It takes the loss of something ‘small’, that you are habitually unwilling to let go of, to make you realize the worth of something ‘big’ that the divine has in store for you. The irony, though, mostly is that you do not realize that the thing that you have to let go of, is actually small, unless you have in fact, let go of it. The mind clings on to it, like it is the only thing it has known.
When I quit my job and after I overcame the initial apprehension of ‘what next’, I realized that there was ‘life’ outside the four walls of my office. I had given everything I had, to do justice to my job, for a good part of the last 9 years, that I had spent in this organization. But now, I was beginning to realize that my office, which seemed like the only world to me then, now was just a dot in this big, beautiful world, that teasingly beckoned me. I realized there was a ‘whole world’ out there, to be gained.
I soon eased into a convenient routine. On one hand, I pursued a job that I needed to make a living, but on the other I went after all that my heart has desired, over the years. I wanted to try my hand at entrepreneurship, devote time to music that was once my only love, get back into reading that has played its part in shaping my demeanor in my formative years, do justice to the writing juices within waiting for an outlet to gush out, and then also to teach. Teaching, is in my view, the highest form of ‘giving’ that there can be. It can be ever so fulfilling, if done with the right devotion and ethics.
During this “there is so much I want to do” phase, I once decided to take up a part time job of teaching English to Secondary school children. One afternoon, I was sitting in a coffee shop near the National Library, browsing through a Secondary-1 English text book and simultaneously making notes, ahead of my class later that afternoon, sipping my third cup of latte. After registering with a few tuition agents and two weeks of waiting, I had finally received an SMS from an agent that morning, informing me about a class that same evening for three students ‘to begin with’, as he put it.
“The language of Cause and Effect …” read the title of the page I was on. My personal note book, where I wrote down my notes and ‘to do’ for the day as always, accompanied me. I wrote down my goals there too that I would need to work towards as a teacher. It was part-time for me, but not for them.
Passersby, who looked at me, with the English text in my hand and my note book, had a somewhat puzzled look. They probably thought that I was an English student, although my age as evident from my appearance (sporadic burst of grey hair, thick glasses with a dark brownish wooden frame and a moustache), would have defied it. Not being perturbed much by this perceptional incongruity, I remained buried in my text book.
I paused as I sipped more of the hot, sugarless latte. I had, of late, resorted to sugarless coffee except for once in the morning. Only my first cup of coffee would be with sugar. This was one way of ensuring that I did not put on excess calories, especially since I had become somewhat irregular at the gym. Not that I was anywhere close to becoming overweight. But just in case at any time, I resorted to indulging in palate fulfilling pleasures more and in exercising less, the sugar that I avoided would mitigate the guilt that was bound to result. I must admit, now I had an added reason for not making it to the gym. My English classes. Ha! How the mind comes up with guilt-free excuses for not doing something that requires an effort and the benefits of which are only visible ‘in the long run’. The mind needs all the benefits ‘now’! Period.
As I turned back my attention to the National Library building and the Secondary 1 text book that lay in front of me, I started making a mental note of the chapters I should cover that afternoon including the flow I should adopt.
The National Library building stood giant-like, as I sat there like a minion, with knowledge oozing out of every inch of it, through a multitude of inspiring posters, books, digital copies and magazines across ten mammoth floors, feeding into the DNA of future doctors, IT professionals, engineers, accountants and professors.
The open cafe at ground level, where I sat, presented a student friendly ambience. True enough, every desk & table that it laid out, hosted students and aspiring professionals, all armed with a laptop or a book and a pen. A few tables were laid out inside the cafe premises too, but mostly people preferred sitting outdoors. There is a huge open space on one side of the cafe which is many a time used up for exhibitions and public displays. As I looked around, I saw a series of bold posters that were displayed, projecting human trafficking as a prevalent crime on the rise, especially in Asia, and appealing to everyone to take up the fight against it. On the other side was the hustle and bustle of the mid day traffic as vehicles scurried along to their desired destinations. Yet, the huge open space that housed the cafe had its calm, with its tall roof protecting us from the blistering heat of the April sun and with cool breeze finding its way through to us.
A group of old women in one corner, chattered away almost simultaneously, evidently to let out their otherwise unexpressed emotions, as it seemed from their ‘louder than necessary’ laughter, making an exception to an otherwise studious ambience.
I turned my attention back to the young population engrossed in their own laptops and books. I said to myself ‘It is here that the future of Singapore is in the making’.
My stream of thoughts was interrupted by a young voice:
“Excuse me, Sir” said the voice, as I looked up from my book. Well, that expression – the ‘Sir’ part – made one thing evident. My appearance did reveal my stanch ‘seniority’, after all.
“Yes?” I said enquiringly, looking at a young man before me, who looked like a fresh ‘teenager’. I mean, he must have just turned thirteen or at best fourteen. He had spiky hair running through the centre of his scalp and very short hair on the sides, the short hair resembling well mown grass in a cricket ground. He wore glasses with a flashy black & white frame and braces that shone to the sunlight reflecting off the glass window of the restaurant behind me. Apple earphones proudly dangled on either side of his shoulders, connected to the phone that was safely tucked away into his left jeans pocket. He had, what I dare called, the rugged look of a modern Singaporean teenager.
“May I refer to this text book for a few minutes, Sir” he said “ I left mine at home, as I was in a hurry”
“Sure” I said, as I gestured him to sit down across me on the chair opposite. As he sat down, I noticed the tattoo on his left arm, that bore what looked like a hungry dragon, in colors of clay brown and marsh green, sticking out its black forked tongue. Another typical physical feature of the modern Singaporean teenager! Perhaps the only thing that he was missing was the metallic earring. Maybe it was on its way too; he was still young!
“Thank you, Sir” he said as he sat down and took the open book in his hand. ‘The language of cause and effect’ was still the page that I was on.
He referred to the title in an instant and exclaimed “Hey, I can help you with this, if you wish, Sir.
“Sorry?” I responded in an impulse.
“Cause and Effect”, he continued. “I have read this up like it matters most to Jesus and can give you useful tips too. Of course, there are other chapters that I struggle with. But this one I can help with”
I soon realized that he had taken it for granted that I was an English student, an elderly one, of course! There was a touch of sympathy in his tone as he perhaps concluded I deserved it, putting together my age as deducted from my appearance and the somewhat misplaced English text that I was so engrossed in. He had concluded, as it seemed, that I was in dire need to learn English.
I decided to have some fun and play on. I said “Oh! That is nice of you. It would indeed be helpful”
“Let me complete my reference first, if you don’t mind, Sir?” he requested.
“Sure” I said.
Over the next 30 minutes, he religiously took notes, flipping pages back and forth. I ordered for another latte as I pondered over what I might tell him, if he were to ask me about my compulsion to learn English at this age. I had to make up something to play on.
When he was done, he exclaimed “Ah, finally. Sorry, Sir, it took a little longer than I thought”.
“Now” he continued, “Let’s go back to ’cause and effect’. I noticed, Sir, that you were stuck on that single page for quite a while. Sorry, but I couldn’t help noticing as I was just sitting diagonally opposite your table”
“Well, yeah…” I began, before he interrupted me.
“I understand, I understand. No need to explain, Sir. English is indeed a funny language and not always easy to comprehend”.
“Right, I am actually…”
“I will help you with it, Sir. No worries” he said in his typical Singlish accent “and hopefully in a simple way”
“By the way, Sir, I can recommend a few other books to you, which can help you learn the language quick ” he went on.
The sudden flurry of words was quite telling, especially immediately after 30 minutes of total silence.
“Yeah, actually my work place…” I only began to make up something, but the guy wouldn’t stop. He was making my job easier.
“Sure Sir. I perfectly understand now. You are in desperate search of a job, aren’t you? And one of the job requirements is for you to possess a minimum skill level of English language, without which you do not become eligible, right?. In today’s competitive environment, it is a good way of filtering out a large mass of applicants at the very beginning. All multinational organizations are on a roll to cost cuts. Everybody is doing this”
I almost let out a Huh, as I nodded half heartedly, out of sheer disbelief at his exaggerated presumptions.
“Life isn’t fair, Sir” he continued relentless. “My dad worked in a multinational company and he was asked to leave last month abruptly, despite being a good performer for the last five years, along with 20 other colleagues. They gave him no specific reason except that they could no longer afford such a large team. The department size was cut by half within no time. All the talk about employee welfare went down the drain in an instant. There was this new management and they seemed heartless. My dad is 46, not getting any younger, but he is out there in the market, along with hundreds of others, looking for a job to sustain his family of 6. Life certainly isn’t fair, Sir”
This boy at his young age, seemed to have seen it all for himself to form an opinion about life and there was anguish deep down in his heart, as I could sense. This was quite in contrast to what his exterior demeanor seemed to convey. My quest for some fun all of a sudden gave way to sympathy for his dad’s state and his family. I did not bother to ask him as to what combination of brother(s) and / or sister(s) made up his siblings. It did not seem relevant to the conclusiveness about life that he seemed to have anyway drawn. Indeed, sometimes life did not seem fair at all.
“Sometimes, I wonder, Sir, as to why I should spend hours and hours studying Biblical texts (obviously referring to their bulkiness. I mentally noted that this was the second time he was referring to Jesus or Bible, which perhaps meant that he was a regular at the Church on Sundays). He continued, interrupting my thoughts. “I wonder where all this recession would lead to. Will I even stand a chance of getting a job when I graduate a few years from now? A job of my choice, that is? Where is the guarantee? ”
“Three of my dad’s colleagues ‘ sons are first class graduates today working as trainees in completely unrelated fields. One of them, who is a graduate in communications, is in fact a supervisor in a hotel! Huh! And he wanted to apparently head the marketing unit of a multinational. I do feel de-motivated Sir”
“Yeah Right, young boy, but…!!” I began in an attempt to utter a couple of encouraging words to dispel his fears somewhat. I wanted to assure him that he had time on his hands and there was a good chance that things would be better then. But guess what, I was interrupted again and I do not think he even realized that he was cutting me.
“But then Sir, there are faculties that I love dearly. I am passionate about them. So that kind of keeps me going”. There was a sudden change in his tone.
“Also, Sir, as my dad keeps telling me, there is always a reason things happen in life. And it is always for the better. He strongly believes in the concept of ‘Karma’ or ‘Cause and Effect’, as they call it. As he uttered these words, he was at once stirred back to reality.
“Oops” he exclaimed “I was to take you through the language of ‘Cause and Effect’ and I got totally distracted. I am so sorry, Sir”.
“It is alright, young man. Do not worry.” said I, my first complete sentence in the last 45 minutes or so.
“Hey Pete, you are here. I have been looking for you” called out a male voice. He was a friend, as I soon gathered. “We are getting late for our drama rehearsal, buddy. We do not have much time today. Remember, we have got our tuitions too today after the rehearsal?”
“Yup” replied my companion for the last 50 minutes, as he turned to me. “Sir, I need to go now. We have drama rehearsals first and then our English tuitions. I will be here same time tomorrow. I can help you with your lesson then Sir, is that ok?
“Sure, no problem” I said, wondering if I had a choice.
“I love drama and storytelling, Sir” he answered, almost as if reading what was on my mind. ” I do not want to miss it”
“Oh, is that right?” my tone was one of ‘made up’ surprise.
“Story-telling comes naturally to me, Sir. In fact, my friends tell me I am gifted with super imaginary skills”
‘I can see that young man’, I said to myself, as he prepared to leave! Certain enough, he had a way of imagination, for all that he imagined about my situation stood testimony to it. He sure has the potential to become a good ‘fiction’ story-teller, I said to myself
“I have got to go now, Sir” He said as he picked up his stuff in a hurry. “I will see you tomorrow” he said as he turned his back on me, without even waiting for a response.
“Sure” I said. “Good Luck to you”
As he turned, I noticed the name on the back of his soccer Jersey, printed in bold Black in italics. Peter Gooi, No.9, it proudly said.
That name surely rang a bell. I quickly retrieved the message on my mobile that my agent had sent me earlier in the day and read it.
“Dear Sir, pleased to advise you of your first English class this evening at 5 pm. Three students have enrolled to begin with and their names are a) Alex Tan b) Abe Huang and c) Peter Gooi !
I could not help laughing, as I read out the third name. I picked up my bag and waved good bye to the waitress at the door, who by now recognized me well.
The expression on his face when he would see me in the class later today would indeed be priceless, I thought.
And maybe, there was a tale worth penning down.