Trisha Reloaded

Dedicated to Trisha, as always. Dedicated also to L, my source of inspiration, and the reason why I choose to see the bright side of teaching.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

2 hours that change me

I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first time visiting a one-room HDB flat. I had agreed to help bring a few students to visit a few of these homes that the school had adopted as part of the CIP (Community Involvement Programme). This should be good, I thought.

I wasn’t prepared for this. The walls were dotted with black splotches of what we were told were the droppings of bed bugs. We were warned not to remove our shoes, lean on the walls or sit on the floor. Mr Y sat on a stool and seemed nonchalant about the infestation in his home. The mattress he slept on bore testimony to the nightly battles he had to endure. The bed sheet was clouded with blood stains. Mr Y used to be a coolie who carried sacks of rice. The bachelor now lives alone in his decrepit rental flat, his emaciated body racked with sickness, the money he earned in his younger days long gone to feed his parents’ opium addiction many years ago. He gets $260 from the welfare agency every month, of which about $100 goes into paying his rent and utilities. The remainder he has to magically stretch to cover his food and medical costs.

The bugs had spread from next door to a few flats on the 5th floor where Mr Y lived. You could see them flitting about on the wall, on the floor, among his clothes, even along the corridors. Nobody there could afford a professional pestbuster, and the town council wouldn’t do such favours anyway. So living with these parasites has become a fact of life. Residents living on the other floors talked about the 5th floor as if it was Purgatory and it didn’t seem an inappropriate description.

Then there was 92-year-old Mdm C – so small and wiry she couldn’t have weighed more than 35kg. She had a hole in her neck where her voice box had been removed, so she couldn’t talk. When she saw us, she simply gestured with her hands that she wanted to die. Looking at her forlorn looking home, who could blame her for feeling that way? The food in her kitchen had all gone bad so we gathered she hadn’t eaten for days, or perhaps she had been eating all the rotten stuffs. When you are sick and have to depend on the kindness of neighbours to help you buy even the simplest food, what other choice do you have? She has 2 daughters, one who visits her occasionally. Another, we heard, comes by and steals the NTUC vouchers that volunteers give to her. Is it any wonder Mdm C would rather die?

In all, we visited 7 homes, each one with its own sad story to tell. My heart is exceedingly disturbed by the scenes I saw today. On the one hand, we live in a country that’s boasting of having island-wide free internet access soon and building world-class integrated resorts and yet, in pockets of this land which worships success and one-upmanship shamelessly, there are the forgotten lot who live in homes with rotten food and bug-infested beds.

I thought that by visiting the poor, I would be helping to cheer them up somewhat. How naïve I was. How arrogant I was to think that a simple 20 minute visit can alleviate the misery of people who have to face squalor every single moment of their lives and where sleep offers no respite either from the reality of their wretchedness. I thought I was doing community service. But no, something was done to me. Today, I felt as if the earth beneath my feet had shifted. In the days that follow, I would still go on to live my life of considerable comfort, plan my holidays, do Christmas shopping and enjoy the trappings of prosperity that I have been blessed with. But I could no longer plead ignorance of the shadowy existence of Mr Y, Mdm C and all these unfortunate people who live just a stone’s throw away from me. I find myself asking Him, “Lord, what will You have me do now?”

Tonight, as I crawl between my nice clean sheets, I think of Mr Y and how long the night will be for him. I saw real, in-your-face poverty and human misery today and I’m at a loss as to how to respond. Nothing I can do or say will ever be enough. And yet, if we don’t do anything, what kind of human beings are we?

* * * * * * * * *

Juxtaposed among my anguished thoughts about Mr Y and Mdm C is the noisy ranting of an 18-year-old college kid with her “elite uncaring face”. And this is what I want to say.

There is no glory in being an elite. No honour in trumpeting one’s own success. For if not by a fortunate roll of the dice of life, any of us could end up like Mr Y or Mdm C. Any of us could be born into a family visited by sorrow upon sorrow, where circumstances work against you and fate tosses you around like sand, so that you can’t get out of the shit even if you want to. So for those of us in which life has been unbelievably kind to us, a good measure of gratitude and humility is called for. Survival of the fittest is the rule for the animal kingdom. Surely we are above the beasts? Surely we are meant to rise up higher? Instead of dashing to be the first, perhaps it is far nobler to slow down, and give a hand to the downtrodden, the unfortunate, the unskilled, the retrenched, the slower, the old, the sickly and the poor. When we can restore even a modicum of dignity to our fellow beings who have no hope, surely that makes us more human.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

They're almost gone...

The corridors are quiet as the school gets ready to wind down on the second last day of the school term.

The staff room is quiet, except for a few teachers shuffling about. Outside, it is unusually silent. Perhaps because of the O level practical exam tomorrow, no one seems to be around, not even the Sec 4's, who were still hanging around school in the afternoon last week.

Last week, I watched some of the Sec 4's as they took a break from their studying and played captain's ball, haze notwithstanding. They were squealing and screaming, their young shirll voices reverberating through the damp air.

"I'm going to miss them," I thought to myself, and steeled myself to walk away from what to me was a scene of inexplicable melancholy. Just put on your ear phones and walk on by and don't feel so much.

A colleague shared with me today the sense of rejection she felt when a student who had been confiding in her for the last 4 years suddenly became very curt towards her.

"Is that what it's like when your child grows up and finds you irritating?" she asked me.

I suppose so. My students haven't told me to mind my own business. But now, knowing they have got newfound wings, and are going to leave me soon, and that I'll soon be a distant memory to them, you can't help wondering -- perhaps a teacher really shouldn't feel too much for her students. Just sayang them when they're in your care, and when it's time, send them on their way, with your prayers. Parting is inevitable.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

In weakness

I was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy and thanksgiving on Sunday. The cause of it? Two ex-students who visited me on Saturday night. We talked till 1 am and when they finally left my house, it was as if I had glimpsed the miracle of a mystical transformation.

Y and J were by no means angels when they were in school. Regular visitors to the Discipline Room, J was especially notorious and was threatened with expulsion a few times. Y and J had also been punished countless times for smoking and vandalism in school. When I became their form teacher in Sec 3, I was a fresh NIE grad, wet behind the ears, very unsure of myself, and pretty scared of some of the boys in my class who towered over me, kept their shirts unbuttoned, and came adorned with the occasional nose studs to dare me to book them.

Still, when they finally graduated after Sec 5, I really missed them. Which explains why we still keep in touch. I guess a teacher never forgets her first form class.

So here’s a post that’s dedicated to Y and J, diamonds in the raw, which my inexperience had failed to see earlier on, but which now I humbly and joyously acknowledge, are sources of inspiration to me, because I realize now, despite my weakness as a new teacher, you have taught me many precious lessons.

* * * * * *
In my weakness, I took a hesitant gamble and made J my class monitor. The class voted you in, and I didn’t know what else to do, except to respect the class’ choice. And despite words of caution from my colleagues who knew of your reputation, I thought I should at least let you try. You didn’t disappoint and I could hold my head high! Who would have thought?

In my weakness, I didn’t dare approach you and ask you about your police probation. I had chided myself then for not showing enough concern for you. But on Saturday, you revealed that that was precisely what you didn’t want teachers to do. And that those who probed and pried were the ones you hated, because you felt robbed of any last vestiges of pride you had left. So my reticence became a strength, although I didn’t know it then. Who would have thought?

In my weakness, I didn’t persuade Y to continue with his O levels even though he could. My lack of counseling skills then is now an embarrassment to me. But you had followed your heart and had graduated in the top 5% in ITE. You are now filled with a sense of purpose and had made plans for your future. I am now your greatest cheerleader and go around my classes to tell other students your story, that ITE is not the end. Again, who would have thought?

In my weakness, I didn’t know how to handle students who had a long list of disciplinary records. I only knew I had to think positive, pray hard, and smile more. I learnt on Saturday that you remembered, even now, the unkind words and looks you got from teachers who only remembered your bad deeds. That even when you had determined to change for the better, few believed you could. I now heave a sigh of relief that you could not recall any callous word I said to you. Otherwise we wouldn’t be chatting till 1am on Saturday. I didn’t realize then the destructive power of one unkind word, a look of contempt or a whiff of mockery and how they can stay in a person’s mind for many years. It is a lesson that I will remember for as long as I am a teacher and a parent.

* * * *
It’s always very challenging for a teacher to face a new class. The students size you up and sometimes, for reasons you do not know, they choose to give you a hard time. Y and J were pretty gentlemanly to me. And for this, I am exceedingly grateful. I was a weak, fumbling, inexperienced teacher then. And you gave me a chance. That had made all the difference. I hope I had made a difference in your lives too.

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Apostle Paul (2 Cor 12:10)