents didn’t really notice what you got up to. In those days, you could get away with a lot more, such as slouching in said fields with hidden naggins and not bothering to study. I don’t say this as a boast, more a wistful lament. I didn’t care enough about exam results to memorise the seven tectonic plates and learn about what happens in the Pacific Ring of Fire. (A load of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, it turns out).
Studying is hard, that’s what I’ve remembered. I’m thinking especially of the Leaving Cert students toiling away as the sun caresses the (igneous?) pavements outside their bedroom windows. I’ve also discovered that studying can be rewarding. Sure, it might be fun to have a picnic on the beach on these gloriously sunny days, lying on sand/the remains of sea creatures from past millennia. But there is also joy in nobly analysing the themes in Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo – a moving novel about class, rural poverty and the terrible practice whereby the British army court-martialled and shot hundreds of often shell-shocked young soldiers during the first World War for “crimes” such as desertion or cowardice.
Our nerves are frazzled. If this is only the first-year exams – I’m kind of dreading the Leaving Cert
This is what study time looks like in our house. We all sit in separate rooms, hunched over desks or slouched on cushions. A studious silence descends. I hear voices, French verbs intoned, geographical definitions repeated. Every now and then, a teenager with furrowed brow comes to lie on my bed – recall is better lying down apparently, but I’m not sure if that’s allowed in the actual exam – while I test them on what they’ve learnt through the medium of flashcards. I have the easy part, being the one who calls out “Convection currents!” while they are the ones who have to actually explain what that is. (Convection currents transfer heat from one place to another by mass motion of fluid such as water, air or molten rock. Obviously.)
The kitchen table is covered in these flashcards, and folders and study notes. I’m a short-order chef making power snacks and special brain-fuelling/comforting lunches, spinach salads with toasted walnuts and roasted red peppers, or the admittedly more popular toasted cheese sandwiches. The tension is something else. Our nerves are frazzled. If this is only the first-year exams – I’m kind of dreading the Leaving Cert, but also sort-of looking forward to what will be an even more potent adrenalin buzz.
To my huge surprise, I’m enjoying myself. These last few weeks have been like a second bite at the educational cherry, but without the scratchy uniform, irritating school commute, smelly changing rooms, ill-fitting skorts and the ever-looming possibility of detention. That’s the thing about education, it’s never too late. “So true, funny how it seems” as a great poet once wrote.