Catherine Lim did a reading of one of her short stories, entitled ‘The Teacher’ (from ‘Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore’) at an international event held in Singapore on 16 August, 2013, called The 2nd Summit of the Book.
She prefaced the reading with these comments:
‘The story was based on my own experiences as a teacher of English in a secondary school in Singapore, many years ago. English was the most important subject in the school curriculum, and we teachers put ourselves under constant, intense pressure to get our students to secure at least a passing grade in the all-important Cambridge Certificate examination at the end of their school career. I think I wrote this story out of a sense of guilt. Yes, guilt, because we teachers, in our frenzied efforts to teach our students correct grammar, correct punctuation, the proper style for narrative composition, etc, sometimes failed to hear their cries for help, their small, timid, frightened voices calling for help in situations that had nothing to do with examinations.
This story was directly inspired by an article I had come across in a journal for teachers, an article with this hauntingly poignant title: The Geranium on the Window Sill died, but Teacher, You Went Right on Talking.’
“Look,” said the teacher to the colleague who was sitting beside him in the staffroom. “Look at this composition written by a student in Secondary Four. She’s supposed to have had ten years of studying English, and see what she’s written? I’ll read it to you. The title of the composition is ‘My Happiest Day.’”
The teacher read, pausing at those parts which he wanted his colleague to take particular note of: ‘My happiest day it is on that 12 July 1976 I will tell you of that happiest day. My father want me to help him in his cakes stall to sell cakes and earn money. He say I must leave school and stay home and help him. My younger brothers and sisters they are too young to work so they can go to school. My mother is too sick and weak as she just born a baby.’ Can anything be more atrocious than this? And she’s going to sit for her General Certificate of Education in three months’ time! And listen to this:
‘I was very sad because I don’t like to sell cakes I like to learn in school. But I am scare my father he will beat me if I disobeyed him so I cannot say anything to him. He ask me to tell my principal of my school that I am not going to learn anymore. I was scare my principal will ask me questions. Lucky my mother came home from the hospital where she born the baby, and my mother say to my father that I should learn in school and become nurse later. So I can earn more money. Sell cakes not earn so much money. She begged my father and at last my father agree. I think he agree because he was in good mood. If in bad mood like drunk he will beat my mother up and make trouble in the house. So my mother told me I was no need to stop learning in school. And that was the happiest day in my life which I shall never forget.’
The teacher said slowly and meditatively, “I wonder why most of them write like that? Day in, day out, we teach grammar and usage. For my part, I’ve taught them the use of the tenses till I’m blue in the face, but they still come up with all kinds of tense mistakes! I’ve drummed into them that when narrating a story or incident, they have to use the past tense, but I still get hideous mistakes such as the ones you heard just now.”
A week later, the teacher, while correcting composition exercises in the staffroom, again dropped his head in his hands in despair. It was a different colleague sitting beside him this time, but the distress in his voice was equally acute as he said, showing her a page from an exercise book: “What do you think of this as a specimen of Secondary Four composition? I give up! I resign!”
“Ah, they’re all like that,” sighed his colleague in sympathy. “You should see the grammar mistakes I get from my pre-university students, mind you, pre-university.”
The teacher held the offending page in front of his colleague and with his forefinger traced the lines that had given most pain. “Now look at this: ‘I would like is become a nurse and successful career so I can have a lot of money with luxuries,’—by the way, I had got them to write on ‘My Ambition’—‘so I can buy a house for my mother and brothers and sisters’—this is the only sentence in the whole composition that is grammatically correct. Listen to this one, can you make anything of it?—‘and my favourite ambition I must strive very hard and make hard afford for if have no ambition to help my mother and brothers and sisters they is sure to suffer for my father he don’t care at all everytime come back from selling cakes only he must drink and spend all money on drinks and sometimes he beats my mother.’ It’s that Tan Geok Peng from Secondary Four C, you know that timid, mousy-looking girl who looks ready to faint with fright the moment you call her to answer a question. You know, I’m getting very worried about the standard of English in my class. I guess I shall have to get Tan Geok Peng and the likes of her in for extra Saturday coaching, otherwise they’ll never make it in the exams. Three months away, I tell them. Just three months in which to polish up your grammar and vocabulary and punctuation, and write the first decent composition in your life!”
The extra coaching did not save the poor teacher from the despair he was continually experiencing. “Ah!” he said, shaking his head sadly. “What shall I do? Read this muck! Let me see—yes, it’s from that girl Tan Geok Peng again-that girl will be the death of me, I tell you. I keep explaining things and going over and over the same things with her, but she insists on giving me such nonsense. Listen to this! She was supposed to write a story with the title ‘The Stranger’, and all she did was write a great deal of trash about her father—‘He canned me everytime even when I did not do wrong things still he canned me’—she means ‘caned’, of course—‘and he beat my mother and even if she sick, he wallop her.’ This composition is not only grossly ungrammatical, but out of point. I had no alternative but to give her an F9 straightaway. God, I wish I could help her!“
When the news reached the school, the teacher was very upset. “Poor girl. What? She actually jumped down from the eleventh floor? Such a shy, timid girl. If only she had told me of her problems. But she was always too shy and timid to speak up.”