Friday, 18 October 2013

The Story of the Stationery Bento (revised!)

@@ My original post was apparently a little confusing when people thought I was talking about whether kids brought stationery to school, and about their interest in mathematics. Thus, I have woken up at 6am on a Sunday morning to revise and add on a bit more on the crux of this blog post... and will move the last bit on adhoc volunteering to another post which I will write this week.

Earlier this year, when we were at our nearby heartland mall, browsing in the book & stationery store, I saw my husband holding many rulers in his hand. Like 20 rulers or something. 

Me:"Why are you buying so many rulers?"
Hubbs:"Oh, for my class to use."
Me:"Oh. Got project ah?"
Hubbs:"Oh, no. For daily use..." and he picked up some pencils and was looking at the price tags...
Me:"Huh, pencils too?"
Hubbs:"Yeah. Some of the kids come to class without anything, so when we ask them to do work, they say they have no pen, no pencil. And will start borrowing from their friends, which irritates them and disturbs them."
Me:" They're soooo poor that they can't afford stationery?"
Hubbs:"Hmmm... not exactly... more like they can't be more bothered... actually, some of them can do the questions... if they try, I know they can do it."

And if you're wondering... these are 15 year old students in a mainstream school we're talking about. 

Thus, I helped  my husband put together a Stationery Bento Set for him to bring to school. 30 plus pencils, 20 rulers, 10 plus erasers and 3 sharpeners. The last two items can be shared, so I didn't provide as many. I questioned if so many rulers were necessary, but hubbs is a maths teacher, and says he wants the kids to each have a ruler so they can learn to measure stuff themselves. Going by the number of rulers he was providing, it seemed like more than half the class needed this stuff.

I wondered aloud how come secondary school students weren't using pens, and used pencils instead. Hubbs sheepishly replied that pencils were cheaper than pens to replace. And he was going to loan the kids the stationery each lesson, and collect it back. Not only because of the cost, but because if he gave the stationery to the kids, they would not bring it back the next lesson to use them. So that did not suit his purpose, he wanted it to be that they could at least do work while they are in class, at school. What happened outside school, was, unfortunately, out of his control.

So apparently, some of these kids are so indifferent and uninterested in school that they simply do not bother to come for class prepared. Not just the math class. Every class.

This really blew my mind. I never expected something like that to be happening in Singapore.

Me:" Huh, serious? Wah nowadays kids so jialat ah? In all the years of my education, I have never encountered any student who would not even go to school without a pencil case."
Hubbs gave a scoff and said:"That's because you went to good schools."
Me:"Where got? My secondary school and junior college can hardly be called one of the best schools in Singapore."
Hubbs:"Your secondary school is definitely above average, and the fact that you can make it to junior college puts you at the top 30% of your cohort..."

Oh yeah, I had often heard that only top 20% of a cohort gets through to junior college in Singapore. I'd always thought that statistic must be wrong as at least 80% of everyone I know went to a junior college in their studying years...

Hubbs:"And it's not "nowadays kids like that" my time also have. My school."
Me:"What?! Your school was like that?! But your school was a very good school!"
Hubbs:" My school didn't have a lot of kids like that, but there were. And even back then, the neighbourhood schools were just as bad as the ones now in this regard."

Still a little aghast at this info I now had, and a bit incredulous to boot, I tried to "verify" this information by "checking with" my other teacher friends and relatives (I have tonnes of friends and relatives who are or were teachers!) I specifically made sure I asked the ones who are teaching or have taught in secondary schools in the local school system. Many of them shake their heads in dismay and told me "Yes, it's like that. In some of the neighbourhood schools, it's like that. Very sad." So, apparently, it is not unique to the school my husband is teaching in. 

It finally started to sink in that what hubbs said is true. Not that I thought he was lying... Perhaps I was hoping against hope that this cannot be... For amidst the conversations that I had with all the teachers, a picture started to emerge... It appears that there is a segment of our population, the bottomest bunch if you will... where kids have parents who are working jobs which take many many hours or have one or more parents who are in Drug Rehab Centres, in and out of prison and/or on probation... or are otherwise occupied such that they are unable to give their children any guidance... and/or a positive role model. And because of that, it's the children who suffer and get sucked into this vicious cycle, as they often end up being disinterested in school, hence, not very educated, get low paying jobs, be disgruntled and unsatisfied with life and gravitate towards undesirable behaviour which may land them in jail, drug rehab, or pregnant before they turn 18...

To make matters worse, I hear true stories of how the Ministry of Education in Singapore grades / ranks / remunerate their teachers and principals, such that it is sometimes actually in the school's interest to expel the student to get the student off their records so that the student's performance or non-performance (as the case may be) would not drag down nor hinder the school's performance. To be fair, I understand that some schools may be so far off the ranks anyway, that they don't really care about the exam results these "problem kids" have, but they too have given up on these kids and figured that with their resources already so stretched, that they should "save the ones that want to be saved" - to use their precious time, effort and resources in helping those who are at least interested enough to turn up in school.

I am speechless. In the past decade, my husband and his colleagues have had to make tonnes of house visits to the home of kids who do not turn up in school, to persuade, convince, and cajole them to go to school. And there are schools trying their best to kick the students out of the school to get them off their responsibility?!

This greatly distresses me. It is clear to me, that it is in the interest of the child and of the society in general, that the child be kept in the school system as long as is possible. This is so that, even if the kids have no positive parental influence, that by at least coming to school, there are teachers around to try, try, TRY their best, to bring the child back to the straight and narrow by giving them at least a minimum education. With a minimum education of at least an 'N' Level cert or an 'O' Level cert, they would be at least able to attend ITE or even a polytechnic. This could, would, should, presumably pave their way to a regular paying legal job and give them a semblance of a normal life.

And as long as the child is physically in school, he/she is not out there stealing, vandalising, taking drugs, and not committing any other undesirable behaviour teens can indulge in when they're out of control. At least when they spend most of their waking hours in school, the school teachers and administrators can at least make sure that none of these is happening - at least during school hours. The aim should be to keep them physically in school as long as you can! Not to kick them out!!!

This is sad. So, so sad.

This really affected me and I kept thinking about it. I keep trying to think of how, of what we can do in order to help this situation.

Firstly, I want to say this to the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Social and Family Development of Singapore:
For the sake of our country, please work together to study this problem and find solutions for students coming from severely disadvantaged backgrounds. Please make allowance for such schools to keep these students in the system and not penalise the school for it. The objective of schools with such students should not be simply to provide them an education in language, maths and science, but also to educate them and guide them in ways which their parents have failed them. If the existing mainstream schools are unable to do this, perhaps we should establish institutions which can perform this role. This is easier said than done, and yes, it will definitely require more resources. But this is important and immediate and urgent attention should be lavished on this.

This is what I call "early intervention". If nothing is being done to help these teens out of their dismal backgrounds and unfortunate way of life, a good portion of them are well on their way to becoming the drug addicts and petty criminals of the future - because those are the role models they see in their lives. To them, it's the norm. The norm!? I have heard of an extreme case where a grandmother had three different grandchildren in her care staying at her flat, because the respective three sets of parents of the three children were all either in jail or drug rehablitation centre. I am not exaggerating. This is true.

Which brings me to my second suggestion. I wonder if it would help that the children had positive role models? You know how we hear of stories and see movies where kids did good for themselves because of an inspirational teachers, or an adult who kind of guided them? What if we have a kind of mentoring system available? Such that families that are whole and stable can offer to mentor students. Not so much like adopting nor fostering (though I think it is very admirable!!!) a child as these come with heavier responsibilities, but mentoring - maybe meet the child once a week at least? For a meal, or just to spend time together etc. Be a positive role model to guide the child, root and cheer the child on, be there for the child. Somehow, I feel that this would be very beneficial to the child. Especially children in their teens, where they are already in the throes of puberty, the time in their lives when they need the most reassurance while they build up their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. 

Now, let me get this straight. No amount of mentoring can solve the many problems the worst of these families have. Mentoring can't get the dad out of jail, or the mum off drugs, or stop the father gambling, or bring the mother back from the dead... what it can possibly do, is to provide kids and teenagers with some moral support and positive role model - to show the kids that life need not be as bleak as they have known all their lives, that it is possible to pull themselves out of the depressing downward spiral, to give them just that bit of impetus to bother to attend school, to at least study enough to make sure they get their 'O' Levels. To inspire and show them that it is possible to live simple. Work honestly. And resist walking in the same exact footsteps of their parents. ...
After writing the above, I found out that there is such a scheme called Enable A Family Volunteer - but I think this is for children in cases of child abuse, neglect and family violence. I think there should be a similar mentoring system for all "latchkey children"! Because sometimes, it isn't only the children in these extreme cases that need attention...

System or not, we should help if we can. If you know of anyone in such severely disadvantaged backgrounds, take the time to talk to the kids. Don't need to get too preachy, just talk, be a friend. Provide some moral support. Be a positive role model. And pray, pray that we have made a difference in their lives, pray that they will see the light and help themselves out.

NOTE: This is not a sponsored post. All thought and opinion belongs to me, Pamela Tan, the Chief Chronicler of Tan Family Chronicles, the family blog.

There will be a separate post on adhoc volunteer organisations like A Packet of Rice , Chope Food for the Needy "Suspended Food Revolution" Pay It Forward, and Project Act of Kindness (PARK). Please email me at emailpamela(a) or fb message me if you know of any other adhoc volunteer movements. Thanks! =)


  1. Hi Pamela,

    It is sad to hear that some schools, being too obsessed with rankings, are trying to get rid of students who are having a tough childhood and facing problems in life. I fully agree that these children should be kept in school and kept away from trouble. Chasing them out of school will make them prone to more mistakes and create more social problems in future. Keeping them in school may pose some inconvenience to the disciplinary department but chasing them altogether is really a "care-for-myself" attitude, which will not bring progress to our society as a whole.

    As a product of the Singapore education system, I am taught to strive for the best results, first at school then at work. We try to do something to impress our bosses, score points, climb up the corporate ladder and earn lots of money. However, when we looked back on life, the amount of money we have in the bank, the number of assets do not dictate the quality of life we live or how meaningful our lives have been. As leaders in the education industry, I hope that these principals can look inside their hearts and ask themselves, what is the purpose of running a school and providing an education for the children. This is definitely one field whereby nurturing the young through love, kindness and care must take priority over results, KPIs and rankings. If the school can achieve top ranking but chose to take in only academically excellent students and weed off the weaker ones, I don't really see this as a success story either. It is almost like buying the best players into a football team so your team can win trophies.

    Anyway, here are some Ad Hoc volunteering organizations that you can add to your list:

    + Willing Hearts
    A kitchen run by mostly volunteers to prepare and cook food for the underprivileged, the needy, and other marginalized members of our Singapore society, and to assist and guide them towards rehabilitating and reinstating themselves as useful citizens. The kitchen is open everyday, even on public holidays and volunteers can just drop by anytime.

    +SG Cares
    Plenty of volunteer opportunities with various charitable organizations. Volunteers can sign up for Ad Hoc activities, as and when their schedule permits.

    Best Wishes,

  2. Wow, this really opened my eyes on the difference between students in the good and the not so good schools. And yes, what's the use of these noble intentions to build schools and all when the all the students get is a feel good factor after it and there is no follow up. Those who cant go, feel left out and does it really serve it's intent and purpose with just one visit? Would love to help one of these causes that you mentioned.


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