When I was 17 I sat my Leaving Certificate English exam (the Leaving Cert is the big state-set exam that we all do at the end of secondary school, the points we get from which determine whether we can get into university and what courses we can do when and if we get there).
Every year on the English exam they asked a question about Yeats since he is Ireland’s greatest ever poet, so I made sure that I knew more about him than even his mother did (in fairness this wasn’t hard, she probably didn’t read his poetry any more than my family read my blog).
Anyway, on the morning of the English exam I took the paper and turned confidently to the Yeats question, read it calmly, then read it again, a little less calmly. By the third reading I realised that I was in trouble.
I couldn’t answer the question because I didn’t understand it. It was as if someone had taken a collection of common English words and hurled them at the page, like one of those artists hurling paint from a tin onto a wall. No matter how often I read it I had absolutely no idea what they were asking me to do.
It is unfortunate that I cannot reproduce the question here. Ask Google about the dinosaur or the paleolithic era and it offers page upon page of information, but ask it about the 1976 Leaving Cert English paper and it says sorry, history doesn’t go back that far. Admittedly it was 35 years ago, the exam paper was printed on papyrus and we wrote our answers on parchment using a quill made from the wing-feather of a dodo, but there were computers about, even if they were the size of a battleship and long division referred to the length of time it took them to answer. The question is lost, however, so you will just have to take my word for its impenetrable density, something like my own during the maths exam the following day.
In the end I had to answer the question on Paradise Lost instead, a poem which, because it was long and dull, I had read exactly once.
Of course I was young then. Years later, when I was about 30, I found the exam paper while I was clearing out a load of old stuff. I was now older, more educated and more widely read. I turned confidently to the Yeats question.
I still had no idea what it meant.
And why do I bring this bitter memory up today? Because I think I know now what became of the person who set that question. Yesterday’s suggested WordPress topic was “would you rather laugh with the sinners, or cry with the saints” and I have absolutely no idea what that means either.
So my tormentor from 35 years ago now works for WordPress as a topic setter.
And to make extra cash he ghost-writes spam comments.