During the Festival of Lights season, a school cat that had been injured and warded for medical boarding finally made a full recovery. His homecoming was much anticipated by staff & students.
On Deepavali morning, a former student dropped by my home to hand deliver her wedding invitation card.
Habibah Najihahbi Ahmad, the bride-to-be was 15 when she studied English with me.
In these days where relationships are often hurried & transient, not to mention contractual, Habibah’s visit on Deepavali morning has brought such warmth & light.
Now in her 20s, she’s completed her academic & professional training, driven & camped solo around Iceland, trekked the Himalayas, become teacher to primary school children and is going to be married this November.
The young lady who used to scale walls & sit inches from the ceiling in her childhood, wrote articulately in English, and faithfully fed the school cats till she graduated from secondary school, will be someone’s precious life partner soon.
Through the years, I’ve seen Habibah in polo t-shirt and school skort, sports training gear, concert attire, baju gurung, trekking jacket and I’m now looking forward to see this lovely lady in her bridal finery. ♥️
It was the second last lesson at the old campus. The students had been checking their marked exam scripts and tallying marks.
As much as we like to believe that marks are just marks, we also know marks determine GPA scores and have the power to call up all kinds of intense emotions.
We’re usually good at celebrating success but awkward at handling disappointments. Sometimes in our eagerness to help someone see the bright side of things, we ply them with glib platitudes & unsolicited solutions.
On that day I had prepared a lesson inspired by the Deepavali (Festival of Light) season and brought a small tea light in a decorative clay holder to represent a traditional oil lamp to class.
We explored the literal & figurative meaning of light, and the various symbolism of fire & light across cultures and in our everyday language.
The students cheered softly and their eyes lit up when the youngest in class struck a match to light the lamp.
A hush came upon the room as each child carefully passed the light from hand to hand, taking a moment to still their hearts to give thanks for the mental faculties to sit for exams and for whatever scores their efforts have brought them.
Slowly the heaviness of discontent lifted as the light burned brightly.
“I feel that there are a lot of things that I can look forward to in the future, and I feel motivated to work hard for the things that will happen next,” a student responded when asked how did holding a light in her hand feel like.
By contemplating on light, the students experienced how their minds could rise above the temporary disappointments that had threatened to lock them in a permanent state of fear and self-doubt.
When the lesson ended, I gave thanks to light and bless the room that had hosted us all these months.
That lesson turned out to be the last time I would be using that room as the following week, I would receive notice that the campus would close permanently.
As a result of the campus closure, we had the chance to conduct our final lesson of the year with a field trip to Little India where the students became part of the Festival of Light celebration.
My wish of having our final lesson at Little India had been fulfilled by factors beyond my understanding.
So I like to take this chance to wish all my friends the blessings of Fire and Light, especially when we face situations & outcomes that are beyond our control.
A week before some students texted to say they would like to drop by. Their exams just ended.
As I had a prior commitment they visited yesterday instead.
They came bearing gifts of fruits, food, scents and words, and made me feel like a village school teacher in the old days.
Before their visit, I also met up with a young Nepali undergrad doing her part for stray animals in her country. Yesterday she found the medicine she urgently needed to bring home for a rescuer and her sick kittens.
And yesterday happened to be full moon. According to Krison it was also Myanmar’s Thandingyut Festival, where youngsters honour older members of the family & community.
Unrest among youth and confrontations between generations dominate the news of late. The unseen suffering of animals continue even without media coverage.
In the midst of the above, may the love and grit of the youth I met on this full moon bring reconciliation between the young and the old, and healing for all sentient beings recovering from trauma and sickness. 🙏
Sometimes I buy or collect stuff without really knowing why. They are not expensive or rare items – a book here, a stone there, little knick knacks at fund raising etc.
Many years ago I bought “The Diary of Rags,” to support Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD).
It was a story told from the perspective of an abandoned dog called Rags. It was meant for very young readers whom I had no contact with at that time.
I could have easily tossed it away during the many decluttering exercises teachers need to do if they don’t want to be buried under an avalanche of lesson materials & books.
But still I held on to the thin book. Perhaps keeping the book was my way of giving Rags the story book dog a home.
This September while I was away in Taiwan, First Tutee had to read a story book and create an alternative ending for it.
“Rags” came to First Tutee’s rescue.
Rags’ abandonment and hardship in the construction site with no prospect of rescue resonated with the primary 2 boy.
So for his alternative ending, First Tutee decided to put himself in the story. He went to the construction site and with outstretched arms, stood between Rags and the bullies.
I noticed in his drawing First Tutee was unarmed.
Me: Why didn’t you bring weapons with you when you went to rescue Rags? The dogs at the construction site might not like you entering their territory.
First Tutee: I only want to scare the dogs away, not hurt them.
He had included the cats, Ollie & the late Kitty in his rescue mission because they are his protectors.
The new term began. His English teacher texted to say that First Tutee was one of the two pupils who handed in their holiday assignment on the first day of school.
When I bought the “Diary of Rags” at the animal welfare event, I didn’t know one day a little Malay boy would need it for his English assignment, and show me a compassionate & courageous heart sitting in that 8-year-old body of his.
Even as no one knows what the future holds, it is assuring to see that all kind acts will be of benefit to someone somehow at some point.
So may we try to do all the good we can even if we can’t see the results yet.
“Ms Ong, you’re Chinese so you know these things. I had a terrible nightmare last night? Why ah?” the teenage boy asked.
I saw his strange logic as an attempt to access his spiritual side.
“Well, words have energy. Maybe the bad words you use so freely in the day time collect themselves in your head as nightmares when you sleep,” I said quietly.
“Really ah?” He asked.
“The words had to go somewhere after they come out of your mouth. So it’s natural for them to return to their creator,” I reasoned.
“So why don’t you try to be nice for a change and use better words? Swearing is also very tiring you know?” I continued.
For the rest of the lesson, it was quite touching & comical to watch him looking towards my direction & placing a finger on his lips to fight the urge to use expletives over things that didn’t agree with him.
Two days later he was very excited to tell me that he had tried very hard to avoid cursing. The night before he didn’t have a nightmare, but he dreamt he was on an outing with friends and very happy.
He and some of his friends were prone to insomnias and mood swings. So I think he really cherished the change, even if it was just a dream.
On the morning of our final lesson the first thing he said when we met was,
“Ma’am, can you pray for me?”
I was a bit surprised by such a wholesome wish so elegantly put forth by a boy known for temper flare ups.
I said to him I already did so every day before I left my home to teach. ( I dedicate a light to invoke compassion & wisdom before setting out)
He looked surprised.
“But after you don’t teach me anymore can you still pray for me?”
He was worried that his prayers couldn’t reach God because of his corrupted speech habits.
I assured him that God can hear everything, including dirty words. But if we guard our speech we make a clean space in our heart to receive His guidance. Then whether things turn out the way we want them or not, we will still be fine.
Before we broke for lunch, he came to shake my hand.
“Promise you pray for me even if we don’t see each other again? I’ll be thinking of you.”
“I want to draw the devil!” the lanky boy replied as he studied my reaction. I had asked him if he would like to do art since he wasn’t in a mood to do English work.
He had been having one altercation after another since morning.
During English class a casual request from his fellow classmate to fill up his drinking bottle had easily spiralled downwards into a shouting match of vulgarities.
It’s difficult to imagine this doe-eyed individual capable of setting fire to public property. But then again there’s also an African saying that goes, “An unloved child will set fire to the whole village to feel its warmth.”
“Why don’t we give the devil a rest today and do some mandala colouring for a change?” I asked him calmly.
His defiance dropped a little. Perhaps he was puzzled by my suggestion.
I quickly produced Susanne Fincher’s book of mandala templates and a box of Derwent colouring pencils.
The sullen boy was mildly intrigued by the display of colours before him. But the residual anger from the storm that had broken held him back.
“Yes, you should try the mandala colouring! It took me damn long but it’s nice,” one of he boys who had an earlier confrontation with him quipped. This boy had completed two mandalas to date and was very proud of his ability to start & finish well.
The boy moved closer to my desk to have a better look at the mandalas completed by other students.
“Wow! This is nice! Who did this?” Hatred gave way to fascination as he ran his fingers over the beautiful circles.
It took him a while to choose his mandala template. When he finally did, he retreated to the corner of our study room and faced the wall to get started.
I desperately wanted him to face the large window to receive the healing light of the morning sun. His battered soul needed it.
But I knew that his brittle nerves would not tolerate being told where to sit. It was good as it was that he agreed not to draw the devil but colour a mandala instead.
So I watched him quietly from my desk.
Suddenly he stopped colouring and asked, “Miss Ong, how come these two colours on my mandala look the same even though I’m using different colour pencils?”
He was referring to chrome yellow and lemon yellow. He had used them side by side in his mandala.
I looked at what he had put on his mandala and said, “Your first colour is blue representing water. And your second colour is green representing earth. And you have used two kinds of yellow to represent the Sun. The Sun must be very important to you!” I said.
He beamed at my interpretation and like a primary school child, asked me to repeat every thing I just said.
The way he smiled and breathed as I repeated what his colours might mean looked like he was listening to some beautiful secret language that his soul understood.
I then went on to explain that the reason why he couldn’t tell the 2 yellows apart was because where he sat didn’t allow enough light to see clearly. Had he faced the window where the Sun was coming from he would have been able to differentiate the colours easily.
Without a word, he gathered all his materials and turned his chair towards the Sun.
And for the rest of the lesson there was peace as the boy concentrated on making his mandala beautiful. Whenever he looked up, there was the Sun smiling back at him.
So I wish for myself and all sentient beings the grace to look towards light for healing when disappointments in life make darkness feel good and inviting.