Since somewhere at the start of March this year, I’ve been wanting to write this story. It tossed and turned in my head for a while but I couldn’t find the right time nor place to start. I also didn’t have enough faith in myself. I didn’t have faith that I could encapsulate the struggle that this story so sorely revolves around.
But now I think I’m ready to show you guys this story. It is a story about one of my best friends, and is very closely based on facts and actual occurrences. In life there will be struggles, and then there will be the overcoming of it, and this is a story that encapsulates such a journey.
This is the first of a three part series, and writing this was like having one long conversation with him through the night, exploring every facet and defining for myself what the word struggle truly meant. I hope you guys enjoy reading this as much as I did writing every last word.
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He woke up with a violent jolt. His white singlet was bathed in sweat. He felt light headed and nauseous.
How did I get here?
It was the question he asked himself the moment he sat up. Not that he’d woken up beside a dumpster, or an open field. He had woken up in his own bed.
How did I get…here?
It was the day of his ‘A’ Level results. He had taken the entire examination, every last paper, as a private candidate. He had gone against everyone’s advice, and decided to take this one last final chance to make things right.
And today, well, today was the results day. At this very moment, there were students all over Singapore, all freshly graduated and waking up to a day where, like it or not, things will never be the same. Life ambitions jubilantly realised or tragically crushed, whilst tough decisions will be forced out by circumstance. All these things, they will take place today in various schools, various halls where students sit, packed like sardines, the atmosphere pregnant with wild anticipation.
But it was not the same for him. Private candidates take a very different course. Their results will appear online in the SEAB (examination board) portal. That would have to wait to the afternoon. His head was numb with uncertainty as he slurped down his breakfast in tentative gulps. He had work to attend to first.
On his bike he rode, wind flitting through his hair. It was an ancient contraption, gears about to give way any moment. He paddled on to work. He thought of where it all began. It wasn’t an easy journey. That he knew.
He entered primary school knowing little to no English. He did not have the luxury of attending a proper kindergarten, and his family spoke conversational Chinese at home. Neither were they well off. “Not well off” may be an understatement. They shared a three-room flat, with six people crammed in, hardly any space for each individual, let alone a boy who just needed space to grow.
At a young age, he struggled. He could barely keep up with conversations amongst his classmates. During lessons, he struggled to learn new words and phrases, while his classmates seemed to have everything figured out.
“Come here.” His teacher shouted out to him one day. “Tell me, how do you spell beautiful?”
He was primary three at that time. He should have known. He thought of whether the “e” came before the “a”, or the other way around. Was there an “o” huddled somewhere inside? He kept silent at the end of it.
“You don’t know right?” barked the teacher. He looked at his feet, lips trembling with disappointment. Then, she softened her gaze, and spoke in a softer tone. “I don’t care if you know or not. A lot of your classmates also don’t know, I assure you. But look at you. You don’t even want to try. Don’t waste my time. Go back to your seat. Don’t come asking for my help until you decide to try.”
So back to his seat he went. And for a long time after that, he decided not to try. Better to just be invisible and let the world pass above you than make waves.
“Sit here!” Shouted the same teacher a few months later. He shuffled to the front of the class and sat under the whiteboard. “Why do you always have to be the abnormal one?” Asked the teacher. There was some laughter from the class, and echoes of abnormal. Then total silence.
He held it all in, and barely managed to compose himself before a teardrop managed to stray from the corner of his eye. He kept silent all the same as his teacher continued, “You always skip lessons, cannot even speak properly. What do you aim to be next time? Like that very useless one you know? You will be useless!”
He continued cycling to work, leaving those thoughts behind. Some words, no matter how meaningless you make them out to be, always manage to creep back at you at the most inopportune times. This was one of those times. He sighed as he placed his bike on the rack and ambled into the office.
His superior greeted him. “Today is the ‘A’ Level results hor?” He started, “I think Jevin told me his brother getting today. You studied so hard the past few months. I think you will do well lah.”
“Well, let’s just hope lah,” he uttered without much conviction. He had been working hard. He knew he had. He walked over to his desk and sat down, taking deep breaths.
How did I get here?
It was in primary five that things seemed to lighten up. Mrs. Singh was in charge of the EM3 students of his batch, and for once he saw a light. She was firm yet kind, confrontational yet patient. She nurtured him, and believed in all the students under her wing. She put in every effort to improve each individual.
There was once he decided not to attend lessons. She called his house in fury, and when his father picked up the phone, she demanded that he brought his son straight to the doorstep of her classroom.
It was in front of his classmates that Mrs. Singh caned him on the palm. It was a firm stroke, one that shocked him and almost brought fresh tears to his eyes. Yet after the fray, she approached him the same way she did yesterday. “Do you know how to do this question? Don’t know please ask, ok? I’m here for a reason.” And this time, ask he did.
Then came PSLE. As expected, it didn’t go so well. What shocked him though, was just how badly he did. The cut off point to go to any normal academic course at that time was a score of 118. He missed by a good margin. That’s what I’m capable of then, he thought to himself. After all the jeering from the express kids, all the mockery from my friends and teachers. It all amounted to this. How right they were! He felt worst when he thought of people who had faith in him. What was he going to tell Mrs. Singh? He was stunned into silence. His brothers and sisters could make it. Why couldn’t he? Was he really doomed to be the abnormal one?
He stood at the steps of his school, stunned and in a daze. He let his results slip slide through his hands, and it landed softly on the floor, like a fallen leaf onto a still surface of a tranquil lake. It didn’t take long, before a hand that was not his own picked it up. It was his father.
“Boy. I tell you what. I know this area quite well. Your score may not be good, but what matters is…” He noticed that his son wasn’t listening. He straightened himself out, and held his son’s narrow shoulders in his thick, rugged hands.
“This is not the end for you. Look at me!” Father spoke firmly to son. He looked up. “For all I care, the whole world thinks you haven’t done well. But look at yourself! What I see within you is so much more than what they see from this sheet of paper. For all I care, I may not have been the best father, neither was where you grew up in the best environment for a child. That I know. But what I want you to know, is that I expect nothing less from you but a big heart.”
“But how?” Croaked the son. “I have nothing. I am nothing. The teachers have told me…I am useless.”
“That’s the thing. I want you to learn the first big lesson right here. That the more people tell you that you can’t, the more you have to prove to them that you can. Take every negative and turn it into a positive. In this life, everyone imaginable has stepped over your father. Past employees, your relatives, friends who I thought I could count on…everything that can go wrong in this life for me, has. But look at me. I still drive my bus around and I still do my best every dying day so that we can survive. This isn’t something everyone can do. You need a big heart for this and I believe that in this family, you have it within you. Especially you. I can see it. You do your chores diligently even after your brother has gone to bed; you always offer to help out when I wash the bus. These little things give me faith, and are the reflection of who you truly are, not this lousy excuse of a paper, alright? The only person with the right to say you’re useless is yourself. I want you to remember that.”
And remember that he did. Well, at least not immediately. But soon enough it would sink in, that such lessons would carry you on through life.
It was lunch break all of a sudden. Three hours had passed while he was in a daze. “Eh we going to the kopitiam you want to follow us?” Yelled his colleague from the opposite cubicle. “It’s fine, I can settle myself. I had a heavy breakfast,” he yelled back. Truth was, he could hardly swallow a grain of rice at that moment. Anxiety was attacking his gut as thoughts reeled through his mind.
Secondary One came and went, and with it a bunch of things happened. He had trouble adapting and the class was always rowdy.
“Eh you ask so many question for what? Later the teacher think you retarded or something,” remarked one of his classmates. Ignoring the comment, he raised his hand again. “So the noun will always be after the adjective?” The teacher sighed. “Yes, in most circumstances, the adjective will precede the noun. For example, ‘fast runner’. Fast is the adjective and runner is the noun. You can’t say ‘runner fast’, right?”
“Yeah la stupid, ask so many question for what? It only shows how stupid you are!” retorted the same classmate as the entire class roared in violent laughter. On his fist, he scrawled down another new word he had learned today. He couldn’t afford to waste paper and pay for more foolscap.
He got first in his class that year, and fourth in level for Normal Technical (NT).
Only the first in level progressed to Normal Academic (NA), whilst the rest would just continue in NT, and in the light of that he was visibly disappointed. “Don’t worry,” said his teacher after class. “You have all the reason to be proud of yourself. You’ve done so much more than all your classmates. Don’t worry about a thing, I’m sure you’ll do fine next year.” He nodded along, but deep inside, all he had was worry. What if I slip up again? What if, for some reason, next year gets way too hard for me to handle and I never get to progress? What if I seal my own fate to be the ‘abnormal one’? He thought of all these possibilities to the point of hyperventilation, but uttered not a single word. He was going to work twice as hard next year.
Around this time, he joined rugby as his CCA, under the coercion of a teacher. He was worried that it would affect his studies, but decided to go along with it anyway.
“I want you all to repeat after me,” yelled the coach. “That if it is to be, it is up to me!” The boys echoed with conviction, “IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME!”
“Yes, I want you to learn one thing today, that it is always going to be up to you. Rugby is a team sport, but down to every individual, you have to be the best version of yourself. The decisions you make, the bonds you keep; everything is your choice and your effort. Ok? I want you to take a shovel, dig a deep hole in your mind, place this idea inside and fill up that hole again. This is YOUR life, and you have the whole pitch, and 80 minutes to make the best of it. Now go.”
He didn’t know if he had just attended a sermon or a rugby training, but one thing was for sure: he loved the challenge. Every last fibre of his being ached for it.
Secondary Two passed, and whatever negative thoughts he had, he channeled towards progress and learning.
“Eh guys, you know who is Derrick? Last year the guy who got first in level for NT?” The classmates surrounded Solomon. He was the cool kid in the class and demanded such attention. “He doing damn badly now you know? He got second last in level for mid year I heard. He may be joining us again in Sec 3 I think. He’s such a loser right? Try so hard then nothing happen in the end. Might as well just join us, lepak all the way still can make it.”
He ignored his classmates, or at least made a show of it. But either way, the news that Derrick wasn’t faring well shocked him.
“Eh, look at that poser, writing away at the paper.” The entire class turned to look at his direction as Solomon continued, relentlessly. “You can afford paper meh? You never hear ah! Derrick is dying out there. You try so hard for what? Just to be like him is it! I tell you what, you join us still got more future. You try and fail ah, the feeling is damn terrible one, brother.”
He looked up this time. “What did you just call me?”
Solomon looked perplexed. “I called you brother, brother. You got a problem?”
“Yeah. I got a big problem. Because what the fuck makes you think I’m a brother to you?” He spoke now with unrestrained rage. The entire class was silent. “You all only know how to pull each other down, laugh at people who try to be better. Look at Hafiz! He tries during lesson but you all pull him away from his work. And I admire Derrick. You know why? I admire him because unlike you guys, he’s fucking trying! He tries to be this person that all of you are so fucking scared he’ll become. And you’re scared, you know why? Because the idea of succeeding fucking blows your minds and you have to wrap yourselves up in all these fancy hairstyles, altered pants and stick after stick of Marlboros to get you through. So look, you all can insult me all day, laugh at my dreams and tell me I’ll never make it. Do all that; go ahead. I can handle it. But don’t you dare, for one minute, call me a fucking brother. You guys can go suck your own dicks before I…”
Before he could end his speech, he found himself in the discipline masters office with a black eye.
At the end of the year, he got himself onto the first team for Rugby, and more importantly, got what he had always hoped for: a first placing in his level.
“Come in,” ordered his teacher. “I want to talk to you about your options.”
He sat down opposite her and she looked deep into his gaze, dismantling every last resolve. “I know it’s very tempting to want to go for Normal Academic after your results. But think about it. You have a lot to catch up on. Firstly you’ll have to retake your secondary two year. Then there’s so much more on that syllabus. How can you be so sure you can cope? You’ll be spending 6 years in secondary school, and by then all your peers in NT would have moved on already. Some may be close to getting jobs by then.”
“I want to promote to Express after next year.” Spilled out the words. He never wanted to reveal this but at that moment, it felt like the most sensible, albeit outrageous rebuttal.
His teacher gulped. She looked like she just received news that aliens exist, or that they’ve found Yamashita’s gold in her backyard. “You do know, that this has never happened before right? No one has promoted to express while starting off from NT, ever, in the history of this school. We’re all part of this system, where everyone knows his or her place. Everyone is acutely aware of where they belong, and strive to be the best within each packet. That is how the education system is designed. You were supposed to graduate from NT. Now the option to go NA is already quite a privilege. So what’s with the sudden urge for promotion for Express? Biting off more than you can chew, don’t you think?”
“I just want to do my best, and going to NA is just the first step…” he mumbled. But he knew that this feat would require more than just his best.
“Very well then. In all accounts, me being realistic is merely a guide for you. You’ve surprised all of us, you know that right? If it is your dream to go to express, we will be behind you, all the way.” She shook his hand. “But first, congrats on your promotion to Normal Academic.”
He was back at his workplace again. The desk beneath his elbows was of a different consistency as the teachers’ desk. The desks they used in school was much rougher on the surface. Strange that he would be thinking of desk surfaces now. He shifted his thoughts to the support the teachers gave. Some harsh remarks were made, but to be fair, they were merely being realistic. The teachers were pivotal in his struggle. They gave him the help he needed, and continued teaching the class although he was the only person listening. He smiled at such a thought. They never gave up on me, was all he could conjure as a concluding statement. And by all accounts, that was enough.
“Good morning Sec Three’s,” greeted the principal in her beginning of year speech. “As you all know, this is upper secondary. You have taken your baby steps in lower sec and now, it is time to get serious. Time to run, or even sprint for the finish line if you have to…” Beginning of year speeches all sounded the same to him.
“I want to pay particular homage to one particular student. He comes from a humble background, and entered our gates in secondary one as an NT student. He has worked tremendously hard, and more importantly, consistently. He has promoted to NA last year, to repeat his secondary two year. Right now, he joins you guys, the express cohort, as sec threes,” announced the principal in clear, well-measured chunks. “I want all to look to this example, and realise how one person’s innate motivation could have brought him so far. And also, I want you to look at yourselves. Where did you start, and more importantly, where can you go from here? The sky is the limit, and I want all of you to remember that greatness is never in short supply. You just have to be determined enough to look for it. Let’s give him a round of applause.”
The entire cohort broke into applause, panning their heads, searching around for just who this guy might be. All the while he looked down at the courtyard tiles, counting the number of red tiles amongst the blue ones. He thought about the days in 2NA he spent hunched over his textbooks. Every time he fell asleep during revision, he would jolt awake, tears in his eyes, his mind still fresh from the prospect of failure, still raw with the admonition of his teacher. Everyone has their place. You should know your place. But no! I know my place! It is to be great! My place is to prove you wrong, time and again, until you get it in your head that I am able.
He looked up, and immediately saw the teacher that had told him more than a year ago that express was too tall an order. She smiled at him and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. It was truly a beautiful day.
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