Do You Have Space For …?

6 Sep 2019

“Miss Ong, do you have space for another cat?”

A former student in my first school during the 80s texted me recently.

Me: What do you mean? As in a live cat? (feeling a bit nervous)

First Student: No, I mean a cat figurine.

I thanked him for his kind thoughts but explained that I’ve had my share of cute cat merchandise to last a lifetime.

First Student went on to describe how the cat figurine he saw was very well made and he would like me to have it.

I was touched that a kid I taught 32 years ago and who’s now working overseas should be interacting with his ancient teacher with such sincerity & enthusiasm. 😊

And after all, a couple of cat figurines shouldn’t take up too much space, I reasoned.

So bring it, I texted back.

Last week when we caught up at Grains & Hops near his art studio, he didn’t just bring me a pair of cats, but an entire collection of 20!

He wanted me have a complete set he said.

So on Teachers’ Day today, I’m dedicating this cat mandala to wish all teachers plenty of heart space to receive generosity & completeness, as shown by the giver of these 20 kitties.

And as Maggie Smith in her Downton Abbey character once said, “Nothing succeeds quite like excess,” I hope all students will not hesitate to thank or compliment their teachers and mentors excessively today or any other day. 😄

Crying over an Imaginary Corgi ♥️

26 Aug 2019 (International Dog Day)

Queen Elizabeth II & her Corgis. (Source: NYT)

For a 200 word composition practice the 14 year old boy had chosen to write about a pet he would like to keep.

After explaining that he liked corgis for their stumpy legs and chubby built, he didn’t know how to continue.

Me: Does your corgi have a name?

Boy: Terminator.

Me: Is Terminator a boy or a girl?

Boy: It’s a boy.

He then went on to write about how he would care for Terminator, including cooking steak with butter and steamed vegetables to feed him.

Details on where Terminator would sleep & play came pouring forth effortlessly. He would walk him daily and pick up his dog’s poo like a good owner.

And he would take Terminator to see his mom and let her play “fetch” with him.

Before he knew it, the boy was writing beyond 200 words. He looked very pleased when he asked me for an extra sheet of writing paper.

Me: What will you do when Terminator grows old or gets sick with an incurable illness?

I added that Queen Elizabeth’s last Corgi, had passed on and she would not be keeping anymore pets as she was getting old herself.

The boy wrote that he would take his corgi to the vet for treatment but he wouldn’t want Terminator to suffer.

As he came to the part where he would want his pet dog to be sedated first before being put to sleep, the boy started to wipe his eyes and his nose surreptitiously with the back of his hand.

I offered him a piece of tissue paper for his “runny nose,” which he took gratefully.

This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen a boy shedding real tears over an imaginary dog. ♥️

Dog carving on wooden door of Boudha Stupa, Nepal.

Setting Intentions

19 August 2019

Me: For today’s session, we have to complete 3 things – Spelling, make a birthday card for Singapore & play the violin. You can decide on the order in which these work are to be completed.

First Tutee: OK, I will play the violin, make birthday card and then do spelling.

Me: Ladies and Gentleman, we’re very honoured to have in our studio today, a lovely boy who will play the violin for us.

First Tutee played the violin and went on to share with me what his music teacher taught him the week before. He also played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, with greater virtuosity this time round.

Then in his SG54 polo T-shirt he started colouring the Merlion showering Singapore with gifts such as encouragement, kindness, respect, gratitude etc.

“Singapore is a girl you know,” First Tutee said without looking up. He also added that he always asked his Teddy Bear, Hafif, on what colours to use next. Then he put the bear close to his ear to show me how the consultation happened.

Me: Do you love Singapore?

First Tuttee: Yes.

Me: Why?

First Tutee: Because she’s my country.

As he coloured he told me he liked to start with the easy work first and then do the more difficult ones at the end.

I saw the wisdom of First Tutee structuring his tasks from easy to difficult. By completing the easier bits first, such as playing the violin & colouring, he was gathering the courage & focus he needed to take on the more demanding ones, such as spelling.

So I asked him if he would like to try spelling while colouring at the same time. But if it distracted him, we would spell later. He agreed to give my suggestion try.

And I was amazed that not only was he able to spell and colour at the same time, he was able to predict which word was coming up next. He also had some fun trying “to read my mind,” and “accusing me” of changing the words last minute.

After the card for Singapore was completed, he insisted on writing a few lines.

Then he went on to sketch a scene of his school auditorium during national day celebration.

Sketching & colouring help First Tutee to reflect on past events, locate his bearing and find his centre again.

Then without needing to be reminded, he turned to a new page and numbered 1-20 on the margin to get ready for spelling, the final task of our Sunday ritual.

Except for the word, “beware,” which he paused a while to recall, he spelt the rest effortlessly.

After he had gotten all the words right, he went into the kitchen to help himself to a mini conetto ice-cream, a food incentive, courtesy of my friend, Krison Tan.

I complimented First Tutee for keeping his word as he smiled and hugged Hafif.

Touch as Medicine

11 August 2019

Street Dog at Shivapuri asking for sayang (Meaning Love in Malay) from Hong Kuen (June 2013, Nepal)

He was known for running away. He ran away from home, from school and from situations that he felt overwhelmed by.

When I first saw Runner, he was huddled in the corner of the room, partially concealed by the curtain.

I leant my walking cane calmly against the wall as he watched me warily. Appearance-wise, this boy wasn’t particularly endearing but he reminded me of a wounded animal.

When I invited him to come sit with me in the centre so that we could get some learning done, his answer was an emphatic “No”.

“You come here!” Runner slurred stubbornly, causing him to look even more unappealing.

The truth is, I knew better than to engage in a battle of wills with an 11 year old who had boundless energy & a difficult history. But for learning to be transmitted successfully, I had to win, and to win without humiliating him, or hurting his feelings.

So I said, “Runner, I don’t like your corner. It’s too dark,” while narrowing my eyes at the word “dark” for dramatic effect.

Then I expounded on how sunny my spot was and how much light it was receiving so that whoever sat at my spot would be able to learn easily & happily.

Upon hearing this, Runner gave up his corner and came forward.

But he kept his distance. He tilted his chair slightly at an angle away from me so that he could take off & head for the door if he didn’t want to learn from me.

Thus with us an ocean length apart, our lesson began.

Nepalese handcrafted Lokta papers were first used for writing sacred texts.

I took out my scrap book made from Nepalese handmade Lokta papers. Each page contained photos and writings of my Nepal visit in 2013.

Runner was immediately curious and craned to see the grey book that I had reverently placed in front of me.

Handsewn Lokta book bought from Thamel, Nepal in 2013. I never knew then 6 years on it could be my teaching aid.

As I flipped to the first page which featured my friends putting their palms together to make the “Namaste” sign, Runner dragged his chair closer to mine.

Namaste from Hong Kuen and Naina’s Dad, Mr Kapali. (June 2013, Thamel, Nepal)

And then as if embarrassed by how fast he had caved in, he mumbled awkwardly, “I’m sitting closer to you now.”

I quickly complimented him for being so sensible. He smiled.

Then I offered him tissue papers to wipe his nose. I showed him how to receive things with both hands, which he imitated cheerfully. He also learnt that his nose was the gateway to breath so he must not wipe it so harshly or it might tear.

Soon, the boy who was prone to yelling at people and kicking them was entranced by the Lokta paper crafted from shrubs thousands of metres away from Singapore and up the Himalayas.

He turned the pages of the book slowly & deliberately by gently lifting the edges. Perhaps he was tired of being angry and rude. And the weight, texture and seeming fragility of the Lokta papers had a grounding effect on him.

I noticed his elegant wrist and his fingers seemed to dance above the pages as he turned them.

When he came to photos of street dogs in Shivapuri, Nagarkot and Thamel, he stroked their photos softly while saying dreamily to himself, “So smooth, so smooth.”

“So many dogs… want sayang,” he said as he caressed the fur of the dogs in the photographs meditatively.

Hong Kuen’s pictures of dogs she met on her Nagarkot stroll. (June 2013)

This touching and tracing of paper veins & creases, photo subjects, stickers and handwriting seemed to relax Runner further.

He then moved on to study the quotes and comments around the photos. Without prompting, he read aloud the words, only pausing for help with the more challenging ones.

I think for kids like Runner, touch is the medicine he needs to still his fearful mind and mend his broken heart before learning can happen.

“Is she crying?” Runner asked when he saw Kali’s picture.


31 July 2019 (eve of 7th Lunar Month)

A six legged insect with an iridescent sheen was spotted clinging on the glass of the sliding window in my teaching room.

We were talking about ghosts and spirits.

Me : “Wow! What a beautiful creature! It must have come to show that everything I’ve told you is true!”

Boy: “Is it dangerous?”

Me: “I don’t know. But we can open the window and let it go.”

The window was slide open and the colourful being exited our room joyfully.

Me: “Just because we’re scared of something doesn’t mean it has to die, you know? We can always set it free.”

The boy looked with his mouth agape, at the spot where the winged Rainbow Messenger had been. He was probably glad that I didn’t ask him to smack it down with a book or something.

Turning 8

19 July 2019

First Tutee turned 8 last Saturday.

He didn’t ask for a cake or a party. He seemed just happy turning 8 & spoke endlessly about it as if becoming 8 years old is some magical achievement in itself.

The week before his birthday I lit a light after our Sunday tuition to celebrate his birth.

“That’s Tok Jai & I!” First Tutee exclaimed at the sight of the adult elephant cradling the calf.

“That’s Tok Jai and I!” he exclaimed at the light holder made of an elephant adult cuddling a calf. “Tok Jai” is his term of respect for his Grand Uncle, Jailani.

He was a bit puzzled when I invited him to sing, “Happy Birthday to Me,” for himself first.

“Why must I sing “Happy Birthday to Me?” First Tutee asked.

I explained to him that before others can sing for us, we must first learn to sing for ourselves & know why we are celebrating.

He happily sang for himself with me joining in midway while his Tok Jai filmed the historic moment. When I invited him to make his birthday wishes, he did so earnestly.

First Tutee takes wishing seriously.

On his birthday morning, Tok Jai took First Tutee to the mosque to make a donation to give thanks for his life and that may his life be of help to others.

Before this birthday, First Tutee has also been making donations at the mosque in memory of the cats he knows.

First Tutee reciting prayers over the late Kitty in August 2018. After that he makes it a habit of donating a bit of money after prayers at the mosque in memory of Kitty and other cats that had passed on.

In the evening First Tutee visited the Night Safari Park for the first time since he was born. As the birthday boy, he was given free entry to go visit the nocturnal animals!

His Grand Uncle had also invited their family helper, First Tutee’s classmate and his Maths Tutor to the birthday celebration.

During the walkabout at the Night Safari, First Tutee back tracked 3 times at different points to hug his Grand Uncle who was strolling behind them.

The Grand Uncle’s heart must have filled with grateful tears as the little boy wrapped his arms around him & repeatedly said, “Thank you, Tok Jai, for taking me here.”

I think besides turning 8, First Tutee is also becoming the man that his Grand Uncle hopes he was born to be – strong, kind and humble.

Love Removes Fear

19 July 2019

“Olivia, Don’t touch it. It’ll scratch!” the father who had walked ahead of his daughter warned from a short distance.

The daughter was about 8 or 9 years old. Dressed in school PE gear and holding a water bottle, she looked lovingly at her object of affection, a plump one-eyed community cat lounging on a stone ledge in Holland Village.

The father tried to look stern as his daughter looked pleadingly at him for permission to touch the portly feline.

“I said no, means no!” The father raised his voice a bit as his child‘s palm lingered stubbornly over the sleeping cat, who seemed oblivious to the parent-child drama he had caused just by being spotted.

The father then took out his cell phone and told his daughter to look in his direction. He snapped a few shots of his precious little girl hovering over the white & grey cat.

But the daughter was not satisfied with just having pictures of her standing with a cat. Her childlike heart burst with an edenic yearning to make contact with the animal. So her hand hovered within biting range over the cat’s head as she stood her ground and continued to smile at her daddy.

Suddenly, the cat flopped on his back and wriggled a little, exposing his fluffy white belly to the sky.

Joyful giggles erupted at the furry display of flexibility. The girl then brought her fingers down to brush the cat’s head lightly, not once, but twice!

“Daddy, I touched the cat!” Olivia’s voice exploded with triumphant glee, as her father tried very hard not to smile back.