In the wake of a spate of newspaper articles heralding those who aced the Leaving Cert, we should not forget those who just did OK are in the majority, writes Clodagh Finn
THAT day still haunts us: my best friend and I picked up our Leaving Cert results and felt the dull thud of something that was pitiable even then – we were irrevocably average and now we had the grades to prove it.
We kept schtum, of course, because nobody wanted to hear from a pair of underperforming school-leavers who had done “all right, really” in what continues to be an overhyped and overvalued indicator of human intelligence or worse, human worth.
The only thing to be grateful for was the slight consolation that the hideous word ‘meh’ had not yet been invented. If it had, we would surely have felt the need to utter it and, in doing so, sunk further into the maw of dejection.
Then as now, it was seen as a kind of failure to find yourself in the non-descript middle. To be mediocre and run-of-the-mill in a world of extremes is the worst kind of social death.
Somehow, the fact that this year’s results came out during the Olympic Games made things that little bit worse. The newspapers were full of the tremendous achievements of those who got a string of A1s – the Usain Bolts and Katie Ledeckys, if you will – but what about the rest of us who crashed out in the first round, or limped home mid-field?
The focus this week should really be on any of 60,000 students who felt the sting of disappointment when they got their results – and I imagine there were quite a few.
Every year, I want to say to them that things get better; that life is more than the Leaving Cert; that flashes of brilliance will come but not in the places you expect them; that life is far more various than we can ever imagine.
Having said that, I still have those Leaving Cert nightmares; the ones where I find myself sitting in an exam hall during a history/Irish/chemistry exam but fail to summon up a single sentence. The continuing overemphasis on that single exam shapes what performance anxiety looks like for a generation of Irish people.
Is it going to be any different for the class of 2016?
I sincerely hope so, though the rush to hail the high-achievers and the tortured discussion of the minutiae of the points system suggests otherwise. If anything, the pressure seems to be mounting.
It’s hard to tell an 18-year-old that, for the most part, things work out because the problem with hindsight is that it comes only after the event.
However, if I had my time over again, there are a few words of wisdom that would have helped me – and so many others – muddle their way through the middle ground.
Maybe it’s time to introduce a new module on the Leaving Cert syllabus called ‘Average is not a dirty word’. Nobody can be exceptional all of the time. By its very definition, exceptional refers to what, the top five percent?
What’s the point of intimidating the 95 percent who are doing a good-enough job into a state of high anxiety because they feel they should be doing an exceptional one? If everything is excellent – and there’s a ridiculous expectation that it should be – it becomes utterly meaningless.
This isn’t an incitement to under-achieve, just an attempt to open up the conversation around exam performance.
On that Leaving Cert module, I’d also suggest students read what JK Rowling had to say about the fringe benefits of failure in a truly inspiring commencement address (available online) to the graduates at Harvard University in 2008.
In it, the global bestseller talks not about being average but actually failing “on an epic scale”, as she put it, seven years after her graduation.
“An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” she recalled during the most-viewed speech on the Harvard website.
“Personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two.” Most people won’t convert their ‘failures’ into the phenomenal success experienced by the woman who has given us Harry Potter magic. All the same, her words console.
Something else that may be of great consolation to this year’s Leaving Certs is the content of a wonderful exhibition that ran at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin two years ago.
Fail Better featured a collection of 20 objects that represented “beautiful, spectacular and instructive failures” for 20 people.
Among them, inventor James Dyson revealed that he developed a staggering 5,127 prototypes before he finally came up with the successful Dyson.
There were many other ‘fail tales’, including comments from Sonia O’Sullivan after her disappointing performance at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and how Flann O’Brien coped when publishers turned down his second novel The Third Policeman.
The writer couldn’t face Dublin opinion, so he put it about that the manuscript had been blown out of the boot of his car, page by page, on a long trip to Donegal. Booker Prize winner Anne Enright recounts the story with the postscript that the book was published a year after his death to great acclaim.
“Time,” she writes, “is a great wind that blows our words into a future we cannot know.” The exhibition, which got its name from Samuel Beckett’s famous line “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, should be put on the road and sent to every school in the country.
If even one student sees it and thinks that ‘average’ isn’t so bad after all, well, that’s good enough for me.
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