An awful tragedy

475px-The_ScreamThe family of a friend of a friend has just suffered the most awful tragedy that can come the way of parents.

Their son took his own life—because of exam results.

I try to imagine what’s going through the minds of heartbroken parents. Remorse? Rightly or wrongly, I might feel guilty for nagging, or for not encouraging in the right way. I might feel guilty for not noticing distress, not picking up signs, not taking the time to listen and to notice. But I’d feel angry with the school, with my child’s friends and teachers. I’d be angry with a system that sets such store by exam results. My heart goes out to them.

In my former life as a medical school teacher, as well as those who were there because they wanted to be, I met some students who’d been pushed into medicine by their school, presumably for the sake of the school’s, or the teachers’, kudos. I came across some who were there to fulfil their parents’ dreams. I met others who had drifted there because they were good at passing exams and/or charming interviewers. Some of these folk came a cropper and left. Some of them stayed the distance, graduated with Dr in front of their names, and then went off in a different direction: banking, arts, business, motherhood.

I look at the list of hospital consultants in Ireland, and in the English East Midlands, and can point to a good number who passed through my hands. I can tell you that many of them, as students, were academically quite unremarkable, some passing exams only after resits. They are, I’m sure, perfectly competent doctors, and I’d have little hesitation in placing myself in their care, if necessary. (I know a surgeon, though, who says of one of his colleagues, ‘I wouldn’t even allow him to carve the Sunday joint’.) My point is that what people achieve, or fail to achieve, at any particular age doesn’t mean much. There has to be some system of sorting who gets a limited number of third-level places, and whatever system you have will not be perfect.

Let’s do all we can to care for students who don’t do as well as they had hoped. Anything to stem the awful despair that drives a young person to end it all, and the agony they leave behind.

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