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.