Friday, November 1, 2013

How I Learned To Read And Write English

When I think about my early schooling days, I would always fondly remember the year of 1999. That year, two incidents occurred that would shape how I read and write English forever. 

Here are some interesting facts about my background:

  • Both my parents are English teachers.
  • At high school, I studied at a La Sallian missionary school - it had some of the top English teachers in town.

I know what you are thinking - that I learnt to read and write English under the tutelage of my parents and teachers. But actually, no. The truth is actually far from that. For I was a bad student. Like a really, really bad student.

In Saint Jean Baptiste De La Salle's time, I would probably be whipped and stretched on a rack.

I read and write English my own wayAnd looking back at how I did it, and how I got here today, makes for a very amusing tale.

Project Readalot

I fell in love with books at a very young age. I'm not sure exactly when, but I vividly remember carrying a book along whenever I went out to eat, so that I could read whilst waiting for the food to arrive. This delighted my parents at first, but annoyed them after a while. They chided me for being anti-social, and threatened to snatch away my books. I ignored them and carried on reading anyway.

So I was pretty much a bookworm - and yes, a geek - at a very young age. I started with adventure and mystery series, my favourites being Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Five Find-Outers And Dog (Enid Blyton), Three Investigators and Hardy Boys. Then I moved on to fantasy and science-fiction.

But I was also a rebel. And a rascal.

No, I did NOT read Nancy Drew. I swear!

It's common knowledge that Malaysians are not avid readers. So, in order to encourage reading amongst students, my school administration held a competition called 'Projek Pertandingan Banyak Membaca' (the literal English translation is 'Read A Lot Contest Project'). I shall henceforth refer it as 'Project Readalot'.

The rules were simple. The person who read the most books in a year wins the top prize. Students were given an exercise book. Each page had a template form with blanks for students to fill up (book title, author, publisher, number of pages, synopsis, lessons learnt, difficult words, etc.). Each page counted for one book read. We were told to keep one exercise book for English books, a separate one for Malay books.
Project Readalot was launched in 1999. I honestly didn't make it a point to win, but I was quietly confident that I would - I roughly read two books per week. And there wasn't much competition, as people were more concerned on fulfilling the mandatory minimum number of books, to avoid penalty. I continued reading, at my own pace. Happily, I filled up all 40 pages of the exercise book, and requested for another.

And then, I received the devastating news (or maybe it had always been in the rules, and I overlooked it). Apparently, it was a rule that to request for a new exercise book, a student had to first fill up BOTH English and Malay exercise books. The rationale was to ensure students did not neglect the national language.

I was struck nonplussed. I had not even recorded a single Malay book! I was staring at disqualification and defeat! This turn of events made me even more determined to win Project Readalot. And so I hatched a cunning plan.

I had a very, very cunning plan - as cunning as a fox what used to be the Professor of Cunning at Oxford University but has moved on, and now working for the UN at the High Commission of Cunning Planning, and has won the Nobel Prize for Cunning Planning for the last five consecutive years.

You see, the adventure and mystery books were rather popular, so there were Malay translated versions. So what I simply did was to track down the ones I had read in English, and add them to my Malay records. It was easy - all the details could easily be found on the first few pages of the book, and the synopsis was at the back. I randomly flipped through pages of 'Kamus Dewan', a Malay dictionary, to search for difficult words. It's double-counting, it's cheating. But I didn't care. I was hell-bent on gaming the system.

Looking out for the Malay books in the library was time-consuming. And after a while, I got bored. So I thought: "Why don't I just make up my own books?". Which I did. I concocted realistic but silly titles and synopses, from the top of my head, laughing all the way. For example, the books would sound something like:

  • Misteri Pontianak Ketawa (Mystery of the Laughing Vampire) - The Hardy Boys are assigned to investigate sightings of a laughing vampire in a small, sleepy village town.
  • Hang Tuah Dan Naga Cina (Hang Tuah and the Chinese Dragon) - Hang Tuah goes to China, and helps the Emperor battle a fire-breathing dragon and save the princess Hang Li Po
  • Sang Kancil Dan Buaya Bertempur Lagi (Mousedeer and Crocodile Clash Again) - Sang Kancil versus Buaya Round 2 - Fight!

At the end of the year, I was crowned the winner of Project Readalot. During the morning assembly. By the principal. In front of all the students.

Did I feel guilty? No. The volume of my English books alone would have won me the competition (no-one else asked for a second exercise book). Was I worried about getting caught? Not really. I felt confident of talking my way out of whatever trouble I got into, and prepared to accept whatever punishment they sentenced me.

Anyway, I got away with it.


Moral of the story? Bend the rules. Break the system. If you can't make it, fake it.

Project MIP

To celebrate the coming of the new millennium, Time Asia organised an essay writing competition for high-school students in Asia, aged between 10 and 18 years old. Participants had to write, in 250 words or less, who they thought was 'The Most Important Person of the 20th Century'. I shall henceforth call it as 'Project MIP'.

This was it. This was my big break. This was my time to shine.

My school promoted Project MIP. A panel of judges, consisting of our school's top English teaches, were entrusted to choose the Top 3 best essays in the school. The shortlisted winners would win a small prize, and their entries would be submitted to Time Asia. That's what we were all told.

After some long thought, I ended up choosing Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who rescued thousands of Jews from being gassed during World War Two, as my essay's subject. At that time, I was drawn towards a hero rising not from the ranks of the oppressed, but the oppressors - a hero who had everything to lose, yet risked it all.

Moments before Hitler committed suicide and WW2 ended, this phone call was made.

Let's pause a moment, and put things into context. As mentioned, I was a bad student. I didn't hide my disdain for the formal and formulaic way that English was taught in class. Suffice to say, I was the kid that President Obama had in mind when he described President Putin as having "that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom".

My arrogance was at its peak during exams. For the reading comprehension test, I would breeze through it within thirty minutes, and spent the rest of the allocated time snoozing. For the writing test, I would deliberately stray off-topic and write stories that run for three to four pages, in my own creative, unbridled style that paid scant respect for the basic laws of grammar.

In return, my examiners consistently scored me lowly for my essays. But I was unrepentant. I didn't give a damn about my results. I was better than them when it came to writing, and I would be my own judge. Yes, that's how I cocky I was. That's how I troll, that's how I roll.

A lowly writing score of 36/75 caused me to miss out on a Band 6 for MUET. Haters be hating.

So, back to Project MIP. This time, I was serious. I researched intensively, and refined my language. I submitted my essay well on time, confident of my chances. I was not even thinking of the school-level prize. I had sights on the continental prize.

Judgment day arrived. The three winners were announced during assembly. And I was not one of them.

Shocked. Horrified. Dismayed. Enraged. The next few days, I lapsed into brooding isolation. This couldn't be happening. One of the winners had chosen the principal as his MIP. What the hell? This screamed of injustice and incompetence. Perhaps they were getting back at me. Perhaps they just didn't know who the hell Oskar Schindler was.

Despair turned to desperation, desperation turned to determination. I wasn't going to give up without a fight. I turned on my computer and searched the Net for a contact in Time Asia. I sent an email attaching my essay, saying that although I didn't make the cut at school-level, I wanted to submit my essay to them anyway, whether it's eligible or not, because I truly believed I had written a great essay.

Weeks passed. There was no response.

Then, one day, I received a letter enclosing a certificate from Time Asia - my essay had made it to the Top 50 in Asia. WOO HOO! I DID IT! I MADE IT! I was ecstatic. I jigged jubilantly all round my house. I later learnt that no-one else in my school made it to the regional shortlist - this made me even more ecstatic.

Once again, for the second time in 1999, I was called up to the stage during assembly to shake hands with the principal. I was showered with congratulations from the teachers. Sheepishly, one of the English teachers burbled how my submission came too late, that's why it was not considered. I smiled, and nodded. There was nothing more to be said. 

Moral of the story? Don't trust the experts. Be your own judge. Or to paraphrase from Mark Twain: Never let school interfere with your education. 

Learn, Not Study

And that's how I learn to read and write English. Or rather, that's how I learn just about everything, not just English. I focus on being a good learner, instead of being a good student.

And that's why my parents make the best teachers. They understood my personality and eccentricities well, and gave me the freedom to explore, learn and grow on my own. For that, I am eternally grateful to them.

And till today, I have not changed much. In meetings, I still have that kinda slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the conference room.

But dismiss me at your peril. Very likely, deep within the inner sanctum of my mind, I'm hatching my next cunning plan.

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