PAUL HOPKINS: Life in the time of coronavirus: Let’s not over-egg the Leaving Cert
In January 1969 the Beatles made their last public appearance when they performed on the roof of the Apple building, and the 25th anniversary of the D-Day landings was a couple of days away. So too was the first landing on the Moon, Neil Armstrong’s one small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind.
Still to come was the celebration that was billed as the musical event of the summer, a chance to remember a defining moment of the Hippie counterculture movement that took place in a field in upstate New York half a century ago. And immortalised in the song Woodstock by the Canadian Joni Mitchell.
Before the summer was out news of the Tate murders would reverberate halfway around the world. The murders were a mass killing executed by members of the Manson Family, a loose gathering of dropouts, heavily medicated on psychedelic drugs, which, on the night of my 17th birthday that summer, claimed the lives of five people. Charles Manson and three others invaded the rented home of actress Sharon Tate and husband, director Roman Polanski in Los Angeles. They murdered Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant, along with four others who were visiting at the time.
That summer De Valera would send a presidential message of congrats on the Moon landing to President Richard Nixon, Cork’s own Jack Lynch and Fianna Fail were returned to power, and the Troubles in the North were escalating beyond imagination. The price of pint was three shillings and one penny (15 cent in today’s money), a house in Dublin’s Balls-bridge sold for 12,670 old pounds and the average weekly wage was €280 in today’s money.
I was dallying with the Zen Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts and the novelist Flann O’Brien, was a diehard Dylan and The Doors devotee. And that summer I was about to sit the dreaded Leaving Cert. Back then it was compulsory to sit the Irish exam and I, in fact, sat all my six subjects, bar English, through that medium, which gained me extra marks.
In recent years there have been some overhauls in the State exam, with not having to sit the Irish paper, bereaved students allowed postpone to another date, and an overhaul of the appeals system which down the years saw countless students miss a college place due to hearing delays.
It still all boils down to cramming and to success or failure. And the pressure. And now the impact of the coronavirus which sees the exam for some 60,000 students effectively cancelled. Following a decision at Cabinet, all students are to being offered the option of receiving ‘calculated grades’ for the subjects they were studying and the alternative of sitting the 2020 Leaving Certificate at a date in the future when it is considered safe to hold the examinations.
Back in that somewhat idyllic summer of my Leaving, while I felt pressured and ill-prepared, having not ‘swotted’ enough, there was no such thing as points or the CAO. It was simply honours, A, B or C, pass, D, or fail, an E or F. But neither was there the opportunity to repeat, nor the myriad post Leaving Cert courses readily available now. Now, too, a place in Third level education is open to a greater percentage of young people and not at the once exorbitant fees.
Still, there is no doubting the pressure on young shoulders to perform well.
In the coming years of their lives, hopefully, there will be a place for all of our young people regardless of their Leaving Cert outcome. And, again, the students who emerge with the best results won’t necessarily be the most successful or even the happiest in life.
I can attest now that we definitely don’t learn in school or college all we need to know to get through life, so let’s not over-egg the Leaving Cert. I just about scraped through, went on to do a science degree but ended up in the now-so-utterly changed world of newspapers and discovered that, if you find a job that you enjoy, you’ll never work a day in your life.
Reading Alan Watts back then, he once said that we see happiness as always depending on something expected in the future, instead of being happy in the now. This is fostered during our school years and is something that becomes an undeniable fabric of the way we live and think our whole lives. We’re constantly moving forward to some goal that’s just out of reach.
That said, to all of those students affected by the Covid-19 scenario I wish them well. But, trust me, it is not the end of the world. There’s always a Plan B…