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Blog: Ode to School

I have been a rolling stone since I was two weeks old.

My biological parents were already struggling with raising my two sisters and making ends meet when I was born, so they sent me for adoption.

The Theresian Bear.

In my new family, I had a carefree enough childhood until I was nine years old when my adopted mother was diagnosed with cancer of the intestines. A year later she passed away, leaving my father, my younger sister and I. My father, who was responsible and hardworking yet distant and strict at the same time worked shifts as a police officer. This meant that my sister and I had to spend three to four nights a week with several aunts, or had aunts come over to my flat to spend the night, an arrangement which had almost become a comfortable routine until one day, he introduced my sister and I to a woman his age, a teacher who had never married. We went out for weekly meals which became longer weekend holidays in Malaysia. Just over a year later, my father announced that he was going to remarry.

This introduced a host of other changes; not only did my kind new mother introduced us to new cousins and aunts and uncles and a fulltime caregiver, my parents decided to move out of my sunny and lush Telok Blangah Heights apartment to cold, industrial Jurong, where I lived until I was 19.

I was told that children of such tumultuous childhoods tend to drop out of school, do drugs (my father’s youngest brother was a heroin addict), become teenage mothers. Perhaps my father and my new teacher-stepmother had a big part to play in my sticking to the straight and narrow, but I would not have become half the adult that I am, if it was not for school. After all, school was the only constant of my then chaotic life.

My school, CHIJ St. Theresa’s Convent stands on a hill like a fort looking out at sea; it was once surrounded by great big banyan trees which had been levelled to make way for facilities such as science laboratories and classrooms to accommodate the increasing student population. It had started falling apart even before I had enrolled there at the age of six such that going to school and moving from class to class itself was an adventure. There were the treacherous rusty drain grilles and potholes in the field to be wary of, the Green Lodge leaked and trembled during the monsoon rains and there were ghosts lurking in the science laboratory and the spiral staircase from behind the stage in the main hall. Compared to the shiny, air-conditioned, high-tech classrooms of today, the school was the postcard-perfect picture of poverty.

A picture of my schoolmates and I in front of the statue of the founding father of CHIJ schools in Singapore, Father Nicolas Barre. I’m on the extreme left. Picture courtesy of Siti Shalfarraz.

But it was anything but poor.

I wondered if it was the speed at which my “orphan” status had travelled among the students at school or whether former teachers of my adopted stepmother, who was an old girl, had heard of her untimely death that I had found myself on the receiving end of acts of discreet kindness from the teachers and staff, some of whom had not even taught me directly.

For example, Mrs Jek, a Mandarin teacher who I had only seen twice a week for art class, had slipped an envelope containing $30 in my hand after school soon after my mother’s passing, even after I had already received contribution towards the funeral from teachers and staff. Mdm Sa’emah, my late mother’s former Malay teacher who I had only met once before, had attended the funeral and joined in the prayers. Mdm Sa’emah, who only taught secondary school then, was reconnected with my late mother when the former was tasked with taking me to an inter-school Malay storytelling competition on a weekend as my Malay language teacher Mdm Siti Zainab was unable to attend.

And of course I will never forget the day that the principal Mrs Margaret Joseph found me outside the school gates at nearly seven in the evening when Uncle Seng was locking up the school and all the school buses had left. I told her my name and that I was waiting for my father to pick me up. She understood that at once; I did not remember having to mention my mother’s passing. She gave me durian cake to eat while waiting in her old white Mercedes-Benz and when my father arrived on his Vespa almost half an hour later, she reprimanded him into making better arrangements for me to be picked up after school.

And not all lessons I learnt were from teachers, or even the more high-profile seniors of my batch, but unassuming, ordinary students.

Once in secondary school, I was in charge of putting together a ‘dikir barat’ performance which involved my entire class, and one of my main tasks was to rent dance costumes on behalf of the students. I was supposed to collect money from the students, go to the costumer’s flat in Dover, give her the money in exchange for the clothes and return the clothes after the performance. On the day of the performance, only two students from the entire class had bothered to fold their costumes and return them to me. The rest were left in a heap in the classroom, the backstage area and the ladies, and I was left to pick up after them by myself.

A quiet Indonesian classmate, Caroline Susilo, I think was her name, offered to help me with the costumes. We counted them, sorted them by size, folded them and put them in two huge bags. I was just about to thank her for helping me when she made a phone call in the foyer and a BMW pulled up. She loaded the clothes into the boot and me into the back seat and told her driver to drive me to the lady’s place in Dover. I could not thank her enough.

In my time, my school did not produce the top PSLE or ‘O’ Level scorers of the country. We did not produce as many high profile businesswomen, politicians, doctors, academics and lawyers compared to our sister CHIJ schools. But we had teachers who nurtured talent without being overbearing, who taught us values by example, and who tempered every deed with kindness and whose students practise these values today in their own way.

For someone whose familial history is often confused and disorienting, I am absolutely grateful to be part of the CHIJ St. Theresa’s Convent family and tradition.

For a more comprehensive history of my school, click here.

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