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‘The last boy in the last class’

IT has been almost two years since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in full force.

As teachers are still coming to terms with new pedagogical methods and modalities, many of their conversations revolve around newly-acquired competencies and pandemic-related issues.

Another common thread in their personal narratives is student outcomes.

After all, as my former teaching colleague puts it, “When all is said and done, it’s all about our students and how they turn out, isn’t it?”

It was during one of these virtual sharing sessions that I heard the following story from a senior teacher, Mr Raz (not his real name).

“I used to be the discipline master and also the class teacher in my former school,” he said as we began our virtual chat.

“It was one of those premier schools where we got 100% passes for every major examination.

A good number of our students were regularly on the national list of top scorers every year.

“We also won numerous national awards for sports and other co-curricular activities.

In fact, some of our teams had even won international competitions.

“Having a child enrolled in our school was a mark of pride among parents in the community.

“Although there were a number of criteria for accepting a student into the school, one special consideration was familial ties.

“Having an older child studying in the school made it much easier for a younger one to get in.

And that was how we ended up with Sam Lim (not his real name) in Form One,” he said.

“Here, let me share a photo of Sam,” he offered as a class photo showing two slightly disorganised rows of students appeared on the screen.

Seated at the centre of the front row was a much younger-looking Mr Raz, his hands firmly planted on his knees.

His crisp white, long-sleeved shirt and the sheen from his neatly combed side-parted hair contrasted deeply with the untidy and somewhat ruffled shirts of the school boys who sat on either side of him.

“Form 4F, 2017,” said Mr Raz with a note of wistfulness in his voice.

“I had more hair then, didn’t I?”

I watched his image on the screen as he patted the front of his head where his receding hairline began.

“I wonder when we will be able to take class photos like this again, with everyone actually together… It’s just not the same on virtual platforms, right?”

He did not wait for my answer and went on, “Last class in Form Four. And that’s Sam.

Third from the left, back row. Last boy in the last class.”

I took a closer look at the slightly chubby boy with a wide grin who was standing between two taller and more serious-looking classmates.

“Sam’s older brother was a former top scorer of the school who had gone on to secure a scholarship overseas to complete his law degree,” Mr Raz said.

According to Mr Raz, Sam’s parents owned a furniture shop near the school.

Both were fully occupied looking after their business and running a household with aged parents to look after.

Having been raised from fairly underprivileged backgrounds, they had not had the chance to continue their education past primary school.

Neither could assist their two young sons academically.

Fortunately for them, their older son, Ben, was an extremely bright boy with a high sense of responsibility. Independently motivated, he managed to always perform well in school.

Sam was different.

From the start, he professed to have little interest in his studies.

His assignments were sloppy and badly written, and his grades were appalling with academic reports displaying a string of failures in most subjects.

No amount of scolding, warning or threats from his teachers seemed to work.“When he reached Form Four, we were all worried because the following year, he would be sitting for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM),” said Mr Raz.

“The school management and leadership was deeply concerned that for the first time, they would not be able to achieve their 100% pass rate.

That wouldn’t be good for the school’s reputation.

“One of the department heads actually suggested that we should ask Sam to transfer to another school. Another colleague said, how about asking him not to sit for his SPM?

They all sounded like such bad, cruel suggestions, didn’t they?” said Mr Raz, shaking his head.

“Luckily, no one agreed.

The thing is, despite his poor academic performance, Sam’s teachers felt he was an intelligent boy and could perform better if he applied himself to his studies. In the end, we decided that we needed to talk to his parents.”

A few of his teachers were sceptical, saying it would never work.

Previous attempts to get Sam’s parents to come over to the school to discuss his academic performance had been unsuccessful. Sam himself was not very helpful.

“Aiyah sir,” he said in colloquial English, ‘’No use talking to my parents.

They very busy. Cannot leave the shop. Sure won’t come.”

Finally, after many more attempts, a harried-looking Mrs Lim turned up.

When Mr Raz showed her Sam’s academic record and pointed out that he had failed almost every subject in the previous two terms, Mrs Lim looked him straight in the eye and began, “Sir Raz, my English not so good but I ask you first, my Sam got do anything wrong in school or not?”

“I shook my head,” Mr Raz said, “No, nothing wrong with his behaviour but…”

“He got disturb other boys or not?

Got spoil the school’s property?

reak the undang-undang sekolah?

Behaved rude to teachers?”

“I had to say no to all her questions,” said Mr Raz with a slight chuckle. I felt like I was in the courtroom being questioned by a lawyer.

And to think Mrs Lim had never even attended secondary school.”“So, why you called me here?” she went on.

“My son’s discipline all very good. If my son cannot study, you must teach.

I send him to school for teachers to teach him.

“I can only scold him. I don’t know how to teach.

You all must teach my son, help him to pass his exams.

I am a mother, not a teacher.

Some things I can teach. But pass an exam, I cannot teach.”

“Honestly,” said Mr Raz, “it was almost impossible to say anything after that.

There seemed to be so much logic in those few sentences.”

After she left, Sam came to me and said, “That’s why lah, sir, I said no use to call my mother.”

“But you know what,” Mr Raz said, “the most miraculous thing happened shortly after that.

Suddenly in the middle of the year, Sam decided that he was interested in studying after all.

Don’t ask me how or why it happened.”

“Perhaps there was some internal Aha moment or awakening in the boy. He began putting in more effort and actually started performing better.

“However, most of us, me included, were largely sceptical.

How can a student catch up five years of work in such a short time? And he was the last boy in the last class.

“When the SPM results were released the following year, and our principal announced a 100% pass rate for the school, the question on everyone’s lips was Sam. What about Sam?”

As it turned out, not only had Sam passed all his subjects, he had also managed to score a few credits.

“And you know what?” continued Mr Raz, “It didn’t stop there. It seemed like Sam had found his learning groove.

He decided to pursue his studies to the next level – he went on to complete his foundation year and is doing very well in his undergraduate business course in one of the local universities.”

“Who would have believed it?” said Mr Raz.

“The last boy in the last class.

Was he a late bloomer?

What really caused him to turn around and decide that he was interested in studying after all?

Was it something we said, or something his parents said?

Maybe it was a combination of everything.

”The truth is, despite all that we teachers may or may not do, despite using every tried-and-tested pedagogical approach, and despite soliciting support from all stakeholders in the education of our students, sometimes there is no guarantee and no way of knowing how our students will turn out in the end.

But perhaps the more important lesson is to keep believing in our students.

There was a noteworthy lesson in Mrs Lim’s request for teachers to take ownership of teaching her son.

If he doesn’t know, then teach him, she said.

Sometimes it just boils down to that.

While we now use many terms to define the role of teachers or educators, we need to always bear this in mind: that we are here to teach our students and to teach them well, and never to relegate this primary responsibility to someone else who does not have this as their main job descriptions.

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