[Warning: this is a long piece so you should either be very patient when reading it, or read it in pieces. The very proud author thinks that it will be worth the readers’ efforts.]
I teach for a living. That means teaching gives me life. I would like to think all my lessons are meaningful and helpful to the students. Sometimes though, I forget to live by the very lessons which I teach so earnestly.
The following transcript is an excerpt from a 80-minute class I taught to a group of 30+ teenagers. My topic was “Lessons I Learned from Nature”.
[I give each student a coin, and ask them to flip it to get either heads or tails consecutively for 10 times.]
Is it possible to flip a coin 10 tens, and get ‘heads’ 10 times in a row?
What about 100 times in a row? 300 times in a row?
Highly unlikely, isn’t it? Most of you said it’s impossible.
Do you know of every 1000 babies born in Malaysia last year, how many survived their first year? –994 out of 1000. That’s a 1-year old survival rate of 0.994.
What’s the age of the oldest human fossil found? –4.4 million years old*.
So, starting from at least 4.4 million years ago, your great-great-great….grandmother was born, and she gave birth to your great-great-great…grandmother, each surviving at least beyond their first year, until your grandma, your mom and now you. Taking the survival rate of 2010, do you know what’s the chance of you being here today?
The equivalent of getting ‘heads’ >600 times in a row!**
Is that even possible? No? But we are all here right now, aren’t we?
I see an insect mother lays hundreds of eggs, of which only a handful survive to adulthood. I see trees bear hundreds of flowers releasing thousands of seeds, of which only a handful of seeds sprout.
To survive is itself a miracle. You are a winner, if only because you are alive. Next time you feel bad about yourself and life, take a coin, and try to get 10 ‘heads’ in a row.
[For your sake, I will skip the Nature part for the following session]
What are you good at? Write down the one thing you think you do best, or like to do best.
Okay, now in groups of eight, I would like you to build a treehouse [but apparently city kids nowadays have no idea what a treehouse is, I should have used a ‘dog kennel’ instead]. Make sure everyone contributes with that one ability he/she is best at.
[They discussed and tried to fit into the project. Many had issues because they wrote down abilities like ‘swimming’, ‘eating’, ‘talking’, ‘sleeping’, playing computer games’…things that seemed very non-constructive and irrelevant to the project]
Ok, some of you think that you can’t contribute, that what you do best is quite useless. Really? Let’s see how we can make you useful.
Swimming and eating, well you guys can go for competition or raise funds right? Eat 10 hotdogs in a minute.
Talking? Well, you can also raise funds with your persuasion, be our spokesperson, keep us entertained.
[In the end, everyone found at least one way in which they can contribute.]
Yes, everyone’s good at something, and you can be helpful to others in at least one way. You need to find that, and work on it.
[I will skip the Nature part for the following session]
I will read out a list of roles, if you belong to one of these roles, draw a line, and we shall count how many lines you have in the end.
Student, teacher, son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, owner of a pet, friend, customer, grandchild, brother, sister, a buddy, a role model,…etc.
How many had 1 role? 2 ? 3?..5…12….18…21…? Wow, the least is 7 roles, and the most is 21 roles.
What does this tell us? Have you ever thought that you are at least 7 roles in one?
Can we be perfect in each and every role at the same time?
More importantly, if I am a lousy son, does it mean that I am also a lousy student? If I fail as a student, does it make me a bad brother? If I am an excellent girlfriend, will that also make me a nice daughter?
We have many many roles to play, we are many different persons to different people. Being a less than satisfactory ‘A’ DOESN’T MAKE you a less than satisfactory ‘B’. So if your teacher stamps you as ‘the worst student I have ever seen’, please don’t think that it also makes you the worst of every role you can play.
End of class.
After I got home, I thought about what I said in class that morning. The third session struck me the most because that was the point that I have somehow neglected for a while.
I have so many roles to play, I am a different role to almost every person I come in contact with. I would like to think that I play those roles well; at least I am happy in those roles. In other words, I think I am actually a good friend to many, a good son, a good brother, a good teacher, a good student etc. But there was one role that I thoroughly failed, and it has haunted me for years.
I was never a good boyfriend. I have never been a good lover.
Why do I say that? Because I was told that I was not there when I was needed, and I was there when I wasn’t needed. The tragedy that followed was more than enough to hammer the nail into the wall and pin down without doubt a sign that reads ‘Failed Lover’.
Usually I let stumbles go very easily and move on to the next challenge (or stumble haha), but I had the utmost difficulty letting this go. For you see, there was no other role that meant more to me than that of a lover.
After leaving Davis, my social circle took on a good change. I made many new friends in India and through my friends’ weddings, got back in touch with my students in Malaysia, and distanced myself (physically) from my friends in California. I started writing letters and cards again, such a wonderful habit! I also spent much more time communicating with my family now, though one can never make up for lost time. Through these all, and after my class that morning, it dawned on me that I have finally let it go. I still think that I performed terribly as a lover (no chance to improve until I get another lover, no?!), but I am very proud of all the other roles I play.
A few days ago I met up with my students for dinner. A few days later we went for badminton. Mingling with them was very therapeutic. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about the interaction that made me feel good—I just did. I taught them when they were 9, 10 years old, and now they are 18. They have grown so much, and of course we interact differently than we did 10 years ago. Still, I love them as much as I did before and it’s very flattering to know that they are still eager to chat with me. To have been their teacher, and then a teacher-friend, is a wonderful transformation. Their respect and recognition of me have only grown. It also goes to show that students will ALWAYS appreciate a sincere and responsible teacher, albeit it may take time for them to realise it. That is already much more than I can say about what one can expect from your lover.
I have a friend whom I only met for a few days but we remained friends since. We communicated in the most romantic of ways—letters and cards. She and I are very different people, but I can safely say that we have truly helped each other in times of need of emotional support. Whenever I think of her, and of my other snail-mail friends, I understand that I mean a lot more to some people than I care to admit. Likewise, they make me proud of myself.
**Highly conservative calculation. The actual probability could be many many times lower.