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A Letter to the non-Leaving Cert sitter

Dear X (I won’t mention your name because you’ll be embarrassed)

It’s Leaving Certificate Fever time, and kids all over the country are scrambling to get their last bits of revision done before it begins, or, sitting on their phones with the door locked pretending to be studying. Lest you have forgotten, the Leaving Certificate is the final exam of your secondary education. It works on a points per result basis (the top mark getting you 100 points, and then less points as the grades decline). You amass your points from your best 6 subjects, for a maximum of 600 points plus bonus points for taking Honours Maths. Your points score puts you into the marketplace for college places. Some of the big ones- medicine for example- usually require maximum or near maximum points, with all courses raising or lowering their points requirements based upon how many people apply to get in, how many places are available and… and em… oh look I don’t care. That is among the most boring paragraphs I’ve ever had to write. It’s a league table of kids basically. We make them sit an exam then we rank them on their utility to society.

This would have been you in different circumstances. You won’t be one of them and that’s just fine by me.

Listen it’s insane- each exam result day the news vans go to a few schools and interview the kids who got maximum points.

“Maire McTooly from Ballydehob Community College is celebrating 630 points. She plans to go on and become a scientist and work on a slightly different way to get rid of old lady’s wrinkles!”

They’re celebrities for 15 minutes. And why not? Fair play to them. I think that’s great. I know people who did the maximum and they’re doing great. Some of them go on to do some of the most important work in the world. I’m not dismissing it as an achievement.

Does that outlook sound too dreary? The utility bit I mean. Do you think it’s any different? Well take a look at the top points for each course each year. They’re entirely based on how useful you’re going to be to the world. It’s no surprise that medicine and health sciences top the table, followed by business courses, then engineering.

Is that wrong, necessarily? I don’t know. I certainly want the smartest people cutting me open if I need surgery, and the smartest people building the bridges I’m going to drive across. I’d like them to have excellent maths skills, because if they miss a decimal point, I may plunge to my death and make the 9 o’clock news, and not for public nudity this time.

So I’ve no great objection to 600 pointers getting to tally the numbers for wind shear on the tall buildings, or for designing the next robot to perform laser surgery. Frankly I couldn’t give a damn about the business guys I suspect that’s more about who gets to go work on the top floor of a bank. I also suspect that no matter whether the system was points, old style matriculation, or a game of scrabble and an interview, the same kids would end up doing those courses. They’re incredibly hard work and insanely boring to all but a percentage of people, so the same people would end up being the doctors and the engineers and the business people. They’re not for you, and that’s okay.

My thinking is that for every kid who walks off their school campus with piece of paper and a smile in their hand come results time, there are probably 10 kids walking off thinking what a waste of space they are. They either won’t have got the points they wanted and be miserable, or will look around at the cheering parents collecting their kids and begin to understand their place in the league table. We’ll have plenty of cheers for you, it just won’t be at Leaving Cert results time, and that’s okay.

There were no cheers when I collected my results. I’ve told you this. I rolled out of bed after working my summer job in a bar the night before and walked the 20 minutes to school with my mate Fid. Ours were two of the last envelopes left on the desk, and there were a few that would probably never be collected. The cheers and tears for points gained or missed out on had been done and dusted a few hours before, and aside from a polite nod and a “good luck” from the vice principal, there were no hearty handshakes or well dones from any of the school staff. I got 185 points, which was about as low as you can get without failing. I mean it- I squeaked over the line. I strolled home, my Mam and I had a cuppa and a toasted sandwich. There was a cake that said “Well Done” which was nice. There were some phone calls to see how I’d done with, “well he passed”, the usual response. But she wasn’t disappointed or anything like that. She knew me. Maybe, in retrospect, that hurt a bit, someone having no expectations of you, even if she didn’t mean it that way.

Stupidly, I tried again. There was a repeat Leaving Cert course running, so I did that the year after. Insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If that’s true, then I was insane. I got about the same despite another year of study on the same course. The next year, I would meet guys from my school and we’d swap stories. They were in UCD or Trinity or DIT studying Computer Science or Marketing or English. I was working in a garage fixing punctures.

Hey though, I liked that job! I worked alone most of the time and had my headphones for company. My boss was a good guy and the first entrepreneur I ever met. But that’s not my point. It was okay to do something easy and menial for a year. It made me realise I didn’t want to do something easy and menial.

My point is that it’s only about 100 years or so since we decided that the method of educating kids was to sit them in rooms of about 30 and have a teacher stand at the top of the class setting out the work. Bold kids at the back, good kids up front. Too bold? Out of the class. Teach and test, teach and test. Rank them. The slowest move to a lower class to move slower. Teach and test, teach and test. Okay rank them. Slower ones move down again. Repeat. If you can’t do it this way, you’re stupid. Sorry, best to drop down a class. That method arose out of a particular time in history, but it hasn’t changed all that much since.

For me it would be like bringing your car in to get your tyre changed, and the guy gets a horseshoe and starts sticking it on because that’s the way it’s always been done. Doesn’t matter that it doesn’t work. This is how we do things around here!

In recent years there’s an understanding that we learn differently, but the institutions remain the same. The league table still exists, and in Irish society, the Leaving Cert still holds as the be all and end all of how well you’ll do in life. How many people say crazy stuff like “Oh we’ve a Leaving Cert in the house this year!” It’s absurd! And the only thing to do with things that you think are absurd is to laugh at them. You might have to sometimes play the game, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it very seriously.

So many people say things like “Oh I wish I’d studied harder in school”. Well I wish I studied less! It was a waste of my time! That was time I wanted to spend talking to girls and trying to master the drums! But don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean I wish I’d spent more time in bed. I wish I’d spent more time learning, but not studying for those exams. I wish I’d left school earlier and gone to work sooner. I wish I’d understood sooner that learning is different from education. And I wish, more than anything, that I hadn’t spent the next 5 years thinking I was an idiot because the system didn’t fit me.

Einstein, who knew a thing or two, said the thing about the fish and the tree that I’ve told you before and you rolled your eyes at. But it’s true. I didn’t know how true until I began to speak in adulthood to the most successful people I know. Remember what that muti-millionaire (and early school leaver) I know said- “The guy at the back of the class ends up hiring the guy at the front”.

At the age of 29, I got my degree in English Literature and History. I don’t use it, but I’m glad I have it. I went and got it to prove to myself that I could. I enjoyed doing it, and I did just enough in my exams to get over the line. I’ve done some more exams since, to help pave the road for what I do now, and there’ll always be some boxes to tick and some form to fill out. There’ll always be time to serve and something to learn and prove you’ve learned with a piece of paper. But let me tell you something- the biggest fucking idiots I’ve met in real life have often been ones with letters after their names. Some of the smartest carry toolboxes. Most of the wealthiest started out carrying tools. That really is okay.

In not too long from now, the jobs that require you to pass exams and add things up will be gone, and a chip the size of the tip of a pen holds all of the information you need to memorise for the Leaving Certificate, which you can search for any time. The future is for people who can solve problems and do useful things for others. My phone can get 600 points in the Leaving Cert but it can’t put up a fence like you can. The world will never be short of people who can add things up, but it is short of people like you.

Hey, I had 2 teachers I liked and who liked me back. Just 2. One guy sat with my Mam at a Parent Teacher meeting and said, “He might fail the exams but he’ll do well in life”. And another put her hand on top of mine in the middle of class when I was 16 and said “Don’t ever stop writing”, which was of course really embarrassing (she used to drink at lunchtimes). Well I did okay, and so will you, and I didn’t stop writing, which is why I wrote this, because even though I can talk too, it never comes out right when I try to tell you this.

Okay, that is all. You can go about your business again.

Oul Fella

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