Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Power and Beauty of Stories

I love stories... whether I hear them, read them or see them.  They make me feel things, and they also teach me things.

Yes, I'm going to talk about Dimash Kudaibergen again.  He is a story teller par excellence, via his music and his lyrics.  So young, you may say, to earn such a title ... Surely he hasn't lived long enough to have gathered all those stories in his heart and to be able to share those stories with others.  But watch a video of him singing... and tell me that isn't a superb example of someone telling a story that grabs you by your heartstrings and stays with you for days and days afterward.  If I were a Buddhist, I would call him an old soul.

Stories are powerful because they can paint swathes of colour across your mind and they can change the way you think.  But the stories need to be presented in the right way, with the right words.  I've always been a 'word' person and I've always believed I needed to know the words to be truly touched.  Then I heard Dimash sing 'Late Autumn'.  In Mandarin.  I don't understand Mandarin.  But he made me feel the pain.

Call me a slow learner, but  it seems that music CAN tell a story.  And you didn't really need to know the words.  Hmm, that suddenly reminded me of Leonardo Constantine, someone who is really good at storytelling through dance.

Still, I hear many people are busy learning Kazakh or Russian.  Hmm, it seems that a singing prodigy is also a good way to get people interested in a country.

Finding Your Magic

Someone once asked me how I learned to write so well.  She said it looked like magic the way I could lay down the words without seeming to think hard about it.  You know what?  I don't know. I just think a bit, and then I put pen to paper and the pen moves as if it is an extension of my mind. Sometimes it even moves ahead of my conscious mind. I suppose my writing has become a subconscious or unconscious part of me. 

I have other theories but in actual fact, I don't really know.

It could be due to the fact that I learned to read really young.  I don't remember ever learning my ABCs.  I just knew how to read.  I was told my grandpa used to seat me on his lap when he read the newspaper and then he would read aloud while moving his finger under the words.  I moved out of his house when I was two years old.  So that tells you how young I was.

It could be due to the fact that I loved reading.  My father had to punish me to stop me from reading so much.  I'd wait till he went to sleep before taking out my torch light to read under the blankets.  Then the next morning I'd be like a zombie and he just KNEW I had been reading, instead of sleeping.  No matter what he did, he couldn't stop me reading.

It could be due to the fact that I loved stories.  So I'd read anything and everything I could find.  I finished all the kid story books and encyclopedias in the house by the time I was ten years old.  Both my parents are teachers and we had books everywhere.  At one point I became desperate enough to climb to the highest shelves.  AND I found my mother's treasure trove of Mills and Boons.  Did I mention I was ten?  I guess I learned the pattern of exposition + complication + climax + denouement + resolution pretty young.

It could also be due to the fact that I liked to analyse stuff.  I would break down stories to their basic form.  I would keep lists of foreign phrases that looked good in stories.  I even kept lists of first names and surnames that could be given to characters.  And yes I wrote stories in my school exercise books and when I ran out of pages, I'd toss the book somewhere and continue in other blank books.

It's been nearly half a century.. and I'm still doing the same things.  Reading, writing, analysing...

So, I guess if you want to be good at something, if you want to be excellent at something, you need to find something you have a certain aptitude for.  Something you have a knack for.  Something people can't stop you doing and doing and doing.  Even when it didn't need to be done.

Of course then you need to see if you can make money out of it.  I haven't tried to make money out of my writing because it is something I do for pleasure and something I do when I want to do it and not when someone forces me to do it.

Finding A MUET Band Fiver

Every day I walk the corridors of my school, smiling at my young students, exchanging greetings or even jokes.  I absolutely love it if they can pick up on something I mentioned, put a twist on it and sling it back at me.  In English, of course.  That practically guarantees my undivided attention because I'd be thinking,"Could this be a potential Band 5??"  Notice that I don't say Band 6.  Band Sixers belong to a totally different category.  So let's stick to talking about Band Fivers.

It takes time and effort to get Band 5 in the MUET test and 2.5 semesters in Form 6 isn't enough time for me to bring an average English student to that level.  So what do I need to find?  Someone who has maturity when it comes to arguments, someone who has a good command of English and someone who is widely-read. 

If I get someone like that, all he or she needs is a nudge, a push, some General Paper materials to read and exposure to the test formats.  And of course practices.  Lots of practices. 

All the others will have to be content with Band 4 and lower.

How To Excel The Simple Way

I learned early how to excel at something.  I just needed to do it over and over and over again until others have given up and until I know it better than anybody else in the vicinity.  The only thing I had to overcome was my tendency to get bored fast. 

So I also learned to short-circuit this tendency by switching focus to other things but things that are still related to that something I wanted to excel at.  For example, in university, I had to master Lewis structures.  After a few dots and dashes, it got a bit boring.  So I diverged into finding out who Gilbert Lewis was and where he lived and why he came up with these structures (and who came up with dot diagrams)... well, you get the picture.  I went to the library (no Internet in my day) and borrowed books that had nothing to do with my upcoming exams.  None of my friends wanted to study with me.  But I understood Lewis structures a shade better than my other course-mates.  Although I'm not sure my lecturers appreciated my putting the extra info in my exam answers.

When I started working, I applied the same approach to the many challenges thrown at me.  Such as helming a debate team.  Incidentally, doesn't it just irritate you when a debate maestro can't explain to you (a raw recruit) how to teach others to debate?  So I took copious notes during competitions.  I ran from one room to another, trying to gather as much info as I could.  I assumed that rebuttals or POVs used by a team in one debate would be reused by them in the next debate (and most times, I was right!... the lazy bums..)

I drove my debaters nuts by second and triple and quadruple-guessing them.  By playing devil's advocate triple times over.  By asking them to prepare 20 rebuttals for imagined points.  Most of which didn't get used.  BUT.. BUT it made them think and think and think. 

Did I get bored?  Yes, I did.  So I switched focus to finding out what voice modulations worked best for a debater, what approach worked (sharp & witty, warm & friendly, bright & sassy or focused & grim), how to stand at the table and in front of the microphone, how to walk from offstage to onstage... and even the colour of the papers used.  Even the angle of the head when delivering a punchline.  Then when I got bored (AGAIN) and felt there was no challenge coming from the immediate environment, I started teaching other school teachers how to helm their debate teams.  I suspect some teachers thought I was mad.  Then debate competitions became interesting again.  I don't know what I would have done next if I hadn't had to move on. 

Now I use this to tell my students how to pick their life's career.  I said CHOOSE something you feel passion for and do anything & everything to do with it over and over and over again.  Until one day when you look around, nobody else is still doing it (maybe because they have lost interest or have given up) and voila! you have become the resident expert.  Then you can cash in on that.  But it's got to be something you have passion for, something you do 24/7 and yet still complain that you need more time for it... otherwise you'd never last the distance.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Why I'm Still Not Bored After All These Years

When I first became a teacher, it surprised many of my friends.  I suppose there were different reasons... I wasn't obvious teacher material when I was in school.  I was too much of  a class clown at times, too bookish to front a classroom at other times... but the one person who was most surprised was myself.  The only reason that mattered to me was how I viewed the teaching profession as a boring one.  And I was more easily bored than I should be. 

I wanted to be a journalist with different assignments every time and never the same view to look at (so I supposed).  Unfortunately for me, the year I applied for a course in university was also the year major riots took place in my hometown and my mother was traumatised to see the reporters (and specifically one who was brother to my aunt) getting the best views in between the Federal Reserve Units and the rioters.  1986.. what a year.  Just a year earlier and I could have been a reporter now.  Ah well.  So I said okay, let's just get into a university with minimum trauma to the parental units.  My dad would've been 'traumatised' by my mum's drama if I had just steamrollered over her objections. 

I gave myself two years to work in a school before abdicating.  But before I realised it, it's been 24 years.  Have I been bored?  No.  Stressed?  Traumatised?  Amused?  Shocked?  Exasperated?  Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.  And more.

Shockingly there was much for me to find fascinating in school.  Besides the students and the multifarious ways their minds could twist and warp, school offered unlimited options for fun and discovery.  Of course I had to find these fun 'projects' myself.  One year, it was scuba diving lessons (teachers and students get discounts!).  Another year, it was weeks spent in various environmentally-amazing and refreshing spots like Batu Niah, Langkawi and Port Dickson.  Another time it was debate sessions in various towns and cities (for both students and teachers).  And that was just when I was a teacher in school.  Not counting the nine years I was in the administrative departments.

And still I meet colleagues who think it is boring.  Well, it wouldn't be boring if you looked for projects to do.  Even if just to put a fresh spin on the day.

So what am I doing now?  Last week, I came across a really fascinating singer on YouTube called Dimash Kudaibergen.  Besides his unique vocals, unusual ways of interpreting songs and an incredible ability to touch people's hearts via songs they don't understand, he also chose wonderful songstories to breathe life into. Okay, that sounded snarky but I'm serious about the way his singing could pull you in and make you laugh or cry. 

Part of my arsenal as an English language teacher is the bringing of stories into my classes.  My young students (fresh escapees from Form Five) usually need lots of input about the 'world out there'.  And also the world within their souls.  The easiest way to expose them to such things is to bring new stories into their classroom, preferably presented in an appealing package.  Happily for me, Dimash is a very appealing package.  Only 23 years of age, he looks like one of those Korean stars who are so important to my students. From the Chinese program 'The Singer 2017' alone, I have already identified five different stories to bring into my classes.

1. Culture Conflict (Song : Late Autumn)
2. Broken Promises (Song : Daididau) - although it turned out his wife hadn't really left him
3. Despair (Song : SOS d'un terrien en detresse)
4. How A Child Feels About Loss of Parents (Song : Daybreak)
5. Our Weeping Earth (Earth Song)
At the very least, I will have opened my students' eyes to opera (in small doses), songs in Mandarin, Kazakh, French, English... and of course, gorgeous and crazily-talented Dimash.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Email Address Conundrum

When I first started teaching Form Six students many eons ago, the only things on my mind were finishing the syllabus (I was teaching Literature, besides English Language) and polishing their abilities to retain information, organise information into the form required by the question and present the info in an academic fashion.  However now, things have changed.  Not only do I have to scrabble my way along the minefield of today's schools (mines that begin with e- or online-), I also find myself having to deal with social pitfalls.  Not MY social pitfalls,  THEIRS.

And one of the most interesting is their chosen email addresses.  Yeah well, let's deal with one social pitfall at one time.  One of the ways I make sure my MUET students at the very least know how to attach a document to their email is by asking them to send me their homework via email.  I do this because I want to ensure that they arrive at university campuses with rudimentary knowledge of online communication systems.  While focusing on this, I came across some very interesting (and sometimes breathtaking - in a choking manner) discoveries.  Most students I knew used very creative email addresses.  Some of the most creative I have come across in my last ten years of teaching were gurlsexy@hotmail.com, wanitaidaman@mail.com, ladykillerXXX@gmail.com.  Sometimes I even force them to change their email addresses when they ask me to check their resumes.  Imagine sending an application letter and resume to a top bank and there your contact email is hackertothemax@email.com or bombanarchy@hotmail.com.  I even got into a long argument via WhatsApp with an ex student because she had a tripleXrated email address (a body part was mentioned in slang) and she insisted it was who she was, and she wasn't about to compromise her integrity for money or fame.  Eventually she grumpily created one email address just for formal use.  I told her those people in the HR dept knew she chose that email tag because that was foremost in her thinking at that time.  What would her chances of success be???

Needless to say, it has become my mission to ensure that none of my Form 6 students will be allowed to leave school without changing their email tag for a better one.  Or at least create a secondary one.

It seems this is a worldwide problem.

49 People Who Really Regret Their Teenage Email Address https://www.buzzfeed.com/lukebailey/puddin-pants?utm_term=.pwPYz1EEj#.umLJb977x

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
by Wilfred Owen
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918

The Walking Wounded

When people talk about 'the walking wounded', they normally think of soldiers returning from a battlefield.  I usually think of a war poem I studied in university... Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce Et Decorum Est'.  Oh man, that was such a gory poem.  I could actually hear the sounds of the wounds... viscera spilling out into the open where it was never meant to be...

But today I am thinking of different 'walking wounded'.  In my many years of navigating the morass of relationships, I have been continually astonished by the level of woundedness I have encountered in people I meet.  They walk upright and smile when they would and sleep when they should... but they carry such deep injuries within.  I almost wish they had physical injuries instead... at least these injuries would be exposed to the air and dried sooner or later.  But emotional and mental injuries can live forever within psyches.  Like an abscess, they sit inert but causing pain.  And these wounds continue poisoning the people... causing new friendships to be ruined and new hopes to be dashed.

Sometimes I feel drawn to these people... and it is almost as if I can hear them crying out for help.  The problem is when I reach out to help (even though I have no idea what to do), their automatic reaction is to snarl back and flash their claws.  And what makes things sadder is that they may even hurt their loved ones, causing fresh wounds themselves. 


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The 'Fun' of Pre University Exam Registrations

Twice a year, the pre university exam results come out and excite ecstasy, happiness, horror and even nonchalant unconcern among the students.  The lecturers are usually just tied up in knots.  The ecstasy or despair comes later, after the analyses are done.  But I don't want to talk about that. 

Today is the second last day before the deadline of repeat exam registrations and already the kids have made my colleagues and I feel like strangling them. 

First, some of them buy the PIN at Bank Simpanan Nasional at the very last minute (which would be tomorrow).  Then they happily whatsapp the PIN to the poor teacher in charge of Exams, thinking everything will be fine.  They will have had two weeks to ponder their options... two weeks to decide which paper to repeat and therefore two weeks to buy this PIN.  But most will wait till the last minute.  Poor teacher will be struggling to access the website together with countless other Exams teachers all over Malaysia.

Second, despite countless briefings (at least two briefings every semester), the same questions get asked:
- Do I register myself or do I ask the Exams lecturer? (Ans. : The lecturer.)
- Do I buy one PIN per subject or one PIN for all? (Ans. : one PIN for all)
- Why do I need to whatsapp the picture of the PIN to Mdm J? (Ans. : Because you may copy the PIN wrongly if you retype it)

Third, almost every semester, some bright kid will msg the PIN image to my colleague, thinking that she is psychic and is able to know who the sender is and which subject the sender wishes to repeat.  Luckily my colleague is rather patient and just breathes fire & brimstone back at the hapless kid.  Sounds like a small matter, right?  But once repeated msgs and calls were left unanswered.  Later we found out the student was at work.  I don't know how my colleague managed it but the registration was successful.

I wish I could tattoo the instructions into the kids. If only they didn't look so sweet and innocent...

Friday, October 16, 2015

Heartbroken Yet Fighting

It seems to me that I am meeting more and more young people from broken lives or families.  I'm wondering if all this while, there have always been broken families and lives everywhere or has the world gotten worse?

Yet these young people still fight on to find meaning and stability in their lives.  They still laugh and smile with their friends and classmates, never showing how much they are bleeding inside.

I suppose there is no point in railing against a cruel or unjust world... because they cannot change the outside elements or factors. They can only change how they respond to their experiences.

So far, the majority I meet have shown admirable resilience... although a few have the tendency to snarl and snap when people accidentally touch on sensitive topics.

What I do notice is how all of them find their anchor in God.