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Photo Credit: Irish Central

And finally we have arrived. Not only is it midsummer’s day but  . . . .

The last Leaving Certificate exam for our family (Religious Education) in 2019 is up this afternoon.

It seems like we have been living in a parallel universe for the last three weeks. In a strange world of extreme focus, where all things said and done matter and have an effect. Whilst it has been an intense and stressful experience, its also been a unifying and bonding experience. Our whole family has had to change some of the ways we function to accommodate the Leaving Cert. We adapted to a rhythm of being. Getting up early to get our student up early on exam days; him usually not getting up (!) – us trying to get him up again several times over the next hour, me holding in frustration until I realised that often he was actually revising in bed!

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The Leaving Cert Lunch

Each exam day required a Leaving Cert Lunch. This usually meant one of the other kids going down to the shops to buy the morning required supplies; fizzy San Pellegrino for the exam (label ripped off), box of strawberries, three Innocent smoothie bottles, Bag of carrots, Fulfil bars, croissants for breakfast, raspberries and a box of grapes. Maybe Pink Lady Apples and sesame sticks too!

Then if its a morning exam, herbal tea or coffee were dispensed depending on the mood, there would be a quick check that all that is required for that exam (calculator, pencils, watch, pens), are in the clear plastic bag and then head into the car at 820am equipped with rescue remedy and homeopathic remedies if required. Traffic has been delightfully minimal these last three weeks so I have particularly enjoyed sailing up the coast road to Booterstown and watching the sea, the tide and the rising sun. Arrive at school. Last check on everything. Watch? Water? Remedies? Feel OK? Yes? Goodbye!

If its an afternoon exam then there is the luxury of not having the tension of getting to the exam hall so early and during that first haze of waking. Instead, there is time for a bigger better breakfast, for a long luxurious shower or bath and for those last minute revisions. There is also the possibility of a light lunch. Then, we are off, back up the coast road.

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The Dropping off and collection rituals

Then there is the collection ritual. I have always tried to get there 20 minutes before the exam finishes just in case there is a minor disaster and he is coming out early in a state! Getting there early also means that you can park near the school entrance and they see you and all the familiarity that you bring the minute that they come out. Sometimes there is talk about how the exam went and sometimes there is no talk at all. Sometimes all you will be told is that, “I answered all the questions”.  If you answered all the questions you are in with a shout right?

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Relaxing as a family together – evening rituals

Then there is the evening rituals. In the late evening when I would rather be in bed, I have waited up for my son to finish his revision for the night and we have watched a short Netflix offering; usually “Big Bang Theory”, “Friends” or “How I met Your Mother”. Again, all familiar, many times viewed episodes, spinning a web of comfort and support. There are requests for special foods; fish and chips from Mespil Rd, sometimes fried noodles, sometimes pizza but always bagels with nut butters!

Leaving Cert Rituals apart I have also learned a lot about my son. I have learned how different he is from me; and that is part of the mothering process of letting go. The Leaving Cert is interesting in the sense that it is a rite of passage in the journey of growing up and becoming your own person, but also it is a time when as a parent you see your student requires a lot of support. That support to the outside person may seem inconsequential or minimal, but actually its huge. Being there, just being there and holding the space, no matter how uncomfortable it can be at times is what gives your student a sense of normality, of feeling OK, of not being alone in this, of being loved and of knowing their  family accepts them and is there for them no matter what.

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Being a doula helps

I feel I am lucky in this regard as my 16 years of working as a doula and supporting women in birth has helped me jut BE THERE. As a doula I am there no matter what, I am supporting a birthing person no matter what, I am the rock for them no matter what, and when all else might seem to be falling apart I am standing solid and strong for them.

Speaking of births, I attended FOUR births as a doula during this exam period! One homebirth, one birth in the Coombe, one birth in the Rotunda and one birth in Holles St. The universe was kind to all the mammas and to me; none of the babies arrived on the day of an exam, two of the babies arrived on a weekend and one just after the Bank Holiday, and that brings me to trust.

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Trusting the Universe

Supporting my son has brought me face to face with my own trust in the universe; to trust that all will be well, to trust that my son is anchored to the wisdom of the universe, to trust that no matter what happens in this episode of his life all will evolve perfectly just as it needs to. It can be hard sometimes not to get drawn into the very mundane issues of points and grades and what the school’s expectations and opinions of students are, but ultimately whilst these are important for the school and for CAO entry, they are no judge of what is real and important in a person.

They need to be parked where they belong, at the doorstep of whom they matter most to, and that is the teachers and the school, for whom the value of the very hard work of preparing students for the Leaving Cert over two years can only be measured in exam success and exam points. In the long game of a life well lived however they are ephemeral considerations.

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The Leaving Cert affects the whole family

Before my son started doing the Leaving Cert people said to me “Whooooaaaa, its not just the student that goes through the Leaving Cert its the whole family” including the other children. I thought that was plain ridiculous, but its true! It does affect the other family members; the time you have available for the other members of your family is more limited, the things you can do are more limited in that your primary focus as a mother is being there for your LC student. Also even the family routines are changed; dinners and lunches can happen at different times, younger children have to be quieter in the evenings and during study and revision times and may not get their choices in terms of family movies and other activities. I don’t worry too much about that as each of my children have peak parenting times when they need more more attention than other children, and I have told them and reminded them about those times. I also see it as an education for the younger children to see what lies ahead of them!

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Other parents; other journeys

What is hard to manage sometimes are those parents around you who have very high achieving children. I might be unique in this regard, but possibly not. All my close friends whose children are doing the leaving Cert this year have high achievers, many of them have children who are aiming for Medicine and who have worked incredibly hard and who are incredibly driven. I hope that they get the points and courses they want and have worked for.

Then there are  the other children who are incredibly bright and also incredibly pragmatic about the Leaving Cert and who have decided that they want maximum points for their capacity. Sure why not! However, its meant I have felt a little removed from my normal supportive peer group as my son fits none of those boxes; he is not trying for Medicine, he is not going to achieve his intellectual potential, he is not driven, he is not trying to maximise the points he is able to achieve; he is just ambling along doing what feels best for him.

So in some respects I have found it a bit of an isolating experience; same as when I was the only person in my peer group to plan a home birth, or the only one to be home schooling or the only one to breastfeed beyond 3 months! I am assuming that this is going to pop up again when all my friends’ kids receive their certificates with millions of points! I ll be making no proclamations on social media about leaving cert results and points I can assure you!

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Who is well adjusted?

The implication we are all sold is that good Leaving Cert points equals good well adjusted youngsters who work and play hard, who are everything that society venerates, everything that society wants expects and respects. Parents of these children are encouraged to feel proud and there is an implication that their parenting has produced such successful model citizens; the counter implication is that if the opposite happens something went wrong; and maybe YOU, the parent is RESPONSIBLE! I have certainly struggled with that demon in my low moments, but mostly I have defeated it, knowing that my parenting was the best that I could have given. To support me, I have had to find an alternative tribe; and I am so grateful to those people who were there for me in allowing my son to just be who he is and not to fret or worry about lack of application, lack of study and lack of ambition in the Leaving Cert.

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Exams: the way I would do them!

Part of the difficultly in parenting through the Leaving Cert is that you have your personal reference point of how you managed final school exams and you look to that as a source of information and guidance. I personally didn’t sit the Leaving Cert (THANK GOD), I sat three A Levels, two A/O levels and one S level. After a pretty short time I realised that my reference point was not a good ground zero for my son! I was very pragmatic, very analytical, very organised and very very well prepared. Typical academic girl in fact. I also worked very very hard. I remember my English teacher saying to me once I had achieved my A grade in English A level that she was so surprised that I had managed it; that from now on she would simply say to her students that hard work could see you to an A. Talk about damming with faint praise! Nonetheless, she was right, I worked very hard.

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A more laid back approach to the Leaving Cert

Now my son on the other hand had a very different approach. There was lots of relaxing, lots of cramming, lots of putting things off to the last minute, lots of Netflix . . . . Needless to say I found all of that quite challenging! I found it very hard to not comment. I also found it very hard that I couldn’t offer any revision advice or support, or any structural advice or support. I used to set university exams and mark them and I know what is required, I know how to support young people in taking their exams and in achieving their best within them. It was hard not to be able to offer this support to my son. It was also hard as someone who lectured around the world in Geography and Environmental Science not to be able to support him in one iota of his Geography LC. Similar could be said for my husband who is fluent in Spanish and had not one conversation in Spanish with our son before his Spanish Leaving Cert!

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A creative child and the Leaving Cert

So I had to sit with that and allow my son to be his own man and to grow in this ritualistic Leaving Cert experience. I learnt a lot about him, and about who and what he is. It was really hardcore parenting though! He is a very creative person, and The Irish Leaving Cert doesn’t suit creative people. It suits a different mentality. What do I mean by creative people and their suitability? Well for example in the Art Exam they were heavily prepared for a question on Leonardo Da Vinci. The said question came up, but my son said he really couldn’t bring himself to answer that dry passionless essay that they had repeatedly learnt. Instead he decided to answer on Cubism! No LC aficionado would ever give up a prepared question! I can assure you that was not the only example of that kind of on the spot decision making! Furthermore, I have also learnt that creative critiquers don’t sit in the middle of the circle. How can you see the other side over the boundary if you are in the middle of the circle? How can you push the proverbial envelope or the circle boundary if you are enclosed in the middle? Creative critiquers don’t really give too much of a toss about what everyone else is thinking and what society thinks of them. They are their own people, and they do their own thing, and if on occasion they travel in tandem with societal mores, then so be it, but otherwise parents you have to grin and bear those conformist conversations from others around you, or you just dye your hair red put on your docs and join in!

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Saying goodbye to the Leaving Cert

So we are getting ready now to head to the last exam. I am getting ready to say goodbye and good riddance to the Leaving Cert, you’ve darkened my door but you’ve taught me a lot! More than anything you have taught me so much about my son and my parenting, you’ve enabled me to have this last opportunity to selflessly be there and give to my child and you’ve enabled me to remember times like this before; those early days of parenting when everything seems new and untenable, hard and amazing. Ultimately you’ve shown me a whole new aspect to parenting that resembled a journey, a rite of passage, taken me to a new level of acceptance of my child and you’ve prepared me to accept him more for who he is and to let him go with more confidence.

Isn’t that what so much of the later stages of parenting is about? The conflict of when to intervene, when to stand back, when to help and when to let go? The conflict of wanting to save your child from pain and suffering and discomfort and yet knowing that life lessons are only fully learnt when these emotions come into play?

Exams Sat: 10. Exams Left to Sit:1

Subjects Completed: 7. Subjects left: 1

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