I cried during my last Leaving Cert exam.
It was music. I was supposed to get an A2 at the very least. I was devastated telling everyone that I had “definitely failed”.
I relished in the theatricality of it all. My life was over. I honestly believed it was true and had invented a plan to flee to some hot country, take up the hair-braiding profession and live off the land.
I had turned 18 in March and since then, the Leaving Cert had been my excuse for breakdowns and Ben and Jerrys binges.
Anyone who has been through the Irish education system can relate to this ridiculous lack of perspective that is given to us since the morning after Junior Night.
The quiet, serious tones they used when referring to the exams. The pang of dread when anyone mentioned Maths Paper One and Irish Paper Two. What grinds do you get and what did you put on your CAO? Are you sure you’ll have the points for that?
I never thought anything would be as emotionally draining as the Leaving Cert. I was utterly shocked to realise that a whole world of stress existed outside the exam hall.
The perspective I had been so very lacking during my music exam came appeared one afternoon at the end of September. I was a few weeks into the college semester and was supposed to be doing a group project after lunch. I had a sick feeling in my stomach the whole morning, but I told myself it was just nerves.
My dramatic nature - one my family so often reminded me was the cause of all my ‘problems’ - was manifesting itself in nausea. I knew it was a lie as soon as I said it out loud. I had always been a good liar, which would prove to be handy in the coming months, but I could rarely lie to myself. My period was late. My stomach was in knots.
A few hours later, my hands shook as I disposed of the positive pregnancy test. I hadn't been able to bring myself to buy the test, so I called my best friend to perform the horrifying purchase.
Someone was banging on the door; a customer at the café, probably late for a meeting or something equally as grown up. I was hot and sweating, but shivering cold at the same time. I left silently but my mind was screaming. Not in a dramatic damsel way, but like a child. Like a baby.
I had been with my boyfriend for three years, and I knew him well enough to anticipate his supportive, yet clueless reaction. I don’t think he had ever even thought about getting pregnant. I don’t think any boy of 18 really considers what would happen in this situation.
I had hardly given it much thought. I would learn in the coming months that college life was a breeding ground for pregnancy scares, unlike secondary school where you would hear about it on the grapevine and swore it would never happen to you, but maybe to someone’s sister in the year above.
For the first time in my life, I was silenced by reality. I normally talked openly about anything slightly negative I had going on, but my pregnancy was a new kind of problem; an internal one. Though my boyfriend was more than supportive (something I would discover to be rare in the teen mum universe), my pregnancy was not something I shared with anyone.
What happens when you get pregnant at the wrong time in Ireland? Nothing and everything. Nothing on the outside, and everything on the inside. By inside, I do not mean the foetal growth week by week. I mean the mental agony of crisis pregnancy.
The hormones hit me like a bus. I know now this bus was not routed for me alone but for hundreds of women in Ireland every day. Every girl I have met over the last few years describes the feeling in the same way. Shame. Anger. Love. Guilt. I was a child that became an adult overnight. I felt totally alone after deciding to hide my pregnancy from everyone except our parents.
I lived in my family home with three younger sisters, one who would sit the Leaving Cert during my due date. The exam that I had been so distraught over only months ago. I was terrified of what my pregnancy would do to her. I had become that sister of that girl in the year above.
Now, I think of my own daughter when I see those kilts trudging towards the local school. She turned three last week.
She is dramatic and emotional and assertive. If she sits her Leaving Cert in fifteen years’ time, I will buy her Ben and Jerry’s. I will tell her to cry and vent as much as she needs to, to make it through the dreaded month. I will not shatter the bubble of skewed perspective I once lived in because it will be her reality at the time.
The Leaving Cert is only one of many paths to take to get to where you want to be. Flawed as it is, it happened to be my path.
This direct school to college route is a path that very few of us teen mums have the privilege of walking. I know many young mothers who have entered third level education through alternative systems such as Access programmes, PLC courses and more.
However, I have the Leaving Certificate to thank. I managed to make some attempt at a college degree in the years that followed, having passed my teary music exam after all.
I am now so proud of my daughter, I'm about to start my Masters and although it is a massive juggle to get the balance right, this is my experience and one which I probably wouldn't change for the world.