In Captain America: The First Avenger, the protagonist Steve Rogers undergoes experimental treatment, getting injected with some special serum and zapped with “vita-rays”. He goes into that little tank thing a pale, scrawny little nerd and emerges a super-hot Chris Evans. And becomes a big hero and all that shizniz.
Reading Yahoo! SG’s article ‘The big debate over parent volunteers‘, I wonder if this is what Singaporean parents think happens to their children when they enter elite schools.
Sorry, folks, it’s not. Take it from an old girl.
I went to Nanyang Primary School (NYPS), the very school at the center of that article. No, my mother didn’t do volunteer work, or donate shameful sums of money to get me in. She was an old girl, so I got in fairly easily (and my brother too, 6 years later).
Before I go any further I have to say that on the whole I did not have a bad experience at NYPS. I did have good teachers, and I made some good friends. I went on a little tour of China in Primary 6 as part of a cultural exchange. I have some good memories, some good laughs. I wasn’t brilliant but I did well enough; I graduated from NYPS with a PSLE score of 241.
That said, I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend any parent to send their child to NYPS, or any other “elite” school. I don’t buy into the “elite” vs “neighbourhood” school philosophy at all. I don’t attribute much of where I am in life right now to what I gained at NYPS.
As I said above, it is almost as if parents think success will be guaranteed when their child enters an “elite” school. As if said school takes the children and exposes them to “vita-rays” so that they become high-achieving, exceptionally well-rounded children. As if going to an “elite” school is the be-all-and-end-all of their child’s development and future. And it is just so not true.
In NYPS, I did not learn to work hard. I learnt that if you didn’t work hard and get good grades, your life would be ruined, you would be unloved, you would never amount to anything and people would look at you with equal measures of scorn and shame. This might not have been the intention of my teachers, but this was the message I received.
In NYPS, as in many schools in Singapore, classes were divided according to grades, A being the “worst” class and “L” (or “M” or “N”, depending on how many classes you have) being the best. At every moment in time you knew where you stood in the food chain. School prefects and class monitors were not picked according to behaviour, but grades, so that the Head Prefect (along with the rest of the prefect committee) was pretty much always a Gifted Education Programme (GEP) kid. I, being in EM2, was just a run-of-the-mill prefect, knowing that I was only one because it was a requirement that each class had two prefects, and that it just so happened that I topped the class in my English exam.
I don’t know whether they were doing it intentionally, or if it was just born of stress and frustration, but teachers would compare us, saying things like, “Why is it so difficult to teach your class? Why are you so stupid? I’d much rather teach the EM1 classes than waste my time trying to teach you. Why can’t you be good like the GEP pupils?”
As an EM2 in NYPS, there was this sense that I was somehow “not as smart” as the EM1 students, although the only thing that was different was that they studied Higher Chinese and I didn’t. And the GEP students were in a class of their own – they were “special”, they were “gifted”, they were so much cleverer than us. They had their own syllabus and special teachers and special projects and coursework while the rest of us had to do the regular school stuff.
Some of them – not all – looked down at the rest of us with condescension, saying things like, “oh, Kirsten, you’re such a good girl, you’re so sweet, it’s a shame you’re in EM2, you’re not childish like the rest of them” even though we were all the same age and there was really nothing that separated us beyond the fact that they were “gifted” and I was just a regular kid.
It was an open secret that kids who didn’t do well in exams would get their parents called in, first by the teachers, then by the principal. If you kept doing badly it would eventually be suggested that you go elsewhere, so that you wouldn’t be around come PSLE time to damage the school’s ranking with your rubbish grades. We would wait for our results at the end of every year, hoping that it wouldn’t be bad enough for our parents to have to meet the principal, hoping that we wouldn’t be weeded out.
At that time, I didn’t really know better. I didn’t recognise it for the elitism and classism that it clearly was. I just looked up to the GEP students as “special”, and felt myself somehow inadequate for just being “normal”. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised how wrong it was, how sad it was for a little kid to be so anxious, so worried about not being good enough, having panic attacks because she was afraid that she wouldn’t do well in her PSLE and then “life would be over”.
Yes, I did pick up a certain discipline and diligence through my primary school days. But that was probably more due to the efforts of my grandparents, who supervised my homework and tutored me after school every day, than to anything NYPS imparted.
My grandparents, both retired primary school teachers (who wouldn’t go back to teaching in the Singapore system as it is now, even if you begged), made sure I understood the importance of doing my best. They told me that I was an intelligent kid, no matter what the teachers said about me being in EM2 and the “B” class, and that I owed it to myself to use the good brain that I was born with. They told me to study for myself, to work hard not for rankings or exams, but for myself.
My parents let me make most of my own decisions, even when I was in primary school. They didn’t really care what my class ranking was; they didn’t expect me to top my school or anything like that. My mother just told me to do well enough to make my own choices, not have them made for me.
My family was the one who taught me to stand up for what’s right, to recognise my own worth and to not back down. Not NYPS. My family was the one who taught me that any respect beyond the basics should be earned. Not NYPS. My family was the one who taught me how to empathise, how to care about things outside of myself. Not NYPS.
You can do all sorts of volunteer work, or buy your child a place by donating huge sums of money. But this doesn’t actually solve any of your problems. Your child will still be exposed to bad influence (anyone who thinks there aren’t bad influences in “elite” schools are sorely deluded). Your child will still need guidance and love and time and attention (perhaps even more so, if they’re constantly going to be made to feel like they aren’t good enough). You can buy a spot in a top school, but you can’t buy upbringing, you can’t buy character and you can’t buy empathy. And you certainly can’t outsource your parenting.
Dear parents, you don’t have to stress so hard about getting your kid into an “elite” school. It’s not life or death. You don’t have to do 40 hours of volunteer work a week. You don’t have to donate tens of thousands of dollars. You don’t have to bloody move house and spend your life savings on a house in a 2km radius. You just have to spend time with your kid, impart principles and values, and show them how to be a decent human being (or at least try to be one).
Your kid is not going to become a superhero just by going to NYPS. Not even close. At the end of the day, that’s still something between you and your kid.
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