Note: Two weeks ago, a number of former Chinese High students spontaneously penned two separate FaceBook notes about their experiences when they were in school.
It’s been about two weeks since Wei Leong’s FaceBook note (here) and Jianrui’s follow-up (here) were published, and I’m pretty sure that most of us within their social circles and even beyond have been charmed by their sentiment and post-graduation enlightenment.
I’ve read them too (a lot of times, in fact, in order to pen this article), and in my first time reading it I was reminiscing and feeling nostalgic about my own school days as well. I agree with most, nearly all of the points raised. School is indeed the best place to venture into new realms, make mistakes. School was where I forged most of my closest friendships, created the best memories and most importantly learnt about the world and life. But the articles felt a little too surreal, the tone and angle a little… wrong.
Compared to Wei Leong and Jianrui, I wasn’t the all-rounded Hwa Chong model student.
“You Don’t Need To Be Awesome At Hwa Chong”
I didn’t hold many leadership positions, I was not part of the main team in Volleyball, nor was I in the organising committee of any huge-ass events. I do not have straight As, or any bad-ass Olympiad medals. One of my greatest achievements was my participation in an inter-CT Scrabble competition with my junior (he’s a Scrabble pro and I was a leech).
Okay, I was kidding about the Scrabble competition. But I did lead a typical life in Hwa Chong. I had the best of friends. Best moments include a discussion with Andre on who will get attached first when we head on to JC (in the middle of class), running around the school finding a kidnapped Dominic in the middle of the night (scout camp), as well as watching a wrestling match before Dr. Siva’s class. I mugged when everyone mugged, scored average grades, and tried my best not to piss my teachers off.
I think I am in a good position to say what the two writers missed out on. Unlike the two, I chose a more grade-centric approach to my education. I don’t think I am deprived of any significant character-building experience in my schooling years despite my foremost priority (after family and friends) being grades. A conventional, grounded life in school isn’t actually so bad. Here are some alternatives to being a wunderkind.
When Failure Means A Hell Lot More
1. Do be afraid of failure. Not a captivating fear, but one that will compel you to seek success. I think one of the recurring points in both articles would be to not fear failure. There is a vast difference between calculated risk-taking and being totally gung ho. Do not have a fear of failure that hinders you from achieving possible success. Rather, learn to appreciate the circumstances before venturing forth. Being sufficiently afraid of failure would allow one to be cautious in his undertakings, which is actually a pretty good virtue as well.
2. Be hungry for success. Yes, go ahead, explore, and venture out of your comfort zone. But try to have something you excel in first (an actual comfort zone). I agree with both writers that school is the best place to dream and achieve those dreams. Pursuing one’s passion is probably what everyone yearns to do, regardless of age. Nevertheless, when you’re in school, I think dreams, or rather, goals, should be split into academic and non-academic.
Non-academic based ambitions are probably best worked on after you’ve more or less performing well in terms of grades. They give you something to bounce back from should your venture out of your comfort zone not work out as desired. In the case of Wei Leong’s exploration of other topics via MRP / HRP, well, how bad could the paper have gone, really? (Sorry, Wei Leong, I have complete faith in your ability to cope with intellectual challenges. Yi Kai’s a genius, so there’s somewhat of an insurance policy actually.)
3. If there is pretty much nothing you are good at, best to have some good grades with you as a bottom line. So you’ve ventured out of your comfort zone. You’ve tried something you’re unfamiliar at. You suck at it. Or you don’t like it. Or both. How now, brown cow?
The two writers’ basic assumption is that eventually you’ll find something you’re good at. Some people don’t. Most people don’t find this magical unicorn of a something till they’re in their forties. The probability of finding something you’re passionate about and being good at it is even smaller. In view of this, good grades do make good insurance for an indeterminable future. They help keep your options open. Not in enabling you to score an admission interview to Law and Medicine, but rather to avoid a scenario where you’re only offered less desirable courses during your university applications.
4. Don’t always accept or think that was the best you could have done. Having the mentality that mistakes are okay could eventually lead to mediocrity. Yes, do not beat yourself up too much after a major failure. Jianrui puts it well – “Big losses are often not that big”. But if you always go with the thoughts of “I had these circumstances, and hence…”, that is purely rationalisation of failure, which does not exactly add value.
Do not for a moment think that making mistakes are okay as well. While the repercussions of making a mistake could be way smaller than you thought, they could also impact you massively in the future. We’re 21, we’re still young, and there’s no way we can say for sure that some mistakes will not haunt us later on in life. I say, better to beat yourself up a little, do some reflection. Know why that mistake was made, how not to repeat it (regardless of future circumstances). Then move on.
5. It is through progressive, scaling up one has a good foundation. Think big. But do not attempt to shoot the stars with your first shot. There is a very inspirational message in both articles, which is to dream big (and attempt not to be gripped by a seemingly irrational fear of failure). This is appealing, of course. Who doesn’t want to believe we all hold some massive innate potential? But maximising that potential does not come in an instant, or in a single plan. There is equal value in starting small and scaling up.
Stay grounded. Have a good foundation to leverage from and then achieve on a grander scale. School happens to be a great place to establish good fundamentals. Think big for the future, and be ready to commit.
6. Know what you need to get to be what you want to be. This is probably the one point which I do not understand, and even if I did interpret correctly I can’t agree with Wei Leong. “… aiming for an award from Day 1, stick to conventions, haggle for marks” does not conflict with “ponder(ing) day after day about what you need to do to become what you want to be”. The importance of having a plan to know how to reach your goal is best represented by the old adage of “fail to plan, plan to fail”.
Being a teen probably also means that without a plan, you’re much less likely to commit and be determined to fulfilling your ambition. I believe that planning the concrete steps you can take towards success keeps you on track. On track to success. Haggling for marks is probably only approvable for the leap to the next grade (it had better be an A too). And it is limited to only at Secondary 4 EOYs (which isn’t exactly important) and J2 Prelims (also isn’t exactly important unless you’re gunning for early application cycles).
7. How much of these successes / failures are really due to the backdrop that Hwa Chong has provided? One of the questions I was left pondering about the most after reading both articles would be how many of the factors were provided by Hwa Chong? I am thankful for the opportunities my alma mater has given me. Hugely grateful. But in the anecdotes provided, I really wonder if the achievements are more to the students’ credit or the school’s. Is the fallacy of guilt by association committed?
I have this mate from army that got one of the fancy medals for being top 5 in Physics at ‘A’ Levels. At every tier of national exams (PSLE, ‘O’s) he could have made it to any top JC, but he made his choice of school based on geographical proximity. How much have we achieved because our innate qualities instead of the environment our school provides? We would never know for sure (hence the prolonged nature versus nurture debate), but perhaps, perhaps, too much credit is accorded to the school.
The writer, Lee Jie Yang (Mr.), was also a former Chinese High student, and used to pen a blog, The Sidelined Student, back when he was a little more carefree.