Between the ages of 7 and 15, I always ate homemade murukus, especially during Deepavali season.
The fragrance of cumin and carom seeds in these deep fried dhal delights are unique to my chinese nose. In fact muruku and pappadum preceded pringles potato chips in my introduction to snacks beyond my culture.
Last week 40 plus years later, I had the chance to taste homemade muruku again. My host even insisted that we took bags of my childhood snacks home! Of course I was more than happy to oblige.
Here’s giving thanks for the aromas of homemade snacks and massala tea as they perfume all gatherings of diversity. 🙏🌈🐾
Years back through an English assignment, a young boy revealed that he came from a single parent household. His father had been incarcerated for various offences.
“Are you sure you want to read your story to the class?“ I asked him to consider some of the more specific details he had written.
The boy who identified strongly with American gymnast, Simone Biles’ childhood said he wanted to go ahead. The class was very quiet after listening to him.
When everyone had left the room, the 13 year old boy smiled gently. His eyes glowed softly as he said quietly, “Now I don’t have to lie about my mother’s divorce and make up stories about my father anymore. And people can stop asking about my father during PTM (parent-teacher meeting).”
He also revealed that his father used to burn him with lighted cigarettes. The mother’s shame did not allow her abused child to speak ill of his abuser.It was their neighbour who called the police.
The boy and I agreed that because he could share the truth of his background, he wouldn’t have to be constantly on the lookout for people finding out.
After that episode, he put in extra effort in his writing, and often came up with new words to express his thoughts. Free from the fetters of shame and secrets, the boy’s mind flourished with new energy and he found his voice.
It was as if fragments of his fractured psyche were coming together. One of the words he “die die also must write” in all his essays and reflections regardless of its appropriateness and context is “beatific.”
And beatific means “rapturous joy” and “divine bliss”, his rewards for having the courage to make peace with the good and bad bits of his life.
To this day I remember the shine in the eyes of Beatific Boy as he was relieved of the baggage of lies.
May we adults try to live responsibly & truthfully to the best of our ability, so as not to burden children with our broken dreams, unfinished business and unceasing neuroses.
“Ms Ong, my teacher asked me to be Reading Mentor to next year’s Primary Ones,” First Tutee announced, his talcum powdered face beaming on my computer screen.
“Wow! That’s a big responsibility for 2021!” I exclaimed, and asked him to give his future reading mentee a name. After some thought, he came up with the name “Irfan.”
“How would Irfan know that you’re fit to be his Reading Mentor? Do you even own books?” I asked.
First Tutee quickly got up from his chair and dug out all his books from the bookshelf behind him.
He brought “Navaan,” to the screen and waved it triumphantly at me.
“Navaan,” was the first book he brought on his first day to school when he started primary one in 2018.
“So you own books. But can you read?” I challenged him.
Without hesitation, he turned to the first page of “Navaan” and read aloud confidently from cover to cover. He did not skip words. He read the baby elephant, Navaan’s speeches with great animation. He was unstoppable.
“But what will you do if Irfan still refuses to read and kicks up a fuss?” I continued.
“I’ll say to him, ‘Calm down now, Irfan. We’re going to read this!’” First Tutee responded firmly, mimicking the way he was spoken to when he was once a reluctant reader.
For some kids, reading happens easily, but for many, progress may be slow.
The boy who used to struggle with differentiating “him” from “his” when he was 7, has moved passed his reading challenges to take on multisyllabic words at 9. Come 2021, he’ll be guiding someone to read just as he was guided before.
As we enter the month of September and into the last quarter of 2020, may I wish all adults the blessing to use their authority with kindness, and hold space for children to evolve from reluctant readers to resourceful readers.
And may I wish all struggling young readers the courage to continue trying, no matter what the result slip says. ♥️
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.