Fortunate to have studied English Literature
Published on: Sunday, August 18, 2019

I went through six years of primary education at a Chinese Primary School before switching to an English-medium school. 

My cohort of boy pupils from Chinese primary schools were sent to Remove Form One and then to Sekolah Menengah Rendah for Form One to Form Three.

After passing the Lower Certificate of Education (LCE), we were transferred to a premier secondary boys’ school that has produced eminent alumni.

I was placed in Form 4A consisting of students selected to study pure science. 

As a student from a Chinese school, it was intimidating for me to be with new classmates who were mostly from English-medium primary schools. Most of them could speak and write English as if it was their native tongue.

My school headmaster who had a Master of Arts degree from India set a policy that all pure science students must take English Literature in the Senior Cambridge examination.

We were unhappy with this as most of us preferred to take Health Science for which it was easier to score a distinction.

But we were told we could leave the school if we didn’t want to study English Literature!

Our books for the subject were Julius Caesar, Golden Treasury of Longer Poems, Pygmalion, Animal Farm and The Old Man And The Sea. In Form Four, our English Literature teacher was a Chinese.

He was a small man with a pair of piercing eyes behind his thick glasses, and looked old for his age of 40-plus.

He controlled the class with his wry grin and intimidating stare, and by threatening any student whose behaviour he didn’t like to make him “disappear”, which was by ignoring him completely as if he didn’t exist in the class at all.

However, we enjoyed his class as we liked his intonation and expression especially when he read from The Old Man And The Sea. 

We felt as if he was the old man Santiago battling the gigantic marlin as narrated by Ernest Hemingway.

When we moved up to Form 5, we were taught by an Indian, a passionate and experienced English Literature teacher. 

When he read from Julius Caesar, we could visualise the “sight and sound” during the Roman era.

There was no video disc or YouTube in the 1960s but we could borrow and listen to audio records in our school library.

We would organise ourselves to listen to the Julius Caesar record in the library and our hearts would stop at the point when Caesar cried out “Et tu, Brute!” in pain for the betrayal of Brutus, and the moment Mark Antony began his oration with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...”

When the Senior Cambridge exam results were released, I was surprised to be the only student in my school to score an “A1” in English Literature. 

Many of my classmates who did well in English did not get a good grade for the subject.

I realised then that the study of literature is different from the study of a language. 

In language, you need to be good at the vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure and nuances, but in Literature you have to study with your heart and appreciate the aesthetics of language.

I am fortunate to have English Literature in my background as it has nourished my heart and soul.

I studied mechanical engineering for my tertiary education and am grateful to my former school headmaster Mr Mathai for giving me the balance between arts and mechanics.

I have retired for 15 years now but can still recite a few lines of John Keats’s “The Eve of St Agnes” in Golden Treasury of Longer Poems.

 

GCK





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