When I graduated from A-levels more than ten years ago, I was the #1 ranking in Math out of almost 500 students in my cohort.
My Math teacher wrote in my final report card that I had been hardworking and was likely to succeed in life. In his eyes, I was ready to do some hard math in college.
My friends would say to me: ‘I wish I was a natural in Math like you. I just don’t get how it works.’
Fast forward today, I still love math but people know me better for my writing.
Sometimes, I get emails and Facebook messages from people telling me how my writing helped them.
Some of them tell me they wished they were good at writing – a natural – like me.
In the eyes of most people who know me from high school, college and life itself, I’m academically apt and probably a good writer. And, I’ve probably been that way since I was a kid.
I should have been the ‘nerdy’ kid. The one who got 100% on all my exams. The star student. The pearl.
But I wasn’t.
I failed everything I could fail at in Primary school. There is not a single 100% on my report card. Only 21%, 6%, 13%.
My position in class was not #1, #2 or #3. I was not even in the top 30 of the class.
Instead, I was #3 from behind. Position 53 out of 55 students.
I didn’t know how to do long division until Primary 4. I left all the long division questions blank. After each exam, my Math teachers looked at me like I was hopeless and lazy.
And, back then, I probably was.
Even tuition classes didn’t help. My tutor told my mom: ‘Your fat daughter cannot do Math. She’s very weak.’
True enough, after three years of tuition classes, I still didn’t know how to do long division. I accepted that I was probably a stupid kid.
If I was only bad at Math, things would have been a lot better at school.
But on top of being an academic loser, I didn’t know how to talk. My English was very bad. I could say ‘yes’, ‘no’ and other short sentences but not more than that. I didn’t know how to form complete sentences.
Being an academic loser and social handicap, I didn’t have many friends.
My aunt, who was a teacher in my school, even pulled me aside one day and asked me: ‘Why are you not one of the better students in the class? Like Jane*?’
I didn’t know what to say except whisper to myself that maybe I wasn’t born smart. On my way home that day, I cried. I gave up on trying.
I could have been given up. I wanted to give up.
But there was one teacher in my life who didn’t allow me to do that.
And one day, at one of the lowest points in my life, he would tell me something that would change my life forever.
I remember that day. It was a hot March afternoon, one week after my school’s first term exam. There was no airconditioning in my classroom yet so I was sweating.
I was standing in front of my classroom with a few boys. I didn’t want to be there but Cikgu Razak, my Malay language teacher forced the bottom five students to stand in front.
I was embarrassed, but I didn’t want to show it.
In my mind, I had closed my ears. I didn’t want to listen to another lecture on how lazy I was.
I know I’m lazy. I know I’m stupid. Let me be, I thought to myself.
But, Cikgu Razak said none of that.
Instead, he gave me a lesson about gratitude I would remember until this day.
‘Why do you come to school?’ he asked us. None of us looked up at him. No one replied.
‘If you come to school only to do nothing, don’t come to school. Stay at home.’
‘Do you know, how much time and effort your parents have to sacrifice so you can sit here in this classroom every day?
Your parents have to drive you here every day. Prepare your meals. Pay for your school fees. Your uniform. Your shoes.
And what do you do with all of it?’
He paused again.
At this point, I could see all the students softening.
‘Cikgu Razak didn’t have this. I walked to school with no shoes.’
Some students looked up. At that age, we were genuinely surprised that people did that.
‘Take off your shoes. Take them off.’
Cikgu came over to pull at our shoes. I didn’t want to take them off.
‘Now you have shoes, you don’t even have to walk to school. Your parents send you here and still, you don’t want to study.’
Then, he turned his attention to our bags.
‘Where are your bags? Throw away your textbooks. If you won’t study from them, why carry them around?’
I didn’t know why but I started crying. When I looked beside me, so did some of the boys.
Cikgu went to one of the desks to collect a bag and motioned that he wanted to throw it away. The owner of the bag protested and ran toward it.
He put down the bag and then told us:
‘You are all very privileged, but you don’t know that. How many people want to be in this classroom, but can’t. But you are here, and you are not doing your best.
Your parents send you to school because they want to have a better life than them.
Please appreciate what your parents have done for you and work hard.’
After he said that, the entire class was silent.
‘Can you work hard from now on?’ he asked us.
Most of us nodded.
‘Okay. I want to see your grades improve for the next exam,’ he told us, ‘Go back to your seats.’
As one of the worst students in class, I’ve been asked to stand outside the class, stand on the table, pull my eyes while doing squats, write lines, stand in front, caned… but somehow nothing made me want to improve myself more than what Cikgu Razak said that day.
That day, when I went back home, I opened my books and studied properly for the first time in my life.
It surprised my entire family but I persisted. I thought about what Cikgu said for days and weeks.
I had promised Cikgu that I would improve my grades in the next exam. So I studied every day for about 1 hour after school.
Miraculously, my grades did improve on the next exam. For the first time ever, there was not a single red mark on my report card.
Slowly, I jumped from #53 to #20-something and then, #4.
By the time I graduated from Primary 6, I had scored 4As. Far from the perfect 5As, but beyond my wildest expectations.
I continued to be a top student through my high school, pre-U, and college.
Who would have guessed this could be the results of a #3 student from behind?
I am forever grateful to Cikgu Razak for teaching me that lesson.
He built in me the spirit of persistence and self-motivation, gratitude and appreciation.
For many years, when Cikgu Razak saw me with my improved grades, he would smile at me and congratulate me.
He is indeed one of the best teachers I ever had in my life and inspired me to become a teacher also.
I never met another teacher like him, but if you had a teacher like Cikgu Razak in your life, I think you are someone really lucky indeed.