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Column: ‘I fear failing expectations’ – how the Leaving Cert results wait feels

Shelley Stafford describes the strange sensation of being in limbo, counting the days until that fateful envelope arrives.

Shelley Stafford

Tomorrow, 57,000 students will receive their Leaving Cert results. Shelley Stafford is one of them. Here she describes how it feels.

I MEASURE  life in Wednesdays. An unusual little habit, I’m sure, but one I firmly believe I’m not alone in. At present, I suspect that the vast majority of the 57,000 Leaving Certificate students awaiting results might admit to sharing my unconventional calendar.

In only a matter of days, the eyes and expectations of the nation will fall once again upon our shoulders. The concept of results has haunted us from the very moment we sealed shut our last answer booklet. Ever since then, it has been a constant visitor in our day-to-day thoughts, occupying more and more of our headspace with each passing Wednesday.

Now, we’re standing in the looming shadow of the sheet of paper that will determine our immediate fate – what course we’ll get, what college we’ll go to and whether or not we might have to repeat. Its long-reaching arms sink deep into our consciousness, agitating our dreams and perpetrating nervous nightmares. (Tell me I’m not the only one who has dreamt about being trapped in a gargantuan brown envelope.) We will be the subject of the country’s fleeting obsession – newspaper headlines, radio debates and over-the-counter chit chat will all centre around us. Every student’s individual sweeping of letters and numbers will cumulate to form this years’ pointillistic Leaving Cert masterpiece. (Or minefield, depending on which way you look at it.)

Don’t think for even a moment that this sudden gush of attention doesn’t weigh heavily upon our weary hearts. Inevitably, there are people who’ll bask and shimmer in the glow of the momentary spot-light, who feel important, and encouraged as a facet of their lives is discussed at length by the entire population. Then there’s the likes of me, who wince and feel personally affrighted every time the dreaded “LC” words rear their head in wider conversation or in the media. Our achievements and our grades will be categorised and show-cased as varying degrees of appalling failure or blinding success. But statistics, as we learnt this year as part of the new Project Maths course, are pesky little divils who cannot, and must not be trusted entirely.

Paper thunder

But let’s backtrack a bit. I remember vividly the first Wednesday I adorned with the honour of being the ending/beginning of my week. Two weeks before D-Day, on the day I graduated from secondary school. It struck me quite suddenly then that weekends, and Mondays were quite, quite irrelevant when the summer was rolled out in front of me – my mid-week stepping stones leading the way to my future.

The exams themselves stretched across three weeks, languishing and hesitant to pass too quickly. For all the lead up, the mounds of exam advice and exam strategy, rarely does anyone comment on what it actually feels like to be sitting in that exam hall. The tick-tick-tick of beating clocks and watches. The hollow thud of ball-point pens on cold tables and, when Pleaney* didn’t come up in English Paper 2, the anguished sobs and disgruntled sighs amidst the frantic paper thunder as students ferociously combed through the pink pages.

Exhaustion and immense, all-encompassing and overwhelming pressure saturated the atmosphere, and sparked a sudden spike in the sales of chocolate bars and isotonic drinks in shops surrounding examination centres. (If I get as many points as I ate squares of chocolate during the Leaving Cert, I shall be a very happy lady.) Eventually, the Leaving Cert tossed our expended heads asunder and handed our hard work to the hoards of red and green pen fanatics – The Examiners. (Any group of people with the ability to inflict such terror into the hearts of its subjects deserves capital letters, surely?)

Fear of failing

We are now caught in a bizarre kind of limbo, walking slowly down the centre of each week. Nerves gradually mount in the corner of our minds as we live our lives away from the books that were our companions and acquaintances for two years, the occasional shudder creeping down our spines as the seal on our answer booklets were ripped open. But mostly, we’ve just been trying to get on with things. Celebrate a little bit after all the stress, try to scrape together a few euros and ponder how we’ll actually be able to fund college, if we manage to get in. We’ve been caught up in a strange little world where the days drag out to infinity and weeks pass in a heartbeat. Our final, momentous Wednesday is fast approaching.

What exactly comes after this in-between summer, in which the middle of the week is the most important? I’m not sure. None of us can be 100 per cent certain at this point. I’m wary of casting my mind much farther out than August 15. Fearful, really, if I’m being honest with myself. Who’s to say that dreaming too big and hoping too hard at this point wouldn’t be just the foundation for disappointment?

What’s most agonising, for me in any case, is the thought, and the fear of failing other people’s expectations. Falling short of your goals, the conformation of slipping at the final hurdle – these are the thoughts that form a mental barricade only a Wednesday away from here.

A2 Sister

I know the Leaving Certificate isn’t the be-all and end-all of your education, even if, sometimes, that’s the way it likes to flaunt itself. I’m assured, over and over, that by the time the offers are done and dusted the results will be completely forgotten. These results do not define you as a person. You will never ever be classified as an A2 Sister, or a B3 Son. I think maybe that’s the most important thing to remember when you’re handed that fated envelope.

And so here we are, tantalisingly close to the end of my quirky calendar year. Twelve weeks of Wednesdays, that’s all it is in reality. We’ve almost made it through the whole Leaving Cert, from beginning to end. There were nerves, tears, tantrums, laughter, screams and almost every emotion under the sun.

But if there’s one thing, one solitary complaint that I harbour about the Leaving Cert and all its assorted controversy and media madness, let it be this: we are taught, our whole lives, not to compare ourselves to other people. We learn from the time we can first write our own names to ‘strive to be the best version of yourself that you can be’. Yet the basis of the most colossal written examination we ever take undermines this fundamental life lesson. The bell-curve results system that we’re all going to be slotted into works entirely on comparison, it doesn’t have any room under its umbrella to measure your individuality.

I don’t know about anyone else, but that just seems a little bit off to me. It’s too late for me and my 57,000 peers at this stage. Oh, and don’t ask me how to fix it. I’m far too busy counting my Wednesdays.

Shelley Stafford will be getting her Leaving Cert results tomorrow.

*Pleaney = Plath and Heaney

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Shelley Stafford

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