This has been a very long week for nearly every young adult and their families on this island. Tuesday revealed the results of the Leaving Certificate, and today will reveal whether or not those results have yielded a place in a desired college. So last night was protracted and restless for many families, as they worried about what this morning would bring for their son or daughter, and how to manage their disappointment should they fall short.
And yet, in life, we all fall short at times, and we all have to pick ourselves up and keep going. So, today is an incredibly important day for parents, as the advice they give their teenager on coping with adversity will stand to them long into the future. In a utopian society, everyone would get what they want — however, the reality of the points system means that is impossible. There are only a certain number of seats in each lecture hall.
We have all been through the system and we know how flawed it is. I have been working in education for nearly 20 years, so I have certainly seen those flaws first-hand and the pressure the exam places on the psyche of young minds. I have also seen parents and families labouring under the weight of the points system, too. And I have found myself questioning it all from time to time, wondering are we crazy asking teenagers what they want to do with the rest of their lives at such a young age, and without any real-life experience. And that is the pressure most of our teenagers were under last night, worrying that today would bring an end to their future before it even got started.
When I think back to the night before my own results, I see a young boy anxious that he will not make the grade, like his brothers had done before him. I see him ruminating on all the different scenarios that potentially lay ahead, desperately hoping he will achieve his first option. For that would mean success. And as I look back now, through the lens of a middle-aged man, I see how erroneous my thinking was, how all the adversity I faced over those 20 years and the surprising twists that came my way actually became my source of strength and made that journey far richer and satisfying.
Because, thankfully, things never go exactly how we imagine they should go, and it’s in that newness and challenge that we find what we are made of and who we truly are. So, while today might be disappointing for your child, help them to see that we often don’t get the thing we hoped for, but something else will arrive. And that is the true gift on the journey — the surprises that take us off on a different route we had not foreseen. And there are many routes to one destination. In my experience, a person who can see that and moves with the landscape as it changes will always succeed more than the person who cannot.
A positive outlook will open up so many doors in life and help overcome adversity. Walt Disney said: “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me. You may not realise it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you”. When I look at my own life and think of the moments I didn’t get what I had hoped for, I’m struck by all the doors that opened in the immediate aftermath, all because I refused to allow that disappointment be a full stop.
It is incredibly important that you teach your child how to think about alternatives. As I said, there are many roads to a particular outcome. Students often get caught in a linear thinking pattern. ‘I have to go to Trinity College, because all my friends are going there too’. As parents, we have to help them to broaden their thinking.
We have a tendency to measure success by wealth or status. And often our children are striving for courses to make their parents happy. When I’m confronted with a very anxious teenager about their results, I ask them a simple question: “When you get the points you want, whom do you tell first?”. Generally this will reveal the source of that anxiety.
Often students get in a terrible bind where their results take on far greater meaning than they should do. The results can even have the potential to fix a negative label to a person’s life. I had a young adult tell me that the results would tell everyone he was not stupid. And this is where a serious problem can arise.
These results do not determine a child’s worth or intelligence. The Leaving Certificate is a particular exam that requires a particular approach, and it suits some people better than others. It does not really test ability or potential. And you can do it as many times as you want. It is not the be-all-and-end-all of life. And while college is a very positive aspiration, if you do not get the one you want, relax! There are plenty of great colleges and many ways of accessing the one you want. Whatever today brings, it is important to put it all in perspective. You are young, and your whole life is ahead of you. Sometimes the road we don’t travel reveals another far more exciting road, and that becomes the true magic of your life.