A couple of days back First Tutee turned 9 years old. I’ve known him since he was 6 and a half.
From being scared of cats, First Tutee now calls Ollie the Cat his best friend. He cried over Kitty’s passing last year & told me he would like to keep her ashes in his home when he buys his own place one day.
From struggling over differentiating “b” from “d”, he now learns his weekly spelling and dictation with ease. He composes his own stories by watching clouds and turns William Blake’s “A Poison Tree,” which he has memorised into a rap.
He listens to “War Horse” being read and learns to identify BBC accent from his favourite youtuber’s American accent. He likes Albert Narracourt a lot for his bravery and loyalty to Joey, his horse, and sketches out scenes from the book after his weekly reading aloud on ZOOM tuition.
On their morning rides to school, he’ll remind his uncle to slow down for pigeons, mynahs and sparrows feeding on the pavement.
I’ve always held the number 9 in high regard. In old Chinese culture, 9 is the number associated with the Emperor and longevity of all things positive. 9 in my minnan dialect shares the same pronunciation for “dog” which stands for faithfulness & abundance.
So on the morning of his birthday, I donated $99 to Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary in First Tutee’s name. I wished for him a healthy and happy long life, full of kingly attributes while staying humble and sharing his abundance with all sentient beings.
A while later, the shelter updated their list of sponsors on facebook and believe it or not, First Tutee was sponsor number 9!
In the evening I realised First Tutee’s full name contains 9 letters, and in his religion, God has 99 names. 🙏♥️
That year we decided to give drama production a rest and stage a concert instead. Called “An Evening with Kindred Spirits,” the concert was a platform for boys and alumni members to express their talents in the arts.
There would be no Guest of Honour, no VIPs, no prizes for the best performances etc. Concert tickets would be sold at a token price so that everyone could be in the presence of good sounds and good words.
Among those who came for rehearsals was a secondary one Chicken Little of a boy. He was playing JS Bach’s Prelude in C Major on the school chapel piano during one lunch break when I “talented scouted” him.
Why him? Surely there were other more accomplished student pianists in the school.
That afternoon as I sat on the last pew watching him so dead serious playing Bach’s piece, I knew there & then in the “Sanctuary of the Holy Presence,” of SJI that I had found the opening act of “Kindred Spirits.” Piano Boy had to be in the concert, regardless of his musical competence.
A concert needs a host or a master of ceremony. A tall, and articulate secondary 4 student from one of the top classes auditioned for the role and became the Concert Host.
Piano Boy and Concert Host were not from the classes I taught. So our interactions happened mainly at rehearsals after school.
When I was “reminded” that Concert Host came from a prominent family, I took the chance to remind him that his driver or security officer would have to follow our rehearsal schedule and not the other way round. He agreed without hesitation.
As the concert date drew closer, the auditorium was charged with creative energies of budding deejays, singer song writers, pianists, flutist, drummers, poets, actors & production crew from different streams and old boys’ network.
With each rehearsal, Concert Host soaked up the limelight and flourished. Being the progeny of a public figure and having to be constantly on his best behaviour lest it brought disrepute to his father, Concert Host had finally found a legitimate outlet for his wit & candour.
Meanwhile the reverse was happening in Piano Boy.
His carefree days of playing the slightly out of tune piano in the quiet corner of the cosy chapel had now morphed into a waking nightmare of practices on the baby grand piano under the blinding stage lights of the school’s Performing Arts Centre.
Even though Bach’s prelude in C Major was less than 2 minute long, it might as well have been 2 hours for Piano Boy.
He started making more & more mistakes on the piano. He started looking grey and withdrawn. It was as if the black gleaming piano was sucking the life force out of him each time he sat next to it.
One specially challenging day, Concert Host and I stood by the stage curtain and watched Piano Boy struggle with Bach.
“Ms Ong I’ve heard better piano performances of Bach than this,” Concert Host shook his head in disappointment and disbelief.
The 16-year-old shining Master of Ceremony was getting impatient with the not so promising 13-year-old pianist.
I felt a tinge of hurt on Piano Boy’s behalf, but Concert Host was not wrong either.
“Of course you would have heard better than this,” I concurred with Concert Host.
“But don’t forget, not many boys come from background like yours where you have the best resources and exposures. Don’t you think given Piano Boy’s age and simple upbringing, it’s quite remarkable that he’s been faithfully coming for rehearsals with the big boys, and trying to play on a baby grand?” I added.
My words could have some impact on Concert Host as I could sense his body tensing even in the backstage shadows. Maybe I had offended him.
In the rehearsals that followed, I noticed Concert Host watching Piano Boy, and intervening at certain points to show him how he could play Bach’s prelude better. He no longer saw Piano Boy as the stumbling spoiler that messed up the flow of “his” show, but a younger and braver friend needing some encouragement.
One day he taught Piano Boy to remove his shoes so that he could connect with the pedals below better.
“If you could feel the pedals, you would feel more confident when you play. Your shoes are getting in the way,” Concert Host explained to Piano Boy in an almost fatherly tone. I felt this special moment was for my eyes only.
And so it was with each shoeless rehearsal that Piano Boy regained his footing and his smiles returned.
On the opening night, Piano Boy’s mom met me for the first time. The beaming mother introduced her family as people living in HDB (public housing). Then she thanked me in a mixture of English and Mandarin for the practice and exposure her son had gained in the past few months. She didn’t expect her shy boy to have such discipline & boldness.
The concert turned out well for everyone. The more flamboyant performers got the accolades they were looking for, while the more reticent ones were proud of overcoming shyness and stage fright.
And I will always remember the murmurs of surprise, followed by a velvety hush of appreciation that filled the auditorium of over 500 when Piano Boy gave his all to the 2 minute piano performance.
When the show ended, Concert Host came to check if I needed help with clearing rubbish in the dressing room.
He then went on to pick up things from the floor and took the trash bags out.
I was a little stunned when he literally snatched the trash bin from my hand even as he was still holding his blazer in the other.
“You better go now,” I urged him. “I can settle this easily. Your driver must be wondering.” He had stayed longer than he normally would and I didn’t want his driver to worry.
“Don’t worry about the driver, Miss Ong. I’ve told him to wait cos I’m helping my teacher,” the young man assured me as his eyes sparkled kindly.
Concert Host was born privileged. But his parents didn’t turn up for the concert like Piano Boy’s did. Also he never quite knew when people treated him well was it because they really liked him, or was it because of his father? And credit to him, he didn’t look away when his blinkers were pointed out.
Calling out people for being privileged, and showing sympathy for the underdog is not difficult. But consciously checking our attitude regardless of who we’re dealing with requires more effort. And two boys from two very different backgrounds have shown me how.
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.
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.
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.
As covid-19 brings the world to a standstill, First Tutee is developing an interest in books because he spends more time at home these days.
Having zero access to television, limited exposure to social media, and supervised play, print media seems to appeal to him.
The other day he asked me why I gave away my collection of books by Roald Dahl and didn’t save any for him. I told him he wasn’t even born when I did that.
He was quiet for a while. Then he asked if I could let him know first before giving away any books from now on.
I pointed out that he hadn’t even started reading the book I got him from Nepal. It was called “Namastay.”
In “The Zoo Keeper’s Wife” by Diane Ackerman, there was a very disturbing account of nazi soldiers coming into a small zoo and shooting the animals one by one in their cages.
The zoo keeper’s wife, fearful for her own life as well, couldn’t do much to save the animals that she and her husband had lovingly tended to over the years.
As gun shots rang painfully outside their living quarters, the zoo keeper’s wife could only hold her young son close, and read to him to prevent him from asking questions about his animal friends being used for target practice.
This contrast of unspeakable violence by uniformed youth of supposedly superior stock against a mother reading to her child to protect him from life’s incomprehensible heartbreaks remains for me a very potent symbol of how at our most vulnerable moments, we seek refuge in words.
Perhaps First Tutee, and many children the world over will find life’s many unexplained questions in books as they wisely stay home to let the virus passover, while adults outside continue to bicker and blame like tempestuous toddlers.
Amidst news of city lock downs, overseas travel restrictions and stockpiling frenzy, First Tutee arrived for his weekly English lesson yesterday.
After showing me his spelling list for April, he asked if I would like to see the construction pieces he had brought along.
As it was the March break, I decided to lighten things up a bit and set him some construction challenges.
With those little plastic pieces, he created a series of objects for me: a camera with lens, a hover-board and a tent for outdoor camping which also doubled up as a land vehicle and boat when necessary.
And all that time as he fiddled with the pieces, he was also able to spell most of the new words accurately, by listening carefully to the word pronunciation and recalling previous spelling rules.
He was also able to recite Christina Rossetti’s poem which he had memorised last week while making a camera for me. The delight of mastery on his face when he delivered “Hurt No Living Thing,” fluently was priceless.
Me: Spell “leapt”.
First Tutee: You mean like “grasshopper so light of leap”?
He was making an association with the word on his spelling list with a line from the poem.
I complimented him on his ability to make the connection and emphasized the consonant ending of “leapt” as I repeated the word to him. (The distinction between noun and verb form can wait)
He listened carefully for the consonant ending and added “t” to complete “leapt.” The light of understanding dawning on a boy when things make sense is precious.
First Tutee then asked me to name his final construction. I got him to describe fully & clearly what it could do because my naming would depend on his clarity of delivery.
After listening to his earnest description & demonstration on what the parts could do, I announced in a dramatic voice, “And your creation shall be called, “Aqua Terra!” “Aqua” means water and “Terra” means earth in Latin.”
“Write it down for me! Write it down for me!” First Tutee practically yelled while his eyes’ grew large at my explanation and the unfamiliarity of the new sounds.
When he saw the spelling of “Aqua Terra,” he smiled at them as though he was looking at a baby.
After that he went on to copy out the first 2 stanzas of the poem to be learnt by heart for the week. It was Diane Ackerman’s poem, “School Prayer.”
Copying out a poem encourages him to read and hold the words and phrases in his head before putting them down on paper. This practice trains visual memory and strengthens his psycho-motor skills. It also has a calming effect on him.
And in the calmness of noting down Diane Ackerman’s words, First Tutee shared information on school life and that he’s learning to play “Ode to Joy,” in his violin classes.
Me: Wow! Ode to Joy by Beethoven? It’s also the EU anthem!
First Tutee: Yes! How do you know? My music teacher told me.
I started humming “Ode to Joy,” and he was really impressed & tried to hum along. I told him he can even try to set the poem he has memorised to music. He tried singing “Hurt No Living Thing,” to the tune of “Ode to Joy,” and laughed heartily at his attempts to match words to tune.
“You mean I can also use Rainbow Butterfly song to match the poem?” he clarified, obviously making creative adjustments in his head.
I went on to show him videos of a flash mob orchestra performing “Ode to Joy,” and jazz artist, Bobby Mcferrin singing JS Bach’s Prelude while his audience sang “Ave Maria.”
The 9 year old boy was entranced by the synchronicity & blending of music & voices.
He was very keen to know how people could play musical instruments and sing without looking at their score sheets or lyrics.
His question gave me a chance to extol the virtues of learning by heart.
By committing words, sayings and music scores to memory, we free up space for spontaneity and fun, while training our mind to learn harder things.
When he got home after English lesson, he did not ask for a rest. He went straight for his violin and starting practising “Ode to Joy.”
Later in the evening his granduncle called to say First Tutee would like to play “Ode to Joy,” at Ms Ong’s place in his next English lesson. And yes, he would also learn the first two stanzas of “School Prayer,” by heart.
So even as news of viral infection inundated the media & pictures of frantic stockpiling of physical necessities disturb our sense of security, making time to feed our children’s intellectual & emotional needs could also be as rewarding & essential as having food in our pantry and toilet paper in our storeroom.
This morning First Tutee was reading “Charlotte’s Web.” In a matter of 24 hours, his young brain has been exposed to EB White, Beethoven, Bobby Mcferrin, JS Bach & Diane Ackerman, and perhaps much more learning in the days to come.
Our fears of covid-19 are valid, and we are tempted to hoard food & medical supplies, and even become angry & sad at our helplessness against an invisible threat.
But perhaps we can also try to balance fears with pockets of joy by attending to the needs of others. And sometimes these needs can be as as simple as just showing a child how to hum “Ode to Joy.”
Today is Girls’ Day in Japan. Also known as Hinamatsuri or Dolls’ Day, Japanese families with daughters display dolls and make special dishes to celebrate daughters.
Since ancient times across cultures, daughters have played pivotal roles in securing the economic survival of families and the political stability of countries, despite not receiving the same respect as sons in many asian households.
There are all kinds of daughters.
Daughters who study, daughters who dance, daughters who dare, daughters who heal and daughters who work and daughters who are traded to supplement family incomes and so on.
So here’s wishing all human & animal daughters, regardless of contributions & situations, good health, joy and kindness!
May the female energy be duly honoured so that daughters who smile will bring forth greater abundance, constant creativity and deep healing for all sentient beings.
Little Gymnast and Big Boy were working on their synthesis and transformation skills.
They are both 10 years old.
Little Gymnast was in a lilac t-shirt and cobalt blue shorts. Long haired and light-footed, she resembled a garden imp.
“Fat people are not funny!” Big Boy blurted out in a huff. He was looking at a sentence about keeping healthy through regular exercise.
Little Gymnast looked up from her work and said gently but firmly, “You are putting yourself too much into the story. The sentence is not talking about you.”
Big Boy was slightly taken aback by the certainty of his diminutive tuition buddy.
“It’s your imagination. You have to stop imaginating everything is making fun of you,” Little Gymnast added.
“Do you mean ‘imagining’?” Big Boy clarified, looking genuinely puzzled. His misguided feelings of offence earlier on seemed to have completely vapourised after hearing this strange word from Little Gymnast, whose vocabulary range wasn’t as varied as his.
“Yes! That’s what I mean. Your imagination is messing with you!” Little Gymnast held onto her belief. She was not in the least embarrassed to realise that her word form, “imaginating,” did not exist.
“Now, can I borrow your correction tape, please?” She asked sweetly.
Big Boy happily obliged by sliding the piece of stationery across the table to Little Gymnast.
And that was how a young girl helped a young boy let go of his wrong perceptions, and in return he lent her the tool to correct mistakes in her own assignment.