Athos, my firstborn, started primary school this week.
Truth be told, I have not been looking forward to the transition. Yes, Singapore’s public education system is widely admired. Government spending on education is second only to defence spending, and the results show, for example in our consistent top ranking in the international Trends in Math and Science Study.
But you don’t reach such heights without sacrificing something. And if you ask any Singaporean what that thing is, their answer will be a variation on the theme of soullessness.
Guilty as charged? I don’t know, but love it or hate it, our journey into the Singapore school system has begun.
We all got up well before sunrise. Pilgrim Dad and I had set our alarms for 6am but I was awake at 4.30am, contemplating the day that lay ahead. Athos crawled out of bed a little after 6am. The poor kid looked tired but was good-natured about morning ablutions and breakfast. I did a quick check of his schoolbag – we were told to pack basic stationery, an exercise book and some colour pencils. Easy does it, I thought. When Athos put on his school uniform, I felt a lump in my throat. No more cutesy kindergarten clothes. He looked so grown-up.
We left home by 6.40am and arrived at school with time to spare. It was the first day so parents were allowed to walk their kids to their classrooms. As we headed in, I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him. There were already a handful of kids and their parents/grandparents/helpers in the class. Athos chose a seat in the back – it was just like him to be shy and retreat to the rear. I asked him how he felt. “A little scared,” he said. I knew that what was helping him keep it together was the fact that he would see us at recess.
There was a bookcase in the classroom so I pointed it out to Athos, and he was soon immersed in a volume. As I watched him read, I thought about when he was a toddler and said “apoo shoo” and “bigshit” for “apple juice” and “biscuit”. More parents and kids came in, and there were also some cameras and video recorders. One little boy looked like he was about to cry. I knew how he felt. Pilgrim Dad and I exchanged pleasantries with fellow parents, and it seemed to me that there was an unspoken nervousness beneath the civilities. The first mother I spoke to was one of those who had moved houses and done volunteer work to get her child into the school. It was a little intense for my first encounter of the day and did not help me feel any happier.
Before long, the teacher came in, and we were graciously but firmly invited out of the classroom. I wondered if she knew just how much anxiety there was in the room, how often she had been the subject of prayer, how much power she held over the lives of the 30 little boys in the class (and their parents!) As Pilgrim Dad and I walked down the hallway, we heard another teacher saying, “Please parents, we really need you to leave the classroom.”
Pilgrim Dad and I sampled the food at the school canteen, then milled about with other parents as we waited for recess. I spoke to one of the stall operators, a kindly man who told me about the buddy system. Each Primary One kid would be paired up with a Primary Five kid for a week or so. The older child’s role was to help him during recess, bringing him to and from class, showing him the ropes as it were, and sharing about life in the school. I thought that was a marvelous idea until Pilgrim Dad planted the thought in my head that that would be an ideal set-up for extortion.
Recess time, and you’ve got to imagine the scene here. 200 Primary One kids and 200 Primary Five buddies, all wearing the SAME uniform, come pouring into the canteen. Lining the edges of the canteen are 200 adults trying to identify their kids, help them get their food, find a seat and have a conversation. I searched for 5 minutes and gave up the good fight. Eventually Pilgrim Dad found him and we all sat on a planter just outside the canteen. Athos was eating a biscuit and I asked where he bought it. “I didn’t buy it,” he said. “T bought it for me.” T, it turned out, was his buddy, a polite young man with a serious demeanour. I thanked T and asked if I could pay him for the biscuit. “It’s ok,” he said, “my daddy gave me money. By the way, he needs to tuck in his shirt.” T pointed at Athos’ shirt which had come out from his shorts. “Thanks,” I said, wondering whether to laugh or cry.
I thought I would engage T in conversation.
Pilgrim Mom: “So what do you like about the school?”
T: “Not much. I’m only here because my daddy wanted me to be in the same school as my brother.”
PM: (trying again) “So what’s your favourite subject?”
T: “I don’t have any.”
PM: “Favourite teacher?”
Here his face lit up slightly and he said he liked his form teacher. T also enlightened me on various aspects of the school, and his role as a buddy. I thanked him again, and soon it was time for them to go back to class. We gave Athos a hug and told him we would see him at home. (He would be taking the school bus back.) By this time, other classes had come out for recess. The place was a teeming mass of boys, hundreds of them, all wearing exactly the same uniform. As my little boy melted into the crowd, I felt like a part of my heart was being excised.
The night before, I re-read the Genesis story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac in the mountains of Moriah. As an acknowledgement of God’s primacy, Abraham, the father of all God’s people, was asked to give up not his home, nor his wealth, nor even his wife, but his child. God knows what pride of place our children have in our hearts. And walking out of that school, I felt a little like I’d left my child on Moriah. I reminded myself that Athos was after all God’s possession. Then we got into our truck and drove home.