Liesel, 10th - Canada
The classroom buzzed with excitement. Enthusiastic gasps and giggles rippled through the overlapping chatter of students. Every pupil had the same thought running through their heads. Music. Finally, a break from the mountain of schoolwork.
I’m in Singapore. The highest-ranked but toughest education system in the world. How tough?
The average temperature is thirty- two degrees, yet classrooms have no air conditioning, only a rusty broken fan noisily trying to generate some air. All students wear thick cotton uniforms, which cling to our sweat-dappled skin as we sit at our desks all day. Teachers are harsh and have no tolerance for misbehavior. Muffled bellows often filter through our classroom walls students are being scolded nearby. Piles of worksheets build up in our bags throughout the school day, leaving us with endless hours of revision. To top it off, grueling examinations every term. The pressure to do well possesses everyone. It lingers in the classroom air like a spirit, looming over our shoulders as we scribbled away at worksheets. It trails after us as we head home and seeps through the cracks of our bedroom doors, appearing in our dreams at night. Needless to say, the atmosphere was oppressive.
Now, after all of this you might think a visiting Canadian like myself would have really suffered. But, fortunately, you would be wrong.
Enrolled at the mere age of seven, I was unable to follow along with the learning material that was way ahead of my years. Yet, I persevered and rose to the top of the class by the end of the term. In the years that followed, I was promoted to higher level classes and was dubbed “role model” student by many teachers. When exam season rolled around, I passed with flying colors; I remember racing to the phone booth during lunchtime, my fingers quivering with excitement as I dialed my parent’s numbers to tell them my results. On top of that, I was also nominated as a prefect, brandishing a navy-blue tie as I performed duties during recess. And at the end of the year during the awards ceremony, my name was called for being one of the best scoring students throughout the grade. As I walked across the stage, I could hear my heart pounding despite the deafening cheers of the audience.
But despite all the A’s, awards, being named prefect etcetera, there was one other thing that happened that year that taught me more than anything, taught me about being kind and how even the smallest of acts could affect someone.
Shrill ringing of the bell pierced through the sound of chirping students, signaling the end of first period. The moment the science teacher had trudged out of the classroom, every student immediately emerged from their stupor. It seemed as if a lightning bolt had suddenly struck the class; people were racing around the room in a frenzy, forming clusters around desks. Conversation erupted like a long overdue volcano. Through all the commotion, no one noticed the figure looming in the doorway of the class.
Mr. Ray was a celebrity. Well, that’s how most people at our school pictured him as. A cheery “Mr. Ray!”, high-fives, and big smiles often followed him around the hallways like paparazzi. If you happened to be passing by the music room, you would most likely hear the faint sounds of students giggling in between the playing of instruments. The song of laughter was the tune most affiliated with our music teacher. With the stress of academics, many students cherished his presence and the impact he had on them. All students could rely on him to brighten their day, most of the time.
“Nicole, stop!”, I hissed under my breath, stifling my chuckles as she repeatedly prodded me with her instrument. Upon arrival at the music room, our class had quickly settled into the designated seating plan and we were now murmuring amongst ourselves. “Looks like someone’s having a bad day.”, another friend whispered into my ear as we watched Mr. Ray pace around the room instead of taking a seat at his usual stool. It was true, his liveliness was absent when he had fetched us from our homeroom. He didn’t utter a single word to us even when we greeted him, only reminding us to bring our instruments along. Each student brandished a sleek white recorder which glistened even in the dimmest of light. I had proudly purchased mine at the school’s bookstore with my own savings, despite my mother insisting that I use a hand-me-down from my older brother.
My recorder was a songbird. With my fingers gently poised on the abdomen, I carefully raised the beak of the mouthpiece to my lips. On the count of three, the class began to play in unison. Shrieks and shrills struck my eardrums. But as the class adjusted to the rhythm, a gentle melody flitted through the air, like a feather. Caught up in a whirlwind of tunes, I didn’t even notice the boy sitting beside me with his head buried in his hands. “Joshua! What are you doing?”, Mr. Ray’s roars startled the flock of songbirds and they stopped trilling instantly. All color drained from the boy’s face as everyone’s eyes darted to him. He began to shudder violently as he slowly craned his neck up to the teacher. I could almost feel the wooden panels of the music floor quivering beneath me. “Where is your recorder?!” the teacher demanded. Joshua’s empty hands were trembling like a leaf in the wind. “I don’t have one.”, he muttered after taking a few moments to gather himself. “This is the third time you’ve told me this! Get out, NOW!”, Mr. Ray aggressively motioned to the door. His eyes were ablaze with pure rage, the air- conditioned classroom suddenly felt very warm. Even with his head tilted to the ground, I could see the shame welling up in Joshua’s eyes. The room was dead silent except for the shuffling of tattered shoes as the boy stood up and scurried to the door. “Continue playing!”, Mr. Ray howled before he stormed after Joshua.
Huddled around a lunch table, my friends and I desperately rummaged through our schoolbags. “Okay, that should be enough!”, I exclaimed after counting the coins we managed to pool together. Since the music incident, I couldn’t help but replay the scene over and over again in my head. The image of Joshua’s pain-stricken face was seared into my memory, I knew the feeling all too well. The feeling of being an outsider, unable to fit in. Unable to have the same things as everyone else. I found myself sharing a deep -rooted connection with Joshua. My family faced financial struggles and we had moved into our grandfather’s house in order to cut costs. Sharing a single room with my family of five had crippled me with shame. People teased me for wearing my older brother’s clothes, and for using the same schoolbag for years. I will never forget the days where I’d invite friends over and see the look of pity on their faces as they saw where I lived, it truly felt like a shard of glass wedged its way into my heart. But today it seemed like the shard of glass had struck someone else, and I just knew I had to do something. Right after music ended, I devised a plan and shared it with my friends. A recorder cost $20 from the school’s bookstore, but my friends could only contribute about half. Despite my own frugal habits, it felt right to chip in the $10 that I’d been saving for the weekend. Bubbling with anticipation, we marched to bookstore and purchased a brand-new recorder.
There he was, sitting alone at a lunch table with only a sandwich for company. His shoulders hunched over the table as he prodded at the untouched food. Concealing the recorder behind my back, I tottered over to his table while my friends shyly watched from a few feet away. “Hi, Joshua.”, my voice faltered. As his gaze met mine, I could see a mix of embarrassment and surprise flash across his face. Before he could respond, I unveiled the recorder and gently placed it in front of him. His eyebrows raised in confusion as he tried to comprehend what was happening. “It’s for you.” I said, beaming with joy. “Wait. What- “, he began to stammer as his eyes widened with shock. His eyes darted back and forth between the instrument and me, I gave him a nod of reassurance and he picked it up hesitantly. Twirling the gift in his hands ever so carefully, he silently admired it while shaking his head in disbelief. “Are you sure?”, his voice wavered. Overwhelmed with emotion, I gave another nod. A quivering smile formed across his face as his eyes shimmered with gratitude. “Thank you, Jade" , he whispered.
Students 6th-12th Grades