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03 Jul 2022

Column: Those perennial conversations and the dreaded Leaving Cert dream

A View of Donegal by Journalist Siobhán McNamara

Column: Those perennial conversations and the dreaded Leaving Cert dream

Image by Usman Yousaf from Pixabay

Ah Lordie, the Leaving Cert is upon us. It's that time of year again.  

There are few things that spark as many conversations among people of different ages as the annual state exams.

Each new generation of students has seen more and more people completing Second Level education. And with the exam having been in place since 1924, a lot of Irish-educated people have sat the Leaving Cert.

Whether it was a few years ago or several decades, every year when June rolls around, we are each transported back to our own Leaving Cert summer - 1991 in my case. 

It’s funny the things that stick out in your mind - for the first time in years, neither of the two ‘dead cert’ questions on the Biology paper came up as full questions. Having studied them so well, I can still remember loads about photosynthesis and genetics but unfortunately, I wasn’t asked to show off my knowledge on exam day. 

I also remember that the one poet we were highly unlikely to get in English was in fact one of those who was on the paper. He was also one of my favourites and someone whose poems I would gladly have written pages about. But I hadn’t learned enough quotes to make a decent stab at the questions. I have no-one but myself to blame for that!

I can also remember my Home Economics teacher, Ms Grainne Cunningham, waiting outside the exam hall to see how we got on, a lovely gesture that spoke volumes about the kind of teacher she was. 

Most of the rest of it is a blur. But it was a very significant time in our lives. 

We went into our first exam as students, still on the path of childhood, albeit coming towards the end.

By the time the last exam was completed, school was over for us forever and the future was full of possibilities to be explored and enjoyed on our own terms. It was a nice time in life; the level of responsibility that adulthood entailed was yet to sink in.

Being a parent of a Leaving Cert student has given me a very different perspective. 

On one hand, we want to encourage our young people to do the best they can in order to secure third level places and to achieve their career goals. 

On the other hand, we need them to know that the Leaving Cert isn’t the be all and end all, that if it doesn’t go well, or if they don’t yet know what they want to do in life, there are many more paths through education and into the workforce. 

There are young people who have yet to tap into their creativity, to discover their real passion and potential. And if they feel a bit adrift right now, that’s ok. The next stage of their lives will be full of opportunities. Some of those opportunities might turn out to be dead ends; others will be enriching, rewarding and fulfilling. 

There is so much still to come, and for some people, myself included, the desire to learn new skills and explore new interests will continue throughout their lives. Some of us just need new challenges on a regular basis. They might lead to new careers or they might become enjoyable hobbies. It doesn’t really matter as long as we continue to grow. 

I was reminded recently by a friend on Facebook of the dreaded Leaving Cert dream, familiar, I gather, to an awful lot of Irish people.

No doubt each person experiences a slightly different version but the general gist of it is that you are back in school preparing for 'the Leaving.'

I didn't like school for a whole lot of reasons so for me this is most definitely nightmare territory. 

I used to get this dream quite regularly. It was so vivid that it included accurate details such as the colour of classroom doors, room numbers and even posters on notice boards in specific areas of my Alma Mater, the AVS in Donegal Town.

Understanding the significance of dreams a little better now, I realise those types of details were my subconscious letting me know that it was sending me a strong message, and that I needed to take notice.

In the dream, I was able to consciously remind myself that I had already done the Leaving Cert and that it couldn't be taken away from me. I also had to figure out - as part of the dream - why I was back at school.

Those dreams eventually stopped. I'm not sure exactly when, but it most likely coincided with my return to learning and education in my thirties, a path which introduced me to many new skills and which eventually led me into journalism.

It does strike me as funny that as a nation, the Leaving Cert is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that this dream, or similar versions of it, are quite common. 

I wonder if other countries have their own equivalent. Do our UK neighbours dream about being back in school, studying for A Levels? Or do our French friends find themselves yet again facing into Le Bac? 

I'd really love to know.

And I wonder if this year’s crop of 63,000 Leaving Certificate candidates will have the same dream - or nightmare - in years to come. 

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