What Drives You?

I think you are meant to be driven, not meant to drive.

My driving instructor broke into a mild fit of laughter. I always thought he reminded me of some kind of hyena. And with his shades covering his eyes all the time, I found him rather unlikeable.

That happened about 8 years ago when I was learning how to drive a Class 3A vehicle. In the lesson one week before, he had suggested I better buy myself a seat cushion to prop myself up because I was too ‘small’. (Trust me, I am not petite at all.)

I remember those exact words because even though I did not retaliate and tell him off for such an insult – I was, after all, only 19 then – that remark stayed with me and fuelled some kind of drive in me to show him.

I passed my driving test on the first attempt, and 8 years on, I can say I am a pretty reliable driver. So much for labelling your students as ‘drivers’ or those ‘to be driven’.

This was similar to my memory of one of my Mathematics teachers who never really believed in us either. She did not have to spell it out like Mr Shades, she only had to say “I believe if you all put in your best effort, there is still a chance, a chance that you will pass (our A level Maths).”

That remark drove me insane. Nobody would be contented with a Pass for Mathematics, and given the way she was constantly undermining our hard work and intelligence, my incredulity transformed into frustration, and frustration translated into a source of self-empowerment. I would show her that I could get an A for Mathematics, without her help. So instead of attending the supplementary lessons she conducted, I went off and studied on my own, and did exactly what I had promised myself, by God’s grace.

There is always something magical about the power that can drive you when you want to prove someone else wrong and stand up for yourself. Something innately powerful in every living being to actually surpass his or her expectations. May we have the wisdom to embrace and understanding this sense of empowerment, and continue to do good work even if no one believes in us.


Like a Walk in the Desert

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He walked on, footstep after footstep, sinking his feet into the warm desert sand with every step he took. The space was vast, the ends boundless. He turned 90 degrees to his right, and the view that greeted him was completely the same as what he had turned from. He tried again to the left, only to be engulfed in a sense of utter friendlessness and confusion. The longing to escape from this pit of aridity and sameness grew stronger with every gust of wind that swept past his ears. The fear of never leaving that desert and never seeing a colour other than that rust-stained sandscape again made him scream out in wild hysteria.

My mind too has been a wandering in the desert, and has lost its bearings. It has been near impossible to put into words my thoughts and feelings, and the closest that I have come to doing so, is to speak of it metaphorically.

In the past few days I revisited some of my earlier entries recounting my experiences in school. Many of them reflective, filled with a sense of childlike wonderment at the infinite possibilities of teaching in a classroom, and a heart of immense gratitude when given opportunities to shine. I cringe when I read those entries – partly because it makes me feel stupid for being naive then, but partly also because I see in my present self the opposite of that earnest young fellow who wrote those entries three years ago.

There is something more I need to fix, and this is something I have been lying to myself about in order to play down the necessity of it. There is, simply put, no way a person can expect to find his way out of the vast changing landscapes of the desert, without God as his guide. And I guess the only thing one really needs is to be in tune with God.

Take My Life

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I sat across from my two teacher friends at Bakers & Cook last week hearing them take turns to tell their moving and empowering tales on Teachers’ Day. As one friend recounted her experience, the other friend wiped tears off her cheeks, gushing at the sentimentality of the moment. As they recounted their versions of Teachers’ Day 2014, my mind was working to find a way to divert their attention onto something else. I had no inspirational Teacher’s Day story or memorable gift from a student that reaffirmed my calling, and I did not want to be in the position to have to answer another, “So, how was your Teachers’ Day?” question. My Teachers’ Day was spent ordinarily. My form class gave me an obligatory Teachers’ Day notebook, most of the messages reading “Happy Teachers’ Day!”. I walked into class and distributed their results slips, and they behaved the exact same way they usually do.

I know we are not in this job for the recognition, praise or thanks, but truth be told, sometimes that is what we need to keep us going. And this year, I felt trashy and tired and tired of having to keep up with the smiles and grins. I feel under-appreciated by the school, and by the students. I need to find my bearings again. I need to refuel my soul and remember why I am in this profession. I have spent this entire week savouring the times spent alone and with friends, and wondering if it is time to move on. But half the time I spend beating myself up over why such a question even exists to plague me. If I believed with all my heart that teaching is a calling, then why do I struggle so hard to find out if it is time to change courses and move on? It is either I commit what I do every day into the Lord’s hands, no matter the amount of acknowledgement or praise because I want to labour for the Lord; or I have taken it upon myself to decide what career and future I want.

My principal wrote and shared a personal poem with us on Teachers’ Day. It may have been the most meaningful point that day for me:

Dear God, who am I to be so blessed
with this motley crew who call me ‘captain’
That You in Your infinite wisdom
gifted me when my posting did happen?
In my third year now, I give you thanks
for this precious gift, wondrously fine,
of colleagues, with loving hearts of gold,
Team _, one I’m proud to call mine.

Teachers, on this, most sacred of days,
may the ideals which influenced your choice
of this noble profession remain
and give cause to make your hearts rejoice
May today be a gentle reminder
that while rocky days may un-inspire,
you are much loved and held dear, for truly
you have the power to set hearts afire!

I pray you’ll enjoy, until you retire
many more years to lead, care and inspire! 

My career this year (and hilariously by extension, my life) seems to have paled in comparison to previous years. I wish I relied on God in the pursuit of my career achievements and choices. I wish I had prayed before I took on roles and responsibilities, before I decided to binge and mark, before I decided to run my life in a way that I approved of. I had allowed my emotions to cloud my judgment in my job and at many points, probably was not in the best shape to give my students my all. I feel ashamed when I see the extent to which my friends have given up my holiday and time and sleep to work with their students to build them up.

I do have plans for change, but God needs to to come before those plans first. It never is easy to put your thoughts in words, especially when it is this close to midnight. My prayer is just that I continue to seek out God’s will and figure out all these infinite possibilities with His direction.

Top Ten: Movies Version

1. The Perfect Storm (2000), Wolfgang Petersen
The film blew me away. I felt for the first time being held in awe and in fear at something so grand and powerful.

2. Shop Around the Corner (1940), Ernst Lubitsch
This has got to be a classic. It has the most humorous and wittiest lines ever! Plus the chemistry between the leads are just hilarious.

3. Cloud Atlas (2013), Twyner and the Wachowskis
Casting and makeup was superb. At some points I hated and groaned inwardly in discomfort, but the script had the most powerfully gripping and mindblowing lines that defied all forms of normalcy.

4. Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Norman Jewison
A really long musical-comedy film, but a powerful and honest one too. The soundtrack and lyrics are amazing, and the portrayal of culture and tradition in the face of a changing reality is simply alluring.

5. American Beauty (1999), Sam Mendes
I watched this only once, but some scenes still haunt me after so many years. Again, disturbing in nature, but there was so much beauty in the dysfunctional and disturbing.

6. Life is Beautiful (1997), Roberto Benigni
I found strength from this humble representation of the human spirit in the holocaust.

7. Invictus (1999), Clint Eastwood
My Secondary School teacher introduced the poem to us and I have been passing it on to others. This narrative about football and the coming together of South Africa never fails to warm my heart.

8. Armageddon (1998), Michael Bay
Aerosmith’s hit did this for me. And I am not even a fan. I loved that it championed a father-daughter’s love above the blossoming romance between Tyler and Affleck.

9. Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Peter Jackson
God worked through JRR Tolkien to write such a powerful trilogy series. The epic fantasy novel with lessons that are not even fantastical but terribly terribly real. And I love Sam.

I know that there should be ten on this list but I could not bring myself to seal the list with any other particular film. The Pianist (2002), Roman Polanski, This is Spinal Tap (1984), Rob Reiner, and The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Frank Darabont.


The Book Challenge

There has been this Book Bucket Challenge going on around social media recently. I decided to jump on the bandwagon and think about the ten books that have had an impact on my life. As I was trying to recall the books I had read, I realised that many of these are texts I studied in Literature classes in the past. In no particular order, these ten are: 

  1. The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins  
    One of the few books I could not put down after watching the second film installment, the trilogy is a lot more accessible than other trilogies, and the themes are powerful and well-packed. I love the utopian/dystopian contrasts and the ideologies raised in the series. Plus, the film, although nowhere as good as the book, is an awesome accompaniment to the written word. 
  2. Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes 
    It was one of the first few books that made me cry. It was nothing but heartache watching Charlie Gordon degenerate, while at the same time conscious of his degeneration. It made me realise how much we crave human relationships and love and intelligence and gave me a glimpse of what makes us human. 
  3. Dracula, Bram Stoker 
    I studied this as part of a Geopolitics module in Literature and absolutely loved it and how ingenious Stoker was in incorporating the geopolitical relations in the gripping novel. 
  4. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte 
    A dark romantic classic which I can never forget. As cheesy as some parts can get, they always give me goosebumps. The elusive Mister Shao is probably influenced by the darkishly handsome Mr Rochester, more than I dare to tell. And Jane Eyre – strong, passionate and bold – as one of the perfect female protagonists. 
  5. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift 
    A long ago travel narrative that unlocked my interest in satirical novels. This one is simply brilliant. 
  6. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad 
    This novella has been read over and over since I studied it as an ‘A’ level text. I loved the sensitive way Conrad treated the natives and Kurtz/Marlow, as well as the post-colonial influences on the novella. 
  7. The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton
    If I had a choice, I would want to teach this book to the teenagers I work with. I think it raises questions about who belongs on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’, and it is one of those powerfully moving books that probes and questions what we are introduced to – strangely familiar in the real world we know. 
  8. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss 
    ‘Part of me is made of glass, and also, I love you.’ 
    I think Krauss managed to treat ‘love’ in an extremely mature and thoughtful way for all the characters in her novel. What sticks with you at the end of the novel is not the narrative, which is rather disjointed, but the powerful and emotive quotes that just strike you as memorable and worth remembering. I was surprised how ‘love’ was treated in this novel – without adhering to its usual romantic thread. 
  9. Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell 
    I don’t know why I like this book, but I do. It left a strangely pleasant aftertaste reading about the mundane and peasant lives of women. Of course, what made the reading so pleasurable was the sense of humour Gaskell conveyed. 
  10. The Bible 
    Of course, I believe the Bible holds some Truths in life which has influenced me more than I am even conscious of. It transforms me day by day, and although I have put it down for a while, I hope it will continue to mould me as a person. 


Happy Teachers’ Day

This Teachers’ Day, I want remember and be quietly grateful for the wonderful teachers in my life. 

Teachers’ Day just falls one day after the biennial Literature Symposium which we attended this year, and that makes the occasion all the more symbolic. Meeting all the familiar faces and hearing about all the good work these teachers have done in the various schools in Singapore to promote a love for literature and languages and words and life, as well as the never-ending battles fought on the ground, definitely inspired me to keep reading meaning into life and living meaning out of it. All our narratives are different, and today’s symposium celebrated that variety. 

We were invited to sign up for concurrent break-out sessions for the programme today, and I have to admit, my choices were heavily influenced by my affiliation with these brilliant professors. Hearing them address the crowds of teachers for the first time in such a long time (7 years since I met one of them!) made me realise just how blessed I am to be taught by all these brilliant minds. But these people did not just have brilliant minds, they had an inspired soul, a purposed mind, and a human sincerity. Allow me to introduce some of them. 

Dr Suzanne Choo was my Secondary School Literature teacher for one year. That single year made a huge difference in my life – it made me realise how fascinating words can be, it brought literature to life for me, and it made me fall in love with stories, with the process of peeling layer after layer of meaning, and the process of engaging with a dialogue of ideas about the text. It made me fall in love with the emotive value of words. It opened my mind to looking at short stories and poems like I never did before. In National Junior College, I am blessed to have been taught by the legendary Donald Whitby. The other Literature professors were fantastic too, but Mr Whitby stood out to me, because he planted a keenness and love for poetry in me. When all the teachers were ‘advising’ students to consider dropping a fourth subject by the masses after our promotional examinations, Donald Whitby told my friends and I very clearly, that “if we wanted to give it another shot, we should not let the grades stop us” because he would give us consultations every week if we wanted. It was those afternoons in the HOD conference room burying our heads in blank pages of poetry that made me fall in love with the beauty of words in poems, the representation of and speaking out about life through words. It was amazing. 

It did not stop there. NUS had excellent Literature professors and tutors, all of whom inspired an understanding of text and by extension, life, in various ways. When my near-obsession with the academic grades almost caused me to walk out of an Honours degree, Professor Philip Holden’s one-time consult actually changed the minds of me and a friend of mine. He shared with us how the alphabetic or numeric symbol on the result slip would matter little in future, but the value and knowledge gained from another year of study in our field, would extend the horizons of our understanding and give us the breadth and depth that we would appreciate. We took on the challenge and never looked back since. And in NIE a few years on, Dr D. Yeo taught us how to see literature and life through a different set of lenses, one that challenged the norms, and poked fun at boundaries and conventions, one that represented the complexities and ambiguities of life which ought to be celebrated not shunned. He taught me how to laugh at life rather than mope about it; to engage with challenges rather than walk away from it; to be real, rather than be safe. 

I have experienced a plethora of unbelievably wonderful educators in my lifetime, without whom I would not be who I was today. They may not remember how they have inspired us in one of those passing moments in life, or in one of the infinite number of lectures or workshops they have delivered… but I do. And I think that is also the way with our students. I hardly felt satisfaction, gratefulness and thanks so overwhelming that I would allow myself to demonstrate these emotions in acts of love and gratitude – a conversation over coffee or a gift and card. But ten, twenty years later, I remember the wonderful memories I have had with them in their classrooms, the ‘vibe’ they give, the little idiosyncratic behavioral traits (like the ‘right right rights?’ and the ‘are you alives?’), and the understated simple fact that “Literature rocks because it goes beyond the classroom into Life. And Life is worth celebrating.” 

So tomorrow (in a few hours actually), I will make my way to school. This year, I want to take away the attention from myself as a teacher, and teachers like myself, and look at my teachers. I think there is a whole world of people – teachers – out there that deserves to be championed, celebrated and recognised. 

So to everyone who has given a small part of yourself to someone else, who has taughthappy teachers’ day to you. You never know where your influence starts and where it ends. May it be a positive and shining one.