The lunch crowd was back, and brought with them an irritable rowdiness that clouded up his thoughts. He began to feel hungry, but had already missed the lunch window. He sat at his cubicle, and on his phone were what seemed like a thousand WhatsApp notifications. “How did you do for A’s?” Read one. “Improve from the last time?” Read another. It was all too much to bear. If he logged into the examination portal now, he would know his results. All the hard work, the struggles, the tears and misery; it all lay on that single webpage and in the seemingly arbitrary letters that appeared beside each subject.
He picked up his phone and sent a message to his secondary school friends, “tonight we meet and we see my results together?” These were the guys that had been with him since Secondary Three. If there was anybody in the world that was familiar with his struggle, it would be them. He pressed send, and waited for the reply.
There was nothing to fear, everything will be ok.
Secondary Three flew past with its trials and triumphs. Change, as he discovered, was a highly ambiguous notion. With his promotion to Express came with it a fair share of glory, as well as a fair share of competition and insecurities. The attitudes of the people around him changed vastly. He felt like he had swum out of the narrow canals and was now in a vast ocean. At times this was too much for him, but he had to adapt. With every change of slide, erasing of the whiteboard and switch in topic, he felt exhausted. Not that he wasn’t ready for this, but this change in environment was the confirmation that he had a lot to catch up on.
“Mrs. Lee, this formula only applies to right-angled triangles right?” He once asked in class. “Yes, it only applies to right-angled triangles. I thought I already told you guys already?” Replied the teacher.
“Eh, it’s the first thing she said when introducing this theorem you know? When we stepped into class, immediately she said as we were settling down. Everyone heard it, so can you please don’t waste our time?” Chimed in Ravinder. He used to be from Raffles, but dropped out and ended up here.
“Now hold it right there, Ravinder,” spoke Mrs. Lee. “He has all the right to ask me questions, whenever he likes. And I will entertain every last one, because I can see that he is willing to learn. I know you were from Raffles and that you think you’re very smart. But please, I hope you realise that you are all in the same classroom now, and that he has as much of a right to learn as you have. I don’t wish to hear you making fun of him in future.”
The entire class spoke in hushed undertones, as Ravinder looked at the edge of his table, speechless.
Rugby training continued with increasing intensity. After all, he had made it to the first team. The way you pass the ball had a certain flow. You didn’t merely pass the ball to your teammate to advance. You had to think a few steps ahead, and have a rough idea as to where your opponents would be, where your teammate was going to run, and finally, where you should run to offer the maximum support; that is, to block off potential threats and get into favourable positions to receive subsequent passes. Every bone crushing tackle, knock to the head and abrasion on the knees was just part and parcel of this beautiful game that he had learned to love. He didn’t mix so well with his teammates at first, but after strings of successful passes, effective tackles and passionate dives, he became a permanent fixture in the team. Eventually, he gained the respect of his teammates the same way a golf ball rolls to the hole; quietly, but deliberately.
On a fine day in April, the final whistle blew.
The spectators streamed onto the field, and immediately, he was hoisted up to the shoulders of his classmates. It was a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and the Padang came to life. His team had just won the rugby ‘B’ Division Championships.
There were relieved looks all round, and scenes of pure, unadulterated celebration. He looked around at the field from where he stood, head above the entire crowd. He had achieved something remarkable. No more than two years ago, he knew not the touch of a rugby ball, and now he was a victor. He had won. And for that moment, no one could take it away from him.
“Good job bro,” said one of his classmates. “We were cheering our lungs out for you out there man. You should’ve seen the whole crowd, it was just insane.”
And then, from within the sea of faces, a pale hand shot out from the depths. He shook it instinctively, and the owner of the hand soon appeared from the crowd. It was Solomon, his former classmate that punched him in Secondary Two.
“You were amazing out there. Don’t stop the good work, bro,” his voice was shaky and filled with a long overdue tinge of wistfulness.
They made eye contact for a split second, and what he saw in them moved him to tears. It was the look of utmost respect, the sort of look that one human chooses to give another in only a handful of occasions through the course of a lifetime. It was a look that would stay with him for a long time after the shriek of the final whistle had left his bones.
Ah yes, the rugby finals. He thought to himself while spinning about in his office chair. It may have been many years ago, but the sensation of lifting that cup had never left him. It was the last time he had felt a genuine sense of triumph, and a moment that he truly thought himself to be invincible. It was as if the sun decided to shine for a day after months of rain. His skin basked in the rare sunlight on that day, as sweaty palms hoisted him up high. It was an image he couldn’t help but smile along to.
His phone buzzed, and pulled him straight out of his fantasy. One of his friends had replied. “Yes, tonight we meet, the few of us / We can drive somewhere quiet if we want. All the best,” was what the message read. It shall be tonight then, he sighed. He thought that if nobody replied, he could just forget that he took the entire exam and forgo the revelation of his results altogether.
It was the same group of friends that accompanied him the day before the ‘O’ Level results arrived. This was more than four years ago. He suddenly remembered this with surprising clarity. They were walking down the Promontory at where Marina Bay Sands now stood, and had not a clue what life was about to bring. The saltwater was lapping at the walls of the embankment like a thirsty dog after a long walk. The night was still and a few couples ambled leisurely, whispering their sweet nothings along the otherwise quiet shores. The five of them walked along, uncertain of what the next day would bring.
“Hey man, you’ll be fine,” one of them assured. He was unusually quiet tonight. “You’ve always done well, there’ll be no difference here, alright?”
“I know,” he replied. “As in, I don’t know if I did my best, or if I will do well, but I know I’ve come a damn long way. It was hard. There were many times I just felt like giving up and also many times I felt unworthy. Back in Secondary Two a teacher told me something to do with our place in this world, you know? That we were all meant to be somewhere, and she sort of implied that I was destined to stay in NT and fulfill this role. It really sickened me, not because she would say such a thing, but it sickened me to think that there were so many times that I almost believed in what she said. I had to always guard myself against these thoughts. Where do these roles come from anyway? To put it simply, what I’m doing now challenges that notion in its entirety. And the hardest thing to fight isn’t necessarily exams, or peer pressure, but these sickening ideas. The idea that we all have our place, or that we all have a destiny; it was difficult imagining anything more for myself when my entire life has been a series of obstacles. So yes, it was hard to shove all that aside and live out everyday believing that I belonged. It was the largest battle I had to face, you know?”
He stared at the water fiercely before continuing.
“Sometimes I look at you guys, all ready and eager to face the world, and I wonder if I can ever have that confidence. Maybe the results will be good tomorrow, maybe not. But one thing is for sure, I want to continue chasing that better version of myself. It’s something I vowed to accomplish from the start. If I lose that desire within myself, all my struggles would have been for nothing.”
A hand reached over and rested itself on his shoulder. It was a thick shoulder, strengthened tremendously from all the rugby trainings. The high-rise offices cast a contemplative eye over the group, their office lights sporadically dispersed along the glass facades.
One of them spoke after a long silence. “Bro, whatever happens, we’ve got your back. Trust me, we’re all worried too, worried sick in fact. We just don’t know how to express it. None of us have tasted failure like you have, and we’re weak and vulnerable for that. All I know is, that whatever happens, we will be there for each other, alright? We will remember this night, the night before our ‘O’ Level results, where we stood by the water and promised that we wouldn’t change for the worst.
“I know you’re sick of hearing this, but with all sincerity, you’ve come a long way. Longer than most people could even dream of, so I want you to step in there, and know that the results will be good, alright? Because I know, that amongst the five of us, you’ve had the biggest heart in this fight.”
He smiled at himself, and the echo of his father’s words from what seemed like a lifetime ago came back to him like the aftertaste of brilliant coffee.
“Maybe,” was all he could say in return.
The day he received his ‘O’ Level results would always haunt him. It wasn’t because he did badly, or that his teachers were disappointed in him, but the fact that he fell sorely below the expectations he had set for himself. All his subjects fared reasonably well, but his English pulled his grades down tremendously.
He made it well within the requirements to enter JC, but deep within the ravines of his conscience, he knew that he was capable of so much more. He had a hard time clawing himself out of that ravine in the next few days that followed.
“I would advise you to go Poly,” said his form teacher straight off. “I’m giving you very serious advice here, and based on what I see from your abilities, you are clearly capable of a lot and an overflowing dam of potential.”
He could see where this was going.
“But,” continued the teacher, “your pace of learning may not suit the Junior College curriculum. It requires consistency and rigour, critical thinking and constant evaluation of your study methods. Trust me, I was there once and even I had quite the time of my life there. I’m sure you’re capable of the above, but I don’t know if you can continue playing catch up the way you have in Express.”
He stared at his form teacher blankly, unsure of what to say. Everything sounded very serious and confrontational all of a sudden.
“So what I want you to do is, to go home and really think about what you’re good at. Don’t just go to JC thinking that it’s the popular choice. Don’t follow your friends or your heart or whatever. Do what’s best for yourself. The path from Poly is way more direct and catered to your strengths, which I believe is in math and science. Don’t let the language component in JC continue to pull you down. I can rant on forever about this, but just know that it’s for the best. It’s for your best. Please make the right choice.”
Please make the right choice. He shuffled his teacher’s words in his head. “I’ll think about it, sir,” he blurted out. “Thanks for all your guidance through the two years. I wouldn’t have made it so far if not for the faith you had in me. ”
Smiles were exchanged. Teacher and student shook hands, and then were off on their separate paths, one back to his job, and the other to the rest of his life.
* * *
The school hall was much bigger than what he had envisioned school halls to be. There were crowds of unfamiliar faces streaming in, all looking for which Orientation Group (OG) they belonged to, and all finding a place to sit before activities began. He took a few cautious steps under the scrutiny of the fluorescent lights, and treaded carefully to his OG. This was a much bigger institution than he had expected, but he was up for the challenge all the same.
The principal walked up to stage, and tapped her index finger on the tip of the microphone as a quick test. “Good morning to all of you, welcome to your first day of Junior College.”
He took a deep breath. So begins my life in JC.
As expected, the pace of work was considerably more rigourous, and the teachers didn’t really have the patience to answer every last question. It was up to him to listen carefully and take everything in his own stride. And he did this very well — at first. He made friends carefully, and immersed himself in the JC culture like a pirate to his rum. He scored considerably well for the mid year exams, and, yet again, surpassed all expectations.
Sometimes he wondered if his life was going to be one huge honour roll of the number of expectations he surpassed. Why can’t people just expect the best out of me from the beginning? He would always think that to himself. And to that, he had a point. Why did he always have to start on the losing end only to exceed expectations rather than to meet them? Why couldn’t he be at the top from the beginning, instead of play the pity card like the surprise performances at Britain’s Got Talent? It was something he had to think about, and every look of amazement and compliment that flew his way, he took with a heavy pinch of salt.
And then disaster struck. During one of the rugby trainings, he tore a ligament.
Sure, he had faced concussions, scars, been winded for minutes, and it all hurt him tremendously. But all those injuries were brought about by an opponent. This particular case was brought about by a sudden change in direction during training. His knees couldn’t take the strain of his bodyweight, and something in there just gave way. He was immediately taken off the field, hobbling between two teammates who supported him to the side.
“What has happened is that your anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, as most athletes call it, has torn itself,” announced the doctor as if telling him a mathematical formula. “So this means that your knee can no longer support your body weight. This is due to the fact that it is right inside the joint; it is the central ligament that connects the joints. Remember, the bone is the door and the ligament acts as the hinge. Without the hinge, there will not be effective movement, if any movement at all. I would advise you to rest for a few months, and stay away from any high impact sports.”
He could only nod along to this, as disappointment and anger took over. It wasn’t even an opponent, he began to think, I did this to myself.
The end of his first year was when things started to go wrong. Coupled with his newfound confidence in his mid year results and his time out of rugby, his life was thrown off balance in its entirety.
It all added up: without training, he should have had more time to study, and so he indulged in this freedom. He stayed out late, procrastinated frequently, and didn’t bother asking questions during lesson. He made crude remarks during lesson time and poked fun at the teachers’ word choices. His classmates laughed along and encouraged him, and for a moment, it felt good to fit in.
It’s funny, how a change in one facet of your life can indirectly affect another seemingly unrelated area such as his studies. Too caught up in the moment as he was, it was something he failed to realize. That is, until it was too late.
“Eh what you get for your chemistry? I got D sia damn sian. Thought I studied harder but oh wells,” lamented one of his classmates. He looked down at his final year paper in shock. He would have been more than happy with a D grade given what he saw on the arbitrary little box, with a seemingly arbitrary number inside. It was a grade he was too used to seeing, one that he had sworn to never let appear in his life again. He listlessly showed his classmates his grade, and they looked on in silence. They knew how hard he had worked to get to where he was, but then they also saw the way he had played in lesson, fooling around and distracting the class in those few months. “I’m sure you’ll be alright,” one of them ventured. He sounded as convincing as a weight loss commercial, and rightfully so, for how was one to console him when none had ever felt the abject weight of failure as he had?
Retaining in Junior College, he thought to himself. It was one event in his life that brought with it such mixed emotions. He made another quick spin in his office chair before pretending to do some reports as his supervisor walked past. He thought about the events that unfolded just three years back, and made a mental note of the things that had happened. So much was lost, and the events that unfolded still haunted him as he made another quick spin.
Retaining meant that he would repeat his first year again, as a lot of his friends progressed to their final year. It was a prospect he dreaded at first, but as the days passed it gradually sunk in that it was a life he had to accept. Well, not just a life, but an identity as well. Maybe they were right, he thought, in their eyes, I’d never have a higher standing. I’d always live my life exceeding expectations and surmounting the odds.
Being more senior, he broke into various social circles, running about the place and talking to people from his old class, rugby, his secondary school and mingling with his new class all the same. He gained a reputation after his audacious antics during his second orientation, and it didn’t take long for his underdog story to emerge. He gained a strange bout of popularity that he wasn’t used to up till now. It made him feel good and accept all that had happened to him up to now.
The year passed by like an uninterrupted gust of wind, and it wasn’t a surprise that he promoted comfortably. Things were looking up, and he was beginning to feel a lightness in his chest.
To add to this lightness, his torn ligament recovered, and he was able to play for the school again. Through the course of training, he had multiple concussions, one of which landed him in hospital. He vomited, had leg cramps, but was careful this time never to pick up any season-ending injuries. It was his final year, and his very last chance to prove something for himself on the field again. He could not afford to mess things up.
He remembered the ‘A’ Division Rugby Finals. The ball was still in his hands, warm from the entire game. And then the final whistle blew. He dropped the ball and sank to his knees. The entire crowd cheered violently from the stands, and the ground seemed to shake as scenes from four years back flooded his senses. Groups of supporters, friends and teachers ran onto the pitch. There was the school mascot, players on the field sobbing; some in triumph while others in anguish. It didn’t matter to him now. As classmates approached him for hugs, friends stood beside him for pictures, and teachers leaned forward for handshakes, he couldn’t help but feel one singular emotion: that he had made it. The feeling he now cradled in his chest was just as he had remembered it. He was sure at that moment that nothing could stand in his way from here on end.
However, it was right after this remarkable triumph that everything went dramatically wrong.
A few months later, they found him at the back of the hall, his body wracked with violent sobs, his right sleeve soaked to the tip and thick droplets leaving their mark in the concrete. He grabbed the first friend that arrived and sobbed onto his shoulder. There was no controlling such sadness, the first tear rolls out and your expression cringes up like the crumbling walls of a collapsing dam. Every last feeling of self-pity, spite and anger seemed to seep out from the corner of his eyes. There was nothing more to observe but sheer misery.
“What’s wrong man?” Started the friend. “I came all the way down here from home, so I hope you can just tell me. It really sucks seeing you like this.”
“She’s gone la. She left. She’s gone and I can never get her back,” he started in between sobs. Irrevocably, irretrievably lost, he thought.
“So she’s gone. So what?” His friend felt a sudden surge of impatience, and decided to go for the tougher approach. “She’s gone, but you’re still here. You’re going to be you no matter what, do you understand? Can you even listen to me right now? I don’t think it’s fair to let one person ruin the entire party, so why don’t you get up and stop this self pity. You owe this fight to yourself, not some girl who decides to call it quits the moment things get tough.”
“I know what you’re saying…I’ve thought of it myself. But look. It’s not so simple. Everyone who told me they’d be there for me just got up and went off as well. It’s like we were brothers and everything right, then when the break up happened they all went to her side. It probably sounds damn lame to you, but now they study together, and I don’t know. You think you won’t be affected by it but soon enough it just gnaws at you and boy, it hurts. It fucking stings. Things are happening behind my back at a ridiculous rate and I don’t think I can take it any longer.
“You know in Secondary school people would make fun of me, but that was fine. They were all decent enough to do this in front of me and so I took it like a man. Besides, I always used their words to motivate myself, to show that one day, I could do better, you know? But this! There is no fighting this sadness. It exists just for that purpose, to make one sad. It is not inspiring or motivational in any way.”
He brought his right sleeve up to his eyes at the end of the monologue. He was right. This ‘sadness’ was clearly tearing him apart. His eyes looked haggard, his once bulky frame had dramatically lessened, and worst of all, strands of white hair were starting to poke out of his hairline like streaks of contrail from fighter jets. The friend let him continue.
“And to top it all off, my father lost his job. Apparently the bus is no longer registered or something, I couldn’t even bother to ask more.” His voice trailed off and he buried his face into the hollow of his friends shoulder once again.
“Wow, that’s a lot of problems for one conversation,” ventured the friend. There was nothing one could say to make the situation any worst, so he figured out he wouldn’t be doing any harm stating the obvious.
“Why does it all have to happen at the same time? For the life of me, I can never understand that. ‘A’ Levels is in two months’ time, and here I am, a wreck of a human being, with everything falling apart all around me. Really, I won’t mind if it all spread out over the course of the last two years. I would have been strong enough to take every last punch one blow at a time, I really would have. I would have had it all planned out but this…”
The friend let him go on about the situation. He didn’t offer an opinion, didn’t make another sound. No words came to his mouth. When life presents one an unsolvable riddle, the best thing a friend can do is listen.