First published in Cinders Issue Five.
Thinking about school and examinations, editor Méabh McDonnell looks back on her own years of exams, prospective careers and the ever present intimidation of internet geniuses. She has one piece of advice: don’t panic.
Let me tell you a story. When I was six years old, I thought that a ballerina would be a nice career to have when I grew up. I’m not sure if it was the pretty costumes or the interesting shoes – it definitely wasn’t any burgeoning dance ability – because I had none. But whatever it was, I remember looking into ‘ballerina’ as a prospective career i.e. looking it up in my Childcraft encyclopedia.
That was when I discovered that most professional ballerinas begin their training at three years old. That’s when I had the thought: ‘Three?! But I’m already six! I’ve missed my window!’ And thus my ‘promising’ ballet career came to an end.
Now, I’m fairly confident that no one in the world is worse off for having missed my rendition of Swan Lake, but had I actually tried ballet, instead of writing it off because I was too old, I might have found something I enjoyed or that made me new friends.
There’s an ever increasing narrative both online and off that people – in particular girls – have to succeed big and early, if they are ever to succeed at all.
The internet is a great tool for education and has the ability to let us broaden our world perspective.
But our constant access to information also means that every other day, we’re greeted with a news story about the latest 12 year old who has built a successful career out of her Instagram account.
Or the wunderkind teenagers who have created non profits and are now saving the world. Or even the science whizzes who are currently developing new apps and tech to promote environmentalism. It can be daunting.
Especially when more and more pressure is being put on people at younger and younger ages. I distinctly remember teachers telling us at 14 that if we didn’t do well in our Junior Cert examinations [state exams in Ireland taken at 15 which don’t actually count towards college requirements] then, that would directly affect our Leaving Cert [state exams that do count towards college requirements] results, which would, of course, affect the outcome of our entire future. And adults wonder what teenagers have to complain about? I then spent from age 14 to 17 in a state of constant worry, terrified by the idea that any misstep or poor result would directly impact any ability I had to lead a successful life.
The Leaving Cert brings its own set of worries, none that you won’t be aware of, so I’m not going to go over them here. And I’m not going to say that it doesn’t matter – because it does when you’re doing it. It matters immensely.
“I left school with the ambition of being a hard boiled news journalist – because watching too much Gilmore Girls told me that all I needed was an English degree and a love of words.”
But do keep in mind – the Leaving – or any other school leaving exams – aren’t a horoscope. They don’t predict your entire future. That’s still very much in your hands. And, with a little hindsight, I think that’s a very good thing.
It’s been nine years since I sat my Leaving Cert and although I still have dreams of terror about showing up in the exam hall having forgotten all of my Irish, I’m a very different person to the one I was then. I may be in a similar field to the one I hoped I would be, but, I’m working in a very different part of it than I thought I would.
I left school with the ambition of being a hard boiled news journalist – because watching too much Gilmore Girls told me that all I needed was an English degree and a love of words. Needless to say, that’s not true. I still love to write and I love to interview people, and I love editing this magazine. But I love other things that I didn’t expect to, such as the layout process, the design. I love talking to other contributors in Cinders about what they want to put in the issue. If I had the means I might go back to college and study graphic design. There’s a whole side to my personality that, at 17, I didn’t know I had.
And that might change in another ten years. I may want something completely different. I don’t know.
The comforting thought I want to give you is that even if your results don’t pan out the way that you want – there are always other avenues to get to that dream. Always. They just might take a little longer. And trust me, there’s nothing wrong with that.
And equally if your results do pan out and you train for a job for three years only to discover that you hate it – that’s okay too. We’re not all Leslie Knope.
And if you see another story about a 16 year old who started an Etsy bedazzling business in her garage and is now a millionaire: don’t panic. Your bedazzling business might just need a few years to get off the ground. And if it doesn’t, that’s alright. You’ll figure something else out. Look at JK Rowling. Look at Oprah. Look at Harrison Ford.
Take it from a would-be ballerina. There are multiple careers out there for you. You’ll find the right one in plenty of time.
As I’ve said before: life is not a race. You’ll get where you’re going in plenty of time.