The Leaving

In Ireland, we didn’t get to prove our “scholastic aptitude” with a multiple-choice test of our parents’ ability to pay for Kaplan prep. Instead we faced the Leaving Certificate, a national examination that would, we sincerely believed, determine everything in our future except the color of the curtains.

For two years we consumed seven subjects. Over a June fortnight, we regurgitated this knowledge into thirty hours worth of essays and proofs. The first day, we might dispatch Yeats, Scott Fitzgerald, George Eliot, and Shakespeare for good, and then choose from a list of titles the last original essay composition we would ever write. The next day, we would think about calculus, trigonometry, and quadratic equations–intensely, for six hours, and for the very last time.

Our results–graded on a national curve–were converted to points, which could be traded for college places. Five points for an A, four points for a B, and so on. These were totted up by a computer in Athlone, which existed in our minds as a Borg, a god, and an oracle in one. This Central Application Office computer already held the ranked college choices we had sent off months earlier. Under this system, we applied not just for a college but for particular courses at that college, and entry requirements shifted every year with demand. No school plays or humanitarian awards could sway the calculations of the Borg; only the Leaving counted.

Like democracy, it was the worst possible system, except for all the others. In a small country, high school credits and college interviews would have turned into a riot of patronage. The Leaving Cert was rigorous, anonymous, and required some thinking as well as regurgitation. The shared ordeal bonded each cohort forever. Unlike our English neighbors with their narrow A levels, we weren’t forced to choose too early between science and arts, or languages and business subjects. But nor were we encouraged to read much beyond our textbooks, or to distract ourselves with the Enrichment Activities with which our American counterparts were lining their résumés. Our main Enrichment Activity–apart from underage drinking–was studying for the Leaving, with its promise of a college place leading to a good job. That fitted a country that had been in recession since we were babies. The Leaving favored those freaks among us who enjoy exams and have good handwriting, but even for us it was miserable.

Three friends and I had dropped out of school a few months before the Leaving Cert, and they used to get up at six in the morning to cycle out to my house for a study group. We were seventeen, fervent, and often hysterical. We shrieked when we noticed that the date stamped on someone’s carton of yoghurt was the date the _Leaving_ started, ohholymotherajesus! Tea came up our noses when someone did a take off of the chemistry teacher, or slagged some school clique we despised for cheerfulness. We drilled each other on The Multiplier Effect, Krebs Cycle, and Irony in Othello. For breaks we walked a mile to the village and bought bags of fizzy cola bottles and lurid orange Monster Munch and grilled each other on _exact details_ of our sexual experiences to date. These we lied about, but mostly to ourselves.

When the first day of the Leaving was no longer an abstraction on a yoghurt carton, I called up for one of the girls, who lived near the school. She was pale when she came out of their downstairs toilet. “Jesus, smell that and tell me I’m not nervous, girl,” she said, and we laughed ourselves to tears. We are still friends, and we still talk about the Leaving.

Our teachers had counseled us to bring Mars Bars and Polo Mints to keep our energy up, and at the start of each exam we lined these up on our desks with the spare pens, protractors, and TippEx. We drummed clammy fingers, alone at last in a room full of friends and old enemies. The classrooms had been converted to unfamiliar exam halls, with long lines of desks through which supervisors patrolled, glancing at the clock and the may blossoms outside. They were teachers from other schools, assigned in a Department of Education switcheroo. We heard echoes of our own teachers as we wrote anonymous identification numbers—uimhir scrúdaíochta–on the answer booklets. (Pink for Honours level, blue for Ordinary level.)
_”Read_ the question, lads. Read it again. And before ye write so much as a word, read it the third time. Do ye hear me?” We had, but few of us were calm enough to follow that advice when the paper swished onto our desk. We had to deliver two years of study in three hours, and the Bic ballpoints rasped immediately.

Like every market, the points race produced distortions. It gripped the country like a lottery addiction, and the newspapers produced weekly supplements on exam techniques, college selection strategies, and the statistical probability that a given subject would pay off. It created an industry of private-sector crammer schools and “grinds.” The study of art slumped–in a country that needs it more than most–as it became known that fewer than two per cent of Art students got “the A,” while six per cent of Biz. Org. or Applied Maths candidates did.

Most seventeen year olds haven’t developed strong personal interests, and with a year of cramming behind us, we’d had little opportunity to find any. So kids often listed college courses based not on their interests or aptitudes but on the perceived prestige of high points requirements. A single ranked application list might show an improbable range of ambitions: UCD Medicine, UCD Engineering, UCD Law, DCU Communications, UCD Arts, UCD Agricultural Science. Prestigious or small courses demanded higher points. While a high-status profession like Medicine might naturally require a clutch of As, so would a course with just a few dozen places, like Physiotherapy. The cycle reinforced itself with increasing demand. Parents were happy to brag that their son “got Pharmacy,” because the whole country knew that took–ooh–27 points. They didn’t care that it consigned the boy to life behind a shop counter, in those days before the Irish drug research boom.

In 1990, for the first time, the most popular course was International Commerce at UCD, which meant that the brightest kids in the country chose to study EU accounting methods at a place stuffed with South County Dublin clones–an odd species of instant preppie, notable for tortured accents. (We called them D4s, after their postcode.) I picked English at UCD, because I liked books, and because I lacked the confidence to pick Psychology. (“Sure, those fellas are all cracked themselves.”) It’s cheap to teach Arts students–we were piled into large amphitheatres–so it didn’t cost many points to get in. Thousands of middle-class kids applied for Arts just to get a degree, any degree. As a result, I was halfway through second year before I met students who admitted to any interest in literature, and up to then I learned nothing. After the grind of the Leaving, few of us were in much of a mood to study, anyhow.

Full-grown Irish adults, twenty years fledged, often admit that in times of stress, they dream it is the first morning of the Leaving Cert again, and this time they are being tested on strange subjects or have to do it all through Irish. I’ve never had this dream. The week of those exams, I dreamed I was flying. It marked the height of my sense of competence; the time when I was good at what the whole country seemed to value as the most important thing in life. In secondary school I knew exactly what was expected, and it barely troubled me to deliver it. I had a butter-wouldn’t-melt demeanor and the only key to a school costume room, and most days I skipped a few classes there with selected pals. Schoolwork came so easily to me that I expected everything else to, and so when it turned out that I lacked natural talent at the violin, I refused to practice. Because I was uncoordinated, I dossed PE(Physical Education) class every chance I could, and barely tapped a volleyball when I did show up. When I came fifth instead of first in a national school fiction contest, I gave up writing short stories.

It took a long time to unlearn this refusal to fail.

And of course, to my disappointment, life has been nothing like school. Only one company–whose obsession with SAT scores pointed to their eventual implosion–ever asked for my Leaving Cert results. In the self-inventing industries of the last ten years, there were no set texts. Nobody gave me bonuses for passing exams. I never found mentors who could explain the rules, and the _New York Times_ didn’t produce weekly supplements on my career and my love life. The Leaving trained us to be diligent, answer-producing machines, and then loosed us into lives that asked for questions and improvisation. But at least it trained us to read the questions three times.

It’s June now, and this year’s crop of Leaving Certs, as they are called, are just about finished. Their points system has been recalibrated, and my dad, who has taught secondary school for thirty-five years, claims that the exams are much easier now. Still, I’m guessing they haven’t had much time to think about all the future that lies before them, and that they won’t have elaborate graduation ceremonies where they sit through sage advice. This week, the internet has passed along Steve Jobs’ commencement speech to the graduating class at Stanford. (It says something that young Americans commence their futures, and we Irish leave our past.) I liked Jobs’ speech, but college graduation is both too early and too late to take advice, and I doubt it changed any hearts. That’s why I think Paul Graham’s counsel to sixteen-year-olds, What You’ll Wish You’d Known, is better aimed as well as more enduring. I would give it to a Leaving Cert class, and it’s worth a read even if you’re twenty years fledged, too.

26 thoughts on “The Leaving”

  1. Jaysus, as I read this my arms erupted in goose pimples. I am one of those people who when stressed has nightmares about having to re-sit the Leaving Cert. Then again I did it twice, (this gets you a get out of purgatory free card when you die). I was a lazy bastard the first time. I got into college but it wasn’t anything I wanted to do. there were too many friends at my old school, of off the St Enda’s to repeat. Best thing that ever happened to me, Enda’s was shit hole, and made me realise that being a lazy bastard might have some nasty consequences – so I learned to study. I have two memories burned in my brain. The first is after my second run through of the LC, I emerged from my final chemistry exam, convinced I had not only A’ced it but had gotten 100%. To my horror I noticed that the first question, a pure math question had mixed centimetres and metres in the problem, I had forgotten to convert one to the other. The old not reading the paper three times snafu. Only in Ireland would they try such a sneaky bastard trick. The second is waiting above my Aunts pub in London for my dad to call with my results, stressed out of my mind, the realisation dawning that this really WAS the day that would decide how my life would procede – I was slow on the pickup 🙂

    NOTHING in my life has every been as stressful, which might actually be a gift.


  2. Fantastic. Going into 6th year next year, and the presitigious course things have already begun. Unfortunatly, I’ve gone along with the crowd…

    All the best.


  3. Don’t forget, the Leaving Cert reliably coincided with the first weeks of Ireland’s real summer — they were always gloriously sunny. Perfect timing to incite daydreaming and mind-wandering!

    I was a lousy studier and test-taker, and got crappy marks as a result. All I can remember from my Leaving is (a) attacking my schoolbooks in my sleep, waking to find them strewn all over the floor; (b) the feeling of immense relief when I walked out of the last exam, free at last.


  4. I started this entry as a quick paragraph introducing something else entirely.

    Four hours later, when I hadn’t stopped, I realized that the Leaving still has an incredibly powerful hold on my mind, and that none of my American friends knows anything about it. It really did form us, didn’t it?

    Kevin, I hope you get something out of the Paul Graham essay. It meant a lot to me. If you ever want a sounding board for CAO form doubts, feel free to write to me. I don’t give advice, but I’m a good listener.


  5. I’m indebted to the Leaving because it marks the start of a three month period of less congestion on the Irish roads in the mornings.

    I remember being surprised when a Bank of Ireland small business loan officer looked at a co-applicant’s CV for Leaving Cert results. I realised then that the Institution of the Leaving was very ingrained in the minds of many people who have never worked off the island.


  6. It really did form us, didn’t it?

    As I say, I’m just going into sixth next year. But yeah, it’s certainly a major part of my life, or was 20 days ago. I’ve tried to get a head start and put in a lot of work this year. However, I’ll be grand. I want History and Philosophy in Trinity, which is 510 at the moment. But it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get it, I can do Arts in UCD and probably get the same out of it.


  7. Great entry, Dervala. Thanks for helping unravel the mystery of this life-altering, mind-numbing experience that I’ve heard about from all my Irish friends, and esp. John (I can attest to his stress dreams about it, “Jaysus, what a horrible night – I dreamt I was taking the Leaving again…”). And I thought the SAT’s were bad enough – but it seems your brethren across the Atlantic got off easy.


  8. Tash, I don’t know which is worse–going through it, or having to listen to us go on about it for the next forty years.


  9. Like you, “I was good at what the whole country seemed to value as the most important thing in life” and missed out on the butterflies-in-the-stomach, the-world-is-ending feelings most of my fellow Leaving Certs suffered. Seven years, 545 points (new system!) and two degrees later, a tiny part of me would love to return to the shelter, structure and clarity of Leaving Cert preparation. It certainly beats daily career uncertainty, rubbish wages and relationship dilemmas…


  10. The tests themselves were fun to do, because strangely enough there is very litle time to think in an exam, you have to be decisive and act. Studying on the other hand was intensely boring. I remember the routine at home for the months before; 40 minutes study, 1 song, 40 minutes study, 1 song,…

    Other than acquiring discipline to buckle down, I can’t say the leaving cert has had any lasting impact. After every exam, I could feel the knowledge falling away like dust as I walked out the door. Once you did the test, there was no need to keep it around.


  11. Bill, I remember those reward routines well…

    Funny, while I also felt like the knowledge slid away after the exams, it’s come back. I don’t know why; maybe premature senility has me returning to my childhood.

    I’m especially grateful for the grounding in basic economics, chemistry, and biology–stuff I wouldn’t have read later on. And I still remember all the poems and the chunks of Othello we had to learn by heart, which will be a great comfort in my nursing home days.


  12. Nice post on the Leaving.
    I’ve just gone through it for the second time or rather I’ve just watched my first born go through his.
    Its all still there including this year the fabulous summer weather. I was lucky, in 1979 it didn’t matter to me so I was able to cop off and run wild while almost everyone else fretted through the exams (sincere apologies to anyone I dragged down with me).
    As a parent now who puts what limited resources are available into our childrens education I completly agree with it being the worst system excepting all the others. Can you imagine what it would be like here if it was based, like the UK on interview as well as results! As it is there is a huge shift to private and semi private schools (almost all good schools are raising huge amounts from parents just to keep in the game). If one is realistic about it, in terms of overall quality of education as well as exam results, you get what you pay for. It might not be as bad as the US but we are well on the road.

    Still though there is that wonderful broad range of subjects its great to see him exercised by a passionate hatred of Evan Boland and a love for Heaney at the same time as he gets absorbed in fantastical technical drawings that are way beyond my comprehension while struggling through the drudgery of off by heart physics.

    While thinking about my early education and what I got from it I noticed Dervla quoting Louise Glück :
    We look at the world once, in childhood.
    The rest is memory.

    To that I say Bollocks, The day you don’t see something new or learn something new…
    OK there are many who are tired and cynical and don’t want to see an yea we see the world differently as adults. I like to think of this perspective of our memory of childs view of the world as put in the great poem by Dylan Thomas that I failed to comprehend in time for my Leaving, not that that stopped me answering on it 🙂 I hope I understand it now.


    A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

    Never until the mankind making
    Bird beast and flower
    Fathering and all humbling darkness
    Tells with silence the last light breaking
    And the still hour
    Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

    And I must enter again the round
    Zion of the water bead
    And the synagogue of the ear of corn
    Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
    Or sow my salt seed
    In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

    The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
    I shall not murder
    The mankind of her going with a grave truth
    Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
    With any further
    Elegy of innocence and youth.

    Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
    Robed in the long friends,
    The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
    Secret by the unmourning water
    Of the riding Thames.
    After the first death, there is no other.

    Dylan Thomas 1952


  13. Yeah, I remember spending more time trying to predict what questions would come up then I did with actual study.

    However, I predicted the majority of the Honours English questions (except I had little time to study possible answers…).

    Man, I really hated those exams…


  14. I don’t think college graduation is too late to give advice. No age is too late. For example, an 80 year old man recently told me that when you get really old, the key to health is your legs, because as long as you can walk well, you can still get exercise. Once your legs go, you’re in trouble. I bet there are a lot of 70 year olds who aren’t consciously aware of that.


  15. Paul, the giving part of advice is something too few of us grow out of ;-)–but I was more concerned with timing it so that people are at their most receptive.

    In my own experience, as brand-new graduates we had an arrogance (born of fear) that stopped us listening for a year or two–or five–until the corners got knocked off us. Especially on a day when all we wanted to do was party with our friends.

    Advice sought or found is better taken than advice offered. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking time to advise, because it can filter slowly through a life, like poetry learned off by heart at an age when we’re not interested. But it helps if the timing is unexpected, or if you seem to be taking seriously people who don’t usually get taken seriously.

    Thank you for your lovely essays. As I said earlier, they’ve meant a lot to me, and to many of my friends.


  16. Like your Indian correspondent (we’re coming from the round earth’s imagined corners here), there was a very similar rigid system in place in Australia until the mid-80s – too late for me alas.
    The damage this kind of study does to learning can be undone, but it takes a lot of time, the biggest problem for me is that I did not learn how to learn, that is how to THINK.

    Thanks to Strewelpeter for the Thomas poem, one I’m unfamiliar with. The only useful thing about rigid instruction is that it does assist people to learn poetry off… all they have to do in our country now is make poetry and Shakespeare compulsory and we’ll be laughing.


  17. Interesting to read about “the leaving”, dont you get graded while studying? Is it just this week that matters? We have some central exams, but of our 15 (!) subjects over 3 years in upper secondary school, only 5-6 of them are assessed/graded through central exams. I don’t know what is the best. I would certainly like my students work hard all the year, not just the weeks before a big exam.
    Friendly greetings from Leif in Norway


  18. Just that week matters, Leif, except for a couple of subjects like art and woodwork. Most schools have exams at Christmas and a full set of trial “pre-Leaving” exams in March. Believe me, the kids work hard all year long. They choose this system so that a small country gets tested in a standardized way. I’m interested–how does Norway make sure it’s fair when teachers grade their own students?

    (Richard Gabriel, in his introduction to the book “A Pattern Language”, has a horrific story of the teacher in his small town who made sure that Harvard cancelled Gabriel’s scholarship, out of spite. That couldn’t happen in Ireland, thank goodness–because it would, given a chance.)

    Genevieve, did Australia rely on essays to test? I’m fairly grateful that the Leaving did, because you couldn’t rely on recognizing a correct answer–you had to structure one. That helped a lot later.


  19. Dervala –

    I leave for Ireland late July. Will be staying one day/night in Dublin and then traveling along the Southeastern/wesstern border. Any sites that are must see’s?

    Thanks for your time.


  20. Hi Jessica,

    Good luck on your trip! I wish I were more expert on places to go, but it’s been fifteen years since I’ve lived there, and I didn’t travel as much as I should have. I did a whirlwind car trip a year and a half ago and it reminded me how geographically miniscule the place is–West Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo–they are all within a few hours of each other. So you can’t go wrong.

    I’d suggest you check out my friend John’s blog, Monasette. He drives around Ireland constantly and takes wonderful pictures. I think you’ll find a lot of trip inspiration there.


  21. Hello, finally got back to this thread – yes, Dervala, we had heaps and heaps of ’em, all in 3-hour exams, four essays apiece usually, and 100%assessment on the day (practice runs only during the year). If you did humanities, that is.

    Perhaps I’m a bit hard on my HSC (Higher School Certificate) system, the arrangement that came into being about four years later on involved sustained assessment and opportunities for more developed study projects which were considered fairly innovative in their day. And my kids are more structured writers than I was at their age, I think, because there is much insistence throughout high school now on putting in drafts for work which is later polished up. (I did have some awful English teachers in middle high school come to think of it.)

    I guess I was one of those lazy young things who got by on skill and showy stuff, and neglected to use the opportunity (which was there) to put in lots of practice essays. The shock I experienced in first year English Lit would have been lessened considerably by some self-imposed exposure to the time-honoured practice of drafting.


  22. Genevieve, I wonder how much of it has to do with Computers? I never drafted a thing until I left college and learned how to use PCs. In college I did at least make notes on index cards; at school, not even that. But now I edit endlessly.

    My writing is better for the drafting, but I’ve lost something that came from the highwire act of a single draft. I can’t stand the Bukowski bollocks that only unrefined art is authentic, but there was a certain skill–more like speechmaking–in trying to get it right the first time. More thinking in advance, maybe.


  23. Thanks, that does make me feel better. Although a few headings here and there wouldn’t have killed me at an earlier age either – I used to just jump in at school, then at Uni it was like blood from the proverbial.
    Computers are terrific for the polishing though.


  24. Great article. More than 30 years on I still get the Leaving Cert nightmare occasionally.
    At least these days I usually have my clothes on,which is an improvement.
    Sometimes I even revert into lucid dreaming mode and realise that I have a Master’s and don’t have to do this crap.
    I agree with the least bad bit, though. The teaching profession has too many fruitcakes to give me any faith in teacher’s assessments. Objectivity and rigour are not bad things for teens to have to face, either. (I have one kid starting the LC process in a month, so I amy revisit this.)
    Just glad I’m not doing them again.


  25. I did a terrible Leaving Certificate that still haunts me no matter how many letters I get after my name. My parents were so disappointed but I was determined to take whatever came up on the CAO list.
    I went to Tropics with the lads when the results came out, after drinking in the old McDaids (across the road from the new pub – it was tiny with church seats – remember?!) but had to head home early because I had work (for my dad) early next morning.

    College exms were so easy in comparison.


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