Go with a smile!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Brief History of my School Life

I saw this article talking about the elite Singapore education system. I think I have blogged about my experiences with the elite Singaporean education system a few times before, so maybe here I’ll just put in the last few missing pieces of the puzzle.

My parents always recognized the value of a real education. My grandmother on the father’s side did not go to school, like so many other people of her generation. But she used to see people renting books, and she used to borrow and read them. She taught herself how to read. I think that is remarkable. Well the fact is that, as my sister who knew her best always told me, she’s just a geek. And when she reads Chinese, I would still remember her reciting it out in her native Cantonese. That is why I found that it was particularly cruel on her that she later on became blind in her life. There were three things that mattered to her the most: they were cooking, reading and my sister and towards the end of her life, she was robbed of all three.

My father went to school. He was lucky, and among his siblings, he was the one who got the most education, and eventually earned a professional vocational qualification. He used to excel in school, and always obtained the highest marks. My grandmother would beat the crap out of him if he came in second.

My mother did not excel academically. But she also faced difficult circumstances. She was the only English educated person in a family full of Chinese educated people, so she did stick out like a sore thumb – I always wondered if it had an adverse effect on her upbringing, and I always wondered if I had to suffer for it. But it was pretty significant. She was the one who enforced high academic standards on me. The older generations in my family – my mother, my father and my grandmother all demanded high academic standards from me. Of course, one of the things that made her happy was her discovering, early in life, that I had a talent for mathematics. By the time I was 6, I was able to multiply double digit sums in my head. Maybe she already decided that I was going into the gifted program.

There was, however, one aspect of my education where they did not do a good job. That was Chinese. Only my grandmother spoke Mandarin, and Mandarin was probably her fourth language. (The first three were Cantonese, Teochew and Malay). But she picked it up partly to communicate with us. My parents only spoke English and Teochew. And they didn’t really teach me Teochew because of the speak Mandarin campaign. And I suppose if I were a kid, back then, clamouring for them to speak Teochew to me, they would have done it. But I didn’t, so there. Around the time I got to the army, I had decided that one of the biggest regrets of my life was not knowing dialects. If you want to talk about mother tongue, Teochew is my true mother tongue. Mandarin could not possibly be my mother tongue, since I didn’t speak it at home. Teochew is also similar to the language that was used during the Tang dynasty – Minnan, not Mandarin, has been a great influence on Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

My parents ensured that I entered a good school. When I was in that school, I was surrounded by people who were very conscientious and hardworking, but who also spoke Mandarin better than me. I suppose that doomed me for the rest of my life towards playing catch up with my Chinese.

I did well in primary 1, and I got third in class. The person who got second in class – one of her sisters is now a senior office holder in the government. The person who got first in class later on did well for herself in another country. I got streamed into the best class in primary two, and for the next two years, I was in the middle of the class, but in the best class. I actually think that was going to be the pattern for me for the rest of my life – I’m within sighting distance of the best, but I’m not the best.

My mother would buy a lot of assessment books from popular book store, and she would set a timetable for me to do all the work. But I never was able to adhere to it. I suppose in those days life was a little hard. I would have preferred to be outside playing with people. From primary two, though I also found out something that was extremely bad news – I was a procrastinator. I’m still a procrastinator – I’m typing this when I should have been doing a project. I suppose it was pretty depressing in those days. I would get whacked if I ever got below 97 on a test. I once went back home with a 90 and it was a total disaster. My mother would throw tantrums, and refuse to sign the test, and I would have to go explain to the teacher why she didn’t sign it. The worst was Chinese homework. Chinese – I didn’t have the worst of it. There were a lot of other people who did worse at it than me, who couldn’t speak it to save their lives. I hated it. It was like how people learnt latin in old boarding schools. Except that Chinese is more difficult. I used to spend hours and hours on my compositions, and they all came back with red marks all over – I made horrible, horrible grammatical mistakes. I’m a person who loves academic learning, as most readers here can see. But Chinese was to be my one blind spot. I suppose that’s why I never really bothered that much with it. Why bother about it, when I can say that mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, geography, history, political science, anthropology, sociology, psychology, computer science, music, literature, formal linguistics and engineering are more interesting?

Anyway, I wasn’t beaten half to death. I wasn’t the top student or anything, but I did well enough that people left me alone. That was my strategy. Later on, I found out that my sister did well in school because she cared about what people thought of her. I didn’t have these things. I loved to think about things (as my blog readers would know, right?) But other than that, studying was something basically pretty soulless.

At the end of primary three, I was selected for the gifted program. I hit the ground running. It was a perfect fit for people like myself who could both do reasonably well academically and also think out of the box. And it helped that I was thrashing a lot of other people who were even shitter than myself in Chinese. I topped my class for first two years. They didn’t rank people in the gifted program (that was policy), but in primary 4, the teacher announced that the clown who topped the class didn’t really deserve it. Well that’s nice to hear, isn’t it? But it’s true, I think they really really hate the idea that a class clown can also top the class. In primary 5 I asked my teacher if I had topped the class, she said yes. But I topped the class because the guy who would have done it was moving away to the US. (I didn’t hear anymore from him but I heard that he made it to Harvard).

From then on, everything paled in comparison to those two first place rankings. Not even getting into Snowy Hill was something that compared to that. Secondary one and two were pretty depressing years for me. First, my mother got it into her head that children morph into monsters when they reach thirteen, and she treated me accordingly. Sec one was easily one of the worst years of my life. I suddenly morphed into a B student, schoolwork was harder, I was beaten every other week. I started yelling and screaming at my parents in return. Not because I hated them, but also because things were not working out.

At the same time, my sister managed to steal a march on me – she had always lagged behind me academically, but suddenly she became the academic star of the family instead. Heck, mathematics was my strongest subject and she managed to beat me at it. Sec 3 and 4 were actually the best years of my life. No, I didn’t become an A grader again. I never went anywhere near the top of the class again. But I found out a few things outside of grades. I learnt to cope with the academic workload. I stopped having to go to music class (I had passed my grade 8, and that was the perfect excuse to quit.) I started listening to a lot of music – and that doesn’t sound very important right now, but who knows about the future? I rediscovered my talent in mathematics. I also discovered that I was talented at literature. Not literature in the sense of being able to score A1s for that subject, because I never did, but in the sense of being able to write something. The primary four primary five years were great because I managed to do very well in school. But in a larger sense, it was the sec 3 / sec 4 years which were my best years because I was able to balance a “pretty OK” academic record with finally discovering what it meant to be living. The ironic thing was that it was probably during the dark years of sec 1 / sec 2 where my school results went down drastically that I started to look around and see if there were other things to life than just studying a lot and getting good grades. And I think I was just being rewarded for my efforts to uncover those things.

Not many people understood how badly I had taken my sec 1 / sec 2 years. I was in a new school. Not everybody knew that I used to top classes. They saw me as an above average student, which I was. But the way that my parents made me feel, it was basically the end of the world for me. Eventually, they gave up forcing me to be an academic star, and it was only then that my life became better. But they never stopped reminding me how disappointed they were in me.

The paradox of the whole situation was this: not only were they not happy with what I had done academically, they also reminded me time and again that in order to survive in the real world, academic achievements were not enough. And not only did they remind me that academic achievements were not enough, they also did not tell me exactly what it was that would be enough. This was the sort of behavior destined to drive anybody nuts. Anyway, I did what I did. I had decided that I wasn’t going to care too much about what they said, as long as I was able to continue as a properly functioning JC student. And they didn’t care too much about what I did, so long as I was able to meet certain academic standards. There was a form of a truce, and none of us were really interested in reliving those dark days of sec 1 / sec 2 when everything was a disaster.

JC1 and JC2 were mixed years. Those were the first years for me out of the gifted program. I wasn’t that adept socially and those of you who know me in real life know this hasn’t changed much. There was so much emphasis on academic achievement in my early years that I suppose people weren’t concentrating too much on making me a really likeable person. These sort of things, I suppose, you have to learn them on your own. Your parents can’t teach you everything. It was depressing. People would be nice to you at first, they’re respectful because you were from the gifted program, then eventually they’d start getting annoyed at you because you can’t help yourself being a pain in the ass. Those were painful, painful years. And if I wasn’t one of the better students in my class at the point, it would have been completely depressing for me.

I had plenty of regrets over my six years in the Raffles schools. I didn’t make enough friends. I wasn’t an academic star. And my biggest regret of all? I didn’t represent my school at any of the mathematics competitions. Yes, there were the Australian mathematics competitions and the American mathematics competitions that were open to all. I’m talking about those competitions when you fought for glory on behalf of your school.

I didn’t connect with a lot of the students in JC. I didn’t connect with those people who weren’t from the gifted program. I didn’t connect with anyone who wasn’t a total geek. I didn’t connect with a lot of people whom I thought of as being hollow and materialistic (a lot of them, basically). And RJC, while it wasn't the most bitchy school, was also not exactly the most pleasant one either.

I tried my hand at various things, and I failed a lot. I failed to make a lot of friends in school. I failed to be part of the in crowd. I tried to direct a play and I failed. I failed to be part of the maths club. I only succeeded in my “A” levels, but that was OK, because it was the most important thing of all.

Because when you think about it – life still wasn’t that bad for me. I was in one of the best schools, doing OK. I had enough academic talent to do well in spite of not having to work too hard at it. I spent a ridiculous amount of time walking around in malls. Especially bookshops and music stores. I didn’t really spend enough time on my ECAs like I should have. And I still managed to get by on my talent alone. Because of my talent, with just a little bit of preparation, I would be able to participate in those mathematics competitions that people had from time to time, and do well. Just not well enough to be able to represent my school at mathematics. The irony was that when you look at my school record, the things that stick out are my drama-related activities. And I wasn’t even a member of Raffles players, ever! I just spent a lot of time watching TV, discussing pop culture with friends, and doing enough thinking and idle day-dreaming to write one or two good scripts that end up being produced. I suppose that’s what success is supposed to be like – not just a lot of work, but also the right type of work, and the right amount of it.

And then there were the times when I spent hours listening to music. And I learnt more about music that way than all the music lessons I took in the previous ten years.

No, my story is very different from that other story. This is not the sob story that you’d hear from a lot of people before. People who have been rejected by the system, (although in some ways I am like that), people who have tried and failed (although in some ways I am also like that). I had an OK time. Even a happy time. My story isn’t easily categorized into a success or a failure. There are plenty of arguments either way. I’m not going to talk at length about how I managed to pull myself up in time for my “A”s. My leaving the gifted program was only the first of four major culture shocks in my life. The second was army. The third was Snowy Hill. The fourth was work life. I’m not going to talk about how I got into Snowy Hill.

In a way, this was the end of my academic life. This would be the end of the straight and narrow road, where almost everything hinges upon one exam. (Actually it does not. I have a friend who got mediocre grades at the “A”s, and then he did an undergrad at “only” NUS, then did a PhD in the states, and is now an assistant professor at an Ivy League university.) Things had changed, and they were changing quickly. I knew that I had to get out of the mindset which prized academic achievement ahead of everything else. What happened next was a period in which I would take academic achievement with a big dose of salt, and learn to think about “Other stuff” as well.

Because more than anything, this was the end of all the certainty. When I look at the time that I left JC, it seemed as though I had come to an end of a period in my life when I was just travelling down a very narrow road where everybody was only assessed on one thing and mainly that one thing, to a completely different landscape where it's not really clear what you're being judged upon. It would be a world where no defeat or victory would ever be permanent. Ironically one of the reasons for me to do well in my early days in school was my parents reminding me that academic success wasn't going to translate to success in life. In that case, I'd better do well in school, since if I did well in school, and failed in life later, I'd still have something to cling on to. I took my eye off the ball a little bit while at Snowy Hill, thinking that my grades would not really matter three years into my working life. In some ways, that was true, and in other ways that is not true at all.

At this point I'm not old enough to rule out having kids, and I don't know what I'd do to push them through the rat race. I'm sure that it's gotten much tougher in that intervening generation. During my time, it was at the level where an academically talented person like myself could stroll his way through life, divide his time between academic work, ECAs and leisure activities (shock shock horror horror - leisure activities! Some people might get offended!) And right now, I see it as being on a level where, even if you're talented and if you don't work your butt off, you'd get into a great amount of trouble. I find that very troubling.


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