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Parenting 'I can still vividly remember the stress, tears and dread of my Leaving Cert'

Margaret Lynch shudders when she thinks of her own Leaving Cert experience.

I FEEL LIKE I re-live the Leaving Cert trauma all over again, every June. I saw a group of students nervously huddled together outside their school on my way to work yesterday morning, they had one textbook open between them, in what I imagine was a last-ditch attempt to absorb the words.

I can still vividly remember the stress, tears and absolute dread I had in the weeks leading up to my own exams.

Likewise, I had been dreading it since I first heard about it, and that wasn’t an accident. This exam is going to decide your future, this is where you set your path!

It’s a lot to put on the kids, isn’t it? To not only pick their entire career at this point but also put in the effort to get there. I was so overwhelmed by the stress of it all when I was in that phase that I found it hard to even think straight. By the time we got to the exam week, I was so exhausted and burned out that I worked myself into a state of not being able to do, or retain, anything.

I spent hours the night before the start of the exams with a box of cereal, separating the fruit from the fibre in a desperate effort to regulate my nervous system. Haven’t touched the stuff since.

Managing exam stress

If I was doing the exams again (and just to be clear, I would never put myself through that again), I would spend this time, at this point now where the exams have started, trying to manage stress and keep a level head. All the hard work is done, and now the goal is to just get through it. It is an exercise in stress management.

If I could go back and speak to my younger self, I would try to persuade her to stay calm (and put down the cereal box). I would tell her that she is about to take the scenic route for a couple of years, but that the end destination is going to be the same, because although right now she only has fragments of what she wants the big picture to look like, that she will eventually piece it all together.

And for all the students sitting the Leaving Cert this week, your resourcefulness and determination will ultimately be the deciders of your future, not an exam.

Some of my friends had been set on the one career option for years, without ever having any flicker of doubt, and others had applied for the Basket Weaving course on the Aran Islands for the sheer comedy factor. And over the past 20 years, we have all finished degrees, abandoned degrees, travelled, switched careers, re-trained, found love, lost love, grieved people close to us, made terrible decisions, worked jobs that we loved and jobs that we hated. (As a side note, I am absolutely horrified to realise it is 20 years since I did the Leaving Cert).

I know I got an A1 in Higher Level English, and a D3 in Ordinary Level Maths – this was the first maths exam I passed in my entire secondary school career. I couldn’t tell you what I got in any of my other subjects, but I didn’t get any of my CAO options. In hindsight, I didn’t actually want any of the courses, I just felt I had to go to college, but I was really overwhelmed by the thoughts of picking one thing, right now, to do every single day for the rest of my life.

The scenic route

I used the CAO Vacant Places to find a course and signed up for a Degree in Psychology, which I felt was a sufficiently vague and open topic. By the time I graduated, I was set on being a Counsellor, but was only 21 and needed to be 25 to start the Masters in that particular area. So I decided to go into Human Resources while I waited, as I had done a few modules as part of my degree and really enjoyed it.

After a year or so in HR, I decided to do a Masters in Human Resource Management. I missed the atmosphere of college. The Masters course was part-time over two years, two evenings a week. And then somewhere around here I lost the run of myself entirely and accidentally switched things to ‘ Extra Hard Mode’. I was 8.5 months pregnant handing in my final dissertation and the next few years were a little unhinged. My dad called it my ‘Terrible 22’s’.

Anyway, when I went back to work, I kind of fell into Hospitality, working within the HR Department. I wasn’t expecting to stay long-term in this sector, or even to like it as much as I did. When I was in school, Hospitality was never mentioned as a career option, which is a bit mad for a country famous for its warm welcomes!

When I thought about Hospitality, I would have just thought of the Front Reception Desk, or the Fawlty Towers-style Hotel Manager. I didn’t know about the variety of other roles within the sector, from Chefs to Events, Marketing, Accounts, Gym Instructors or Spa Therapists. I have seen so many students start work while they are still in school, work part-time through college and then join us in the department of their field of study.

I have seen other students decide not to go to college, and work through set career paths all the way from Kitchen Porter to Head Chef, or Waiting Staff to General Manager.

Working in Hospitality means working alongside individuals from a lot of other countries and backgrounds and across all age groups. It is such a diverse area, and I can honestly say that no two days are the same.

And because hotels are a 24/7 operation, I have found great flexibility and ability to manage a work/life balance.

Finding that career

One thing I always remind our younger staff about is that the hotel star rating system is a Global award. If they have two years of waitressing or receptionist experience in a 4- or 5-star hotel, they can transfer this skill with relative ease, to other 4 or 5 star properties across the world. There aren’t many other part-time jobs that can offer the same transitional skills.

So, what I say to my own kids, even though we are nowhere near Leaving Cert years (and please don’t remind me of this when I am in the thick of it) is to do your absolute very best in the lead up to the exams, because at this point in your life, you want to keep as many doors open as you can.

But if you don’t get your points, or your course, or your career, it will all be OK. You need to know how to fail in life just as much as you need to know how to succeed. You might end up in an area that you haven’t even heard of, or one that doesn’t exist yet. You can change jobs at any point in your future, you can switch careers and re-sit exams. And your future career might be the least interesting thing about you!

There are multiple paths through all of this, and the scenic route is far more interesting anyway.

Margaret Lynch is a working mum of two in Kildare. 

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