Life is filled with key moments that help shape us into the person we are today. Many are unique to our story and depend on our different circumstances, but some are shared and have become part of our culture. I would argue that in Ireland one of the biggest, most profoundly impactful events we have is the Leaving Cert. Even mentioning the words brings back memories of feverish late night study, wild prayers for inspiration, and the occasion desperate gamble on what part of each subject you choose to focus your time on.
Last week, Loreto Rumbek held the South Sudanese version of the mock Leaving Cert. Students had a week and a half of tests on English, maths, the sciences, geography, history, religious education, and business. Each day I would drop by the exam hall to see how they were doing, give a word of encouragement where needed, and say a prayer for them all. That said, I wouldn’t swap places with them for all the tea in China!
The importance of studies cannot be overemphasised. The girls have made real sacrifices to be here, going against societal expectations and cultural pressures. It is still an unfortunate reality that teenage girls here are more likely to die in childbirth than they are to graduate secondary school. Let that sink in for a second. It sounds unbelievable, but it is true. It gives you an idea of what these girls are fighting for – a better future for themselves and for future generations of young women in South Sudan. The change that needs to happen begins in earnest in that large, dusty exam hall in a place you would struggle to find on a map.
My part in this societal and cultural revolution is tiny, but enthusiastically carried out. The Religious Education teacher finished in the school at the end of 2020, so I naively volunteered to correct and give feedback on the exam papers. I have always been told it is good to help out where you can. In my middle age what I had forgotten was that mocks are always traditionally marked a lot harder than normal. The idea is that it highlights what the students need to focus on and encourages them to study more before the real exams. I was lucky to get out alive after the feedback class. The girls fought and argued for every percentage point, disputing the finer questions of theology, sociology, and moral philosophy with the wit and wisdom of a St. Thomas Aquinas or a St. Catherine of Siena. Here exams really count!
Life has now returned to normal, at least for the time being. In a normal school year, the students would sit their state exams in December. Of course, last year was anything but normal. Now we hope that they will be held in March, but we are still waiting for confirmation. As it stands only exams classes are allowed back in school, but there are signs of a gradual return to education. Most of the children will have been out of class for a year and in a country with no national power grid, let alone internet and computers, home schooling was never an option. So, it’s a new beginning and it will take time, but we will get there. In the meantime, do keep the girls in your prayers. There is a lot riding on how well they do.
God bless or as they say here Ben Nhialic areer keg a way,
Read more of Fr Alan’s journey:
Images via Loreto Rumbeck on Facebook