The truth is I never submitted my relief teaching application form that day, after we finished our 'A' levels. I told everybody who asked I was rejected because it was easier to lie than to tell the truth- isn’t it always. My secondary school art teacher told me to come down, fill up the forms, get her signature attesting to my ‘supposed’ talents, passion in teaching, commitment and what not, and give the whole teaching thing a go.
I think I spent more time agonizing over what to wear just to go back to school than I’ve ever spent on, say, a date with someone I secretly have a crush on.
And stepping into school was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done too. Just looking at the school uniforms the students were wearing made me sick. Every step was shaky, as if my feet didn’t belong to me and I was dragging them, inch by inch, as I walked. Or maybe I was walking on a thin and breaking tightrope, a split-second away from plunging head-first to the ground, but pretended not to notice.
There was such fear, such ridiculous and yet deeply overwhelming fear that gripped me. Like a powerful hand to the throat, a hand that jabbed a pointed finger inside my dry mouth and all the way down my throat and all the way down to my stomach where it turned into a metal hook and twisted and cleaved and ripped everything out.
At the General Office, while I was asking for the application form, I bumped into my D&T teacher- the one with short curly hair; the one who likes to wear flowery dresses and too much make-up.
I can’t decide if she’s nice or not.
When I was painting alone in the Art Room, which was just above the D&T room, she would stroll in languidly, look at her watch, look at how slowly I was painting and proclaim, “Cannot lar. You got no time left. Die already. Sure cannot finish one.”
Sometimes when she was damn bored or freer, she would sit beside me on a blue plastic chair and watch as I self-consciously dipped my brush into the wet paint. If she stayed longer than ten minutes, I would remind myself to take out my earphones so it seemed more ‘polite’.
“Wah. Like very fun like that. So many colours. I also want to paint.”
I joked, “You want to try?”
She waved her hands animatedly and shook her head, “Better not! Later I paint better than you how? Some more teacher cannot help student cheat.”
She was pleasantly surprised to see me that day. She had a very kind, absent-minded look on her face. She remembered me as the shadowy girl from Sec 5 A1, the one who liked to paint, the one who made the “cute wooden rabbit” stationary holder in her class.
“Ay, how you doing?” she asked.
It was very strenuous maintaining this ordinary conversation. I couldn’t find my voice and when I did, it sounded like a strange whisper- just a word away from dissolving into a squeak.
“Where you go ah, after ‘O’ levels? Which school?”
“Wah. Not bad. Nanyang poly or Nanyang ITE?”
“Er. Nanyang JC.”
“Really meh? How can? Eh but got such thing as Nanyang ITE not?”
“Erm. Don’t know.”
“You Normal student how can don’t know?” She chuckled, “Aiyah but I teacher I also dunno. Old already cannot keep up lar.”
I did my best to smile tactfully but couldn’t help feeling so uneasy and awkward, like my clothes didn’t fit or my skin didn’t fit my jutting bones.
I thought of the toilet, the personally memorable toilet next to the quaint art room where I would catch lesbians making out. Later in the night, when the school was practically deserted, it would be the place where I silently burst into tears, sinking my teeth hard into my flesh because I was tired and frustrated and stressed out.
The brainless things you do to yourself because you hate yourself and you have to punish yourself for being weak and useless- as if the world isn't critical and harsh enough.
I also thought of the time when I was forced to stand outside the HOD room because I pon-ed Chapel. Oh the audacity! That a student would even think, of skipping Chapel! That a student would be so disrespectful of our Lord God and Jesus Christ!
I love God, I do. Or at least, I try to. What prompted me to skip Chapel was the group of chronically irritating GB girls who would sing Christian songs like it was a big KTV session or their own specialized concert. I hated it. I hated the way they talked about God like He belonged to them and them alone and that reluctantly but most charitably, they were willing to share a piece of Him with the rest of us, miserable sinners.
“You don’t know God like I do,” would be a good beginning sentence. What followed it would be the predictable story of a desire granted by a feverishly uttered prayer. “I prayed and so God gave me good marks.” “I prayed and so God gave me a new branded schoolbag.”
And how can I forget the daily morning inspections held by the infamous discipline mistress, Miss Siao- great surname for the rest of us to spit sarcastic remarks about. She was this huge flabby figure with a round face and a big round nose. Every huge step she took, she took as if she was convinced it would make the earth tremble timidly. She would nod her head in approval as our schoolbags were dug inside out by her perfect minions. There was no privacy or respect. Every little thing would be thrown to the ground just to make sure we weren’t hiding bombs, drugs, hand phones, pagers and secret spells of immortality.
Now that I think about it, I want to ask why our class was the only one that had to be inspected so vigorously and religiously. In fact, every time there was a case of vandalism, we had to stay back after school for detention and clean toilets, tables and chairs. They would never provide legitimate evidence that it was us. No investigation would ever be done. There was no need for it when the assumptions made were as good as gold. But then again, I heard the Normal Tech class got it worse.
Before each detention session, Miss Siao would gather all of us in front of the Principal’s Office where she would throw her weight around. We would sit down on the cold hard concrete floor, as grey, cracked and bleak as our future, and blank out as she projected her masculine voice and saliva towards our bended heads, “Tell me why A class people don’t vandalize and Normal people must vandalize?! Tell me why they can do so well and your do so badly? Obvious right? Because your are naughty! And rebellious! No sense of discipline!”
Our brave tomboyish monitress actually tried to save us once. She went to find our form teacher and insisted that the whole detention thing was completely unfair and unjust.
Our form teacher's response: “Whether it’s your fault or not, why can’t your make things easier and just do the dentention?”
Our monitress's defense: "But why should we? It's a matter of principle, not about making things easier!"
I learned that matters of principle matter only in principle.
I thought a lot about my maths teacher too- the one you guys must be so familiar with by now because I keep mentioning her. She must feel very proud that she has had such an impact on me. Haha. If I had to go for counseling, she’ll be one of the most frequent names I ramble out. Why, why, why, did she hate me so much? Why did she pick on me? Why tell me that I’m a failure, and that I won’t succeed in life? Was she in a bad mood? Was she plain PMS-ing? And why has it affected me so much? Was it because she was an authoritative figure, someone students were supposed to revere and obey? Was it because she voiced out and affirmed every negative thought I had?
Every depressing and harmful voice in my head seems to stem from those very words she said. I’m pushed so hard, like there’s a razor-sharp blade thrust into the back of my neck, and I run every race faster than I ever would have run. I run out of haunting fear. I run and I run so quickly and hastily that every time I finally stop, I screech to a halt the way cars in an accident do. And I burn the naked soles of my feet.
I had too many memories and flashbacks that swam around like fishes. With their stirring tails, they wiped the beautiful world I knew away. They made it far-flung and detached.
So I took the application form, filled it in like a diligent little girl, crushed it into a ball and stuffed it into my bag. I turned away, walked away, ran away, and thought of what a shit-scared coward I was. So much for wanting to confront the demons of my past, the skeletons in my closet and those other clichés. So much for wanting to say, “Look at how much I’ve grown. Look at how wrong you were about me.”
I thought about how bitter, how judgmental, how resentful I was, and realized I hadn’t grown at all.
There were wonderful things that happened too, like discovering art and writing, like the art teacher who believed in me, like Deb who helped to cushion the blows, but I couldn't seem to hold on to them enough to get pass the blinding cloud of darkness.
I realized I was definitely not capable enough to be a teacher or even a relief teacher. Not now. Maybe later. I have nothing to offer but emotional baggage. I have all these irrefutable questions with dissatisfying answers and lyrical futile words about nothing in particular.
The bad thing about art or writing is that sometimes when you focus on the intricate and tiny details, you forget to take a step back and look at the big picture. Sometimes you get so emotionally attached that you can't pull yourself away and deal with the work objectively and rationally. You tie your sense of self-worth to your work. If you produce nothing, you're nothing. If it's no good, you're no good. The simplest things become complicated and confusing. You start to question your purpose in doing what you're doing because you don't know what you're doing anymore.
I think life is like that.
So it's nice to be reminded, every once in awhile, to "let some light in so that we can all breathe".