25 April 2019
Handwriting reveals a lot about a person. In the same way they can hide pain, words can also become real and bring relief.
Back in the 90s, there was a boy in my class who repeatedly handed in work that showed very messy handwriting. My initial reaction was to get angry. I was angry with him for being untidy. I was angry with him for being inconsiderate. But mostly I was angry with him for not respecting me enough to show me some nice handwriting.
One day I received another dreaded handwritten composition full of ugly words from the same boy. But before I could fly into a rage, his image popped into my head.
He had his fringe to hide his pimply forehead while his oversized spectacles resembling laboratory goggles perched precariously on his nose. Even though he wasn’t particularly witty, he was always attentive and looked like he enjoyed my lessons.
He was keen when I introduced the use of fountain pen to his class, and even showed me the one which his grandfather lent him to bring to school.
So I couldn’t understand where this insane handwriting and incoherent babbling came from.
By this time, instead of getting upset, and hating him, I decided to put away that red pen for the time being and just run my fingers over his mangled words.
This must be one of those “the Heart knows reasons that Reason does not know” moments. Till this day I couldn’t explain fully what made me do that.
And something interesting did happen when I touched his tortured letters. I felt the boy’s frustrations, as if he was carving or maybe even stabbing the words onto paper. At the back of the page, I felt the eerie graininess of the indentations as if some creatures were trapped underneath & struggling to break free.
My annoyance abated further when I saw him in my mind, hunching over his work, all alone in class, because he was always the one to finish last.
In our following lesson, I got him to stay back after class had ended.
I placed the train wreck of his composition between us. He registered all the comments in red with his eyes but held back his emotions.
Then I asked if there was something wrong with my instructions that had confused him and caused him to write like this. Was I unclear? Did I speak too fast? Was the deadline too tight?
He answered all my questions bravely and adjusted his specs that were sliding down his nose. Then he looked down, as if about to cry.
“You said you like English. Then why do you keep on writing like this?” I prompted, fighting the irritation that was threatening to crawl right back into my heart. (Bad handwriting kills me)
“Yes, I enjoy the lessons. It’s just that I’m under A LOT of pressure,” he explained and avoided my eyes.
He then disclosed that his parents had high expectations of him and his older brother. They were not pleased that their older son did not make it to junior college. My student thus lived in constant anxiety of disappointing his parents.
“My parents are always telling me that they’ll be happy with anything I do as long as I can do better than them,” he said sadly.
“But isn’t it natural for parents to wish for their children to do better than them?” I asked, trying to sound as objective as I could.
“But Miss Ong, my dad is a neurosurgeon and my mom runs her own pharmaceutical company. How can I possibly do better than them?” he asked, barely able to conceal his sense of defeat even as he tried to force a smile.
“And even if I were given 3 life times to try, I won’t be able to do better than them,” he emphasised.
His choice of illustration stunned and saddened me deeply.
When he was done explaining, we looked at each other and started to laugh. Perhaps we laughed out of relief and at the absurdity of the challenge before him.
There was something very sad but strangely uplifting in our shared humour that day, even though we were still clueless on how to deal with his work quality.
However after we spoke, his handwriting and expressions started to improve. He became less moody and less awkward. It was as if a secret spell that had kept him frozen had been broken.
At the parent-teacher meeting I mustered enough courage to let his parents know that their well meaning intentions were chipping away at their son’s confidence and hindering his attempts to learn.
I pushed my luck a bit by saying I understand that it wouldn’t be easy for high achievers like them to accept that their son might have a different path from theirs.
The father was a cultivated man with a gentle presence although he looked at me sternly when I spoke. The well groomed mother listened on quietly. (Perhaps they were going to complain to the school that I was encouraging their son to be a loser)
Back then I knew I was only a teacher drawing a fixed salary, single and without kids of my own. How was I qualified to advise married people who were way more financially capable and more academically successful than me on educating their son?
But back then I also knew that my student was too young, too inarticulate and loved his parents way too much to tell them that their dreams were killing him. And if I didn’t at least speak up for him then, how was I qualified to be his teacher?
A few years later while in town, I passed by the dad on his way to lunch.
He called out to me and seemed really delighted to see me. He shook my hand warmly and smiled as he gave me updates of my student, his son.
His older boy had graduated from polytechnic. My student was also enjoying his poly studies and moving on to new things.
As we parted ways, I could sense that the surgeon was genuinely happy because his boys were happy. No further conditions were needed.
And that was it. Words do become flesh.