Her name was Mrs KS Quah. She taught English and Literature at Outram Secondary School. She didn’t look too remarkable – she was short, slightly plump and bespectacled, with a habit of wearing tight skirts and tops paired with fashionable jackets.
As for my dad, he was a skinny 15 year-old kampong kid in Secondary Three. He’d done pretty well for himself so far. After all, he was an impoverished widow’s son from Poon Sai Por, the “rubbish slope” village between Henderson Road and Lower Delta Road. Most kids there didn’t make it past Primary Six. They went to work as hawkers’ assistants and store-hands as soon as they dropped out. The fact that my dad had passed his PSLEs had already made him the talk of the town.
Now, he had lofty hopes of passing his Senior Cambridge Exams – the same thing we now call the O-Levels. But he was at a huge disadvantage when it came to English. His first language was Hokkien, and it usually took him three whole months to finish a single Enid Blyton novel.
He – along with almost every other classmate – was stressed by the prospect of the exams. Mrs Quah could see the effects of their nervousness in the work they turned in. They had forgotten all their instincts about English, and were ruining their compositions with half-remembered rules of grammar. They would correct the sentence “Did he see?” to “Did he saw?”, just because they were desperate to show that they understood the concept of past tense.
One day, she decided the situation was untenable. So, she came into class and told everyone, “I want you all to buy a small pocket notebook.”
For the next ten lessons, she dictated the rules of English grammar, starting from the very basics: “I am, you are, he is, she is,” and so on – subject-verb agreement, possessive pronouns, imperative mode, gerunds, the lot. Her students’ only duty was to copy down her notes into their notebooks.
This was kind of nuts – everyone had already spent at least nine years studying English, and some kids were actually good at the language. And of course, a bunch of you are probably rolling your eyes at the whole concept of education as a process of spoon-feeding kids information.
But it worked. The class received a huge boost of confidence from having the rules of English spelt out for them. The following year, they went on to score an unusually high number of passes at their Senior Cambridge Exams.
My dad, to his triumph, managed to score a C6. That grade might not sound too impressive, but it enabled him to go on to do his Pre-University studies at Raffles Institution. After that, he secured himself a place at NUS Accountancy and a civil service job – a career track that almost no one else in his kampong managed to enjoy.
Over the years, my dad has been keenly aware that he owes a massive debt to Mrs Quah for everything he is today. And as his son, I owe a part of that debt too. So, for those ten weeks of crucial classes, I would just like to say thank you, to a great lady.
There’s a little epilogue to my dad’s story that I still feel I’ve got to add in. It took place in 1968, in the months between his Pre-University studies and his entry into NUS.
That year, he took on a temporary job as a relief teacher. He was handed one of the lousiest classes in Primary Four, and when he tried to make them do English compositions, he found that none of them could string a sentence together. Being young and idealistic, he resolved to follow in Mrs Quah’s footsteps and give the kids a primer on grammar.
But when he ran this by the principal, he said no. He had to stick to the official lesson plans. And if the kids couldn’t write a composition themselves, he could just write out a model composition on the blackboard which they could copy, so they could pretend to MOE that everyone had decent standards.
This was how my dad discovered what a risk Mrs Quah had taken for the sake of her students. She had deliberately ignored school policies, casting aside her lesson plans just to make sure she could reach out and help even the most disadvantaged of her kids.
You could argue that everything’s changed now. A principal would never resort to such crass methods to meet MOE guidelines. The government has invested hugely in education at all levels, and our teachers are using curricula that are the envy of the rest of the world.
But the central message my dad wanted to share is this: If you’re a good enough teacher, you won’t care about the rules. You won’t even care about appearing cool or inspirational or being remembered by your students. All you’ll want to do is to help your students learn, by whatever means necessary.
The policies don’t matter. If you know what your mission in life is, then that’s exactly what you’ve got to do.