I was a quiet boy in school when I was little. I never had any close friends before secondary school because I had very low self-esteem.
I think my self-confidence was more or less damaged by the comments I got from my relatives and friends. My dad was in debt, my mum was an alcohol sales girl, my sisters were dropped out from school, I never did well in school and I was a sissy. Yes, I got a lot of that “sissy” comments. It got so deep into me that I was troubled by it for the longest time in my youth.
I tried to stay away from the boys in primary school because they would make fun of me. I always thought being sissy was a wrong thing, so I didn’t want the other boys to hear me talking. I pretended to be like them: talking loudly, mocking at others, cheating during tests, playing truant and pulling girls’ pony tails. But to me, they were not my friends. The girls hated me too.
Actually, playing truant wasn’t exactly just for show. I didn’t like school, didn’t like the teachers and classmates. It didn’t make any sense to go there at all. Although, I loved drawing. I scored well in my art and craft. My art teacher even praised me during meet-the-parent session. But my dad would say drawing was for girls. So I dropped it.
My elder sister was very good in sports. She was one of the top badminton players in school and she always participated in track and fields. I admired her a lot, still do. I took part in drama and I drew very well, but I was never good in sports. My dad and relatives would laugh at me for doing the “girls stuff”. I tried soccer. It was a disaster… I could only chase the ball and mocked by the other boys.
I ever thought I had made a good friend when I was in primary 4. He would ask me to go over to his house and we would make our own toy cars. I thought finally I was doing what other boys would do. And then one day my good friend offered to help me make my toy car look better. The model I bought was one of the most expensive ones available at that time. I had saved up all my breakfast money to buy it. So naturally I was very particular about all the parts in my toy car. The next day my good friend played truant. The following day he didn’t show up. So I went to his house to ask if I could get my toy car back. He gave me back, reluctantly. I was beginning to feel suspicious. So I checked every part of my toy car… The engine was different… I remembered I made a mark on it. So I questioned him, and of course he denied and blamed me for being so sissy. What?!
Then, I never trusted anyone. And I stopped talking. I had even stopped going to school. Every morning, I would dress up nicely, pretending to go to school. Then I would wait on the upper floor for my dad to leave for work. I would go back to my house and hid under the bed or in the cupboard for the next couple of hours. I hated school. In fact, I hated people.
There was this social studies teacher who was always concerned about my attendance. If I didn’t turn up in class, she would talk to me the next day when she saw me. I was so petrified whenever she called me out in class, and then questioned me about my medical certificate. Many years later, I read in a news that she had won some awards for the most caring teachers in Singapore. Now that I think of it, she really deserves that award. Her name was (something like) Ms Synnathambhi. I can’t spell her name now.
I failed primary 5, really badly. During that time, for students who failed primary 5 or 6, they would either go to extended classes or mono classes. Primary school would usually end at primary 6. So the extended classes would continue to primary 7 and 8. While the mono classes would continue to primary 7 and 8, but they could never go to the main stream in secondary school.
I ended up in an extended class, jumping from primary 5 to primary 7 extended.
As usual, in the first few weeks, I always turned up late. Then one day, my maths teacher, Ms Gwee, saw me coming into the class, late, and said in front of the class: “Oh wow, you’re early!”
I was terribly embarrassed like never before. But she didn’t continue to humiliate me in front of the class. She waited for me to settle down and then continue with her lesson. This was the most important lesson in my life! The first sarcastic remark I had gotten. Yet, it helped me to realize how selfish I was to let the others wait for me to begin class. She didn’t look at me like other teachers. What I saw from her was the same look she gave to every other student in the class. That was the first time I felt at ease in class. I didn’t have to behave like others, because I was “others”. From that day onwards, Mathematics became my favourite subject. I had even scored an A star in PSLE, our national Primary School Leaving Examination, almost on par with the normal stream primary 6 students. I’m sure Ms Gwee was very proud of me.
During the same time, I had also met another important teacher in my life. She was my Chinese language teacher. I must admit, I forgot her last name. But I remembered I was very bad in Mandarin. At home, my parents and relatives would communicate in Hokkien (Min Nan), a dialect passed down from my grandparents who were from the south China. English and Mandarin were foreign to me at that time. I had even written my assignment in Hokkien without knowing. She read it out in class (in Hokkien) to humiliate me. It was so embarrassing, yet funny because she did the Hokkien slang the right way! But the most important thing was, she pointed out to me what was wrong, and corrected me. I felt so blessed. And comforted. Because she understood my background. She didn’t blame me, but praised me for what she could never do! Yes, you guessed it. Mandarin became my next favourite subject and I got A in PSLE.
I then became “teachers’ pet”, and was hated by many classmates. I didn’t want that. I only wanted to be kind to people who treated me kindly. Unfortunately, those people were my teachers.
While I was quiet in school during my time in primary 7 and 8, there was this guy who was in my class and had been mocked by many students as a sissy. He was always alone and quiet. During recess time, you would see him hiding in a corner, eating his breakfast. One day, during physical exercise lesson, under the impression that all the other boys didn’t like him, I mocked at him loudly across the parade square, shouting “sissy”. He merely looked away, hurt. And then a boy whom I admired for a long time, spoke out for him and scolded me for being rude. It shocked me… because I always thought people didn’t like sissy. And then I realised that I was wrong to judge people. I was in no position to judge people, especially when I was in the same position… a “sissy”. That “sissy” became my first good friend in school.
I didn’t do well in English, but squeezed my way through the express course in secondary school, it was the same couse that the normal primary 6 students would go. My teachers were thrilled, but my dad didn’t know the difference. He only wanted to know if I had “passed”. I just told him I did. My mum, on the other hand, knew that I was “first in class”, and insisted that we celebrate at the coffee shop she worked in. She began telling her colleagues how smart I was. You can imagine how embarrassed I was at that time. I was just an “extended student”, which was deemed as no future at that time.
In my first year in secondary school, I had tried to keep away from other students. I hardly spoke to anyone, even my good friend from primary school. During recess time, I would buy my breakfast and do my homework in a corner. It felt safe…. because I didn’t have to face human beings. Until we were forced to join an ECA (Extra Curriculum Activity).
I loved arts and music. So the first ECA that I thought would be either the band or the choir. But then I was pressured by my relatives to do something more “manly”, which I thought could be the boys scout or NPCC.
My form teacher, Ms Chang, was the teacher-in-charge of the band. We were the pioneer batch of the school, so all ECAs were only just starting. Eventually, I had decided to give the band a try, thinking that I could learn the violin. Ms Chang very kindly explained to me that the band wasn’t an orchestra, so there wasn’t any violin available. I was quite disappointed at that time. She then encouraged me to try other instruments later on in that year (it was a new school, so there wasn’t any instrument to practice for many months). I don’t know what came to me, but I stayed in the band eventually. Trombone was my first musical instrument.
I knew Ms Chang took care of me. I didn’t know why. But in my second semester of the first year, she made me the chairman of the class, and then she made me stand in front of the class to make announcements. Initially, I was very shy and afraid… but after a few rounds, I gained some confidence and spoke better with people. Later on, she even made me the drum major of the band. I knew she was trying to help me regain my self-esteem, but I had also heard rumours about people not happy with my position. It was difficult to deal with rumours at that young age. The discipline master even tried to make me the Head Prefect, but I rejected… because I couldn’t deal with so much pressure at the same time.
We did well in our band competition, although not ideal, but I had enjoyed every day with the band members. It was then that I felt ease and comfort with people of the same mindset and without prejudice. Yes, we were only maybe 12 to 16 years old. But the amount of pressure from our peers was no lesser than the adults.
Along the years, I had met many other great teachers who had guided me to a clearer path. I may not be successful now. But I’m more human, more self-esteem, and more open to people who care about me. To those teachers who had changed my life, if not for you, I won’t be writing this blog in front of a 27 inch iMac comfortably, and I won’t be having so many good friends in my life. Thank you so much! Oh, and I may still be a sissy, but I have come to accept it as part of my life!