In the house we lived in then, you had to go round a corner from the long, cold hall to get from the front door to the kitchen, and that’s where the phone was. It was a modern phone then, with push-buttons instead of a rotating finger wheel. A long coiled cord connected the mouthpiece to the phone, and was intensely comforting to fiddle with during long intense conversations like the one I had with my best friend the evening before the Leaving Cert results came out.
She had a conditional offer from Oxford, so she would know the next day about her college place. The offer set out the marks necessary and if she got them, her future was mapped out. I wouldn’t know till the following week what my university offer would be.
My first choice was English, then English with a series of languages, then various other options until right at the bottom where I had specified Latin and Russian in Trinity. When we filled out the CAO in school, I knew that whatever I did, I didn’t want to repeat. The points for Latin and Russian were pretty low, so that was in tenth place as my safety net.
I collected my results from school; I didn’t want to hear them over the phone. On the way up the steps to the front door of the school I passed a girl sitting in tears talking to the guidance counsellor. A boy sat on the couch opposite the office, his envelope still closed. My biology teacher was there with the school secretary, beaming at me. I had almost failed the biology mock; I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him.
I walked further into the school to open my results; there seemed nowhere I could be alone to read them. They were printed on a little yellow slip in Irish but I was exempt from Irish, and at first glance I had no idea which subject was which. I focused, then figured out some of them and worked out the others. My mental arithmetic back then was better than it is now: I knew by heart how many points each grade represented and quickly totted them up. I was reasonably happy: I had enough for pure English according to the previous year’s points.
The next week the offers came in the post. I woke very early; that night was worse than the night before the results. I got my second choice: English and Spanish. I missed pure English by five points. I moped. I moaned. I listened to advice. Most people gave me many reasons this was a good thing. A week later, the second round offers brought pure English but by then I had allowed myself to be convinced, and even content.
Years later, I am lucky. I know it was the right choice: the two subjects complemented each other in university, making study a pleasure. I lived in Spain after college and visit the country often. I teach a subject I love every day.
The day of the Leaving Cert results is imprinted on the memory of people around the country, as it will be on yours after Wednesday. Unfortunately, on Wednesday, some of you will be disappointed and will have to sit down and reconsider your plans. The thing to remember is that there are lots of options. Although you want to be the person who runs whooping from the school reception waving your results gleefully in your hand, that’s not necessarily how it’s going to be, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’ve met past pupils who got the course of their dreams, then dropped it when they realised it was no longer what they wanted. Others changed course midway through college. Some of you will, tomorrow, have to think about repeating, or doing a course that you only put down as insurance against the worst.
The important thing is to talk: to your guidance counsellor and your teachers (many of whom will be in school to find out results as anxiously as any parent), to your family and to your friends. Perhaps a recheck in a subject is a good idea. Think about your options and remember that you don’t know where the future will take you. Lots of you will work in jobs that haven’t even been invented yet; some of you will travel before you decide what to do with your lives. There are many courses and jobs that take your life experience and expertise into account, so if you don’t get your top choice next week and decide to take some time out, that too will stand to you.
There will be other tense and nerve-wracking experiences in your lives, but Tuesday evening will be one of the first of such nights for many of you. It will remain etched in your brain for years to come, so that you join in the general wave of good feeling that there is towards Leaving Certificate students from the entire country the evening before the results come out. The whole country is behind you, and thinking of you and wishing you the best as you take the next step into your futures. May they be bright and happy futures, no matter how many and what different paths you take to get there.
For my own class of 2015, a group (nearly all of whom) I taught since they entered the school in 2009, I am particularly grateful for the last six years of laughter and learning. You and your peers – students so rarely realise this – will be missed.