Suddenly I could breathe again and perhaps feel as if a weight has lifted from my shoulders and driven home the lessons I learnt from one single event and one single person.
I think that there are many ups and downs in one’s life journey where one might be tempted to take it out at another person’s expense. I have always believed that it is against my personal values to take out my unhappiness or anger on another person even if I have encountered very unpleasant situations in my life. To be honest, I will always choose to walk away from such situations as I find that it is not worth my time, effort and even my personal values.
I sincerely believed that I learnt this from a teacher I met when I was still studying at Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary school in the 1980s.
Back during my days in primary school, my class was selected to undergo some sort of “gifted education programme” (I don’t remember the exact name) or GEP initiative. I vaguely remembered the principal, a Mrs G, striding into my class and announced that my class will now be placed under this initiative and she had the agreement of all of our parents.
Being the children that we were, we definitely did not understand the implications at that time. She encouraged us by saying that we were the brightest of the grade (given our average scores for tests) and she felt that we were ready to tackle “just a bit more of worksheets and homework”.
I remembered feeling frustrated because I was lagging behind in my scores – I was not entertained by the thought of having even more homework when I literally have tuition after school every day (sans the days I was at choir practice or science club).
After school, I made my way to my tutor’s house. Based on what my principal announced, I shared with her what had happened and sought her thoughts. She told me that she would have to increase the amount of study time at her place and more homework.
I remembered that I said “I want to stop my tuition because I cannot keep up.” She told me it was not a good excuse. I thought about tuition and the GEP initiative my principal announced and said, “What if I study one more year here… and get top 10 in my entire grade as part of this GEP thing… can I stop coming for tuition?”
She looked at me with a smirk, “Okay, if that is what you want. You better be prepared for the huge amount of homework I am going to give you from now on!”
As a child, I felt intense pressure from my tuition teacher, from the expectations from the GEP initiative the principal talked about and having to compete with my own classmates. I could see similar pressures manifesting with my classmates – there was definitely an uptick of unreported bullying in my class during that time. Being one of the smallest boys around, I was constantly bullied… the bullying definitely got worse after the GEP initiative started.
Sometime around the first semester of that year, our Mathematics and Science teacher had to go on maternity leave. We were devastated as she was a teacher who was with us from two years before and she could manage (tolerate?) a very naughty class like ours. Due to the added pressures from the GEP initiative, we were perhaps feeling a little frightened with the prospect of having an unknown teacher to teach us.
The relief teacher came in on the day when our M&S teacher started her maternity leave. A very thin and glum-looking woman strode into the class, placed her books down on the table and turned to face us, “I am Ms AY, I will be your Mathematics and Science teacher until your teacher comes back.”
Over the week, we would then realise that she was stern and did not tolerate any nonsense from us. Students were yelled at or got sent to see the Discipline Master (DM) frequently.
One day, as I trying to catch up with what was written on the chalkboard, a classmate started to provoke me by grabbing my pencil case and spilling it on the floor. I was furious but just kept quiet as I stooped down to collect my pencils. He would continue to do it over during the class period whenever Ms AY looked away or was busy writing on the chalkboard.
Ms AY suddenly raised her voice at me and asked what I was doing. I told her “it was nothing”. She seemed sceptical and told me to collect the completed worksheets from the class. I did that and left it on the teacher’s desk before heading back to my seat.
She raised her voice again, “I want you to give them to me and not just leave them on the desk.”
“Can’t you just pick them up from your desk? They are just right there,” I retorted. Suddenly the usual hubbub in the class ceased.
“I am telling you to hand them to me,” she continued.
“Fine!” I got up from seat, marched to her desk and retrieved the stack of worksheets. In that moment, all the childish frustrations of being under the GEP initiative, competing with my classmates and trying my best to get out my tuition… all accumulated into one massive angry moment. I turned towards her and threw the entire stack of worksheets at her. “There you go!” I marched out of the class and headed to the canteen (and subsequently got booked by the senior perfects stationed there for wandering outside of my class during my study period).
When I returned to class after getting yelled at by my seniors, Ms AY was not there but the class was quiet and perhaps even frightened. I sat down and the girl sitting next to me told me that Ms AY ran out of the class crying towards the staff room after I threw the worksheets at her. “Huh,” I acknowledged that dismissively.
Within a minute, the Discipline Master burst into the class and yelled at me to follow him to the staff lounge. Once both of us were sat down, he said “do you know what you have just done?”
“Which part? Following you here to the office? Getting booked by the perfects?”
“No, you moron! You made Ms AY cry!”
“So what, baldy, she had it coming.”
I should mention that the Discipline Master was a friend of my father’s and we call each other really terrible nicknames in private conversations. And yes, he was bald.
“Whatever the reasons may be, you should not have done that. Ms AY has her own challenges… and it is not just teaching your class of monkeys!”
“That does not mean she should pick on me,” as I explained what happened before I threw the worksheets at her.
“I understand that you monkeys are very stressed out. Parents have complained about your friends returning home and crying all the time. BUT what you did is wrong. You should NEVER take out your anger or frustrations at other people!”
“That’s a fine thing to hear from a hypocrite like you, baldy.”
“I’m not the best role model, but this isn’t something you should do. Your father will be disappointed in you.”
“Well, I am not going to apologise to Ms AY. I hate her.”
“Okay, but you will regret this in future.”
I am surprised to remember this particular conversation with my Discipline Master in such clarity even when it has been over thirty years. Bless his soul, baldy.
The conversation ended just like that, nothing came of it as well. I later understood that Ms AY did not seek to punish me for her own reasons. After that incident, classes went back to normal but Ms AY avoided me in class and kept quiet most of the time. When our original Mathematics and Science teacher came back from maternity leave, Ms AY left to teach another class in the school and I barely saw her in school in the few years after.
Over the years, I often thought about this incident, Ms AY and what my bald Discipline Master said. I think eventually this incident shaped how I decided that retaliating against others is something I will not do and adopted it as part of my personal values.
I would say that this incident defined me as a person. I have carried a deep regret of never apologising to Ms AY for what I did back then for the longest time, but I learnt an important lesson from her. This incident was something I would constantly reflect upon over the decades whenever unpleasant situations occur in my life, and it helped me stay true to my personal values – in a way, I am regretful but thankful at the same time.
Fast forward 30 odd years…
In 2019, I got to know a group of students learning Chinese ink painting from my father under LaSalle’s short courses, comprising of mainly middle-aged adults and some seniors. As part of an informal arrangement, I was brought in by my father to critique their paintings at my home. I remembered spending more than an hour assessing and critiquing their paintings to every student who attended the session. I got along with a few students and one particular older lady called A. She felt familiar but perhaps she was just a nice person.
Over the course of a few months which eventually culminated in a 2019 joint exhibition between my father and his students at a small exhibition space called Guanyunzhai at Bras Basah Complex; which exhibited the students’ artworks from before joining the short courses and after. My idea was to contrast their progression till date and perhaps show our audience of visitors that there was no real need to follow in the footsteps of a teacher but to branch out in their own individual directions or surpass their teacher. From that collaboration with the students as their curator, I believed that I had deepened my relationship with a few of them as I got along with them or we had similar thoughts about art itself, and A was one of them I was happy to be acquainted with. A initially came across as a quiet lady who keeps to herself. but I found her comforting to listen to as she dispensed her kind advice and support about some issues I was facing earlier this year.
With a quick whirl in TARDIS, we have arrived here in October 2020.
My parents and I were invited to dinner by A and her daughter. I understand that it was A’s daughter who wanted to treat my father (and by extension my mother and myself) dinner as way of gratitude for something (I’m not sure what though).
As part of dinner conversation, I learnt that A used to be a teacher at my primary school. I recalled glancing at the private hire driver’s phone and saw A’s surname as AY. I was like “nahhhhh, it can’t be”.
So I asked her when did she teach at my primary school. She said she was transferred to my school in 1980s. I was mildly shocked and asked her a few details which she confirmed was correct (like the campus location and the principal’s surname).
I was stunned but decided to share my story of a teacher called Ms AY. As I began to describe the stern and grumpy Ms AY, her daughter gleefully clapped and said “that it is definitely her”. I felt like the world was starting to explode. I pressed on and asked A whether she remembered coming in to relieve a Mathematics and Science teacher that went on maternity leave, an ixora flower garden next to the classroom, the surname of the Discipline Master and the Choir teacher-in-charge – all of which she confirmed.
There she is – Ms AY!
She couldn’t remember the worksheets being thrown at her, but she remembered her first relief class was “full of monkeys” and was extremely difficult to teach as they were in the pilot GEP initiative that the principal took up. Her daughter shared how angry her mother was every day when A was teaching at my school.
After listening to my story A asked me what did I learnt from that. I said I learnt not to take out my frustrations and anger at other people and it has been a constant reminder for me all these 30 odd years after the incident. She was surprised that I still remembered this incident when she has completely forgotten it. “Well, it was life changing for me,” I said.
I do not know if she understood it when I half-bend my knees, bowed and apologised to her. I meant my apologies with my deepest sincerity.
For all the months knowing A as my father’s student at the Chinese ink painting short courses, I never realised that the teacher I was looking for was there all along.
At long last, one of my deepest regrets… I could meet Ms AY to apologise for my behaviour.
Thank you, Ms AY.
This article is written in the context of the Singapore educational system during the 1980s.
 See Vincent Lin, The Impermanence of Tradition: Opportunities for Innovation and Self Discovery. 2019. Accessed October 23, 2020. https://www.academia.edu/40637207/The_Impermanence_of_Tradition_Opportunities_for_Innovation_and_Self_Discovery