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Leona O'Neill: Students shouldn't let poor grades prevent them from chasing their dream

While disappointing exam results can seem like the end of the world when you are a teenager, Leona O'Neill is living proof that top A-level grades are not the only path to a fulfilling future...

Disappointing exam results are not the end of the world, writes Leona O'Neill

WE ARE in the midst of exam results season. Last week thousands of A-level students across the north spent a sleepless night before opening the envelope or logging in online to see if the future they had planned out was going to happen.

And this week it's the turn of GCSE students to worry themselves sick over results.

I spent last Thursday going around schools in Derry and talking to kids about their results. I waited in the reception area for a few students to interview for a story.

I saw them file in, one after the other, their faces ashen, the lack of sleep evident in the bags under their eyes. They fidgeted, they puffed out their cheeks, some of them cried. They carried the weight of the world on their shoulders.

It was a burden of expectation, both of themselves and of their parents and teachers. To these teenagers, this was a defining moment. Some of those I spoke with going in – those who were capable of stringing a coherent sentence together in the midst of their anxiety – told me that they wanted certain grades to get into university to do a certain course.

Many of them had their lives planned out well ahead of them and only their chosen university course would cut it.

Some of the people who came back to talk to me had relief written all over their faces. They had got what they wanted, their dream was intact, they were going where they wanted to go and their life plan had not hit the buffers.

For others, the crushing disappointment was evident. They had fallen down and hadn't achieved the grades they needed. Their future dream was evaporating before their eyes. They were teary, panicked and uncertain of what the future held for them.

I wanted to tell them that it wasn't the end of the world, that if they kept their head up they would still be able to see their dream in the distance and find a way to it by another road.

It might not have been the straight road they had planned to take, but it was a route none the less and would get them to the same place.

I was never a super high achiever at school. I was not an A * student. I barely scraped my A-level English, passed my Art and found myself at Art College at 18.

At that age I had yet to figure out where I wanted to be in life, apart from obviously with my friends in a bar.

I thought I wanted to be an artist but after six months and after setting fire to my mother's kitchen while melting candle wax to make willow tree sculptures, I figured the life of a penniless peddler of oil on canvases was perhaps not for me and dropped out.

I came back to my home town, got a job, took a bit of time out and figured out what my passion was and how I could turn that into a career. The year after I dropped out, I signed up to a journalism course and the rest is history.

This year, at 41, I graduated with an BA Hons in English, the degree I had initially wanted to do when I was 18.

These kids – our sons and daughters – who celebrated and who commiserated last week, will get to where they want to go eventually. There are so many options open to every type of student and every type of grade.

For those of our kids who feel disappointed, all is not lost. I say this to you. Right now you think exam results are absolutely everything and if you didn't do well your life is over. I want to tell you it's just beginning.

Failing, making mistakes and falling down are life's very best lessons. The strength and courage you need to get back up again are what shape you as a person. Get up, look for that dream and go get it.

I think it was Van Gogh who said "success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures".

Don't let the grades on the page define you or prevent you from chasing and grabbing that dream with both hands and shaking every fibre out of it.

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