You Don’t Just Tell Someone to Chill 

Coming off a fulfilling summer, I would say that life is looking up right now. Like most people, I am chill as they come when things go my way. A house over my head, friends that care, a school to attend. I count my blessings like a Shepard his sheep. I don’t sweat the small stuff when the horizon is flat. I live my life with optimism and I want the same for the people around me.

For many of us who live our lives like that it’s especially easy to want our friends to be happy. And when I mean happy, I mean always happy. We want for our friends to be well, and we equate wellness with happiness and will do anything to see them that way. Whenever our friends tell us about their problems we tell them to chill, saying this word with the finesse of a firefighter dousing flames.

And the logic seems to work out. Things happen in our lives, many of them bad. We try our best to change things but sometimes are not able to. And you know what they say; that the only thing you can control is your mind so if you tell your mind to chill then everything will be fine; you won’t be sad and when you’re not sad then you’re well.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that wanting your friends to be chill is selfish. Sure, being chill is nice and all. It is a state of being that we silently strive for in our everyday lives and go through extensive pains and spend exorbitant amounts of money to uphold. 

But very much like having supper or owning a hamster; there is a right time and place for chillness. Chillness is when you just finished two hours of research and are looking at traffic pass by above an overhead bridge on the way home. Chillness is listening to Bach alone when all your friends cannot get over One Direction. Chillness is for when you are ready for it, for when your mind needs to rest and the intensity of your soul needs to subside. 

Chillness is not about suddenly stemming the flow of tears just because your friend accuses you for having no chill. Chillness is not downing can after can of beer to get over that ex and laughing too hard with your friends, banging the table too loudly. Chillness is not about getting over something you are not yet ready to get over. Being chill is not the remedy for sadness. Going through sadness is. 

I often see sadness as a tunnel through a towering mountain. It offers a way across challenges, but a dark and lonely one as such. There is no chill in this tunnel. Often it is just you, alone, walking forward in the dark, desperately feeling for any semblance of yourself, any guidance that the jagged walls can bring. You really want to get out but alas sadness offers no shortcuts. The only way out of sadness is through it, where you will face yourself and make sense of how and why you feel this way. It is suffocating, terrible and some of us never quite make it out of that tunnel. Ultimately, it is a journey of constant self-acknowledgment. 

For anyone who is not in this tunnel of sadness with you, it is too easy to say “just chill, it’s going to be ok.” However, there is real danger in telling someone to chill. It makes them hyper-aware of their heightened emotional state, and worst of all, makes them feel other-ed because of it. They start thinking of why it is them that have been singled out to be the un-chill ones in a world that seems so abundantly chill.

We treat emotion like it is something that can be tempered with and controlled when that is hardly the case. It’s almost as absurd as telling a stab victim not to feel pain or a mourner not to cry at a funeral. Just because you can be chill, doesn’t mean that others should be chill or should even try to be. Chillness was never a given, but a privilege.

So next time you notice a friend trudging through their own tunnels of sadness I challenge you to gear up and go into that tunnel with them. Hold their hand, stay up with them till 3 am, bring them to a quiet spot where the lights are dim and the air is cool and listen to them, sit there quietly but always, always be there.

You don’t just tell someone to chill, but rather try to understand why they are not. Because chillness can only be experienced and not commanded. Because ultimately to listen carefully, not just with your ears but your presence is what it actually means to care.

Because that is what your friend really ever needed.

 

The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, Part III

Those few months felt like the toughest moments in his life. Thinking back about it sitting in his office chair, it was remarkable that he could have made it so far. Every day felt like a fight to survive, dealing with unresolved emotions, deep-seated regrets, crumbling grades. Surrounding all that was a disastrous family situation; there was shouting within the walls of his home on a daily basis, and the terrible prospect of having less than enough to survive on scared him.

He felt like he just fallen into a hole on an otherwise normal day, and now he was stuck. His screams for help wouldn’t reach anyone outside, and before long even he couldn’t hear the sound of his own voice. He spent nights lying in bed, crying himself to sleep after chucking his books aside. It reminded him of the times back in Secondary Two when he would jerk awake with tears in his eyes and a back full of sweat. Back then, those were tears of fear. The tears he wept now, however, were tears of resignation and pity. The same liquid, but served for a different occasion. The dull ache he felt in his chest didn’t go away, all the way to the start of his ‘A’ Levels. It rendered him senseless and everything he thought was certain melted away like an ice cube sliding across searing asphalt.

He thought about what happened exactly one year ago. He had already enlisted and took time out of camp to receive his ‘A’ Level results.

“Eh bro how’s the results?” Came a text from one of his friends from exactly one year back.

“Bad” was his reply.

“Bad? You mean below expectations bad, or like really bad?”

There was a long wait for the next reply. “Like, really bad.”

“Oh.” Replied the friend. And it was the end of that conversation. There was nothing more to say. The sum off all the hardships he had faced in the final year had taken a toll on him, and this was the inevitable end result. He trudged back to camp, defeated.

He didn’t reply any more texts and inquiries about his results, and people could guess as much; it wasn’t good. He could hear the voices even before they reached him. This guy tried so hard but still met his fate. I can’t say I’m not surprised, said one. The juniors that looked up to him all these years need to find a new role model lah. This one at the start show potential only, but can’t even seal the deal at the end, came another voice, a higher-pitched one that he imagined to be that of his secondary school teacher. You have your place. I told you so. I was right, wasn’t I? Now go find your place. And oh yes, one more thing: stop trying already, ok?

 

All this while, the whistles continued blowing, and the sun pricked his scalp where his hair had just been shaved off. Enlisting proved to be a good distraction, and any negative thoughts were wrung out of his body due to sheer exhaustion. It taught him one thing, that life was going to move on whether he liked it or not, whether he scored straight A’s or straight E’s. Life was going to continue the same way the ghosts kept reviving in Pac man, it was just up to him to continue swallowing the dots.

Due to his injuries sustained during rugby, he was deemed unfit for combat and hence after his basic training was posted as a clerk. The posting itself was fortunate, but the location of his camp made it all the better for it was only a ten minute bicycle ride from his home. It was a rare stroke of good fortune in an otherwise turbulent existence the last few months.

And so it was, about ten months ago, he was sitting on the very same chair, twirling his pen expertly around the knuckle of his index finger when a colleague accidentally swept his entire cup of coffee onto the rug. The mug bounced once as if in slow motion, before it tipped and unloaded its entire contents onto the fabric. He immediately leaped over to help clean up the mess,  grabbing a box of tissues and getting on his knees. As the wad of tissues in his hand soaked up the dark brown coffee, a sudden, virtually irrelevant thought came to his mind.

I am going to retake my ‘A’ Levels.

 

Just like that, as he was cleaning up the coffee, he knew he had to do it. There was no reason for him to suddenly think this way, but made perfect sense at that moment; the time he had, the ease of transport and most of all, the unresolved bitterness he held so close to him. It was going to be straightforward. He was going to do this.

“It’s not so straightforward,” advised one of his close friends a few days later. “I mean, I’m not trying to spoil your party here. I also know that a lot of teachers and classmates have told you so in the past that nothing good can come out of you trying this, but lets shove all that aside. Back then you had a classroom, a whiteboard and a living, breathing teacher to help you everyday. You had an environment of learning, in other words. They may have doubted you then but at least you had a decent shot at it in the past.”

The friend was speaking with unusual eloquence, and it scared him.

“But now all you have is a camp, a table and — I don’t know, some freakish willpower I have no idea where you dredge out from. I think it may be over for you. I wouldn’t be doing you any favours sugarcoating my words here, but the chance has come and gone. I don’t know, can you really do this? And the money it would cost you as well! Eight hundred dollars just to retake, without any financial reimbursement, no real reason why you’d fare any better as well…I don’t know about your sudden urge to retake man. I really don’t.”

He thought about it for a while, before a wry smile crossed his face. “Thanks for the opinion bro, but I think you’ve just given me all the reason I need to retake this paper.”

The friend was taken aback. “Wait. I’ve been trying to convince you NOT to retake man. I don’t quite see how you can find any reason to. Everything I said makes perfect sense. You have no reason to put yourself through it again. Your results can still get you a uni course. So why?”

He cleared his throat in defiance. “Why? The real question I’m going to have to ask myself is firstly, why not? And secondly, to what extent can I prove you wrong? Besides,perfect sense seems to be the last thing I need right now.”

His friend now looked up and smiled to himself, impressed.

“It’s funny, if you had encouraged me to retake I may have reconsidered the entire thing and backed out, but now that you’ve given me all the reasons not to, I guess all I have left to do is prove you wrong, do I not?”

* * *

The first problem in his quest to retake his exam was the prescient issue of money. There were many families out there who could easily fund the endeavors of their offspring, and truth be told, his wasn’t one of them. He scratched his head, thinking of where he could possibly get the cash.

He considered borrowing from his friends, and when he brought this issue up to his parents, his mother simply shrugged and told him he’d have to find the money himself, dad had lost his job and we cannot afford to fund any of your dreams. Dreams. Did his mother really consider this endeavor a mere dream?

The dateline for application was drawing near, and he had not a single cent.

This all changed during a hot tuesday afternoon, during a routine funds transfer. He queued patiently at the ATM machine, and when it was finally his turn he got a shock.

There was eight hundred dollars more in his account. He stood there for half a minute, staring at the figures. Whatever errands he had to run that day were soon forgotten.

Upon reaching home, he questioned his father about it. He was walking about the kitchen, tossing ingredients into the pan, where they mingled; sizzling wildly. His father wiped his sweat from his forehead. All he would tell him was this: “don’t tell your brother and sisters about this.”

He didn’t understand his meaning.

“But why? Wouldn’t this be hard on us?” He questioned.

“That isn’t the point.”

But that is the whole point!” He rebutted.

His father became stern, and a few years seemed to recede from his countenance. The pan was sizzling to the point of uncontrolled pops and crackles. How much oil did he add?

“Listen up. I don’t give a single damn about what you think about this, alright? If it is your dream to retake this exam, it is every father’s dying right to give his son that dream. This is my money, and you are my son.”

Father looked at son, frying pan in hand, ready to smack a baseball out of the park.

“You take that money, and make something of it, alright? I believe in you, son. I haven’t the means to show it and for all I know I may have been the lousiest parent, but God forbid I deny you this. You have an entire life ahead of you and it starts here. Now go.”

You have the entire pitch, and eighty minutes; now go.

His father returned to the pan, stirring the vegetables, a wizard over his cauldron. Leaving the kitchen, the son went to his room and closed the door.

In the dark, he clutched the wad of notes in his hand. His lower lip was trembling; his heart thumping fiercely. He had meant to return it to his father then and there, but he knew now, more than ever, the first thing he was going to do. He was going to make him proud.

* * *

And so started a whole new routine. The entire process was well thought out, painstakingly followed, and had no trace of his sloppy and distracted self from the previous year. He grabbed his bike in the morning, and the day would begin as follows:

He would cycle to work, wind playing with his emerging hair. The ride would take about ten minutes. When he was in his office, he would scramble to one corner and delve straight into his books, copying notes, solving math problems and physics equations. He would text his past teachers if he had burning questions, and some even offered to tutor him on his off days.

After work ended at six, he would cycle home. He spent a couple of hours scrubbing his own office attire and hanging it out to dry, wolfing down his home-cooked dinner and taking a quick shower. At about eight, he would get on his bike again, ride all the way to Novena Starbucks, and dig out his books and continue with a second round of revision.

He would read through his notes, memorize concepts, and focus on every last detail and idea that the notes seemed to be telling him. There were days where this revision would go smoothly and everything would flow into his head like clear water out of a jug. However, on some days, tiredness would creep in ever so unreasonably, and thoughts would not flow. His eyelids would shut as his resolve melted.

But he would always jolt awake. The images from the past, every failure, every last person that did not have faith in him waded in the waters of his conscience. He could not drown them out, and their triumphant cries kept him pinned to his books. He could not lose sight now.

On most days, he would study until three in the morning, cycle home, and collapse onto his bed at four.

He would be awake in four hours, and the cycle would start all over again.

Once, at work, a supervisor had a request.

Eh, can help Roger and I move some of the boxes?”

He looked up from his desk, leaving the world of nuclear physics behind. “Yes, sure.”

They moved a few boxes, and it took longer than expected. After the entire job was done, the three men were exhausted. Those were some heavy boxes, was all he could think. “Yup, that’s it,” he announced. “Need anymore help?”

His supervisor merely stared at him and nodded, his lips pursed in heavy contemplation.

There was a short intermission of intense silence, before his supervisor broke the tension.

“So, you really think you can do this eh?” He began. “You really think you can just hide in your corner, and study all day, act blur as we all do work behind your back?” Clearly, somebody wasn’t happy with his participation (or lack thereof) in the workplace.

“Let me tell you something,” he continued. “You may be in an office environment, but don’t you dare think, for one minute, that you can do your own thing and pursue your own agenda. The guys here may be slackers, but at least they will be present and do what I tell them to do. How about you? Just studying there as if you own the whole place. Tell you what; this is not a tuition centre or a school, you understand? I want you to participate more in the office and not bury yourself in your books anymore.”

“What’s the problem here?” It was the head superintendent. He was a tall Indian man in his fifties with a flowing moustache. He had eavesdropped the entire time from his office. “If the boy wants to study, you let him study. I know you all are not happy about these two years. You think you guys are wasting your time, but look at him! He’s putting in an effort to improve himself, doing something with the time he has. There are more than enough people in this office to do the work required, and there are more than enough people who are willing two waste two years. This boy is not one of them, do you guys understand?”

The supervisor’s face began to turn red, as the head superintendent continued.

“Boy, I want you take all your books with you. I have a spare table in my office; I want you to move there. You are under me now. If I tell you to do work, you do work, and if not I want to see you studying.” He turned to the supervisor. “As for you, I don’t want any more nonsense from you, understand? He is my business now.”

Flushed as a tomato, the supervisor strained himself to an exaggerated nod.

In the next few months he spent in the head superintendent’s office, he couldn’t help but notice that he was not passed on as many errands in the course of the day as compared to his colleagues. He did his work diligently in the light of this and studied even harder with the pockets of times he had. He would always owe this privilege to his head superintendent.

As he cycled back from his late night studies at Starbucks, there would be a downhill path, and in the dead of night not a single car could be observed. He rode his bike down the hill, wind in his face and his back to the entire world. The song “Eye of the Tiger” played from his earphones, and as the bike sped relentlessly downward, his spirits lifted.

 

Now I’m back on my feet / Just a man, and his will to survive.

 

His will to survive, he would think. He closed his eyes as the bicycle completed the last leg of the downhill.

If a car hits me now and I die, I would die happy.

 

He opened his eyes as his bicycle came to an eventual stop in the middle of a main road. He was alive.

He looked down at his left fist, clasping hard on the handlebar. On his fist he had scribbled the word “BELIEVE” in capital letters, bravely imprinted as a constant reminder, and a symbol of his struggle. It was like his days in NT, where he would scribble new words he’d learnt onto his left fist. How far had he come since then, and how much meaning did that word hold in his entire journey? How much further did he have to go before he could prove something to himself?

Not much further now, whispered a small voice, you’re almost there.

 

He kicked the ground softly with his right foot, and cycled the rest of the journey home.

And so, five months passed like this. Waking up, studying at work, asking help from his teachers, studying at Starbucks, listening to Eye of the Tiger on repeat, then sleeping again. Cycling, studying, cycling, studying, cycling, Eye of the Tiger, sleep. Cycling, studying, cycling, studying, cycling, Eye of the Tiger, sleep. This went on and on until the day the ‘A’ Level examinations visited his life once again.

* * *

He packed his things and said a quick goodbye to his colleagues. It was time to go. Go where? He thought. To see my results…yes. He chuckled nervously to himself, before bumping into the head superintendent on the way out.

“So, how was it?” His voice was stern, as if at a wake.

“I haven’t seen the results yet, Sir,” he admitted. “I’m going to see with my friends.”

He nodded in acknowledgement. “You have nothing to be worried about, boy. I’ve seen the way you worked the last few months. Sometimes I wish my children could take a page from your book. To put you in my office was the best decision I’ve made in my time here, I’m sure of that. You will do well, boy.”

To that, he could only nod. He wished he had half of his superior’s faith.

The car came and picked him up from his house at eight. He could only manage a few spoonfuls of dinner even though he had missed his lunch, and stepped into the car feeling sick in the stomach. Three of his best friends were waiting inside.

One of them poked out his head from the front seat. “How’re you feeling? Scared ah?

 

“A bit lah…” he replied. No shit, Sherlock.

 

They eventually decided to drive to Marina Barrage, and as the car moved along they discussed the possibilities.

“So what if the result is damn good? Have you thought of like what you’d do?”

“I don’t think it’d be good, but here’s to hoping something improved. I’ve worked my ass off for this,” he replied in complete honesty.

“And if it sucks?” Probed another friend.

“Let’s not discuss that possibility,” he shot back immediately. The car ride was filled with an irreplaceable silence for the rest of the journey.

The group of four got off the car, and slowly made their way up the slope. The barrage was designed as one huge upward spiral, the ground rising steadily and paved with a huge lawn of grass and a hefty sum of taxpayer’s money. There was a gentle breeze that night, and the air was cool. There was no suggestion of any latent struggles, no fleeting symbolisms to pave the way for what was about to happen. The wind just continued blowing, and the grass swaying happily in its wake.

The four of them got up to the top, and sat down on a concrete slab that rose casually from the lawn. “Ok, here goes…”

He whipped out his phone, and from his email, accessed the link to his portal.

He held his breath. They all held their breaths.

“Log in” read the webpage.

His heart was beating excessively fast, pumping blood to irrelevant parts of his body, but most of all supplying much needed oxygen to his brain. His thoughts were on overdrive. I forgot to stay signed in!

 

Hastily, he typed in his username and password.

There was a voice from the past. Very useless one you know! You will be useless! It was his teacher from primary school. From an obscure corner of his mind, she had come to grace the occasion as well. You abnormal one! What good can you do!

He pressed enter.

“Invalid user/password” read the page.

Stupid! You try so hard also like that! Also can’t do well when it counts. You know why or not? Because you didn’t want to join the cool kids when you had the chance. See what you are now? Some loser! Some loser, a nothing! It was Solomon’s voice this time. He too, had decided to pay him an unexpected visit. His words rang in his head. If he didn’t remember wrongly, he had a very loud and obnoxious voice.

“Why is the password wrong?” He scrambled for the keys and retyped the password. He was frantic now. “I’m quite sure I remembered correctly…”

“Calm down, just type slowly,” suggested one of his friends.

His words did not register. It was drowned out by yet another voice.

You have your place. I told you so. I told you all along. There is no place for you here. Excellence is not something that will grace this fleeting life of yours. I gave you the option to continue on the path that was meant for you and you said no. Look at yourself now. Look at what happens when an ignorant student decides to forgo his teacher’s advice. Just look.

 

He pressed enter. This time, the screen hanged.

“NO!” he shouted. He sat on the floor, feeling nothing but defeat. “The damn thing won’t bloody log in.”

His friends stood around, powerless.

The voices all spoke in unison now, and amalgamated to form a singular, more sinister voice. It was that of a scream.  YOU’RE NOTHING…SUCH A LOSER….WHY DO YOU TRY SO HARD? WHY WHY WHY? WHY TRY WHEN THIS IS ALWAYS THE OUTCOME? THIS SAD SITUATION, WITH YOU SITTING ON THE FLOOR, DEFEATED AND FEELING SO EMPTY INSIDE? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO PROVE? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? The scream rang in his head for the next few seconds.

And then, amongst the voices, there was one he recognized as his own. How did I get here?

 

The screen lit up.

“Mathematics (H2) ––––––––––– A

Physics (H2) –––––––––––– B

Chemistry (H2) ––––––––––––– B”

It took a while to register. The voices faded away. His mind was as hushed as a vacuum.

It was his friends that reacted first. There may have been screams, but he couldn’t quite remember now. There were definitely a few hands on his shoulders, hands that were pressing down hard in congratulations, yet all he could feel was a tremendous weight lifting from the deepest recesses of his chest.

When it all sank in, he ran, faster than his legs could take him, ran with the wind behind his back this time, trailing along. From the roof of Marina Barrage, a man shouted to the skies in triumph.

* * *

 

“Hello Son,” spoke his dad over the phone. “How did you do?”

“Hi Dad. I got A B B Dad. I got A for maths and B for Physics and Chem,” he announced proudly, barely able to breathe properly or contain himself.

There was a long pause over the line. He thought about his dad sitting by his side after his PSLE result. The more people tell you that you can’t, the more you have to prove to them that you can.

He thought of the money transferred into his account, his father holding the frying pan, his only defense against a world that had been so cruel to him, the immense faith he had in his son.

Gosh. How long ago was that?

“Wait… stop right there,” his father probed. “I’m not well versed about how this works so… is the result something we should be happy about?”

“Yes, Dad,” his voice was trembling and his cheeks were damp.

“It’s a brilliant result Dad. It’s absolutely brilliant.”

 

Here. This is where I am. It has been a long journey. My legs are tired, my muscles ache and my lungs hurt. I have been pushed around, made fun of, doubted over and over again. But I am here, and this is now. I am here, and this is where I belong. No one can take that away from me. It is my destiny, and I am exactly where I want to be. 

The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, Part II

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.

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!