Remembering the Brown Envelope

Ah, yes. It’s a day for the cold sweats and the palpitations, the clenched jaws and the tight smiles and the ‘yep, I’m fine no honestly I’m all right will you ever just leave me alone I’m really grand, I swear’ sort of conversations. It’s a day for stepping carefully.

It’s Leaving Certificate results day.

I'm fairly sure this image is actually taken from my Leaving Certificate maths answer book...  Photo Credit: dullhunk via Compfight cc

I’m fairly sure this image is actually taken from my Leaving Certificate maths answer book…
Photo Credit: dullhunk via Compfight cc

Every country has its school leaving examinations, of course. There are HSCs, GSCEs, SATs, and all manner of acronyms. In Ireland, it’s the LC (though nobody really calls it that), those weeks each May and June when the national news shows daily images from deathly silent examination halls and conducts interviews with clench-jawed students whose too-bright eyes betray their nerves. Mid-August brings results day – schools open early, piles of innocuous-looking brown envelopes sit in alphabetical order in boxes, and the principal is on hand with words of comfort and advice. Some kind teachers (who aren’t still sunning themselves in foreign climes) flit about offering aphorisms and tea and soft, fragrant hugs or claps on the back. Mums and dads crowd outside, chewing their fingernails to the quick (that’s if their children allow them to be anywhere near the school, of course), and for some reason it always seems to be a sunny day. Sometimes, this can feel like a taunt.

The day I got my Leaving Certificate results is a long, long time ago now, but I’ll never forget it. The walk from the front gate of my school to the Reception desk, where those brown envelopes were sitting, felt like ten miles of broken glass. My principal had a rictus grin on his face. Some of the school secretaries were frantically sorting results into alphabetical order while others were equally frantically looking for results as students began to queue up. The banter was loud and jovial, and there were hugs, and there were narrowed eyes as old rivals fought to get their results simultaneously, and then – once the envelope was received, and the principal’s hand was shaken – quiet settled over proceedings as corners were found. Gentle ripping noises filled the air as the envelopes bit the dust, followed by feverish calculation as the points were added up. (In Ireland, each result carries a particular ‘points’ value – an A1 on a Higher Level paper carries 100 points, and so on down the scale to a Pass grade on an Ordinary Level paper, and college courses demand certain total ‘points’ scores for admission). Then, like a bubble popping, it was all over.

I remember a friend of mine, who has since become a very successful accountant, added up my points for me because I was incapable of doing it. (This will show you why I did an Ordinary Level mathematics exam, instead of a Higher Level one, for my Leaving Certificate). I remember her face brightening as the total became clear, but somehow it still felt like I hadn’t done ‘enough’, whatever that nebulous concept is. People all around were stunned at their results, either because they’d actually managed to get the points to do the course that their parents had always wanted them to do (no word on whether it was what they wanted or not), or because they’d missed out, sometimes by as few as ten or fifteen or twenty points, on what they saw as their ‘dream’ and their only means of escape. Tears often flowed. People swore to stay in touch, and others arranged then and there to share flats in Dublin or Limerick or Cork or Galway when they went to college, and some just put their results back in their shredded envelope and left without a word. In many cases, it was the last time people would see one another for the rest of their lives. We’d been at school together for years on end, sharing classrooms and corridors and changing rooms and ‘recreation areas’ (never ‘playgrounds’), and this day marked not only the results of our exams, but in some cases the end of the tenuous connections which had bound us as one. I still wonder, at times, what happened to some of the kids I studied with; that boy in the corner of my Irish class, the one with the shock of blue-black hair – what was in his envelope, that sunny day? And the small girl with the gentle grin who shared her paintbrushes with me one day in Art; what was her name?

On my Leaving Certificate results day, I got the points I needed for my general Arts degree. In fact, I got way more than I needed. I still ended up taking an extra year at home, doing a practical course in office management, before I left for Dublin. My close friends all went on to college without me, but they were the sort of friends one can’t lose, as such; we all stayed together emotionally, and we’re all still friends now. Life has taken a zig-zag path since, and I’m not sure whether things would be exactly the same for me if I had managed to get fifty or one hundred fewer points that day, or fifty or one hundred more. But even if things hadn’t gone to ‘plan’ (insofar as my seventeen-year-old self had one), I’m sure that my mid-thirties self would be just fine.

I have a feeling kids these days are just as scared as we were by the thought of looming examination results. Modern Leaving Certificate students have the option of checking their exam results from home, on the internet, but I hope the majority of them still go to their school and have the results physically handed over by a teacher. I hope they still gather in clumps, adding up one another’s points, hugging and crying and laughing and commiserating together, giving one another advice, swearing to stay in touch – though, of course, swapping Skype IDs or Instagram screen names or Twitter handles instead of postal addresses – and sharing this day with one another. It only happens once; you only get to do it with one group of similarly terrified and excited people. It’s a bonding experience.

But – and this is important – it’s not the end of the world, or of your life, or the death of your dreams, if you don’t get what you wanted or needed to go to college. It’s not worth crying over. It’s not something which should cause pain, or stress, or fear, or desperation. You have the option of resitting exams, but it doesn’t even have to come to that; there are ways around everything. If you want something badly enough in life, you’ll get it, no matter what that envelope contains or what your points total is. Getting points to go to college is one way to achieve a dream, sure. But coming up with your own way, working hard to get there, and making plans of your own? That’s what being an adult is about. The Leaving Certificate is something we all have to do, in this country – a rite of passage, a milestone in our school career. But it’s not the most important thing you’ll do. You’re just beginning.

If you’re under stress due to your results, or you’re worried, please do contact ChildLine – 1800 666 666 or text ‘Talk’ to 50101 from within Ireland. Consider contacting your school, too, who will have guidance counsellors on hand. They’ll have heard it all before, and they’ll be full of ideas and suggestions to help. And talk to older people who’ve been there before you. We all remember the stress today can cause, but life goes on. In fact, life gets great from here on out. Don’t let one small slip of paper ruin your bright, fantastic and excitingly unknowable future. As scary as our memories of results day are, I don’t think there are many adults who wouldn’t swap with you right now for a second chance at that wide-open, endless, limitless potential – so make the most of it.

And whatever your results were, congratulations – your life is going to be amazing.

Helplines:

ChildLine – 1800 666 666 or text ‘Talk’ to 50101, or click the link to talk instantly

Samaritans

Leaving Certificate/Irish Independent Helpline

Or talk to any trusted adult, including your teachers/principal or older relatives, if you’re under pressure. Don’t keep it to yourself.

2 thoughts on “Remembering the Brown Envelope

  1. Jan Hawke

    How true! Nobody in my family had ever gone on to college or Uni, so my results were almost irrelevant, as all I was focused on at 16 was earning some money and then getting on with being an adult…
    I think if I’d been more ambitious then I’d probably have gone the arts route (I was good at visual as well as the written ones), or even done an apprenticeship with my sign-writer father, but then I’d have missed out on the various facets of working/life experience until much later. So, like you say, scores and qualifications aren’t the be all and end all that the nuns and teachers say they are – and if you want it enough, you’ll find your own way there eventually 🙂

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes! I was the first in my family to go to college, too (hence the very careful ‘do an office management course before you go, just in case things don’t work out’ decision!) and I don’t regret the way my life has gone – though I know for sure that I’d be fine, no matter what decisions I’d made or course I’d chosen or job I’d taken. It upsets me when youngsters put all their eggs in one basket, focusing so strongly on their results being the ‘only’ path; at that age, there is never only one path. There are multitudes. I wish they’d see it. Perhaps teachers don’t help, but there are some good ‘uns, too. 🙂 Glad you feel happy with the path of your life, too, Jan; there are benefits and drawbacks to every decision, and very few ‘right’ ones! 🙂

      Reply

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