Sunday, January 8, 2012

Class(room) Rage

I saw an advertisement today in the Sunday Times for a prominent - and very expensive - tuition centre, featuring three top students who referred to themselves as "intrepid baker" and "curious lover of all things Japanese". (I suppose allowing the students to write their own self-descriptions is a nod to their creativity, but give the kids another five years or so and they're going to be very, very embarrassed.)

This, coupled with a recent article on how tuition centres are now making potential entrants take tests, really pissed me off. As a tuition teacher myself, I know better than to take credit for my students' intelligence or ambition, like the ad appeared to do. The fact is, most students arrive already shaped by their parents. If you come from a middle or upper-middle class family, one that sets aside money for your education and takes you to plays and museums and trips abroad, then of course your grammar will be perfect, your mind agile and your personality engaging. You too will write precocious essays on criminal justice and debate global politics in a convincing and intelligent manner. You too will attend a top girls' or boys' school.

Like most educators, I love teaching kids like that. But I don't often get to, because I work in a tuition centre that doesn't require pre-entry testing (except in cases of foreign students who have not yet passed their English requirement). My students are the regular kids I grew up with - the neighbourhood children who hang out at the void deck, speak in their mother tongues and hope to enter polytechnic after Secondary 4. My students arrive in my Secondary 1 English class looking depressed after getting their secondary school postings. For the sake of not embarrassing them in public, I never ask what stream they're in.

These are the students who need tuition most. They need to revise basic skills at their own pace, and get the personal attention that their overworked teachers can't give them. For them, the struggle to learn is more urgent, and ultimately perhaps more satisfying. Last year's major achievement for me was helping a shy, undersized Normal Technical student do well enough to be promoted to Normal Academic. I was moved that he had found the courage to stay back after class and ask for help. Until then, he hadn't said more than two or three words in all the weeks he'd been in my class.

I offered guidance, but he did the heavy lifting of all the extra grammar exercises I assigned. At the end of the year he told me (while smiling, a rare sight) that he had been promoted, and I told him honestly that the news had made my day - in fact, my entire year.

So it galls me that these tuition centres call themselves tuition centres, when they're really enrichment centres. They enrich those who are already wealthy in knowledge. The classes are definitely fun and engaging, but let's not pretend they are essential, or that they are fully responsible for their students' success. They're not.

You know, the students I teach are not oblivious to the differences between the opportunities available to them, and the opportunities given to the better-off. They too would like ergonomic classroom furniture, live animals to play with and high-quality learning materials. They would like to debate Occupy Wall Street and the death penalty, and read something apart from dubiously-sourced online essays. You might even say that for my students, it is all the more essential that they should be exposed to good writing and nuanced perspectives on controversial issues. My students are after all the masses, the common majority. And they deserve much, much better.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Material New Year

By semi-accident I took on a massive freelance writing project - over twenty interviews and articles in about two and a half weeks, on top of my existing daily workload - and it made sure I spent my Christmas and New Year working frantically. I did find the time to visit the (disappointing) hagfish exhibit at the Underwater World - I am an aficionado of disgusting deep-sea creatures, the hagfish is my totem animal - and have a very nice dinner at Thanying, the royal Thai restaurant at Amara Sanctuary. I love the fact that it's so quiet and empty, you feel compelled to whisper over your food. Any tears caused by the fiery tom yam soup must be allowed to roll down your cheeks silently, or the waiter might frown at you.

It's good, however, that I'm working so hard. I view it as penance for having spent such a horrendous amount on Christmas shopping (primarily for myself). I love designer goods, but I'll never be able to pay full price... so when the sales come, I react like a shark scenting blood.

Unlike most Singaporean women who drop a thousand dollars on assorted coin purses and card holders and wallets and medium-sized handbags, I prefer clothing. I look out specifically for things like tailoring and material - I don't like wearing man-made fabrics unless absolutely necessary. As for labels, the ones I truly love are usually out of reach (even at sale price) so I hunt for less well-known ones: I recently purchased pieces from Martin Grant, Jill Stuart and Amanda Wakeley. But my favourites are usually linked to some childhood idea of cool: a minimalist grey Helmut Lang dress, a cream and gold disco extravaganza by Sass & Bide that I have yet to wear.

Sometimes I justify buying clothes by imagining a future when my daughter (should I have one) will be overwhelmingly grateful for the vintage Marni, the adorably retro Lela Rose. The same way I was for my mother's oversized Loewe tote and 80s' Aquascutum cardigan. But I think what I really want from that imaginary future scenario is the sense that all of this was not in vain. My relentless pursuit of 'good taste', the careful curatorship of my small wardrobe. All those hours spent searching for images of the same garment before taking the plunge. The time spent on the train, in the shower, before bed, contemplating the right shoes and accessories. We women devote so much of our lives to the performance of dress, and for what? (Certainly not just for the benefit of men.) When we dress, we are telling you something about ourselves - this is who I am, this is what I care about - and at the same time, we are also asking a silent, hidden question: do you see me?