Reflections On . . . Being a Leaving Cert Student in 2020

By Alannah O’Sullivan

Updated / Thursday, 14 January 2021 11:07

In the spring of 2020, I had just celebrated my 17th birthday with my parents and grandparents. This was one of the most stressful years of my life, but it was also a time when regular visits with my grandmother became a welcomed routine. We would sit down, have a cup of tea, and talk about what was bothering me and about how I was coping with my stress. During this time, I was preparing for the mock Leaving Cert exams that were due to take place in mid-February. With this, I was a typical teenager dealing with typical teenage problems, like what dress I was going to wear for the debs in the summer, and who was I going to take? Looking back on the build up to the mock exams, I often think about the reassurance my school Principal once gave me: “darling they are just practice tests, they mean nothing.” I remember taking some comfort in that advice. But that was soon taken from all of us, when uncertainty became the new normal in the months that followed.

On the 12th of March 2020, the government ordered all schools to be shut down for two weeks, due to the spread of Covid-19 throughout the world. Before the students in my school were sent home, our Principal and Vice Principal called an assembly for just Leaving Cert students. To this day, I still don’t remember what they said to us, all I could see was a stream of blurry faces: pain in their eyes, tears rolling down their cheeks, students shouting for some bit of clarity. They could provide us with nothing. No clarity, no comfort. I said goodbye to my friends as we went our separate ways in the corridors, yelling and hugging one and other, “see you in two weeks!” It seemed that was the only reassurance we had: each other.

Two weeks soon became a month. Those who said their goodbyes in the corridors had not seen each other since. The cup of tea awaiting my slurp of joy in my grandmothers had become stone cold. The school assembly that once echoed with laughter, now empty. Inevitably the growing concern crept in: how are we going to sit our Leaving Cert? Student groups began to form online, to come up with some solution to the odd circumstances we found ourselves in, and tensions began to rise between the Department of Education and Leaving Cert students. At the end of April, with only two months to go until our exams were scheduled, we still had no clarity. Although they kept pushing out these dates, there was still uncertainty around the option of predicted grades.

By the time May came around, we had two options: we could sit the Leaving Cert, or choose to have our grades predicted. Personally, I wanted to sit my Leaving Cert. I felt it was the only option that might provide me with some bit of sanity. It meant I could distract myself by preparing through the summer, as the course I wanted had a demanding number of points. For those who chose predicted grades, the “practice” tests that meant “nothing” would now mean everything.

In mid-May, I graduated online. As Head Girl of the school, I had always dreamt of delivering my speech at the top of the altar. Unfortunately, I had to say goodbye virtually. We were later provided with the clarity we had screamed for in the previous months. We were allowed to pick what we wanted: predicted grades which would be issued in early August (later pushed back to early September), or sit the exams of our choice in November. I remember feeling defeated. In order to sit my Leaving Cert, I would have to take a year out, which was something I never wanted. Therefore, I chose predicted grades like many others. We may not have particularly wanted it, but it seemed to be our only way out.

On the 7th of September 2020, we received our results online. It was a day of joy and heartache. I received the points I wanted for one of the courses in my dream college. But I had been downgraded in two subjects, which meant missing out on my first CAO choice. Four days later, these points dramatically increased like never before, for reasons that I still do not understand. Fortunately, I succeeded in getting a place at Mary Immaculate College, and I was on my way to a new chapter in my life. But I left behind more than a few friends, due to the uncertainty and false promises made to the Leaving Cert class of 2020. Most of my friends could not join in my happiness, nor could they begin on their paths to 3rd level education. Their lives became frozen in time, and all because they had to repeat just one exam!

Our generation is often referred to as the “snowflakes.” But no students in any other decade have dealt with the stress and anxiety of doing what we are told is “one of the most important exams of your life” during a global pandemic. We became dependent on social media, which became a toxic wormhole of false and misleading information. It preyed on the vulnerability of our minds. One thing that really stood out for me was how adults would refer to us as “dramatic,” “sensitive,” and “ungrateful.” Personally, I felt distraught reading comments like that. From March to June, I stayed at home away from friends and from my grandmother, due to the pandemic. My stress had eaten into me both mentally and physically. My graduation, cancelled. My debs, cancelled. Birthdays, cancelled. Some of my friends tested positive for a virus that had even by that time taken so much from so many people. In all of this, the growing concerns around my Leaving Cert were in the background.

These days, my heart is heavy for the Leaving Cert class of 2021. I hope the government provides them with the clarity, comfort, and certainty that they denied to the Leaving Cert class of 2020, who were like no other.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Alannah O’Sullivan is an 18-year-old youth activist and undergraduate student at Mary Immaculate College, Co. Limerick, where she studies History and Theatre. Alannah plans to study for a Professional Masters in Education and to eventually become a primary school teacher, while pursuing a history and drama career on the side. Alannah has a great interest in local history and is currently campaigning to have a monument dedicated to survivors of industrial schools constructed in her home town of Tralee, Co. Kerry. She is also a member of the Museum of Childhood Ireland’s Youth Panel, and is looking forward to her future in it!