Taking pictures of school kids is like a curse for me. I am a university student; so anything below 10.a.m is early, and 4.30 is 5.5 hours before early! But the two school kids that I was going to meet were more than eager to reach their school early, so lazily I turned off my alarm clock, tidied up my face a bit, and hailed a cab.
It was 6.30 when I finally reached their flat, at the suburb of Singapore. And these two black kids had already waited for me right in front of their door, fully dressed with their rucksacks on their backs. Once they saw me, they wasted no time rushing to leave.
“For Godness sake! They will only be seated at 7.30 and school is just 10 minutes walk from home! What’s the point of rushing now?” I thought, while trying to catch my breath following them. Unlike in Jakarta, my surroundings were still bleaking dark at 6.30, giving me a sense of walking in the heat of the night. But just like any other Singaporeans, the spirit of Kancheong-ness, the fear of losing from others, had overwhelmed them. They walked briskly in silence.
While I sleepily tried to set the correct exposure and hoped that I get the focus right, I let my thought slip, to those good old days. I used to study at a neighbourhood school too, but never in my mind had I ever come earlier than a minute before school starts. My school was at a ‘bicycle –distance’, but I was too spoiled to learn riding it. A friend of mine had a chauffeur driving him to school and me, being a true blue parasite since young, got him pick me up every morning. The only problem was he wasn’t the most efficient person at that time, taking his time in everything he did. So we could only reach school just nice for the first lesson.
I was too rushing to class just like my two little objects in front of me. But that habit was also scrapped, once I was stopped by a friend, in our way to class. She came and hissed, “Sshh..no hurry…relax…” We were both late and were punished to water little plantation at our school. And once I realised that our little flowers were right in front of my handsome senior’s class, we decided that it was more of a grace than a punishment. Besides, the coolest of my junior high school was always late! So routinely we planned to be late, till we stopped talking to each other for ‘personal reason’
I smiled reminiscing those moments while hurriedly catching my two friends, who were way in front of me. We passed a local secondary school, and the boy pointed at it and said, “I wanted to go to this secondary school,” That school was apparently a top secondary school in Singapore and a guarantee for a better future.
Once again I remembered my elementary time, when I could not make it into a good junior high. Nonetheless, I had fun in my junior high time, and still managed to get into a good senior high school. And although I had never taken English seriously during high school, I still made it to a journalism school overseas right after my graduation because the dean of the school thinks that ‘perhaps I could improve somehow, some day’.
Based on my experience, I tried to look wise in front of them, “That’s good, I’m sure you can make it. But even if you don’t, there’s nothing to worry. You just need to work hard and you will gain a place at a good Junior College and a good Uni too!” They looked at me as if I were a moron. Oops! I forgot something; Singapore is not at all a forgiving society. Once you fail, you are doomed to fail for the rest of your life…SO if you’re not a good student now, there is now way you’ll be a good student later. In the next life, perhaps.
We passed a local Junior College later. Full with girls in long skirts and guys with similar hairstyle, I almost screamed. “How ugly students are!” I was right away reminded of how I looked when I was in high school. Unlike ‘normal’ schools where their students can wear nice-fitted uniform, mine was a girls’ convent school where our uniform was always the most out-fashioned-out-of-mode. I almost cried the first day I had to wear a skirt 5 cm under my knees, with a football-player-style socks and the nun’s black-plain-shoes. What worse was my 5kg backpack, together with two little pins to neaten my short hair, and glasses, for I could not wear coloured contact lens then. And looking at hundreds of them thinking they were cool with that outfit for everyone’s dressing the same, I could not stop my nostalgic mood.
I drew closer to their school gate, watching them joking happily before school and gossiping about the guy next to them. Guys weren’t my topic, for our school is a girls-only school. But I could remember that I had fun too, giggling, squeezed in twenty-something people busy copying other’s homework.
Finally I reached their school. I bid them farewell, “Hei, cya again! Have fun in school!” they replied with a cynical smile, waved goodbye and moved towards the school long corridor. I watched them from outside. As they slowly gaining new knowledge in school, they slowly start to grasp the notion of cultures in their society. What matters most, what can make others smile, what is funny and what is scary.
Just like the two kids I had followed the whole morning. They are black kids, born from Tanzanian parents, but having born and studied in Singapore, they learnt to conform to the culture here. They reached school 45 minutes before the school starts just because they were too afraid of getting late, the way Singaporeans are. They attend three extra classes after school (Chinese, English and Math) because they want to secure a place in the best secondary, because if they don’t, they’ll be doomed to be an unskilled worker. And they take those things seriously despite their young age, because those are serious matters for every Singaporean parent.
When I was in Laos and taking pictures of a top school, I could clearly see how this school shapes the new Laotians the way the old Laotians are. Their school is from 7 to 5, but they’ll have break in between, two hours, so that they could return back to their home, having lunch with the whole family, and after that return back to school. Just the way the society always appreciate communality and not so much on efficiency…And just how Laos tries to highlight the importance in relationship with China, those kids start to see how important Chinese is, through daily rigorous Chinese lessons.