The atmosphere in the room was charged. Every time someone does something outside of the mainstream in Singapore, one gets the feeling we were being watched from the shadows.
Indignation, an annual festival for LGBT sharing in small spaces, was holding one such event. It was a session where ex-students shared what it was like growing up in local school environments.
I was drawn to the event as a teacher, and I never had a chance to hear what my gay students felt in my classrooms.
It was 2007, and I had been teaching in Raffles Institution for almost eight years. Sexuality was a taboo subject, and a gay teacher was more guarded in talking about the issue – we had more to hide. You can always guess who was gay in the Staffroom or office: just look for the tables which dared not display framed pictures of loved ones. None of us talked to each other about our sexuality.
There were perhaps 30 audiences at the event – I forgot – and there were five chairs on stage. Five brave lads walked on stage, and started talking about their experience in classrooms. One of the speakers was a graduate of Raffles Institution (RI).
In contrast to my sense of tense, the sharing was casual and genuine. One talked about the isolation inside the closet, another about the camaraderie amongst the boys who preferred to hang with the girls instead of play football, and about the teasing by other students, including the closeted gay ones. It was bittersweet to hear, three decades after my teen, other gay boys were going through the same invisibility. We were little Martians gasping in a support vacuum.
I sat crossed-armed in the discreet third or fourth row, a part of me smug in the shadow of anonymity. I found myself acknowledging those same feelings of desolation, and simultaneously distancing myself from the responsibility to do anything about it. I was like a slave watching the flogging of other slaves.
I was thus caught off guard when the Rafflesian said, “Why didn’t any teacher speak up for us?”
That simple question was not directed at me. He had no idea there was an RI teacher in the audience. But I knew. My muscles stiffened and my face froze. Smugness soured into shame.
Eight years ago, just when I became a teacher, there was a Disney movie starring Bruce Willis. It was “The Kid”. In it, Willis got entangled in a time-travel plot device and met his childhood self. Little Bruce saw Big Bruce’s life, and hated it.
“So,” Little Bruce yelled in despair, “I’m forty, I’m not married and I don’t have a dog? I grow up to be a loser!”
Big Bruce eventually learnt that the key to happiness is to help Little Bruce fulfill some dreams, including getting himself a dog.
It was strange that life planted that seed in my head just when I became a teacher in RI, wasn’t it?
In my first year as a teacher, I became form teacher to Class 1A. These were boys born in the year of the Rabbit.
Suddenly 35 pairs of expectant eyes were staring at me in class, and I was out of my depth.
Two decades separated me as a student, and me being teacher. In the 80s, teachers ruled with an iron fist and stinging canes, so students gave them little trouble besides academic ones. In the first year of the 21st Century, I was given charge of some of the best minds good parents could nurture.
Most were well-behaved, but a few were bullies.
Every other day, my students came to me complaining of bullying. There were frequent name-calling, and bags, books and stationary were hidden or tossed out the windows, and there were fights. I experienced bullying as a child from bus conductors and strangers on the street (probably for my nerdy thick glasses). I abhor the practice because LGBTs were frequently the butt of jokes on television and film.
In addition, the school was one of Singapore’s premiere institutions, a greenhouse incubating new educational initiatives. Hence, a lot was demanded of the teachers’ time. I demanded a lot from myself too, and spent weekends and evenings creating my own presentations and material. I was pissed that the bullies were taking so much of attention and time. Being inexperienced, I did what my own teachers did: I punished the bullies.
They were scolded, made to stand outside the class during lesson time and parents were alerted. Nothing made a difference. The bullies accepted their punishment dutifully, then returned the next morning to terrorise the victims.
My first year as a teacher passed unhappily. I was mad at myself that I could not create a more cohesive classroom for my boys. Some of them were really doing their best to help, and I was letting them down as their leader. A good friend recommended I take up meditation at a local awareness centre. After months of practice, I learnt to draw some calm from within.
I started looking at my class’s predicament with compassion. One day during class interaction, I spoke about one victim’s suffering, but allowed myself to be vulnerable. I tried to feel what the victim felt. I remembered how upset his parents were that their child was hurting. It really was not that different from me being closeted: the feeling of being unwelcomed was terrifying.
With that realisation, I burst into tears and choked on my words in front of the class. The boys were stunned. My students, through me, also realised how awful their bullied classmate felt.
Back in the Staff Room, I felt completely different. I picked up a pencil, and turned to sketching to grasp what changed. I drew a little bunny wearing our school tie.
The next day, I stood in front of my class and showed them the bunny via the projector.
“This is you,” I said with a big smile, “All of you, including X (bully 1), Y (bully 2) and Z (bully 3). You guys are like Duracell Bunnies. You don’t stop, you have endless energy, but each and every one of you is lovable.”
When I pointed to one of the bullies, he beamed.
The message was: “Some of what you do is bad, but you are good.”
I began listening to the students to find out more about their families. There was a little bully who was bullied by his dad. On his mother’s advise, I gave him some responsibility in class. He stepped up to the plate and did a smashing job. I made sure his parents hear of that side of him. Feeling appreciated, he turned into a happier chap. He stopped bullying the others.
There was a bullied boy who could not stand the sound of his own name. I reminded him and his classmates that his name was to honor his grandfather. In that name contained the love and pride from parents and grandparents. No longer upset when others called him, he became a happier student.
I was proud of myself too. I became the kind of teacher that I would have liked: one who taught the boys to see the “Why?” instead of just the “Hows”. I think being gay helped me bring something different to the classrooms: when the Hows of our sexuality did not fit the norm, we learnt to question the Whys.
But education also brought something to my life. Being the not-by-choice kind of childless, becoming a teacher was a great blessing. 35 little planets pulled me away from my own orbit. The world was no longer revolving around me, and I discovered the joy and fulfillment of being guardian to others. I gained a respect for the parents of my students. I was often moved by the love during parent-teacher meetings, because I got to see how my own mom and dad might have fought for me.
After two years with them, my form class of Duracell bunnies went up the upper secondary levels. I took guardianship of a new batch of Sec One boys. The cycle was repeated for the next seven years.
At a new level of proficiency in our career, we often ask ourselves: “what is next?” I was not interested in becoming a Head of Department, since that would take me further from the students. What I enjoyed was creating a better environment for the students. In retrospect, helping each student find acceptance was the key to a great learning environment.
On the eighth year, I sat in the audience of the Indignation event on ex-students and their experience growing up in Singapore schools.
“Why didn’t any teacher speak up for us?” Asked the ex-Raffles guy.
That question destroyed my comfort. I thought I had achieved my happy classrooms, but I had avoided the obvious all that time.
I knew there were gay boys in my classes. Some fit the more flamboyant stereotype, participated in the more stereotypical extracurricular activities. Others were well-hidden like me or still unaware of their inclinations. Once, I mentioned during interaction that all differences should be accepted, and that included being gay. That sentence strangely found its way to middle management, and I was casually told not to mention ‘gay’ in school. I got the message quickly, and had been silent on the issue since.
After the talk, I left the venue with my partner Han.
“You know,” I said to Han solemnly, “I stood up for my Indian boys. I stood up for my Muslim boys. I stood up for my poor boys, and my boys with single parents. I spoke up for my foreign boys too, but I never spoke up for my gay boys.”
That evening, all I could think of was a young Me with no one to turn to, digging deeper into the depressing closet and pleading with the teachers: “Why didn’t you speak up for me?”
That gay boy was almost forty. Few knew he had a good partner, and he did not have a dog.
A few weeks later, I wrote about being gay in a blog and sent the links to my fellow teachers.
That was for all the gay students I ever taught. That was for the student I used to be.
Surprisingly, my educational career did not end like I feared it would. In fact, the little drawing of a bunny inspired by those students went on to meet students all over Singapore, but that is another story.
Some of my students are married now. A few invited Han and I as a couple to their weddings. One non-bunny student invited me as special guest to his scholarship ceremony, along with his parents. Those were some of the proudest moments of my life.
Some of my gay students eventually came out to me. I listened to their struggles and gave some small guidance and comfort without telling them what to do with their lives. Should they come out to their families? Could they stay in relationships or focus on studies? Did they know how to protect themselves and stay healthy? I became the teacher I dreamed of.
Oh, and Han and I adopted a handsome Jack Russell!
Big Otto is finally making Little Otto’s dreams come true.
Part 1 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-my-first-time/
Part 2 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-reunion/
Part 3 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-the-grand-canyon/
Part 4 of OTTOBIOGRAPHY: https://theindependent.sg.sg/ottobiography-all-my-lovers/Follow us on Social Media
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