Leaving Cert exams

They call it the Leaving Certificate. It’s the name given to the high school graduating test in Ireland, and your results in it will determine where – or if – you go to college.

Ireland doesn’t continually assess you based on schoolwork throughout the year like American high schools. Instead the only assessment that really counts is the exam you take toward the close of your high school career.

You have to get it right. It’s catastrophic if you fail. Your future depends on it.

Every student in Ireland does it, remembers it, and is glad to be shot of it.

I bring it up now because the name of that exam always struck me as prescient -- the Leaving Certificate.

Most of my teachers didn’t share our anxieties about it. Some of them preferred to set us class assignments so they could settle in to read The Irish Times. We lived in a sleepy little town in the far north, so not much was expected of us I suppose.

But we the students were electrified by the thought of it. The call of the future was alive in us.
We had all made elaborate plans to escape the drudgery and boredom of our birthplace. We would see the bright lights and the big cities, and soon.

I can still vividly remember two things about the day I picked up my Leaving Certificate results. The first thing I remember is that I wasn’t bothered the results weren’t good.
Read more:
New Irish president impresses major Irish Americans

Chinese are coming and building one of the biggest developments in Ireland
I had expected poor results.  I hadn’t been interested in most of the assigned course work or – to be honest – in most of the teachers who taught them.

The thing I remember even more clearly is the animated faces of my classmates who looked thrilled or dejected, gripping the official paper that would decide what they did next.

There was a lot of excitement and talk that day, I remember. There was laughter too, and one or two gorgeous whoops of sheer delight.

It was what happened the day after the Leaving Certificate results were delivered that haunts me. Friends stopped calling. They were suddenly too busy preparing for their new lives in college to spare the time.

Other friends were making sudden plans to emigrate, exactly as if they were migratory birds obeying an inner seasonal clock. It would be unthinkable, they told me, to stay.

Stay for what? Sure what was there round here but some nice scenery and your ma and da? How could you build a life around that, eh?

It was the ones who hadn’t done well in the test who had the sharpest desire to be on their way, I discovered. Perhaps they felt their window would close sooner, or perhaps they were escaping the stigma, or perhaps both.

I was protected, I see now, by a certain financial freedom that gave me some options that they didn’t share. I could take my time, and for a host of reasons I decided to. But I had not realized I would be doing this on my own.

By September they were all gone. Every single vivid face I had known throughout my adolescence, now they were at college or even further afield. The dance hall thinned out on Fridays, the herd had been culled.

And there might not be much to be said about that, and it might not be remarkable at all, if at least some of them had returned later. But they never did.

I didn’t see them again for a decade, until our first school reunion, and by then we were all someone else, and we had had all moved abroad and on with our lives.

It’s funny, I didn’t necessarily even like a lot of them, but I felt the loss. Something was being lost. Something profound was being sundered and no one was saying a word about it.

When I walked the streets of my forgotten little town in the far north a month after the Leaving Certificate it felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone. Every face I took for granted was gone.

Sometimes in the weeks after I'd meet their parents and they’d ask me why I was still around. We were expected to leave, we had been raised to leave, we had been stamped for export, they even called it the Leaving Certificate, and if we didn’t leave there must be something wrong.

Even some parents seemed to wonder why you’d consider it. And when I’d ask them why I had to leave they couldn’t answer me.