The fuss over perfection


  • Education
  • Sunday, 31 Mar 2013

They may be seen as demanding but teachers who are meticulous and expect high standards of their charges are in fact, paving the way for students to go beyond their limits.

HE DID NOT quite take to me at first. In fact, this 14-year-old boy called me pa pai, which in Cantonese, means “fussy”.

This was because I once returned his Science exercise book three times just to make him re-draw the set-up of a distillation process until I was satisfied with it.

How was I supposed to accept a drawing that made a test-tube look like a deflated balloon?

The Cantonese word chin chai refers to a cavalier act of “couldn’t care less” or “can’t be bothered”.

This boy’s work was done in a chin chai manner and his attitude was even more so.

In my class, I insisted on precision and accuracy, be it in drawing, answering a question or writing a report. I know there are many teachers like me who will not lower their expectations where performance is concerned.

Well, this boy didn’t like it.

What he didn’t know, and what I didn’t let on was the fact that I understood the remarks he made about me in Cantonese.

I returned his book, yet once again, because he had stated all the variables wrongly in a report on a science experiment.

He turned to the boy next to him and said, in exasperation in Cantonese, “I don’t even know what they are and what she really wants from me!”

Forgetting myself, I answered automatically, in Cantonese, “If you don’t know, why don’t you ask me?”

He nearly fell off his chair!

“Oh My God teacher,” he expostulated, in a slightly accented American English used by urban teens. “You can understand Cantonese?”

I replied, “Yes, and I know Hindi too. Shall I explain it to you in Hindi?”

Of Chinese boyfriends

His friend laughed. While I carried on with the lesson, he kept staring at me, stunned.

Later, he followed me out and asked me, “But, how do you know the Cantonese dialect?”

“Well,” I joked, “I had a Chinese boyfriend once in school.”

He was serious. “What happened? Did you break up?”

I told him the truth then – that I had had many Chinese classmates in the years I spent as a secondary school student in Ipoh.

I said, “If I could absorb Cantonese by osmosis, you can absorb Science too, if you just put your mind to it.”

The off-shoot of this conversation and several others that I would have with him was that he began to take an interest in Science and I began to give him some extra coaching whenever I could squeeze in the time to do so.

In his final year examination paper, his performance was still average but he did so well in one question (in which he stated all the variables correctly) that I wrote a “Well done!” comment on his paper.

I made the comment on the front page instead of doing so next to the question where he had all the answers right.

The following day, when he met me, he was laughing. “You should have seen my mother’s face when she saw your comment,” he told me.

His mother, I knew, was also a teacher. I was told that she had commented about how a 56% mark could merit a “well done” remark.

“Didn’t you explain it to her?” I asked him.

“Oh, I did,” he said nonchalantly, “but you know how mothers are. They’re not happy until we bring home an ‘A’!”

‘So, why don’t you?” I persisted. “After all, you’re bright enough. Why aren’t you working harder?”

“Ah, never mind-lah teacher. After all, when you start working, who cares about your PMR result?”

I quickly dove in, “But, your SPM results will matter! Don’t you think you’d better pull up your socks now?”

Once again, he said breezily, “I’ll cross the bridge when I get to it.”

Taking a load of books off my hands, he began walking with me to the staff-room. “Besides,” he added cheekily, “When I’m in Form Four, you’ll still be teaching me. Then, you can be as pa pai as you want to be, and I’ll listen to you.”

The problem with life is that circumstances often do not work out in our favour. Two years later, when he was in Form Four, I was not assigned to teach Biology to his class.

When he was a Fifth Former with a hint of a moustache above his upper lip, he came to see me one day to ask if I gave tuition after school.

I looked at him appraisingly before I said, “Why, isn’t your current teacher pa pai enough for you?”

Remembering, we both laughed.

That’s how it is, isn’t it? They may call you “fussy” but as long as you kick up a fuss about the right things, they’ll realise it soon enough that teachers who are demanding and meticulous are the ones who actually care to get them thinking along the right track in life.

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