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When life give you lemons

In conjunction with Teacher’s Day, I’d like to share a story of how one teacher made an impact on my life.

For the last 40 years I have been thinking in English. And only recently, I started to think in two languages, English and Bahasa Melayu. Let me tell you a little story about how this came about.

When I was very young, I used to have a phobia of speaking English because whenever my late mother was angry at me, she would spontaneously scold me in English – Queen’s English nonetheless! Unsurprisingly, I avoided speaking English, until I was in Standard 5.

Well, when I was in Standard 5, one of my teachers used to enjoy punishing me because my English was really bad. One day, she asked me to read in front of the class, a poem and a nursery rhyme. I didn’t know what poems or nursery rhymes are.

Instead of enlightening me about poems and nursery rhymes, my teacher made me stand with one leg up, while holding a long ruler. Worse, she made me stand outside the classroom for everyone to see. Worst, my classroom happened to be facing the main street, Jalan Bukit Bintang. Imagine, how embarrassing that would be!

My English teacher made me feel really stupid and embarrassed me in front of my fellow classmates and other students in the school. It was certainly a traumatic experience for an 11-year-old.
Back in the days, however, we didn’t go back and tell our parents if we get bullied by our teachers, because we most likely would get another blow from our parents. Today, it’s the other way around, parents and pupils are bullying and humiliating the teachers.

Talking about humiliation, I truly empathise with that Malaysian English teacher who was mocked and criticized by some local netizens for speaking bad English on television. That was sometime early this year, I believe.

Back in the days, my teacher seemed to be taking pleasure in belittling my learning ability and insulting my intellect. She in fact had told me several times, that I was too stupid to score even a single A for my Standard 5 Assessment Examination. It was psychologically traumatic for an 11-year-old.

Over that school term, after numerous emotional and mental abuses, I became hardened, furious and angry. I quietly made a promise to myself that I would definitely prove her wrong.

From that moment on, I took it upon myself to learn the English language so diligently that I actually looked up every word in the dictionary. I read all the books in the school library. I read the newspapers every day. I studied the lyrics of every English song that I liked. I read advertisements. I carefully read labels on food cartons, cans and bottles.

I became obsessed with mastering the English language. I started writing daily journals and I used a new English word that I learned that day so that I could practice using that word. Not only did I learn what a poem means, I also started writing poems and short stories.

Over time, I started thinking in English, so much so that whenever I speak Bahasa Melayu, my mother tongue, I would be translating my thoughts from English to Bahasa Melayu before I speak. Even until now.

My English grade went from F to A in two school terms. At Bukit Bintang Girls School, their system would grade our level of English at the beginning of every school term. I started from the lowest grade, and I moved all the way to the top most grade within that three terms.

I also proved my teacher wrong by scoring all A’s in Standard 5 Assessment Exam. That feeling was priceless, and it was big win for me. That was the starting point in my journey of academic excellence. I discovered that I wasn’t stupid like I was told by my teacher earlier.

In fact, upon realising that I was actually rather smart, I started doing well academically and passed all my exams with flying colours. As my confidence grew, my intellect grew. As my intellect grew, my confidence grew. Eventually, I won a government scholarship to study in the United States.

When I was 11, I was fuming mad at my teacher, but after many years of getting all A’s in my exams and improving my English by leaps and bound, I wasn’t angry any longer. In fact, I thanked her for challenging and provoking me. Despite the nightmares she still gave me sometimes, I’m glad that I took up her challenge and had risen up to the occasion, instead of turning out differently.

This ‘nightmare on Bukit Bintang Street’ had somehow taught me to turn negative experiences into a positive outcome throughout my life. This, while practicing sheer grit, willpower and resilience to overcome whatever challenges life throws at me.

When life give you lemons, make lemonade!

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