JJ Lee gives his experience of undergoing the huge pressure of the Leaving Cert a second time.
The first time I sat my Leaving Certificate, the end result was catastrophic. I was always a good student, always had good grades, always performed well in exams and was expected to do well in the LC. However, that didn’t happen. To say the pressure got to me was an understatement; I crumbled faster than a digestive biscuit in a mug of tea. The entire school year I was plagued by doubts, the question I kept asking myself was “What if” – what if I don’t pass my Maths paper, what if I don’t get at least a B1 in History, what if I run out of time during English P2. These questions would go on to define my first experience of the state exam, and inevitably, it didn’t turn out well.
I remember vividly the week preceding the exams. I was stressed, anxious and frightened. I couldn’t sleep, eat properly or escape the gnawing sense that this would be the most disastrous experience of my life. But on the outside I was calm and collected; I had to show face. The sense of relief when the two weeks finished was immense; not that I had done well, just that it was over.
August rolled around, results came out. Mine were shocking, but I knew they would be. Ultimately CAO offers came in and I didn’t get a place. I had a decision to make. I either panic and make a hasty decision regarding my future or I repeat. I chose the latter. I watched in September as all of my friends moved from home and onto college as I sat in my room and observed the Facebook posts & Snapchats of their exciting new lives. I should have been there with them, but I wasn’t. I was isolated and marooned in North Kerry.
Unlike others, I did not repeat in a paid, private institute where the sole aim is to ensure you get 450+ points. I repeated in the same school. To say it was tough was an understatement; to put that uniform back on after thinking you’d left it behind, to walk through the doors knowing you’re the odd one out, knowing that you are once again at the mercy of this unrelenting machine that is the State Exam. I remember the look of shock on my English teacher’s face as I showed up for class on the first day. Most of my teachers gave me that reaction: “What are you doing here?” they’d ask, jaws hanging, eyes wide. Every time I heard that question I simply wanted the ground to swallow me up. It was a constant reminder of my short comings.
The months passed, I kept to myself and just tried to focus on my work. The most difficult part was trying to keep level headed. Some days would be incredibly low, the “what if” questions would raise their vitriolic heads once again but the repercussions seemed even bigger this time. Keeping those self-doubts at bay was vital, I couldn’t allow them to engulf me a second time.
I was always a confident person, but the Leaving Cert floored me. I had no real degree of self-belief. An incident from my Junior Cert days haunted me; my 3rd year Maths teacher told me I would never amount to anything due to my inability to perform algebraic fractions. Nearly 3 years on from that infringement, it still replayed in my head. I used it almost as motivational tool by the end, it drove me on to ensure I would do well, just so it could be interpreted as a giant “F**k you” to that teacher. Spiteful I know.
June came, the exams ultimately went very well. The fear of the unknown, that was so crippling previously, had vanished, I kept myself calm and learned a lot about myself in the process. My parents, friends and teachers were instrumental in encouraging me that I wasn’t going through this alone. I appreciated that, and more importantly I needed it.
The Leaving Cert is a vicious beast, it’s ruthless, and it’s unforgiving. It doesn’t care how well you’ve performed throughout the year and it’s uninterested in how intelligent you actually are. My words of wisdom are simple – Be open and honest with your friends and family and if you’re struggling, tell someone. Don’t bottle it up. It will not help, it will tear you down. Take every piece of help you can get.
This exam does not define you. At times it will feel like it does, it will attempt to engulf every part of your life but it’s important to have an escape. Ultimately, if you put the hard hours in you will be rewarded. You can do this.