Via: Daily Prompt – Cusp
I have always wanted to study literature. But the education system in Singapore is such that a student is streamed wholly based upon their exam grades. The pyramid, in descending order of scores, went: science, arts, commerce, IT, and crafts. Being generally a good grades-earner, I was matriculated into the science faculty for my ‘O’ levels. I finally had the opportunity to decide my own stream after my ‘O’ level exams – though not for the lack of trying from my counselor to take science again for my ‘A’ levels. But I was adamant that I would submerge myself in the classics. Arts it was.
Within six months of studying English literature, I wanted to put a bullet through my head. It was Y2K. And while everyone was recovering from the phobia of a total technological shut down upon the turn of the century, I was having a breakdown of my own. I realized how boring dissecting literature could be. I loved the text we were assigned: King Lear, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Hard Times, Jude the Obscure, Othello, The Rivals. What I didn’t enjoy was the way my teachers went about teaching what to look out for in the exams.
It was all about what are the type of questions the Cambridge Board (our GCE was syndicated under Cambridge University) was prone to ask, how to score high on the exam papers, how to break down our examination essays, and so on. The memories still make me jittery. For one thing, I have really slow penmanship; imagine me trying to scribble through six essays, each of minimum 1,500 words in a space of three hours while trying to sift through my memory all the example passages and verses befitting the theme of the questions for each of the six texts! A daunting and torturous task for which I prepared by self-timing practice exams at home. Let’s just say the strain nearly left me crippled at the end of those two years of training to writing furiously.
But apart from the fact that there was just so much to study within two years before we sat for the exams, my lecturers were all over the place. There was our Head of Department who obviously had the most seniority as per accomplishments in the field of English literature studies and who desperately cared about our education but could put us to sleep through the Act where the Earl of Gloucester was having his eyes gouged out. There was the eccentric Brit who looked the part in his faded chinos, tweeted jacket and unruly grays. But his wild gestures and sudden exclamations made us question if it were right to set him loose on a bunch of unsuspecting late teens. I think he wanted to be King Lear more than teach it (“You better understand my point or else”) and it might account for why he was always angry because he had to teach us Othello instead. The Brit was followed by the Scot, who is the happiest Scot I have had the pleasure of meeting. He was as sprightly as a colorful butterfly and wholly unsuitable to teach us Jude the Obscure. Our resident philosopher (as in, certifiably) would jump from a passage in The Rivals to examining slides on the fashion of the 18th Century ton to simply drifting off into his daydreams. The Madam (she really did prefer to be called “Madam”) who taught us Songs of Innocence and of Experience focused so much on the techniques of Blake’s textual arrangements that we missed the poetry of it all. But I suppose when you are studying poems about kids gone wild and hateful gods, focusing on syntax and diction and alliteration and pentameters is what you do if you don’t want to reach for liquid fortification after every stanza. But for the life of me, I didn’t understand why she carried on with it when she took up the second half of Jude the Obscure.
Somehow, though, these teachers managed to get all the techniques and themes through my head before the preliminary exams, enough to score a passing grade (I think I was too offended by having to highlight and scrawl in the margins of my books to do my usual best). And while I didn’t make the grades I am accustomed to, I learned things during my ‘A’ levels that I use to this day and very successfully. I think my brain just popped and I came into my cognitive voice in junior college. These were essentially brilliant teachers in their own rights with, unfortunately, very distracting personalities.
The teacher with whom I had the hardest time coping was the one who taught us Hard Times. Now, Dickens was my second favorite author (Sheridan hands-down the first) in our syllabus. But this woman was a class act. She was always truant, arriving minimum 20 minutes late in our 1.5-hour classes, and would find any excuse to bristle and stalk out of the theater before the period was over. She was overly critical of everyone except her handful of pets. Needless to say, I wasn’t among the favorites (she once even criticized my American accent). But I simply despised her irresponsible attitude towards the curriculum and, after the first few polite months trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, made sure she felt my contempt.
I still remember first class after 9/11 when she came in sighing and despairing about various prophesies flying through the Internet. I was as affected as the rest of the world by the horror of the event and I think it only fuelled my determination to not let her get away with making it another excuse to bunk teaching us. She lamented what is the point of all this studying if we just die tomorrow; I responded with my carrying condemnation that in case we don’t die tomorrow and have to sit for the exams at the end of the year, we should get on with it. Yup. Exact exchange. Prelims were due the next month and I was already frayed. It was the only time she shut up about her new husband and actually taught us properly.
So dire was my relationship with this delinquent didact, that I almost gave up literature under her tutelage. She once mourned over how horrible were the worlds that Dickens painted and how she wished she had something lighter to teach us because Dickens really did make her despondent. Then she turned to us and asked what is it that we would have most liked to study among the classics. The class proffered a list in which Tolkien was mentioned numerous times (Lord of the Rings were all the rage in the new millennium), as if our puny brains were ready to grasp the work of a man who invented mythical creatures and languages in which they speak, as if our very Catholic college would allow the work of a proclaimed atheist to be discussed in its quarters. I usually withdraw into myself when I find someone generally beneath my taste – unless provoked. She provoked me.
By then, our enmity was becoming noticeable because I had openly and unwittingly complained about her lack of presence in lectures and tutorials in front of her pets and word had got back to her so she felt it necessary to chastise me at every engagement to which I usually had my own scathing sarcasm ready. So when I did not mention what I would like to study in her class, she very archly informed me that she was particularly interested to know my preferred work. I also archly answered that I only could mention the novel which I would not like to study and that is Pride and Prejudice, I wouldn’t want the experience to be bungled up. She simmered and stewed but could do nothing more than dismiss my answer because she knew she asked for it.
Well, there you have it. The most formative two years of my life when I was on the verge of giving up reading and studying the classics. That is the power educators hold over us.