What Do We Do When It Ends?

They say that university classes aren’t the same — that being in university feels a lot closer to the adult world than the protected environment our schools offer. In that case, with my last official day of school (practically for the rest of the year) having concluded on Thursday, have I already reached the end of my sheltered school life?

I’ll be going back to school a lot yes, for prelims, for mock exams and eventually for the exams, but something about my teachers wishing us luck and goodbye (for now at least) struck me, and made me realise with a jolt how close we were to the end. This was inevitable and yet completely unconceivable, especially to the me of 12 years ago. I was 6 going onto 7 then, entering primary school nervously wondering if I would be able to make any friends, if my teachers would be scary, if one day I would forget to wear the right uniform to school. I did make wonderful friends, I did meet terrifying teachers, occasionally I did bring the wrong clothes to change into after PE classes — most of what I had imagined would happen in school did, at some point or another in my education journey.

But many things which I had never in my wildest dreams thought possible happened too.

For instance, the secondary school and eventually the junior college I winded up in. The name Raffles had always been a label I shied away from; it was intimidating to me through word of mouth and even more so when I attempted their primary school’s math papers. To get into such a school was beyond me and my abilities, and unlike my ambitious classmates around me, I never felt the pressure to enter it. Safe to say, it came as a complete surprise when I did eventually make it in. I was wary though, because I knew how intense the competition would be once I entered, and it was with this guardedness that I entered my next stage of education.

To say that RGS exposed me to a lot would be both a truth and a lie, because with its extensive enrichment opportunities and range of subjects available, I had the chance to study what I truly was interested in, and to do research projects about obscure topics like the Chinese historical justice system. It greatly broadened my worldview and developed me to be more of a critical thinker. At the same time however, I grew increasingly confined in a world that the Raffles community had created; a world of constant competition built upon a fear of failure, and though I hate to admit this now, a world of elitism as well. Being in Raffles opened my eyes to many issues in society and around the world but that was all they were to me: issues that we read about in newspapers and subsequently forget about when we move onto another article. Beyond this community that only cared about getting good grades and applying to prestigious universities were many others who were having familial and financial struggles, going through personal tragedies and facing academic problems that frankly, I would not have been as able to relate to as easily. It was self-centredness veering on ignorance and naïveté on my part, and it took me several sharp wake-up calls to realise that I had been living in a bubble, blissfully unaware of what had been going on around me.

I am fortunate to have a wonderful group of friends beyond my school, whom I have grown up with through church and have at some points, really helped me to stay rooted when they share their own daily experiences with me. We may be living in the same country, but the diversity of our lives is pretty astounding. The strongest wake-up calls I received weren’t from them, surprisingly. Rather, they came from people I least expected. People who I had always thought were the same or at least similar to me, people whose constantly cheerful demeanour led me to believe that they were truly happy all the time. Little did I know that these smiles bore countless scars behind them, some faded but many fresh.

Entering JC was the prick of reality I needed to pop this bubble. Yes, I was surrounded by many familiar faces, and most of them behaved just like how they did in secondary school. But something was different this time. Maybe it was because I had gotten closer to a particular classmate of mine and started to realise that her bubbly nature was more of a defence mechanism she put up to protect her deeply vulnerable self. Maybe it was because this time, as I looked around at the faces I thought I knew, I could see the hurt and struggle that I could never see before. Maybe it was even the advent of “private IG accounts”, which allowed me to be privy to the true selves of many close friends, and with this came access to several of their darkest thoughts. It wasn’t just stress talk or exam depression, these were questions of identity, of purpose, tough questions that there never wasn’t a right answer to. These thoughts disturbed and saddened me at times, and ended up colouring the way I looked at each friend, but they truly enlightened me and enabled me to understand my friends better. It went beyond the sometimes superficial messages of “Jiayou!” or “You got this!” (I stopped commenting after realising I was being insincere most of the time) but I started to see the individual characters driving the actions of some of my friends and found myself relating to them on a deeper level.

Friendships and personal growth are essentials in the school experience, but a crucial catalyst of this growth are teachers. My mother is a primary school teacher, so I had grown up largely without a fear or inherent dislike of teachers, as some have. Unfortunately, it also means that I didn’t really care or even remember who my teachers were, I rarely felt sad moving on from one set of teachers to the next. There are a few rare exceptions however, and these teachers, while I may not have kept in contact with most of them, taught me more about life than about their respective subjects. I have been fortunate to have had teachers who were sincere and devoted to helping us learn rather than just getting good grades, and I often developed a greater appreciation of a subject because of the passion they themselves displayed in the learning of it. Their personalities and characters inspired me in various ways too, either because they were so patient and nice that it amazed me or because they had a firm moral code that they stuck to and rarely deviated from it. It’s cliche but I’ll say it again: teachers have such a great influence over the children they teach, especially the younger ones. Their every word and action in front of the students don’t go unnoticed. I’m thankful that I’ve had teachers who were able to be my role models at some point or another, and who have shaped me to be how I am today. (this ended up sounding like a Teachers' Day post but given how it’s going to be my last time celebrating it too…)

So now, as we face our impending final exams and look forward to our new freedom, we will be filled with trepidation, fear and lots of uncertainty. Given the way the world is progressing (or regressing) and the increasingly tight labour market, it’s no longer as easy to imagine a secure future ahead. The thought of having to grow up, to earn my own money and make my own big decisions scares me to no end, but it excites me to think of the boundless choices we can make about our lives and how we choose to grow as a person. Yes this means we could potentially screw up our lives but it also gives us a new responsibility, to account for each and every decision that we make in our no-longer-school-dictated-lives. It is only when we step out of the protection of our schools that we can truly grow as people, and eventually lead lives worthy of our callings.

Most importantly, He who has been with us throughout this education journey, who has had great plans for us even before we were conceived in our mothers’ wombs, will continue to walk with us always, as long as we look to Him for guidance. Leaving comfort zones and venturing into new paths will never be easy, but we can always take comfort in the fact that no matter how much our circumstances change, God never changes, and it is with this knowledge that I’ll bravely face the future, regardless of the trials that are coming my way.