Notes from a Sacked Relief Teacher
By Alfian Sa`at
1. The Boy Who Wore A Songkok To Class
One day the boy went into his class wearing a songkok.
A songkok is a kind of hat that Muslim men wear. Its outer lining is made up of velvet but its inner lining is of something stiff, which allows the songkok to retain its shape and stand on its own.
The songkok the boy was wearing was black. Sometimes a songkok can be blue or even brown but these fall out of fashion very fast. Black, on the other hand, is evergreen.
When the teacher saw the boy wearing the songkok she asked, "What are you doing? That is not the school uniform. The school is a national institution for social integration. How can we even hope for this to happen if you all don't dress up the same way?"
The boy simply looked at the teacher and smirked.
"What you're wearing, it's not right to wear it in class."
"What I'm wearing?" the boy asked.
"Don't pretend," said the teacher. "Take it off. Take it off right now."
"Take what off?" the boy asked.
The teacher wanted to say something like that 'boy-tudung', but she knew this wasn't the right word for it. But should she say 'hat' instead? It sounded so formal, she thought. Maybe she should say 'cap'. Or perhaps something more general, like 'head-dress', would be more appropriate for the occasion. But it had a ring of the exotic to it, and she wasn't sure if that was the nuance she was aiming for.
"I'm going to count to three," the teacher said. "One... two..."
The boy whipped off his songkok just as his teacher was forming the interdental fricative consonant at the beginning of the word 'th-ree'.
The teacher heaved a sigh of relief that was interrupted by her realization that the boy's hair was tied up into a bun at the top of his head.
So he wasn't Muslim, but Sikh, she thought. She didn't see that coming at all. The teacher consulted the chart on her table that showed a layout of the desks in the class. The boy's name was 'Avery Ding Guorong'.
The teacher raised her head abruptly to confront — but what exactly was she confronting? She blinked her eyes, once, twice. In the boy's seat sat an albino. How could she not have noticed this aspect of him before? What exactly had she been paying attention to?
And that hair: no longer covered, nor bunched into a topknot, but spread out, white and dazzling. Like a halo it absolved her.
"We are all very concerned," the counselor said to the girl. "Is there anything you want to share with us?"
The girl glanced up at the counselor.
"Mr Kong told us that the last seven compositions you wrote all involved people dying. Is that true?"
The girl sniffed in reply.
"Let's look at this composition here. The title is 'A Day at the Beach'. You began with a very good description of a family, who are having a picnic at the beach. The story started off well, until the part when the jellyfish came in."
"They were venomous jellyfish," the girl said.
"We know that," the counselor said, suddenly self-conscious that he was addressing himself in the first person plural. "And this is the part that is causing us some concern. While swimming out to sea, the family is attacked by a whole swarm of jellyfish. Nobody survives. Our hopes are raised for a while when a lifeguard enters the picture, but even he gets stung and dies."
"It wasn't a happy day at the beach," the girl said.
"Nobody doubts that," said the counselor. "What about this one? You were asked to write a story based on a picture. A car, that passed by two boys at a bus stop, accidentally splashes water on them. Simple enough. Most of your classmates wrote about how they had to return home and change into new sets of uniforms. Some wrote about how they were late for school. In your story, the two boys catch a cold and a few weeks later die of pneumonia. We're encouraged that you're using a word like 'pneumonia', and spelling it correctly. But we're beginning to see a pattern here."
The girl could spell 'nosocomial staphylococcus aureus infection' also, but she was saving it for another composition.
"And how about 'A Joyful Reunion'?" the counselor continued. "A mother commits suicide and joins her daughter in heaven, who was earlier killed in a motorcycle accident. Do you have any problems in school? Or at home?"
The girl opened her mouth to speak, but held herself back. It all began during one of the Reading Periods that Mr Kong had initiated in class. He would pass a copy of the day's newspaper around, and each student was instructed to take one sheet to read. When the newspaper was passed to her section of the class, she would always end up with the obituaries. The ones after her, a rowdy group of boys, would fight one another over the sports pages. When you finished your articles, you were supposed to exchange them with your classmates. But nobody wanted to exchange with her.
Week after week, she would stare at the faces looking up at her from obituary notices. She would read their names, as well as the list of names of the survived bys and dearly missed bys. She calculated lifespans. She examined expressions made without any knowledge that they would one day represent death masks.
"I've been chosen," the girl finally told the counselor.
"I'm not sure we understand what that means," the counselor replied. He was suddenly aware that it was just the girl and himself in a corner of the Staff Room. He asked himself, on whose behalf was he speaking for? Whoever they were, their absence sent a chill through his body. "I don't understand," he finally conceded. "Chosen to do what?"
"To spread the news," the girl answered.
The girl looked at the counselor with exasperation. How tiresome. The news! The only news that mattered.
3. Games Day
AS RECALLED IN A DIARY
It was a bright and sunny day. Mr Lim chose me to run for my class. He gave me a tag to pin on my back. Peiling laughed when I asked her to help me. Her other friends Ruimin and Shiwei also laughed. I told her to be careful with the pins or else she will poke me. My tag was blue. It said 3B. I am proud and happy to run for my class.
I finished first in the race. My class was proud and happy for me. When I finished the race I didn't see Peiling. There were many people on the field. There were many of them carrying a pink water bottle just like Peiling. When Miss Haslina gave me the medal I looked for Peiling again. Maybe she was in the school or in the shade with her friends. My medal felt hot when I touched it. It was too bright and too sunny.
A PARENT'S CONCERN
I am afraid to say that my daughter is not a team player. During a game called the 'Three Legged Race', my daughter was paired with another one of her classmates, and their ankles were tied together (her right ankle to the classmate's left). They were supposed to coordinate the movements of their feet so that walking would be possible.
Unfortunately, my daughter's partner tripped and fell halfway through the race. Instead of waiting for her partner to recover, my daughter decided to soldier ahead, effectively dragging the poor girl across the grass, causing raffia burn on their skins as well as the soiling of the girl's PE shorts.
It was a very sorry sight, and I was rather embarrassed to admit that this determined girl — who now resembled some kind of beast of burden, attached to a plough — was actually something I had given birth to. How did I manage to push her out into the world through my narrow pelvic canal?
It was simpler when my daughter was an infant, because then her needs were elementary: food, water, shelter, sunlight, air...But now that she is at this stage, there are other needs too, for validation, and praise, and consolation, proofs of love shattered into all these pieces, when the only proof required back then was simply my physical presence.
We spend a lot of time thinking about a child 'growing up', but we don't consider the most important transformation of all, which is that from an animal to a human being. My daughter approached me after the race, limping and thirsty. Her team had finished last. Should I convince her that she had done her best? Tend to her wounds? Reproach her for making a spectacle of herself?
If only I could just lead her to the shade of a tree, where I can just nurse her, calling her 'my little calf', no sound coming from our locked bodies except for the occasional snort, the drowsy sigh. And I would nurse the other girl too, offering her my other breast, to make the necessary amends.
COLOURS AND SHAPES
The field itself is a rectangle, but this is difficult to appreciate when one is on the ground. However, if one were to sit in a classroom, especially one located on the second and third floors, then while looking out of the window, one would be able to appreciate the rectangle that is the field.
The degree of appreciation which one experiences upon consideration of the field's rectangular nature is directly proportional to the level of boredom induced by the lesson that is being taught in the classroom. The lesson itself, however, might involve geometry as a subject, which would mean some concordance with the subject of the distraction.
One can perhaps then say that one's attention is divided between two types of rectangles, of different scales: one drawn on the board, and another one located 'outside'. Neither of these rectangles is strictly 'perfect', though if one were to seek an example of a perfect rectangle one needs to look no further than the outline of the window.
There are other examples of rectangles on the field itself, such as the brown gunny sacks, the number-stenciled cloth tags in three primary colours, as well as the rows of students who have been instructed to line up in a 'two-by-two' formation. When the gunny sacks are used in a race, they take on the form of a trapezium, and the formation of students also keep shifting to create somewhat amoebic rectangles. Only the cloth tags retain their shape, and we can confidently assign this to a single causative factor, i.e., legs.
Squares are represented by musty, palm-sized bean bags, which are available in both the primary and secondary palettes. As for circles, we have rubber doughnuts in dull colours such as maroon, teal and turtle green. In addition, there are hula hoops, originally in neon colours of yellow, pink and orange, but which have now faded as a result of being bleached by the sun. Cones are represented by white and orange traffic cones, cylinders by silver batons, spheres by basketballs, and spheroid objects by the eggs which are passed from spoon to spoon.
Oh, but where are the triangles? Hush. They are in the music room.
AFTER ACTION REVIEW
Every year, the committee asks the same question: is it really necessary to have all the other games, the ones requiring props and rules which have no practical equivalent in 'real life'?
My answer has always been this: as educators, we recognize that not all children are born equal. The purpose of conducting these 'other games' is to provide an opportunity for those less endowed with psychomotor skills to excel. In fact, due to the unorthodox nature of these games, traits that are otherwise overlooked or belittled in 'real life' are given competitive advantage.
1) In the 'Bean Bag Balance' game, where participants are required to walk with a bean bag on their heads, mastery is possessed by those whose skulls are level at the top. This cranial plateau might ordinarily cause some amount of teasing in 'real life', attracting names like 'blockhead' or insults like 'when will the helicopter land?' but in the game this is turned into an asset.
2) In the 'Pop The Balloon' game, the weightier participants are able to leverage on their bulk to destroy balloons during the race. However, it should be noted that the initial part of the game involves running while holding a balloon, where the fat children tend to be outpaced. However, their moment of vindication arrives during the segment when they are to sit on the balloons before running back. The average child requires around five bounces to burst the balloon, but obesity reduces this to just two.
3) In the 'Drunken Sailor' game, those who shine have superior vestibular function, which allows them to maintain their balance after having spun around twenty times with one finger pressed on a point in the ground. Naturally, they are able to confidently walk to the finish line without any seasick lurching around. A Primary Two boy confided in me that as a toddler, he was often placed in a sarong cradle suspended on a spring from the ceiling. His older brother, out of mischief, would twist the cradle around, and then watch as the cradle violently untwisted itself. 'Spinning around' has always been a feature of his early life. This boy has managed to turn the adversities of such a traumatic upbringing into triumph by coming in first in the 'Drunken Sailor' game.
It has been said that one purpose of education is to prepare our students for 'real life'. But 'real life' is quite often a territory filled with ugliness and cruelty. Just because we need to prepare them for 'real life' does not mean that we cannot create pockets of 'real life' for them which might lie outside our own experiences as adults. For this reason I would like to strongly propose, as I have for the last ten years, that we award medals to the winners of these games, the same medals that we give to the athletes and hurdlers and long-jumpers, instead of packets of tissue and sweets.
PICTURE CONVERSATION (ORAL EXAM)
Look at the boy. What is he doing? He is jumping around in a gunny sack. Look at his sleeve. What do you see? There is a small blue square on it. Look at his face. What expression does he have? He looks very happy. Does the gunny sack remind you of anything? No. have you been to a funeral? No. In a Chinese funeral the mourners wear sackcloth. Do you know why the boy has a square pinned on his sleeve? No. He is in mourning, the square tells us that his relative has died. He is very happy. Yes, he is, isn't he? Do you think ignorance is bliss? Or would you say that ignorance is some kind of joy? I don't know. Psychologists claim that children only understand death between the ages of six to nine. Prior to this they think of death as reversible and temporary. They might think of death as a 'punishment' or indulge in 'magical thinking'. What is magical thinking? It's a kind of wish-fulfillment, where a person believes that he or she can control outcomes just by thinking about them. How old are you this year? I am six years old. When is your birthday? Next month. So will you turn six or seven next month? Seven. Are you looking forward to your birthday? Yes.
Don't write zephyr when you mean wind. Don't write fart when you mean break wind. Don't write azure to describe the sky or the sea. Don't write menacing to describe clouds or guard dogs. Don't write plethora when you mean many. Don't write altercation when you mean fight. Don't write quixotic when you mean brave.
Don' t use your finger to try achieving equal spacing between your words. Don't be demoralized by the hidden word fool in foolscap paper. Don't use more than three dots when you want to write your ellipses, it doesn't mean that the more dots there are the more mysterious your sentence, nor does it mean that each dot is equivalent to the root of every hair follicle you expect to incite to horripilation. Don't write horripilation when you mean standing on end.
Don't make your ellipses rise and fall like the flight path of a butterfly. Don't use three apostrophes as a quotation mark even if what is said was told by a friend of a friend. Don't forget to use commas even if you have set the class record for holding your breath underwater.
Don't write Suddenly at the beginning of your sentences when you want to introduce one surprise after another. Don't write the full moon/the creaking door/the cobwebbed room/his bloodshot eyes/her cackling laugh in your horror story. Don't write horror stories.
Don't end with I woke up and it was all a dream. Don't end with lying in a pool of blood your eyes growing heavy footsteps fading, which is the same thing. Don't overuse the ending we were tired, but happy, though other permutations are worth exploring, such as: tired and happy, tired from happiness, and tired of happiness.
Don't write sleepy when you mean tuition. Don't write fear when you mean forgetting to bring your PE attire to school. Don't write jealous when you mean mummy has brought home a new baby. Don't write longing when you mean daddy has not come home from work and you are counting the cars in the car park from the window. Don't write loss when you mean the smell of the batik hammock stretched between mummy's knees. Don't write shame when you mean daddy heading straight for the bargain bin when he buys you your first pair of track shoes. Don't write loneliness when you mean the woolly crayon scrawling in an alphabet book you once owned.
Don't write about the saddest day of your life, unless you are able to dapple your sheet of paper with tearstains, as proof.
Don't write about the happiest day of your life, even if this is the assigned topic, because it is possible that the experience exceeds language, your language. Don't believe those who say write what you know, the more important thing now is to write what you have, so choose a day when you were moderately, not indescribably, happy.
Don't assume however that your life means only the one that others have witnessed, and not the lives you have lived in your head. Don't hesitate then to write about the hundred-balloon birthday party/the beach picnic where you swam to the horizon and touched it and swam back/the suicidal goldfish revived by water/the first prize, although it would be more convincing to the marker to say second prize, because there might be one more deserving of being first, but you are no less deserving of the happiness you feel by coming in second.
Don't keep choosing to write the argumentative essay, again and again, unless you are certain that one day you will write fiction and find your freedom ignoring the tips above, again and again.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 1 Jan 2011