By Kai Lin
In 2015, a girl threw herself off a building after receiving two Bs in her O Levels. In 2016, a boy plunged to his death because of two failed subjects. That students should take their lives under the duress of poor grades is tragic. Yet, these suicides are manifestations of the more subtle undercurrents of stress that erode students’ mental psyche by the day.
Indeed, the Ministry of Education’s reduced emphasis on grades and greater focus on holistic development are laudable, as are parents’ increased sensitivity towards their children’s academic pressures. However, these intensified efforts have unfortunately not been enough to remedy a toxic culture of exam stress.
The fault lies not with the schools, the teachers, the parents or the students. No, it lies with all of them, all of us.
It is understandable that schools and teachers want the best for their students in terms of character development, extracurricular activities and of course, grades. It is parents’ love for their children that fuels their desire to see their children succeed. So too do students seek to excel in their studies and CCAs to fulfil their ambitions, achieve self-actualization and do their families proud.
Yet, when these well-intentioned hopes are taken to the extreme, the results are disastrous.
In my years of education, I have witnessed classmates’ pertinent questions being snubbed, sometimes nicely but other times caustically, due to a rush to complete the syllabus or due to a digression from the model answer. I have felt demoralization crushing down like a yoke on my classmates and I when we were lectured time and again for “not being good enough” to motivate us to work harder. I have had classmates hang their head in resignation and discredit their own ability to write because they barely pass their compositions or essays – their writing is in fact linguistically sound and contains personal voice. I have seen the disappointed look on my parents’, relatives’ and teachers’ faces when I scored an A – but not high enough an A. And yes, I admit that on those occasions, I too was dissatisfied with myself.
I find it poignant that an education system, which I had hoped would fuel our curiosities, ultimately snuffed out the questions burning in our minds – all in our best interests to do well. Moreover, it is a bitter irony that in such a well-intentioned holistic education system, our self-worth has come to be defined by accolades in academics, sports, leadership and character, and our self-esteem shamed into submission by intimations of inferiority.
Let me ask: Have you ever watched a friend crying in front of you? Rivulets stream down her cheeks. Her lips quiver with silent sobs. Her hands tremble as she clutches her results slip. You helplessly try to comfort her but you know she does not hear your words, does not see your mouth move. Her eyes, red-rimmed and glazed over with pain, only see the marks on the paper – the marks that in her mind, seal her fate, shatter her hopes, make her a disappointment. Have you?
The variations of such accolade-induced agony are many. Sometimes, they come in soundless despair and a cloth around the neck pulled tighter and tighter, then released at the last possible moment. Sometimes, they burst forth with uncontrollable tears and fists on the ground. At other times, they end in a headlong plunge to the ground. Every time, they haunt me.
So, when will we end this psychological torture?
The time for change is now.
For too long have I buried my head in books, just as an ostrich buries its head in the sand. Whenever the class was reproached for “not trying hard enough”, I would mentally plea guilty. I would steel myself to push harder, to sit in front of the desk for one more hour, to memorize those bolded key words one more time, to complete one more question. I would tell myself that this was what it meant to be resilient, to be disciplined, to strive for excellence. But really, what does it mean to try hard enough? How much is enough?
Seeing my classmates lifelessly slumped on their desks or in their chairs day after day, a consequence of staying up till 2 a.m. to complete homework after their CCA. Doing practice papers till my fingers were red and calloused. Watching my friend burst into tears of relief after scoring high marks because in the moments before, she had felt so stressed that she would not meet everyone’s expectations. These and more were what it took for me to finally realize that enough is enough.
I do not believe that there is anyone who does not want to try and succeed. Certainly, we all have our moments of indulgence, that one hour which we spent procrastinating on social media or that few nights on which we stayed up late to play DOTA. Yet, after the high of instant gratification has faded, we are often faced with remorse at the time wasted, the work not completed, the marks lost, and we want to try harder. We may fail but we pick ourselves up each time. We may say we give up but in our heart is a seed of hope that we will succeed the next time and that someone believes we can.
So, a comment that we did not try hard enough, while meant to motivate, can actually dishearten. A look of disappointment from someone we respect, while full of concern, can be a stab to the heart. Call children and youths over-sensitive, a “strawberry generation” but I believe that even the most emotionally detached among us can feel hurt.
We, as Singaporeans, dream of a more inclusive, tolerant, gracious Singapore. Perhaps, inclusiveness is a teacher’s smile to each and every student, acknowledging that they have tried to try regardless of what marks they have scored, and that he has faith in all of them. Tolerance is knowing that everyone’s innate ability is different and celebrating this difference. Graciousness is being able to magnanimously accept one’s successes and failures, and move on without arrogance or self-blame. After all, as Winston Churchill once said, “success is not final; failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts”.