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, February 24, 2007

On 'stupid' students

At a Chinese New Year gathering yesterday, someone asked me a rather interesting question.

“So what do you do with students who are stupid?”

I was completely caught off-guard. I mean, I try very hard not to label anyone, especially my students, as “stupid”, and God forbid that I actually utter such harsh pronouncements on anyone under my care. So to be asked a direct question on my handling of “stupid” students left me speechless for a while as I grapple for an honest answer.

“W..e..ll,” I said, seeking the right words to convey the complex feelings I have about students who are less bright, “I encourage them in little ways. I praise them for even the little progress they have made. I want them to understand that they are not stupid, they just need more time for things to click.”

“But that means they are stupid!” my cousin insisted. “What if you have explained things many times and they still don’t get it? Hence they’re stupid, right? Why don’t you just tell them they’re dumb? Why tell them they’re ok when they’re not?”

You should have seen my jaw drop to the floor. I couldn’t believe the words I was hearing, from a parent with very intelligent kids. Thankfully, his wife butted in.

“How can a teacher say such things to a kid’s face? What good would it do? A teacher is supposed to encourage a student, not tear him down!” She spoke my thoughts actually.

To be fair to my cousin, I think he was merely trying to provoke me into thinking about and revealing some of the real but uncomfortable scenarios teachers and parents face when confronted with children who are not even mediocre, but are slow, not bright and who made you realize in a perverse way why streaming is a necessary evil in education.

I detest streaming. I have seen what the labeling does to a child’s self-esteem. I do not like to see such stratification in the schools, where often, the express students are treated differently from the normal streams (especially the normal technical stream) and yet, I know it is very very difficult for a normal technical student to cope if he is placed in the same class as express students. To those rare few (and my emphasis is on the word rare) who have crossed the great chasm, I salute them for their diligence and tenacity. But for the majority, such a meteoric rise can only be a dream.

But I am digressing. I was going to talk about how I countered my annoying cousin’s question.

My 'sagely' reply : “No one is stupid in everything, unless you have some mental disorder. Hence I see no reason why being frank to the student about his “stupidity” as you would like to call it, is beneficial to anyone. If you can’t do Math, ok, that’s not your strength. But you’re not stupid. I’m sure you are good in something else. I don’t believe a teacher should go around pronouncing anyone as stupid.”

Actually, I also wanted to niggle him about his Chinese, because I know that was the one thing he struggled with in school, despite graduating with top honours in other subjects. I could even be malicious, and ask him frankly, “So why are you so ‘stupid’ in Chinese?”, just to see how he would respond. But we were going to lo hei soon, and that would have spoilt the entire joyous mood.

Friday, February 02, 2007

A student does CIP

“If you don’t go in now, she’ll think you’re looking down on her!” I hissed at A, a student among a group of 8, who were doing their CIP (Community Involvement Project) and whose turn it was to visit the 1-room flats the school had adopted. They came armed with monthly supplies of food items, plus an ang-pow for the lunar New Year, ready to present to our adopted families and the owner had opened the door cheerfully to welcome us in. We had all gone in, except for A.

Student A was wearing my patience out with his exaggerated air of snobbery. I could understand it if he was visibly shocked at seeing the inside of a 1-room flat for the first time in his life. Even if he had wrinkled up his nose at the unfamiliar, musty smell that some of these flats exuded (which he did in a very dramatic way), I would hold my tongue. But no, he had to be larger than life, he had to pretend to throw up along the corridors after the second house we visited. As he bent over just outside someone’s flat, trying to bring up his breakfast, his friend went over to console him, crying out to us, “A can’t take it la, ‘cher!” But I was not fooled. It wasn’t that A couldn’t take it. A was simply making a loud statement that he hated this visit, and he would rather be anywhere than near poor people.

After the first house, A had pronounced pompously to everyone, “You know what I would do? I would give this house a makeover, man!” I kept my cool, and explained to him that if we all had the means, we would love to have interior decorators for our homes. But not everyone is so fortunate. The message didn’t get to him though. Throughout the entire visit, he feigned a vomiting episode, leaned far over the ledge at one point to show us how much he needed a breath of fresh air, and had to be persuaded to sit down on a chair offered by the owner of a house.

At the end of the visit, he filled in the Reflection Form with all the politically correct answers any student doing CIP would know by now. He had just completed 3 hours of CIP for the year, which was 50% of the quota. As far as he was concerned, his mission was accomplished. He went back home to his executive mansionette just 5 minutes away, to a home where, he claimed, 2 maids were waiting to serve him.

* * * * * * * * *
Since my last entry about my visit to the 1-room flats, a few things had happened. Some people had written to me, offering various forms of help. I was touched by the kind gestures and had followed up with regular visits in the month of December since I knew it was the school holidays and the CIP visits from the students had stopped temporarily.

I asked Mr Y twice about fumigating his home to get rid of the bed bugs, assuring him that he didn’t have to pay a cent for it. He had rejected my offers, saying the bugs did not bother him. Last week when I visited him, he was as scrawny as ever, but friendly and we chatted for a while. He told me of his leg problem and how he was just diagnosed with diabetes. Walking can be quite painful for him now but he is determined not to give up walking for fear that the feet would atrophy even more.

At the end of 2006, 92-year-old Mdm C, who had earlier signalled to us that she wanted to die, finally got her wish granted. She had had a fall in late Nov and stayed in hospital for a while. While hospitalized, her neighbour, Mr C (who is also one of our adoptees), had taken the initiative to clean up and paint Mdm C’s dreary flat. What is remarkable about his gracious act is that Mr C himself wears a prosthetic leg. He took 3 days to paint Mdm C’s flat, a feat which gave him severe back ache that necessitated a visit to the doctor subsequently. Mdm C was able to come home later to a sparkling clean, freshly-painted flat, although by then she was bed-ridden and had to depend on her neighbour, Mr C, to check in on her everyday. Then, just before we crossed over to 2007, Mdm C was gone.

When I saw Mr C last week, he was sitting on the floor in his flat. For the first time, I saw him without his artificial leg. When the students had shuffled out of his house, he turned to me and said, “She’s gone! I had just painted her flat and she’s gone!” I nodded wordlessly. I wanted to tell him that he has truly been a good neighbour, in every sense of the word, and that Mdm C couldn’t have asked for a better friend. But my words remained caught in my throat. I looked at this one-legged man and thought of his magnanimous deed, and I saw my own weedy body and pathetic piety.

I’m reminded, that sometimes it is the simplest deed, done with the sincerest of heart, that has the greatest impact, not the glitzy, flamboyant and sophisticated mega-dollar makeover that some of us seem to favour. Mr Y doesn't want the town council, or the professional pestbusters to take over his house and turn over his things. Instead, he appreciates the bread that kind neighbours pass to him, and the $2 that a lady who had just won in the chap-jee-kee slipped into his hands. In fact, if we can be like the kind of neighbour that Mr C is, we would indeed make a difference in a huge way.