The Fault in Our Education

I’m currently writing this on a rooftop of a village in India! I’m all the way north, in the Himalayas somewhere near the town of Mussoorie. The weather here is crisp and cold and overall has been a good respite from the haze.

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Ok so here’s what I feel so far. Like everyone in Singapore who ever goes overseas to a less developed setting, I feel that we’re obstinately fortunate. I can list a hundred reasons as to why this is so, but for tonight’s shoutout, I’d like to focus on Education.

We visited a little school along the slopes of Mussoorie called Gharwal English Medium School, and had a great time meeting the children there whose ages ranged from 6 to 14. This school had only opened for six years, and so the oldest students had yet to graduate. To understand the concept of what school means in India, we’ll have to take a step into the realm of public schooling. From what I’ve been told, what happens in the state schools of this area is astonishing. The teachers have a tendency to not show up for class. Teachers, not students, mind you. What one would observe is a school of over 700 students with only four teachers present. Classrooms will be packed, students copying information from thick textbooks onto tawdry notebooks without the guidance of any teaching staff. This, we were told, is the state of education in the area (I’m not sure if government incentives are lacking, or are other factors more prevalent).

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This unfortunate snapshot of events was not observed in the school we visited. It was privately opened by a couple, and aided largely by fundraising and voluntary teaching staff. There was stable manpower, and ample parental support.

A talk with some of the kids will yield astonishing insights. We watched as the principle asked a few children what they wanted to be when they grew up. Many of the kids were barely 10, and stood small and skinny. Their dreams, however, loom large. It was immensely heartening to see how a large proportion of children stated jobs such as doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, pilot and army officer. I mean, the sceptic in me would like to believe that they were moulding their beliefs based on peer pressure and stereotypes of success, but was I any better in the past?

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I was a child so sick of a system that I felt confined me. I never studied when I needed to, and I always turned down my options in an act of rebellion. What do I mean by this? What I mean is, that we were all given, from a very young age, the essential tools for success. We have a government that made primary education compulsory, we had teachers that would turn up for every lesson, we have financial aid, edusave, relief teachers if the full timers got ill, parent-teacher meetings, soccer fields to cure recess boredom, dentists who visit our classes back in primary school to teach us proper dental care, workshops that edusave could totally cover, excursions that went all the way to the edges of our little island or even overseas (edusave covers some of that too). The list is by no means exhaustive. We all had these opportunities presented to us in our little stint of the Singapore education system.

But how did we choose to deal with it? Let me tell you how I dealt with it. I was bored. I felt like I could always be somewhere else during lesson. I looked at my watch a lot. I wished to be at home half the time, at home where I could lie down and stagnate. I wished so badly for my teacher to be absent at times. Lessons would start at 8am, and by 8:05 i would already feel the total lack of motivation seep in. The damn teacher was almost never absent. The emphasis on progress and the myriad of opportunities we had blinded me altogether and I was just so lost in all the privilege. Does this sound familiar?

I look back at the kids I saw today. Their eagerness to learn, the hunger in their brown eyes as they told us what their life ambition was. It is a hunger that is unabashedly absent from the children I taught back home. I taught as a relief teacher back during the holidays, and though I had my suspicions before, I can say for sure now: the bulk of the children I observed did not know what they wanted from their life. Unlike the kids in India, a clear goal hadn’t crossed their minds, and the idea of “good grades” hence translates only to immediate benefits like happy teachers, happy parents and a good class ranking. It rarely translated to “one step closer to my dream profession” or “a platform to discover my passions”. So it seems to me that our kids are generally unable to dream big. That, in essence, is the glaring fault of our education sustem: we are surrounded by so much opportunity we forget what these opportunities were supposed to lead us to.

It would be unfair, of course, to stop short of my generation when meting out such thick accusation. I always look to myself as the general guide to things. I see the kids smiling at me, so young and full of potential before I look at myself; 21 years old and uncertain as to what I want to be (or perhaps just lacking the courage to pursue what I deem as my ideal profession).

It isn’t hard to feel like I have been a complete waste of resource when I see these kids who would be more than happy to take my place, and probably fare so much better than I ever could. It was a wake up call that I really needed. I have been telling myself to treasure my education for quite a while now, and this was just the boost I needed to keep on track.

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To think of the children in India who sit diligently scribbling notes with a teacher who doesn’t appear, to the same class in Singapore celebrating a teachers absence, I can only imagine where it all went wrong. I can only imagine which student truly deserves a shot of success in his/her life.

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Coaching and the Gift of Running

“I want you to feel like you’ve just died. Yes, the feeling is similar to death. If you don’t understand what I mean after the race, then I’m sorry, you didn’t give it your best.” Motivating people is hard work. The approach is always the same, but the persistence makes for a tough job. The boys will look up at you and nod, they will give you some assurance. But in the end you’ll need to remind them again and again. The world out there is full of temptations; it isn’t easy to stay motivated.

I volunteered to take charge of the long distance component of the school Track and Field team. The school I was working at being St. Andrew’s Secondary School (SASS). There were two reasons for this. Firstly, it was because I was from the exact same track team six years back. The teachers still remembered me from back then and when they invited me to coach the boys, I was thrilled. Those days on the track were some of my fondest memories of SA. Secondly, it was because I basically loved to run. It sounds crazy, but there was something to be said about the feeling of taking long strides with the wind in your hair, hearing nothing but the sound of birds and cars, the sound of your own heartbeat, being with no one but yourself. It was amazing to me, and it brought me through tough times, school, and army, as well as dealing with being on my own. It helped me appreciate a lot of things. So yes, I latched onto this opportunity like a lazy sloth on a sturdy branch.

In the first few trainings, I could sense that there was a lot of work to do. The two teachers in charge, Madam Alifa and Miss Fernandez had been struggling to get things done because the coaches kept changing in the past and a lot of the boys were half-assed about track. I really admire their efforts because they didn’t have substantial background in track, and it was made harder because the school didn’t give it as much support as the niche sports (mainly rugby). At the first training, some of the boys would start walking during warm up, or weren’t serious in their stretching. I had to give them some talks about pursuing excellence and what not, but I wasn’t sure if that was particularly effective. I concluded that the boys didn’t have that desire. The culture was lopsided and they lacked an identity. A lot of them were in it for the points. Just like the problem I had with teaching literature, many of them chose the CCA simply because they had no other sport to join.

I was determined to change that. The methods are simple, but the persistence is hard. I made sure I was there beside them for the first month, running with them, shouting at them as we went along. Then just when they were about to give up I would shout, “SERIOUSLY, YOU’VE DONE FIVE SETS JUST TO GIVE UP ON THE SIX? ALRIGHT, GIVE UP NOW. I DARE YOU. GIVE UP LAH, COME ON, YOU LOOK LIKE YOU WANT TO GIVE UP ANYWAY!” A lot of them gave me exasperated looks, and some even gave up now and then.

Pushing them hard on the road...

Pushing them hard on the road…

And on the track.

And on the track.

No matter, I told them, I wasn’t going to give up even if they did. Upon reaching home I would text the group, prepare them for the next training, or tell them to jog over the weekends. I had to keep reminding them that it was a marathon, not a sprint. You cannot just hope to do things at the last minute and not put in consistent effort. I always linked it to studies and how you can’t study for the ‘O’ Levels one month in advance. I probably bored them to death, but I was persistent. I was once their age, and I know that with regards to running this sort of motivation is needed. In soccer or rugby it is very easy to find motivation; the entire world seems to be glorifying ball sports, and so it’s very easy to get caught up in that. What running instills in you is something more deep seated, and that is a sense of personal achievement. This was a mindset that was sorely missing in these boys, one that I had to help them discover.

I think being relatable helps, and it helped them believe in me. Madam Alifa and Miss Fernandez had a lot of experience in guiding the boys and planning out trainings, but they valued me because in all probability, I could relate better to them. I was in the boys’ shoes just a few years before, after all. We would talk and joke during and outside trainings, and it always made them feel at ease. The pain you feel would be less than the actual pain if you knew it came from a benign and understanding source. I had to be that cool, kind coach that only wanted the best for the kids. The balance between tough trainings and supportive coaching had to be discovered there and then.

I remember this, we were celebrating Madam Alifa's birthday and were deliberating whether we should smash her with the cake. Thankfully, we didn't.

I remember this, we were celebrating Madam Alifa’s birthday and were deliberating whether we should smash her with the cake. Thankfully, we didn’t.

What really encouraged me was our Intra School Cross Country. The upper secondary track boys got 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th! One of the lower sec boys clinched 1st, with two others in the top twenty. Sure, it was only within the school, but it was highly encouraging to them, and even more encouraging for me. A few weeks later, some of the sprinters attained second for the 4 x 100m during the Akira Swift Track and Field meet. They were presented with their medals before the entire school. Those were proud moments for us, and I told them later that nobody was going to shove us around, not rugby, not soccer. WE are runners, and as runners, we have to be the best at running. In time, we showed the entire school that we certainly weren’t just a bunch of ball-sport rejects, but a serious force to be reckoned with. I was in charge of these boys and no one was going to belittle us.

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The almost-clean sweep of 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th for the Intra-School Cross Country.

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Closely followed by a 2nd place for our 4 x 100 team at Akira Swift!

Training continued from that positive result, up till now. There was an Inter-School Cross country in between, but we didn’t fare as well for that. I kept telling them that they should only focus on themselves and not the competitors from the other schools. If you feel you’ve tried your best, it shouldn’t matter what your competitors did. They’ve probably trained harder than you in the past, so you cannot expect any miracles. Miracles are for the operating theatre, not the start line of a race. The miracle comes from the months of hard training, the sweat, the tears and the cries of I WON’T GIVE UP! The true miracle is the persistence of your mind. Well, I didn’t actually say that word for word (it would be epic if I did), but I articulated these thoughts to them well enough.

Sad as it sounds, I will be having my last training with them come Friday. I would love to continue with this bunch and send them off to the nationals in April, but I have my own commitments to attend to by then. I really do wish them all the best for that. They’ve been such a joy. Some of the less motivated boys would even text me now and then asking me “Sir, how should I train over the weekends”, or “Is my method of training good enough?” I am encouraged that some of my persistence has paid off, that this “culture of excellence” thing is slowly creeping into their minds. I think that beyond the long runs, dietary advice, painful stretching and reminders to run on the weekends, the best gift I could offer them was a renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. It is a special gift the running gods had granted me so many years back, so I feel it is only right if I helped them discover it as well.

For one last time, Up and On!

You guys will be missed. continue training hard and do your school proud! Up and On!

You guys will be missed. Continue training hard and do your school proud! Up and On!

Teaching, Part III: 3 Things I’ve Learnt

Why do all good things come to an end? Back in 2007, Nelly Furtado posed this question in her hit single, and back in 2007 I was supposed to be a secondary one kid in St. Andrew’s Secondary School (SASS). I was in Perth, Western Australia for the whole of 07’ and I came back in 2008 as a Sec 2 kid to the open arms of SASS. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful journey that led me back to where I started. And so it was, that on January 2nd, 2015, I returned as a relief teacher to the very same school that raised me. Two and a half months passed, and on a warm Friday morning I stepped into St Andrew’s Secondary School as a teacher for the last time.

Before I start going full sentimental with the goodbyes, I’d just like to keep composed, and touch on three key takeaways from my experience as a relief teacher.

  1. Teachers sacrifice a lot

You always hear awesome things about being a teacher; that they end work at 2pm and that civil servant pay is actually pretty decent and they have one month of holiday in June and another month in December and oh my gosh that’s not fair everyone in the corporate world only gets 14 days and it’s just kids how tough can it be? Yeah, you get the sensing, that teaching is quite the “easy” and undervalued job. I believe many people choose not to be teachers because they feel they are “better than that”, that they could probably take on a bigger challenge in life and make a “bigger impact to society”. Well, mud to them, because let me tell you straight out: teaching is tough shit. In the world of teaching, there are a lot of variables that play out in the background that society is blissfully unaware of.

Most of the teachers end their regular timetables at 1:45 PM, but I always observe a bunch of teachers spread out at the wooden tables outside the staffroom after school. They are crowded around by a group of students, giving consults that last till as late as 4. Teachers sacrifice their own time to give these consults, and on paper, they have no obligation to do so. I myself have given some consults, but not nearly as many as the full-timers. Consults are pretty interesting because you actually have a smaller audience so you feel like you’re teaching more effectively. But at the same time, it’s draining to put in this extra effort after the entire morning of slogging it out. But they’d gladly do it, because after all, they still care for their students.

Besides these extra consults, there is at least one after-school staff meeting (if you’re lucky) and two CCA training days per week (again, if you’re lucky. The school Rugby team trains at least 5 times a week, even on weekends). So with all these considerations, ending work early is really an illusion. Most teachers only have one day in the week that they can leave school early, and even then, an avalanche of marking greets them at home.

Holidays aren’t as festive as you might think either. Teachers are at home (or even in school) making long-term lesson plans, goal setting, crafting worksheets and marking the worksheets they created last term. In my opinion, the effort and sacrifice more than justifies this “decent civil servant salary”. Other jobs may be tough, but teaching is certainly no less tough.
 

  1. Teaching is not a one-man show.

 I used to think that teaching was like hosting the Ellen Show, you just step on up, do that cute little dance, crack a few jokes, make the entire world interested, and then step on down. Well, it isn’t. Teaching is an insane balance of everything and anything. What do I mean by that?

Firstly, you have to balance between micro and macro management. One minute you’re giving out general instruction, and the next minute you are scuttling about, answering the specific questions of individual students. It takes tremendous skill to vacillate between both roles so your class knows exactly what you want. And that is assuming you have an attentive class. If you have a noisy class that throws things around and threatens to get into a fight every five minutes, then it’s a whole new ball game.

Which is the second challenge: discipline. To maintain some classroom decorum, you have to bargain with the students and make sense to them throughout the lesson. They will bargain for second chances, ask if they can eat in class, and give a myriad of excuses to get out of line. There is no one minute you can take your eyes off them, no moment in time you can fully turn your back to them. Between the bargaining you have to manage your volume effectively, and more importantly manage the way you punish them. You cannot be too lenient to the point where they crawl over your head, nor can you be too strict to a point were they lose all respect for you. It all hinges upon the right balance of attention and discipline, and from that, you get effective teacher-student communication.

As you can already guess, teaching is nothing like hosting your own stand up comedy. It took quite a few lessons to understand this, and after two months, my classroom management is still an area that is sorely lacking. I wish I could be more versatile and adapt faster, but I don’t blame myself. I believe that most teachers take years of experience to master this, and even then, it is never truly perfect.

  1. Teachers need constant encouragement and support.

Teaching is one hell of a demanding job. Outside lessons, they are juggling a thousand matters to do with admin, marking and parents. During lessons they are juggling forty-odd students. Anything can go wrong at anytime. We have a lot to think about, and when something goes wrong, we often blame ourselves.

We partly blame ourselves for all sorts of things like poor test results, parent complains, and even when our students are late for class. We are expected to have some control over the class, so when there is a slip, we feel bad.

For instance, I once had a class where one student lost his temper and injured another student. This happened in the split second when my back was turned to the class. It was total chaos, and after the lesson, I had to make an incident report and do a bunch of things to ensure that punishment was meted out and that things were settled properly. At the end of it, I felt terrible. I tried very hard to rationalize, that it was too sudden, that things like that just happen, that boys will be boys. But like how water tends to flow to the lowest point, the blame always led back to me.

We will never admit it, but through all this negativity, we desperately need the assurance that we’re not screwing everything up for the kids. It may be that some experienced teachers have seen a lot through the years and so manage to hold their own, but either way, some sort of doubt does creep in. I was fortunate that I got the assurance from my colleagues that this sort of experience is inevitable. There were tough times but we’d talk it out. There were even meetings that targeted problem students and in the aftermath, no one was left alone. They knew I was new to all this, and whenever I helped out with their lessons or marking they’d occasionally place throat remedies and fruit juices on my desk. Sometimes I would even find lunch on my desk. We helped each other out, and I was taken aback by how immensely kind and supportive they were.

The only thing possibly better than support from my colleagues is support from my students. Sometimes after lesson they’d tell me how engaging it was, and that my style of teaching is refreshing even though I was shaky and uncertain during the lesson. Even the small gestures like the casual hello and a simple “how was your day?” can really make you feel a lot better amidst the everyday pressure. Sure, the students can turn into devils mid-lesson, but as I discovered early on, their childlike innocence never fails to reveal itself now and then. It makes you feel like for all your efforts, there is some positive result reflected off their care and concern. That in itself makes a lot of things seem worth it.

Ultimately, saying goodbye has been made very hard because of the above. All the encouragement and support, all the smiles and benign gestures have all melted down to harried goodbyes, a few thank you notes and nice firm handshakes. No, it hasn’t always been rainbows and butterflies, and yes, I’ve had my lows even within two short months. But within these trails hid important lessons, and with these lessons I have found some purpose in my life.

Every experience has taught me a lot, but what will truly stick with me is the kindness of both my colleagues and students. I hold them in such high esteem, and if my path ever takes me back, it is to be part of this family again.

Teaching, Part II

It is already March. More than two months have passed since I first stepped into the staff room.

Remember my first post about teaching? I sort of acknowledged that teaching came with it’s own ideals, and that you have to dismantle every last one of them to survive. If you don’t destroy your ideals, they will destroy you. Well, that’s what I thought, and I guess it worked for a while. Teaching each class, I tried having fun while I could with them, and the boys have been largely supportive of me. Of me, meaning me as a person. They can like you, but will they like what you teach? Lesson time is almost always noisy, and needless to say, I’ve had to compete with all that noise. When your primary school teacher says things like, THERE ARE FORTY OF YOU AND ONE OF ME, she absolutely means it. It is tiring, and you get frustrated.

Funny story, when I started off I made this silly vow to never shout in class. Amazingly, for the first week, it worked. The boys were still in a daze from the holidays, fresh from all the slacking and unfamiliar with each other after such a long absence. I could be engaging, and they would listen. I knew this wouldn’t last, though. I had been a student before, and I just knew they needed a few weeks to warm up.

It may have been the second or third week that I shouted for the first time. Two boys got annoyed at each other, and the bigger sized boy pushed his classmate to the ground. I strode over and slammed my hand on the table so hard my palm hurt. I shouted at him to sit down, I shouted at him to think about what he just did, and I shouted at him to look me in the eye. I shouted at him as if we were fighting a war and there were bullets whizzing overhead and bombs falling around us. I shouted so loud the entire class froze, that everything seemed to stand still for a while. My throat hurt and I was trembling. The boys looked at me quietly, as if thinking but you’re just a relief teacher…aren’t you supposed to be nice? Yes, I am a relief teacher, but no, I won’t be nice if that means you get to injure your classmate. There is something more important than kindness, and that is fear: the fear of wrong choices. That day, I felt very surprised at myself, that I could actually be so stern. It felt good to be firm about something, yet it felt strangely out of character. After that first time, the subsequent shouting sessions didn’t matter as much anymore, and the same goes for most first time experiences.

The subject I teach is very interesting to me, and I find great meaning in it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all my students. Not that I blame them; no one can do six subjects in school and say they’re in love with every one of them. They tend to prioritize their energy on certain subjects and slack off on the others. It’s just my luck that Literature seems to be a popular “slack off” choice. So, weeks wore on and I could tell, that the interest level in the subject was fading. They were getting rowdier, clustering together at the back and disrupting my teaching.

Those were a tough few weeks for me. I thought I had prepared myself for it, but I was wrong. This is one problem that shouting wasn’t going to cure. There were a few attentive ones, but that was it. The rest were uninterested. They didn’t listen not because they were distracted, or that they were tired. They didn’t listen simply because they didn’t want to. That was, to me, very hard to accept.

I would wake up on some days and ask myself: is it worth it? Is it worth teaching when you know that a lot of what you say may not actually help the kids? Sure, it got interesting sometimes, the weird things the students say, and weirder things they did. It was all fun and laughter, but I couldn’t help but think, that beneath all that, how much was I actually helping them? My confidence fell at that period, and I worried a lot about how I could reach out to these kids. One of the students told me after lesson, sir, I can’t listen well in class because it is just too distracting, we’re not getting much done. That comment was so raw and honest that it scalded me. I felt so empty after that lesson, and so bitterly discouraged.

That low point lasted for about a month. I would go to school and find it so hard to face the lesson, find it so hard to understand these kids. I’d like to think I understood what they had going on in their heads, but I have to admit, I had left my student days clean behind. I was tired but tried not to show it, annoyed at myself but pretended to smile through it all.

What eventually saved me was that I never stopped trying. I had to abide by the universal truth; that you cannot expect the circumstances to change for you, that you yourself have to change for your circumstances. I just kept to the routines: planning lessons, shouting for attention, slamming doors, banging tables, and giving out worksheet after worksheet. I mixed things up, and attempted to make things interesting.

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Found this in one of my students’ essays. And it related well to my situation at that time, that the storms you go through will eventually define you.

I think that after a month or so, it has paid off. It paid off not because the classes got any easier to teach, and it certainly hasn’t made the rowdy bunch any more subdued. It worked because after trying week after week, my perspective started to shift. I started to believe that although these kids may not appear to listen, they actually need you. Sure, they don’t need you to survive by a long shot, and neither will they need you as a friend. But when they look back at their secondary school days, they will realize how big a role every teacher has played, just like how I realize it now. What they need you for is your role in their growing experience; one that may have turned out totally dissimilar had a different teacher taken my place. I remember every last teacher that had taught me, and I’m sure the kids I teach will (hopefully) remember me. I hope they remember the “values” that I have preached, the ideas that I’ve shared during lesson. Time keeps running, and these are irreplaceable moments in their lives that cannot ever be exchanged for anything else. As someone who is just a relief teacher, I am glad I could share these moments with them. As you can see, I’m pretty idealistic after all.

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It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

It saddens me to say that I will be leaving soon. Maybe I’ll be back for a day or two in between holidays, but once the rhythm and routine is broken, it just won’t be the same anymore. This is probably a cliché in education, but I believe that the kids have taught me much more about life than I’ve taught them about literature and in some way that makes me feel selfish.

Learning purely from experience has been both terrible and fun, cruel and kind. The students have driven me mad, yet their kindness and (relative) innocence cannot keep me angry for long. I believe that to teach, you have to indulge yourself in such ironies. There were ups and downs, and that has made the journey a worthwhile and memorable one. Naturally, the next and perhaps the most important question I ask myself is: will I consider this as a lifetime career?

On the Way to Work

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The silence as you stir amongst the sheets. The crisp air that hits you as you sit up. You lie back down on your bed again. You are unwilling to accept the day that is to come. You are imprisoned by your own insecurities of what the day might be like. You are lost in what used to be your sleep. You get up for real this time, and prepare to leave.

Shaver, toothbrush, towel and cologne. These items scratch, scrub and stain your body in one way or another. Before you forget, you apply a dollop of wax to your scruffy hair, still disorientated from sleep. And just like that, you realise you’re fresh again. You walk to the front door with folder in one hand and wallet and handphone in the other. One sock shallows your left foot and the other devours your right. The shoes then take this opportunity to swallow the socks that have swallowed your feet. It is a snug fit. You walk out of the door, feeling a sense of heaviness. Like an ant carrying a grain of rice, there is the burden of the day ahead weighing down on your shoulders.

The morning air is still as it is cold. An occasional gust of wind runs through your hair, wraps itself around your bare neck. The sky is painted in brilliant hues of almost orange, nearly blue. The sun is shy in making its appearance but will regain its composure in time. You walk to this new day, the world around you waking up as well. Cars humming past on the road as the street lights switch off. Buses pregnant with the working crowd, motorcycles weaving between traffic. A pigeon lands on a streetsign just ahead. You notice the horizontal of the streetsign is decked with pigeons. One of them observes you as you walk past; studies you for all it’s worth. It soon loses interest and continues staring into the distance alongside its friends.

You walk past an overhead bridge that links to your workplace. The dark blue of the expired night is being steadily replaced by the brilliant orange that bleeds across the sky. The sun hides itself cleverly behind a building. When you finally see it, it is a small orb in the distance peeking at you in between building and greenery. It tells you that it will be yet another gruelling day, but it also promises that it will rise again tomorrow.

You walk along, take a right turn that brings you down the bridge. The stares of the pigeons and the glare of the sun is still throbbing in your vision, and you find the will to walk on. As if this day would be any different than the previous day, as if this day will make all the previous days worth it; you walk on, a steady lengthening of your stride. This is when you tell yourself, today will be a good day.

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Lifeguards, Job Fairs and Passion

It was after work and I felt like it was good weather for a swim. My long distance running dreams are currently as shattered as my right ankle, so to maintain some sort of fitness I had no choice but to switch to swimming for the time being.

I am not proficient at swimming nor do I enjoy it. I tried to maintain my form and strokes but wasn’t strong enough to fight through the resistance. I swam with my lungs the whole time, while my muscles did just enough to keep me afloat. After a few laps I got out and sat at the stands, exhausted.

That was when I started talking to one of the lifeguards there. He donned the familiar yellow shirt with red shorts and had a pair of sunglasses propped above his hairline. He was probably in his fifties, and sat comfortably in his plastic chair. I told him about my injury and how I was swimming to maintain my fitness, and he advised me to take it slow.

Then came the interesting part, I asked him about his job.

“So how’s it like to be a lifeguard?” I asked. “Not bad, lah,” was his reply. Not bad? That’s all?

“I know a friend, he works as a part time lifeguard. He goes around hotels and public pools, but he still tells me it’s really boring.” I tried to be indirect with my words because I didn’t want to directly insinuate him and his job. I guess I was just curious as to what he had to say about this bit of popular opinion, that being a lifeguard is “boring”, so to speak.

“Well, you see. That’s the thing about human nature,” he started. “When the job has a lot of requirements and is very complicated, people complain that it is very tough and tiring, restrictive and rigorous.” I nodded along. “But then suddenly you give people a job with nothing to do, they will definitely complain that it is boring and purposeless.” The fact that he brought up human nature straight off the bat made me like him from the start. And yes, what he said made a lot of sense. It seems like we are never contented with the work we are given. It’s either too hard or too easy, and both have such devastating side effects.

He continued, “so I think it’s important to find that balance, to have a job that doesn’t kill you and at the same time doesn’t bore you to death. That’s the main idea. Many youngsters now will obviously be bored with this job. Plus nowadays there are so many job fairs, and so many engaging and challenging jobs out there. You all should go out there and find your own paths.” I couldn’t agree more. I told him I was trying out teaching now, and to that he said, “Teaching is interesting. It ties in very close to nursing, and they are jobs that people don’t appreciate for how tough they are. You deal with so many different people and many of them will not appreciate you or simply forget you after they leave your care. It’s tough but many do enjoy it. I’m sure there’s a reason why.”

Well I did enjoy it so far, I told him, and may very well consider it for the future. It is tough, but there is value in the children you invest your energy in. He nodded at me and concluded, “you may very well teach in the future, but in the end, you must remember the most important thing, and that is passion. Above all, there is passion. People will do the toughest jobs for passion, and look at me. I’ve been doing this for 34 years. I sit here all day and to me it means a lot. It is relaxing and I get to talk to people and have become friends with many of the regular swimmers. Many of us give lessons after our shifts but right now I’m too lazy to do that. I just enjoy what I do.”

I smiled at him and nodded. Words of wisdom do come from the most unexpected places.

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Why St. Andrew’s?

I recall an instance when somebody exclaimed “my blood runs white and blue! (white and blue are the St Andrew’s (SA) school colours)” To that, I smiled back and nodded in approval, for deep within, I knew exactly what this person meant. I’m not the most knowledgeable in regards to SA, but what I do have is a load of experience here. I have been in the Saints family for over fifteen years now. I started my journey at Ascension Kindergarten, then moved on the the junior school (SAJS), followed by the secondary school (SASS) and then finally ended my run in the Junior college (SAJC). Or so I thought. After army, I found myself holding a red pen and some markers, walking around SASS as a relief teacher. So yes, in a way, I’ve gone full circle, all the way as a student through St. Andrew’s and just to come back as a teacher. I thought it was a good conclusion to my time at the school. It was also good for me to give back to the school that raised me before I went off to uni. So as you read all this, you may be wondering: why St. Andrew’s? To answer that, I have to first go way back.

From Primary School...

From Primary School…

To Secondary School...

To Secondary School…

To Junior College!

To Junior College!

Recently, I’ve been meddling a lot with the thought of what makes a Saint? A Saint is what the students here are generally addressed and identified as. However, the term Saint didn’t roll off the tongue very well for me. It was just a mere label, and I already formed that conclusion late into primary school. I looked around when I was in Primary 5 and decided that there was nothing special or spectacular about the students here, and so the term Saints, with all its grandeur and prestige, meant nothing to me. Coming back, I did take some time to register some fleeting opinions on what this school meant to the boys. I got a lot of lacklustre answers such as “like that lor,” or “everyone is here because of the affiliation from Junior School.” I smiled at these responses because they were so blatantly honest, and an exact reflection of how I felt back then when I was in secondary school.

So what would lead to such an opinion of St Andrew’s, even within the psyches of the students? It all began with the notion that no one is here by chance. These are the words displayed at the entrance of SAJC which ironically requires much more than just pure chance to enter. To me, this motto applies more to the junior and secondary school. It is the notion that the school will accept anyone with various backgrounds and abilities and work to value add to every individual. It is a highly idealistic notion, that no one is here at random, and that every student serves his role; that every student has a higher purpose here. And from that assumption the school is willing to go all out to develop each child.

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And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That's my best friend on the left by the way)

And we stick close to our ideals, knowing that having a few triumphs among the majority makes everything we champion worth it. (That’s my best friend on the left by the way)

However, any lofty ideals I have reserved for this school have been shelved in a deep corner of my mind. In the final analysis, there isn’t much about it really. Besides our strong rugby culture and some signs of life from our school band, what else is there about our school that really stands out? I’m not putting down any efforts made by the school to improve itself, but one must recognise the nature of competition out there; not just in academics but in sports. It is ruthless and goal oriented, and many institutions we are up against are backed by prestige and substantial funding. I just want to make the point that ideals aren’t something that makes this village stand out. To me, what this school represents is the struggle of the average Singaporean student. There will be distractions and there will be hardships, and somehow that student will just have to suck it up and battle through it all. That’s the reality of our education landscape, not the dream stats of 50% straight A’s and 99.9% University eligibility some schools effortlessly achieve.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

Here they are, ordinary students living their ordinary lives. And there is nothing wrong in that.

But a lot of how I felt has since changed. I still accept that this “four schools one village” concept is a far cry from perfect, and that a lot of problems lie deep beneath the impressive facade you see as you pass by St. Andrew’s Village (SAV) on the PIE. I accept that these problems have led to a lot of unhappiness both inside and outside of the school, because back in the day, I faced some of these problems myself.

But then, what’s the big deal with problems? Parents make a huge fuss of it because they want to protect their precious children. Teachers fuel their staffroom talk with student problems, administrative problems, etc. But then when you think about it, it makes sense that every educational institution has it’s own problems. In fact, there are no perfect institutions. Even the comparatively ideal schools at Bukit Timah and Bishan get the occasional student outcry that goes viral on the blogsphere. Problems will plague any system that caters to the masses, so saying that we have problems is as good as saying that there are clouds in the sky. It would be mighty weird if the sky was cloudless all day, wouldn’t it?

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Except it WAS cloudless on this day when I took this shot of our neighbourhood!

Problems aside, I believe that in those formative years, we made the most of what we had and learned to have fun in the process. That was my most important lesson learned. In a strange way, this was only possible because our school gave us space. In the secondary school, we were a fun loving bunch, that was often immature and didn’t get our priorities right. We did silly things and never looked back. There was this once that a group of us decided to skip lessons to leave school and study ourselves outside. Well, that was what we explained to the discipline master the next day, and I was sure he didn’t believe a single word we told him. But the truth was, we were really studying outside. We studied and laughed in between conversations, and received multiple phone calls from different teachers telling us to come back. We diverted our attention to how we could cover each others’ butts on the next day. Thinking back, it was really silly to skip school just to study on our own, but somehow this memory remains a very fond one. Why? Because sometime in those few years, I learned how to have fun and not regret it.

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Being young and having regrets were two mutually exclusive events. We had fun and weren’t sorry for it.

I see a similar culture in the staffroom. Not the skipping of lessons, of course, but the learning to have fun part. There are jokes exchanged and students discussed. Amidst all the administrative problems, and the occasional lack of motivation, I would suddenly see a packet of fruit juice on my desk or a Ninjompeipakoa (throat relief medicine) suddenly pop up. We weren’t afraid to help each other and that made my experience strangely heartening and fun.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you're thrust into a new environment.

The kind of thing I see now and then, sore throat remedies and flu medicine appearing out of nowhere on my table. It helps a ton especially when you’re thrust into a new environment.

Of course, I’m not saying that fun is absent from other institutions, or that SA is especially fun. I’m just saying how I felt, and what I remembered. In other words, I’m talking about memories. And these are memories that I have no other school to compare to, as all my memories were forged within these walls. The feeling that you had fun or that it was worth it are all attributed to what happened in the past and how we choose to remember certain phases of our lives.

Memories are dredged up every now and then as I go around my business at school. I’ve bumped into a few primary school teachers who (to my surprise) still recognised me (must be because of the occasional teachers’ day visits). Travelling out to have lunch I’d sometimes end up on the same table as my SAJC teachers. I had a relatively smooth time in those institutions, and nothing exceptionally bad happened under the watch of these teachers. So with that assurance I was able to snuggle up in the warmth of my recollections from three to ten years back, and feel a sense of closure. This was the sort of closure I didn’t intend to seek, but was more of an indirect result of my return. Like I said, it was about going full circle, and right now, this circle feels pretty complete.

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Of course, I’ll always choose to remember the good times.

To round it all off, I’m glad to say that my blood, too, runs white and blue. I’ve had my doubts before, but right now I’m more sure than ever. The school has stuck firmly with the values of our forefathers, and because of that, I was accepted into this community. St. Andrew’s has accepted me and taught me a lot through the years and I can never forget that.

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn't realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement, the guy in the pink shirt, even followed me through army!

Featuring the alumni of the Primary school, Secondary school and Junior college. I didn’t realise the significance of this photo until now. Clement (the handsome guy in the pink shirt) even followed me through army!

So, back to the question: why SA? I must be honest, there has been good and bad, from feelings of absolute joy to outright misery. I was allowed to dream, and occasionally pounded headfirst into the cruel depths of reality. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with the most fun and diverse groups of people imaginable, and many of us still keep in close contact. There are memories, good and bad, but in the end these memories made me who I am, and I am glad for that.

There’s no reason really, nothing for me to utterly convince you as to why SA should be an institution you would want to invest in. This is not an institution that is spectacular in any way, nor does it pride itself in being over-the-top or elitist. But alas, after being here for so long, I can say that this school is as much a part of me as I have been a part of it. And for me, that has always been enough.

Thank you SA, you've always been enough.

Thank you SA, you have always been enough.