It’s been 12 years since I did my Leaving Cert, yet I still have nightmares about it. I wake up in a cold sweat, panicking. It takes me a minute or two to calm down, and reassure myself that I’m not actually doing my Leaving Cert again.
In this horrible re-occurring dream I’m always the same age I am now, except for some reason I’m about to start my Leaving Cert. Tomorrow. And I’ve only just found out. So I’m desperately trying to remember a load of irrelevant details I once learned off-by-heart, then promptly forgot. 12 years ago…
You can see why it makes for a very effective nightmare – it scores high points on that fear/panic scale.
And that’s the problem with the Leaving Cert, or at least it was in 2002. It was just a horrible fear-inspiring memory test, where you had to remember a load of irrelevant details, then write them down on a piece of paper. Even the subjects you think wouldn’t be a memory test, were still a memory test. English for example.
I remember wondering whether to take a gamble on the amount of poets I had ready for the exam. Not ready as in a bunch of poets waiting outside in a van, ready as in how many poets I could quickly recite an essay on. An essay I wrote several months earlier under no pressure whatsoever.
If the gamble payed off and the right dose of poets came up, you were completely sorted. If the gamble failed and the wrong dose of poets came up, you were completely screwed. It was like Las Vegas for Civil Servants.
The other problem with the Leaving Cert that’s definitely still the same in 2014, is it retains that bloated, crushing, overinflated sense of importance it did in 2002. They tell you it’s the most important thing in your life. How it will decide what you do for the rest of your days. Your whole existence seems suddenly defined by how large a quantity of irrelevant information you can store in your short-term memory…
So a horribly big memory test – that you believe your life depends on. That’s a fairly stressful combination.
And although still hugely stressful, the underlying motivations being peddled today have changed direction slightly since I did my leaving Cert. In 2002 we were half-way through a Tiger, pumping out quantity surveyors and occupational therapists like there was no tomorrow. But if you wanted a taste of Tiger-pie, you had to do a science subject. The teachers recited that to us like a mantra – as if they were on commission from science itself. You’d be at nothing without a science subject, those teachers said. A pointless operation, those teachers said…
Still I had no interest in science. But those teachers just wouldn’t stop warning us of all the awful fates that could befall a person who didn’t have a Leaving Cert science subject.
Feeling backed into a corner, I picked chemistry. My rationale was that physics involved a load of maths – the only thing I hated more than science. I didn’t have the stomach for brutalising dead mice, or whatever it is those perverts get up to in their shady biology rooms. And agricultural science was just a room full of farmers. Having no road-frontage in the family and being completely useless at hurling, I had no business in that room whatsoever.
So chemistry it was then – by process of elimination. Apart from not understanding the scientific jibberish in the books, I definitely knew it wasn’t my cup of tea every time we did an experiment. The rest of the class would get – what I felt to be – disproportionately excited, when the teacher horsed a little fleck of magnesium into a bowl of water – and it went alight. I honestly couldn’t care less, I’d rather be doing anything else.
Hurtling towards a solid fail, I dropped chemistry in sixth year, and took up geography instead. I really liked it, I could handle remembering a load of irrelevant details about fishing in Norway, or shipping in The Netherlands. Why didn’t I think of this a year previously, when choosing subjects for fifth year? Why didn’t I pick geography instead of chemistry first time around?
But no, we were told we definitely needed a science subject, especially now there was an invisible Tiger printing money outside.
We were told if we didn’t have that elusive science subject, our whole existence would be a sham. We’d be destined for lives as washed-up, weeping alcoholics, sleeping on our brother-in-law’s sofas, like the science-less wasters we were. But that never happened to me – I don’t have a brother-in-law.
Also, I knew I was going to art college way before I even made my first communion. There was never any doubt in my mind. And yet I still allowed myself to be talked into doing a science subject in fifth year – out of pure fear-mongering and gossip. Art colleges aren’t renowned breeding grounds for Nobel Prize-winning scientists. But then Einstein wasn’t much of a painter.
So finally arriving in that art college after the big memory test was all over was a massive, overwhelming jolt to the system. But in a good way, like a defibrillator when flatlining in the back of an ambulance.
Thankfully over the past 12 years I’ve mainly managed to avoid situations where I become convinced my life depends on remembering a load of irrelevant details, and then writing them down on a big piece of paper. But it still doesn’t stop those Leaving Cert nightmares…