The great thing about working with teenagers is that they are wonderfully capable of surprising you with their wit, intelligence or insight. I genuinely enjoy talking to them, listening to their ideas, helping them explore their own opinions and test their conclusions. Not all of them are kids from top schools either - some of my most mature and interesting students come from neighbourhood schools most Singaporeans wouldn't know the names of.
Some of the girls are amazingly sweet and kind, old-fashioned darlings who make you understand what Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery were forever wittering on about. Then there are the more complex adolescents, more willing to experiment and likely to become chain-smoking sophisticates overnight. These unpredictable young women are always amusing to watch, even if they do intimidate most of the other students.
Among the boys we have the good-natured sweethearts, the angry young rabble-rousers, the socially awkward cerebral pretenders. The last group is both infuriating and heart-breaking at the same time. Unpopular at school and resentful of charitable attempts, they can be purposely hurtful, obnoxious and childish. But the point to remember is that despite them being of shaving age, these boys are still only children, bewildered by their own inability to blend in. Occasionally they can surprise you, with rare caveman grunts of approval or grudging gratitude.
So much for the good side of things.
The other day, a 14-year-old girl - a known teacher's bully - told me in class that I was lame for trying to tempt them with a word game. It was 9pm and despite the cheerful front, I was in a decidedly bad mood from having to work on a Friday night. The last thing I needed was a kid clothed in pimple scars and a pasar malam T-shirt, telling me I was lame.
"Excuse me?" I drawled, employing full use of my (fake) accent. "You're calling me lame? Hate to break it to you, but I'm much cooler than you. In fact, I'm cooler than all of you combined."
Great, I thought inwardly. While my peers are going out for drinks after work, I'm stuck in a fluorescent-lit community centre classroom arguing with a 14-year-old about how cool I am. No wonder their previous teacher upped and quit.
Surprisingly, the girl sat down and shut up. I felt a little bad for pulling the accent trick on her, but not bad enough to regret it. After all, this is Singapore. She's the majority in power, not me. And I felt that her teachers at school - not to mention at the tuition centre - would be secretly grateful to me for temporarily deflating her ego.
The more I work, the harder it becomes to maintain a teacher's identity. I sometimes wake up and feel so terribly bored at the thought of wearing sensible flats and high necklines, of enduring kids' constant assumptions that I have no social life and no past or future - nothing apart from being their teacher. I am tired of living in fear of parents calling up to complain that I have taught their teenagers to think for themselves, to approve of gay people, atheism and liberal politics, to read books with swear words and sex (violence is A-OK, however). I have a growing collection of designer clothing that I don't wear, because the last thing I need is to walk past the rows of waiting parents and have one of them realise that my shoes cost $200 (in their books, tuition teachers should not dress better than them). Small wonder then, that I actively encourage my students to feel sympathy for the domestic and foreign workers around us. I have to do it, because I have a sneaking feeling their parents won't.
Perhaps the conflict within me will grow strong enough that I'll drop out of the tuition gig. It will be a pity, but the problem with kids these days - as it has been for kids of all time, and all days - is that they are always, always, always, the products of their parents. Poor things.