Sunday, October 21, 2018

I'm Not A Role Model, And Neither Do You Need One

As a teacher, it's inevitable for many of my students to look up to me as a role model.

No, I'm not humble-bragging, it's just one of those things that naturally happen in life. Youngsters idolising a local celebrity. Juniors aping their seniors. Pupils following the footsteps of their masters.

And it's not just me. Anyone can be a role model. Anyone is an elder to someone younger.

Most mentors, I notice, tend to launch straight into their life story and go like "When I was at your age..." They can only speak from their own personal perspectives and experiences.

I'm not like that. I try not to talk too much about myself. Instead, I will draw examples from the lives of people that I know, people more closely connected to my student.

A teacher doesn't need to function as a role model. And there are plenty of good reasons why.

Yes, listen up, child... listen to Uncle Raphael carefully...

1. Our starting points are different

The cold hard truth of life is that none of us are born equal. Some are born dirt poor, some born filthy rich. Some live in a happy family. Some barely have a quality time with their overworked parents.

I grew up in a lower-middle class family. We didn't have many luxuries, but we had enough to get by life with a peace of mind. I regularly spoke English from a very early age. I was a geek, reading came as second nature to me. My teenage years was during the Internet boom, but way before the virality of social media.

So when a millennial ask me for advice on how they can improve their English fluency, I feel I'm at a loss. I can advise them to read more books and the English news. I can advise them to watch more English dramas.

But such advice usually don't work. Because they don't really address the root of their problem. Their short attention span. Their lack of curiosity. Their over-dependence on social media lingo like 'wru' and hashtags.

If I had to be terribly honest with them, I would simply say "My English is so good because I lived during a time where reading was my only source of entertainment (and my parents weren't rich enough to buy me video games and toys)"

That's something hard to fix, unless one has a time machine or fundamentally changes their living habits.

2. Our life choices are different

My older brother was a typical good role model. And yet, it irked me that teachers and friends were always comparing both of us, and telling me to follow his footsteps.

He entered University of Malaya (UM) a few years before me, studying Accountancy. In a matter of three years, he managed to pick up and master Mandarin (which both of us were hopeless at, being Cantonese). He was active in community projects. He dabbled in debates off and on.

My trajectory took a different turn. I gave up learning Mandarin after a month or two, despite being equally surrounded by Chinese in law school. I focused on debates and mooting, doubling down on my English mastery. So whilst I did had slightly better debating achievements to show for, my social circle was not as diverse as his.

Life is about choices and compromises. We're not super-humans. We can't ace exams, be active in societies, be a sporting champion, and also find the time to pick up 5 other foreign languages.

So as much as I like my own life, it's not right for me to advise someone to follow my footsteps unless they truly share my beliefs and priorities. If they're more like my brother, then I would share to them his experiences instead.

How millennials typically react to my constructive criticism

3. Our life challenges are different

Some things in life can't be anticipated and planned for. A death in the family. A long-term relationship turning sour. A sudden quarter-life existential crisis.

I'm quite fortunate in that I haven't experienced much tragedies in life (except self-inflicted ones). So I'm probably not the best person to get advice from when facing a life-changing event. I'll still try to offer some general advice, or cite some personal examples of people that I know. But ultimately, I wouldn't put much weight on my own piece of advice.

Students come with 101 problems, serious and trivial, real and imagined. Family issues. Crazy boyfriend. Scholarship requirement to maintain 3.5 CGPA. Part-time job.

The advantage of being a teacher is that I know lots of students. So usually, the best advice I dispense to them goes like, "Hmm... X also went through the same problem, you should try talking to her."

I'm trying my best to understand millennials, but ultimately, millennials understand millennials best.

Beware of Role Models

So that's why I'm not fond of holding out myself as a role model.

And ironically, I often find that most people who proudly hold out themselves as 'role models' aren't fitting to be one.

They're egocentric, not empathetic.

They're manipulative, not sincere.

They're chasing for likes, not caring for friends.

They're more concerned in building their own legacy, not helping other people's lives.

They're Sith Lords in disguise, not noble Jedi Masters.

Ta da! The cycle of your training is complete! (Don't I say I didn't warn you XOXO)

Ultimately, it's fine to admire and learn from an elder. We can be teachers, we can be guides. But no need to worship us, no need to imitate us.

All we ever hope is for you to chart your own life destiny.

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