Life

Nuala McCann: If I had a message for my younger, exam-doing self it would be 'chill'

Looking back, why were exams such a big deal? Remember all those nightmares about not having a pen, not finding a room, opening the paper to find you had read none of the books. Some of them did come true...

Leaving Cert students vowed that they would walk, storm or cry their way out of the exam hall if Montague and Ní Chuilleanáin did not come up

IT’S nearly over and exam season has never been this hot. The children of close friends are completing GCSE and A-levels and counting down the days til they are free as birds to head to Magaluf, swill the local poison and suffer a tat that they will surely regret when they hit their 50s.

Exams were a love-hate thing for this swot.

“You never failed anything,” sighs my mother, “but you always were convinced you had.”

Cue the saga of the broken payphone that wouldn’t take any money and the many hours passing the receiver from parent to parent as I bewailed the fact that the final exam paper was awful and I might as well head up a chimney or down a mine.

That “not failing” is a family myth.

I failed the driving test in spectacular fashion when the examiner had to do an emergency stop down the back of Tate’s Avenue just before we hit an innocent oncoming driver.

My instructor once told me to take a first right off a roundabout.

“You can only turn left off a roundabout, never right, how can you turn right off a roundabout?” I shrieked.

Years later, I did indeed take a careless right at that very roundabout and burst a car tyre on the brick edge of it.

The path of life is crammed with knocks, the secret is getting up afterwards.

Remember Janis Ian – well, I was among those whose names were never called while choosing sides for basketball. Swotting was my only option.

Looking back, why were exams such a big deal? Remember all those nightmares about not having a pen, not finding a room, opening the paper to find you had read none of the books. Some of them did come true.

Stand up my good friend, who ran up to me minutes before our big finals and cried: “Quick Nuala, tell me how Villette ends – I never got that far.”

I told her and she passed with flying colours.

When it came to O-level English, you could always watch the film.

“Huckleberry Finn was our book and I hadn’t read it, but it just happened to be on TV the weekend before the exam and I watched it,” a close friend told my nephew who is currently sitting his GCSEs.

He was suitably reassured.

“And what did you get?” he asked.

“Nah, I failed it but I did see the film,” came the reply.

My best friend sat close to me for our O-level Biology and drew the male reproductive system in detail as her first answer.

We glanced at each other in the last five minutes of the exam – a sort of thumbs up, all’s well, glance.

Only when I glimpsed the large penis on her answer booklet, my eyebrows shot up and I shook my head wildly.

She looked quizzically at me, looked at the paper, read the question, shrieked silently in horror and grabbed her rubber. The exam question asked for a diagram of the female system. Still, she did go on to be a doctor.

We were chatting the other day about the amount of space devoted to the Leaving Cert in The Irish Times.

Each paper is analysed and debated. Poor students who are mid-exam still find the time to write short diary entries talking about how much they’re sweating.

Such is the level of anguish that the newspaper sported a recent headline: “Relief as predicted poets appear”.

On Twitter students had vowed that they would walk, storm or cry their way out of the exam hall if Montague and Ní Chuilleanáin did not come up.

Looking back now to all-night study sessions with Moll Flanders and Tom Jones (never the crooner), I wish I’d taken more of a leaf out of my little brother’s book. He went to the tech to do his A-levels and enjoyed a work/life balance.

“Thursdays and Fridays were for the pub and chasing women,” he sighed.

If I had a message for my younger self, it would be to chill a little more.

Try, fail; try, fail again, fail better. Even if failing seems like the end of the world, it isn’t.

And if you can learn that lesson, then life is all the sweeter.

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