Okay, guys. Guys. You need to believe me when I say that I fully, completely, honestly intended to go for my 4th Year briefing in university at 2P.M., and then attend lecture at 3.30P.M. Honest! In fact, at 1.10P.M. I was already all dressed in my jeans and clean white socks, ready to seize the day!
But that was exactly when I was stricken with a terrible itch in my eye. And then when I tried rubbing it, the skin of my right eyelid got chaffed and the terrible itch evolved like the denizens of Australia into a terrible, burning pain, which rendered me incapacitated and unable to do anything but lie down with a cold towel over my face and groaning in pain.
So there I laid, from 1.15P.M. until 5.30P.M. in the evening, which was when I was finally recovered enough to resume my daily activities. Unfortunately, I have already completely missed my lecture by 30 minutes by that time.
I’ll readily admit that I’m one of the worst students anyone has ever heard of.
(but you have heard of me)
I arrive at class late, and sometimes I don’t arrive at class at all; I do my assignments at the last minute; I prepare excessively verbose reports in order to obscure my lack of actual content; I hardly study for my exams; and perhaps the worst of all, I am totally unapologetic for all of the above.
I wonder how my teachers ever put up with me.
Mrs. Lim, my class teacher in primary school (or that’s what I think her name was), currently holds the title for longest sufferer of my antics. She was my class teacher in Standard 4 up until Standard 6, and being a class teacher in a Chinese primary school meant that she not only taught me the Chinese language (8 hours of class a week), she also taught me maths (5 hours/week), physical education (1 hour/week), and literature appreciation (0.5 hours/week). And then in the months preceding UPSR, she was also responsible for teaching after-school classes for up to 4 hours/week.
All in all, she had to suffer my presence for 18.5 hours every single week (minus 10 weeks for semester breaks), meaning that in a typical year, she had spent 777 hours with me. Multiply that by 3 years of being my class teacher, she has seen my face for at least 2331 hours.
Goodness, even I wouldn’t want to spend that much time with myself.
And by the looks of it, she probably thought the same – and for most of my upper primary school education, I thought the hate was mutual between us. I hated her for giving me enough homework to break my fingers off the joints; she hated me for not doing the homework she gave; I hated her for caning me for not doing my homework; she hated me for asking my sister to do my replacement homework. It was like a ping pong match, the both of us waiting to see which one would give in to our hate and finally explode.
(fine, it wasn’t at all that poetic – I just hated her, plain and simple)
I thought that, but on Parents-Teachers Day every middle of the year, when my dad would inevitably show up at school (because my mom would be at her school for the same reason, but on the other end of the Parent-Teacher relationship), and has a little palaver with Mrs. Lim concerning my performance at school, a completely different picture was painted.
Instead of the demon-infested, rage-filled teacher with crazy eyes who would cane me up to 20 times for not doing my weekly homework, the Mrs. Lim who sat and talked with my father was just another 50-something lady, who was trying her best to instill good values into a generation of young, impressionable students. This transformation, however, did nothing to convince me that Mrs. Lim was here for my betterment. All I could think was “HYPOCRITE! HYPOCRITE!”
(not that I knew the word back when I was 10. My actual thoughts were probably “FAKE! FAKE!”)
And for a long time, I thought that was what she did – every once a year, for 15 minutes, she’d put on a mask and play the role of the good teacher, and then revert back to her raging-demon-crazy-teacher mode the very next day, blowing my head off for not doing my homework.
I hated her so much, that on the day I completed my primary education and was to step out of school for the last time, my final thoughts towards the place (and towards Mrs. Lim, by extension) was “Good riddance”.
It took me another 4 years to truly appreciate the effort that she had put in to educate me, and the wisdom that she had shared – I’m talking about things that were not included in the official syllabus, but the myths, legends, and lore that are so ingrained into the Chinese culture that no one could sufficiently explain it all to anyone. Still, she tried; and to the best of her abilities, she spoke of these things to us 10-year olds, believing us to be intelligent enough to understand it, to take it in.
That in itself would have been a source of pride for any educator, but more than that, I remember her for those 15-minute talks with my dad on Parent-Teachers Day, between 2001 and 2003. Again and again, year after year, she’d say:
“Joseph is an extremely smart student. If he did his homework, he could be the top of the class.”
And this was no small thing to say. If you have seen the script I wrote titled “The F Word“, and you thought that I was joking when I was talking about Asian standards, I was not.
Every “standard”, as we could call it, (called “grade” in the U.S.) had a total of 7 classes, from A to G, and these classes were determined at the beginning of every school year, depending on the grade we have obtained through the final examinations in the year before. Naturally, the best and brightest went into class A, and the rest were sorted accordingly into the other classes.
Now in class A, competition was intense. I still remember that either in 2001 or 2002, the top student in class A had an average score of 99.5% for his final examinations. I kid you not – assuming we had 10 subjects being graded in our final examinations, he would have had to score 100% on half of them, and 99% on the other half – and that’s probably what he did.
And Mrs. Lim thought that I could beat him, if I tried.
I guess I had never properly appreciated the weight of her compliment at that time, and even in the years that followed after I had left my primary school, and was busy wrecking havoc in my secondary school instead. Looking back today, I realize I’ve got it the other way round: the 50-something lady who sat and talked with my dad every middle of the year was as close to the real Mrs. Lim as anything could get – and the demonic, raging, crazy teacher was something that I, in my insufferability, had inspired.
(“insufferability”. If that’s not already a word, it should be)
Seriously, how did any of my teachers every put up with me?
We had a class reunion in 2004, the first and last one that I had ever went to. It was held in the KFC branch in Carrefour, in Sri Petaling; and throughout the 2 hours that we were there, I honestly had no idea what was I supposed to do with myself. People came, words were exchanged among them, and people left. Mrs. Lim was there, too, and we exchanged glances – but never spoke.
Today it’s about 10 years since I had last seen Mrs. Lim, with her skinny frame, her short-cropped hair, her old, stern, and weathered face – God only knows where the last 10 years has taken her to. It’s a little bit late, and she probably will never see this, but I’ll put it out there anyway:
Thank you Mrs. Lim. You were the best teacher I’ve ever had.
(EDIT: Her name was Mrs. Tan)