When I first entered JC, I was thrown into a world that changed me forever. Back in secondary school, I was doing poorly in my science subjects and so decided to move into the arts stream in JC. A classmate of mine passed me an application form and suggested I fill it up. “It’s for a Humanities Scholarship, if you get into this scheme, school fees are free and you’ll get ang moh teachers teaching you.” Well, no harm, I thought. I filled it up and lo and behold, all three of us in my class who applied were accepted. It was only when we entered the scheme in JC when I learnt that this was a prestigious humanities scheme that was famous for prepping students for entry into Oxford, Cambridge and other liberal arts schools in the USA. While dozens of students from each of the other schools were vying for a place in this class, everyone from my secondary school who applied (I think there were just five of us) was accepted. We weren’t the top performing students in our secondary school; on the contrary, we were very mediocre performing students. The Ministry of Education was probably trying to diversify the profile of this class. It’s embarrassing for me to tell you this but in my JC cohort of about about 35 students, 12 out of 13 classmates who applied to Oxford in my year were accepted. And none of these 12 were from my secondary school. None of us were even shortlisted by our teachers to even make this attempt.
Most of my classmates in my cohort were eloquent, smart and well-read. Of the class size of 35, seven were boys. They didn’t seem to have any issues settling in to these “higher order” humanities classes. The very first General Paper essay we had to write was titled “Does Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers have any intrinsic value?” We were given a week to submit that essay. I spent most of the week trying to just figure out what the intent of the question was. The boys? I knew that some of them wrote their essay during their 30min MRT ride to school…and they scored As! That was how smart they were. We all know that Mr and Mrs LKY were super smart, attaining double Firsts at Cambridge. Well, many of my classmates received a First at Oxford as well.
So there I was, right at the bottom of this spectrum, listening to my classmates hold heated discourses with the teachers about topics such as “Is God female?” As my classmates slogged hard to get accepted into OxBridge, I often despaired as to whether I would pass my A Levels. My classmates weren’t just muggers either, they held key leadership roles in our school CCAs then: Debate, English Drama, Chinese Drama (!) Choir, Guitar, Chess, Ventures & Rovers, Music & Dance, Softball, Swimming, Track and Field, often winning inter-school competitions. A female classmate of mine was the President of the Chess Club and rumours abound about how she used to terrify all the boys in the club by trashing them in chess all the time. I remember asking her once if the rumour was true, she replied that it was no big deal and that it was not that her chess skills were good, just that the boys were not very clever. My cohort even had a very pretty Ms Alma Mater of RGS. Oh, by the way, the Prom Queen of my JC year was from the class as well. Talk about high achievers.
Thus starting a most terrifying two years of JC.
Coming from a traditional Chinese secondary school, I never had to speak up in class. I was quite a chatty talkative kid with my classmates, but when class started, would become very shy and quiet. I would stay mute during class discussions. Horrors of horrors, I found out quickly that in this JC class, I was expected to participate in class discussions for literature class almost every day! I felt lousiest during Literature classes, especially during Practical Criticism classes. During PC class, we were required to critique a poem or a passage during PC classes. I knew nothing about poems then. I was such a suaku. Beatles and U2 song lyrics and the occasionally Psalm were the only poems I was acquainted with. As I heard my new JC classmates spewing technical stuff about the use of couplets, irony, juxtaposition, and other cheem structures about the poem we were studying, my sense of inadequacy and humiliation reached its heights. For the first month of class, I was called up by the teacher twice to make a contribution and both times, I said “I don’t know”, went back home and cried buckets for feeling so stupid. Then one day in February, when I was struggling yet again in one of those classes, I suddenly saw something in the poem that Mr Olsen was trying to lead us to discover but no one had figured out and seen yet. And you know what? This sensitive teacher must have seen that I saw it because he asked me oh so gently if I had any comments. I replied in a soft trembling voice that sounded like it was going to crack with stress any moment. That was the first of several breakthroughs I experienced in the two years there.
Life didn’t get any much better after that though. On the contrary, it got more humiliating soon after. The first literature essay I had to write was based on A Passage to India, which to date is still one of the most boring books I have ever read. (So sorry Mr E.M. Forster). I scored a D for the essay and Mr Harry told me to submit a new essay again to redeem myself. Outcome? He announced to the class that this was the first time in his career that a student had re-written an essay to make it worse, from a D grade to an E grade.
Geography classes weren’t any much better. Our Geography teacher was an Oxford chap who grew up in north of the UK. He spoke with such a thick northern accent then that for the first three months of JC, I had no idea what he was talking about. After several months, when I finally managed to work out his accent, I progressed to joining the rest of my classmates in trying to work out what he was teaching. You see, Mr White had focused on the study of the glacial period during his studies at Oxford, and so he spent most of our two years of Geography classes expounding passionately about landscape features left behind from the glacial period. It wasn’t just me who had problems understanding the curriculum. I had a classmate who would cry a week before any Geography exam, because she had no idea what to study. When we sat for the A Level Geography exam, I don’t think a single question came up on the glacial period and the effects it had on landscape features. Another classmate told me she had tackled a question on clouds. I was horrified…we didn’t cover the topic of clouds at all during JC, she had just written some “stuff on clouds” she had remembered from her O Level Geography exam.
Economics was more manageable. In fact, it was entertaining. Mr Barnard would come in 30min late for lectures and then spend another half an hour telling us about anything that was on his mind before finally settling down on some Economics. And he hardly taught Microeconomics. He just explained Macroeconomics. I had to rely heavily on my 10 year series Economics test papers to do self study on Microeconomics and figure out how to answer Paper I questions. We could handle Paper II essay type questions, but I don’t recall being taught any multiple-choice type Microeconomics techniques or methods.
So, ironically, Math, being one of my weakest subjects in secondary school, turned out to be sanest subject I took in JC because for just that one subject, we joined the rest of the school in attending lectures and tutorials.
Looking back, I am convinced that it was a miracle that I passed the A levels and made it to university. At the end of my JC journey, I approached each of my teachers to thank them for being so patient with me over the past two years. They were all very kind. Mr Barnard told me that “tradition” has it that within the first three months of each academic year, a Nanyang girl would drop out of the scheme. Students brought up in my kind of educational background had great difficulty adjusting to his Programme. For my cohort, my teachers had unanimously predicted that I would be the “drop-out” for my year. But somehow, I had hung on and at the end of two years, he said that the teachers regarded me as the pupil who had transformed the most. Most of the other students were already the brightest of the lot, all the teachers had to do was to prep them for the university entrance exams and teach them strategies and approaches in managing their work. It’s one thing to teach an “A” student and direct his/her path towards OxBridge, but I think they found it satisfying to see an underachiever like me pick up not only tools for academic learning, but basic social and communication skills as well.
When I look back at my JC life, I see God’s hands everywhere. It was a miracle that an average kid like me “accidentally” got accepted into the class. It was there where I spent hours pondering about Christian concepts such as predestination and freedom of choice, and what God inspired scripture really meant.
Colossians 2:8 says:
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
Because my faith was deeply shaken during my awakening in JC, my faith today stands on firm, solid rock.
P.S. Dear JC friends, I found this clip on youtube. At 8:45min, you’ll see Mr Burge, Mr Miles and Mr White doing a silly dance! Mr White seems to have gain some weight!