Monday, April 29, 2013
A Game of Life
A few days ago, a former teacher of mine passed away from breast cancer. She was 50.
I don't remember much of her - I was 14 years old and back then my world was much less than human relationships. It was about pick-up games of football, after-school computer games and meals comprising exclusively fried chicken skin. Even so, I had slightly more interest in Ms Yeo than all the other teachers in school. The reason was straightforward: she taught my class English Literature, one of the only two subjects I fancied myself decent in.
I thought I was good at something, and so I wanted approval for it. And that approval would, as a matter of course, have to come from Ms Yeo. She was nothing more to me than that in those years; her function was one of unilateral validation. And so when I received a 15/20 grade from Ms Yeo for one particular Merchant of Venice essay, I did not know to hide my completely unjustified show of bad humour. I did not know, in the folly of youth and pride, that negativity begat only negativity; or that my display of brattish entitlement probably left Ms Yeo with a slightly worse day and an even worse impression of me. In any event she was appropriately muted in her response: "Well, work harder next time. This is all you're getting." And I was thusly shooed off with a tired smile and wave.
On hindsight, this was precisely the wrong response. And, I suspect, Ms Yeo knew it too at the time. She only wanted me out of her hair, and this was speaking my language. But I look back on the episode and I think about how much my life would have changed had Ms Yeo not minced her words at that instant. She should have said:
"Shiyao, please. You and I both know you're reasonably good at this subject. So why are you doing this? 15/20 isn't a bad grade. It's just not stellar. But do you need to be stellar so badly that you think nothing of sacrificing the good opinion of your classmates and your teacher in exchange? No one will think anything of you after that. But more importantly, you would have done something really foolish. You would have given in to the notion that life is about being right, about being excellent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Life is about people. The reason why you want me to think well of your essay is because you want me to think well of you. And why is that? It is because I am another person here on this Earth, existing potentially to validate you. When you think in those terms, everything else falls away, and what is left is only empathy. Everyone else wants the same thing, and the sooner each of this realizes this, the sooner we can have a world genuinely built upon love."
I wonder if I would have truly understood these words back then; or at least, if I would have taken them to heart, over and beyond the completion of both Nod and GDI campaigns, across Arsenal's 2003-04 season, and through the tussle for my future wife with one of my best friends. I doubt I would have.
But last night, playing Taboo with newly-minted friends, I felt the phantom words strike home. The rules had not been clearly explained, and one friend had accidentally mouthed a taboo word. Was it a point deduction or simply a default to the next word? Across the table, I queried my teammate, ten years my junior, with eyes and a whisper. He shifted back in his seat and shrugged. "We didn't make it clear, it's alright." His eyes were kind. I nodded in understanding. And then I understood.
We lost in the end, but it barely mattered (I was to be much more upset later when Bacary Sagna literally passed the ball to van Persie in his own half - seriously, retire already). All I remember now, sitting here typing this, are good feelings from a night of frictionless tomfoolery.
I wish someone had told me all of this sooner, but that would be abdicating responsibility for my own personal development throughout all these years. I suppose it's not too late to make up for lost time, though - although Ms Yeo might have to wait for a bit longer more.
To everyone who has a loved one going through a serious or terminal illness, my thoughts, for what they are worth, are with you. Stay strong, and above all, kind.