FORMER Kadina High School student Sharna Clemmett "dropped her bundle" and dropped out of school midway through Year 12, in 1996.
It's a painful secret she's carried all the way to the top.
When her law school cohort talked about the Higher School Certificate, Ms Clemmett, now 38, would avoid the subject or grab a coffee.
Even three years into her career as a lawyer she didn't tell colleagues about her failed HSC.
"I didn't actively try to hide it but I didn't promote it, because it was something that embarrassed me, and I'd blush and try to change the topic," she said.
Now a barrister working in chambers opposite the NSW Supreme Court, Ms Clemmett has shared her story to help other teens.
Soon, NSW Year 12 students receive their HSC results, which determine their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, and whether or not they are offered spots in university.
In Year 12, Ms Clemmett had other stresses, such as paying for food and rent.
Aged 16, she moved with a 17-year-old friend into a share house at Alstonville, later described in a smaller local paper as housing "ferals".
It would become the first time Ms Clemmett considered suicide.
"It was a bit of a perfect storm," she said.
"Being a teenager is hard enough as it is, but I'd moved out of home, my friend had a six-month-old baby, and I had to get Centrelink to pay the rent.
"There were many layers of difficulty.
"Just turning up to school was hard."
As part of her Centrelink commitments, Ms Clemmett completed a six-month-long training course at St Vincent's Hospital, Lismore.
Working as a patient service assistant in the surgical ward, the teen rode her rusty bicycle to work every day, starting at 6.45am.
She wiped down and made beds, pushed beds and trolleys, helped wash patients, ordered stock, organised patient notes and was subsequently hired as a reliable casual in administration.
Ms Clemmett then moved to Sydney, looking for more opportunities.
She worked through several jobs, some "sh--", before being recruited to manage the diary of 42 anaesthetists.
She was only 20 but worked "damn hard" to prove her worth, and overcame rejections before this first well-paid role.
Rejections included failing a psychometrics test for a phone company call centre.
"I've kept all my rejection letters, because it's really interesting to reflect back on them to see how my life would look like if I did get those jobs," she said.
Ms Clemmett got entry into a Communications degree at the University of Technology Sydney as a mature-aged student by performing well in a Special Tertiary Admissions Test.
She then transferred into law, and ended up assisting in the Australian Wheat Board Inquiry.
But even then, while instructing senior counsel at the bar table during the inquiry, she wondered:
"What would happen if all those barristers, and Commissioner Cole, knew what a fraud I was?
"That I was a high school drop-out, from Lismore, sitting in the middle of their Royal Commission."
Last month Ms Clemmett revealed her secret to help other teens when visiting Kadina High School to give a speech.
She told pupils only hard work led to success.
"No matter what result you get in the HSC, the secret to your success in life is you," she told pupils.
"It's not numbers on a page."
Ms Clemmett also advised pupils to "take opportunities when they arose, even if you don't think you want them".
"It's amazing what doors a seemingly sh---y job can open," she said.
Ms Clemmett said sharing her story had been a cathartic journey.
"I'm amazed by what difference my story has made and the way I now feel about my history. There's been stuff I've had to work through, so I'm glad I did it.
"So long as students get the message that no matter what happens, whether they fail the HSC or not, they can do very well, that's what's most important."
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.