I can’t remember the Leaving Cert. Well, maybe that’s not entirely accurate. I certainly remember the struggle I had, during those months across 1991 and 1992, trying to balance the wonderful new world of cool music, girls, imminent ‘freedom’ and increased self-awareness, with the demands of studying for a set of exams, the results of which could determine my future. (At least, that’s what all the teachers told me.)
It’s an odd sort of conflict: just when you begin to realise there is so much more to life, and your real self is becoming more clearly defined, you’ve to sit down and revise a bunch of Shakespearean sonnets or conjugate a load of French verbs. What a nuisance!
I remember aspects of that academic year. Of course I still have quotes from Hamlet knocking about my head. I can still identify the three stages of a river and could probably draw some diagrams to back them up. If given maybe an hour or two, I’m quite sure I could solve a quadratic equation. Perhaps the things I remember most from the Leaving Cert year, academically speaking, were absorbed from rote learning. However, other memories concern lessons learned in life. I learned a lot about myself. The experiences I had during that year, coinciding with the Leaving Cert, were possibly more significant to my development than knowing why the Americans entered World War One or what Peig had for her breakfast.
We had mock interviews at the school. These were set up to give us a taste of what life was like in the real world. We had to sit before a panel of stern-faced grown-ups and acquit ourselves accordingly. Looking back, they were a great idea. Yet I somehow managed to make an utter dog’s dinner of mine.
It was a few months before the exams and, naturally enough, the focus was on slagging each other off as we sat there in our ill-fitting suits. Suddenly it was my turn. I went into the room and sat down, as confident as anyone could be. I had it all sorted. Wasn’t I the manager of the school band and ran the tuck shop? I had a girlfriend and I worked in the local cinema. These old fogies would soon realise that I was quite the mover and the shaker. It’ll be a breeze, I assured myself.
‘What career do you see yourself in after school?’ was the first question.
‘Journalism,’ I replied. I was good at English; it was probably my strongest subject. I’d decided it was inconceivable that I wouldn’t be a journalist, provided the whole impresario thing didn’t work out, or the moving and the shaking.
‘What newspapers do you read?’ they asked.
I listed off a few newspapers I’d seen my parents reading.
‘And who’s your favourite journalist?’ was the next question.
Ah. They’d got me. I literally had no response. I was bluffing. I couldn’t even name one journalist, not one. I’m still a bit mortified recalling this. I had such a busy life during Leaving Cert year – organising gigs, hanging out aimlessly in the chipper with the lads, cycling to my girlfriend’s house, making mixtapes of the latest indie bands – that I never actually got around to reading newspapers.
It was such a basic and fundamental requisite of aiming for a career in journalism – reading and being familiar with journalists – and I wasn’t able to provide an answer. I couldn’t get out of the room quick enough. One of them, showing considerable compassion, gently advised that I should read more newspapers if I wanted to write for one.
I learned a lot from that experience. It taught me not to be so cock-sure about everything. It made me realise that I wasn’t the centre of the universe and that I now, or would very soon, have this thing called ‘responsibility’. It was a very rare moment of clarity – during a year of self-indulgent blurriness – in which I learned that I actually needed to cop on and get my act together. It was humbling. Ultimately it gave me the kick up the backside that I needed.
The Leaving Cert year wasn’t just about learning from textbooks, it was a crash-course in learning about life and about dealing with people and about prioritising the things that are important and relevant. Now, many years later, I still don’t regard myself as a journalist in the strict sense of the word. I’m a columnist and a features writer and a blogger. The important thing is my written words are published. It has taken many, many hours of hard work, and perhaps a ‘scenic route’ to get to where I am, but nonetheless I’d love to go back in front of that mock interview panel today and chat to them. I’d thank them, firstly, for scrutinising my career ambition all those years ago. Secondly I’d be thrilled to show them I did finally make it, in a manner of speaking. Lastly, I’d invite them to a gig I’ve organised this weekend. It’s a really cool new band. Well, not quite new; we were all in the same Leaving Cert year.
The classroom lessons are very important, but be sure not to ignore the lessons of life.