Apology as Medicine

20 April 2020

Twenty years ago, I taught English & Literature to a Science Class whose students were mostly aspiring to be engineers, doctors, accountants and businessmen, and maybe lawyers.

Looking back now I can see the glaring mismatch between my subject offering and the boys’ subject combination & career trajectory.

When their literature exam scores didn’t measure up to their science and math scores, Literature was the blight that marred their otherwise pristine achievements of straight “A”s.

For every difficult student there is an unusually mature one like this Asean Scholar who made sure his Literature teacher doesn’t die under the pile of admint paper work.

A couple of students who understood the relevance of Literature fought the school admint tooth & nails when they were asked to “drop Lit so that they could better focus on other subjects.” They got to keep Lit and did well in it.

However, I would learn later about a boy who questioned my teaching abilities and actively sought to humiliate me at every opportunity.

He contradicted me during lessons or asked me questions he had read elsewhere about the texts which he thought I wouldn’t be able to handle.

He even included plagiarised materials in his essays and showed off to his classmates that I wouldn’t be able to spot.

In hindsight, it was an act of grace that I didn’t know about his acts of mischief.

Had I known of his stealth, I might have become nervous, and started to channel all my productive energy to prove him wrong, and ended up neglecting my teaching, and thus becoming exactly the lousy teacher he believed I was.

Hence blissfully ignorant of the childish traps he had set for me, I continued to entertain his questions to the best of my knowledge and complimented him for his essay writing.

Years later, this boy got to study in one of the Ivy League universities in USA.

My intelligent and wonderfully compassionate girls.

By then I had moved on to teach English and Literature in a girls’ school. That year I was teaching Amy Tan’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” when the boy who had become a young man dropped by my school during his vacation.

Right on the bench outside the staff room, this young man surprised me by holding both my hands in his, and asked if I could ever forgive him for all that he had done to make life difficult for me during his school days.

He revealed that we had met in a period when he was facing some unresolved personal issues and I had unfortunately become the target of his bitterness.

Over the years he matured and became reflective. The turning point came when his sister became a teacher, and was treated like the way he used to treat me.

I thanked him for the courage to confess and even though there were some awkward times between us, I didn’t take his defiance to heart.

School teachers have thick skins or else it’s a one way ticket to the asylum.

Looking back now I see that in a weird twist of fate, a brother’s pranks on his school teacher not only did not achieve the intended results, but had been eerily stashed away for his own sister who at that time was not even a teacher yet.

By seeking me out to make peace he had offered me a valuable lesson on never to use personal problems as an excuse to hurt others. And in apologising, he had also released his own sister from the torment of her students.

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