“She doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus”

In conjunction with Teacher’s Day, Raffles Press has collaborated with the 34th Student Council’s Teacher’s Day Committee to bring you a series of articles featuring several teachers and non-teaching staff in Raffles Institution. In this installment, we feature Mrs Nicola Perry, the HOD of English Literature.

mrs perry
Photo courtesy of Theophilius Kwek

Our first sign that Mrs. Nicola Perry was going to be one of the most extraordinary teachers we’ve ever met was that on her first lecture with us, she peeled and cut an onion to illustrate a metaphor from a Carol Ann Duffy poem on Valentine’s Day. Mrs Perry could well be described as a walking edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works (and John Donne’s, and Alexander Pope’s, and William Wordsworth’s, and W.H. Auden’s – the list goes on). Possessing at the tips of her fingers or her tongue the better half of the entire Western Canon, she is as intimidatingly knowledgeable about literature as she is friendly, charming and down-to-earth. Always armed with a quote and a disarming smile (and her infamous ‘Oh God, I’m so bloody blonde sometimes’ mug), Mrs. Perry has, through her more than two dozen years in Raffles, nurtured some of Singapore’s foremost writers, including Alfian Sa’at and rising star Theophilus Kwek; she has even taught a former vice-principal at Raffles, whom she taught how to kiss for a stage production. She brings to each class not only her towering intelligence but also her cheery, easy-going nature, and is always open to a chat with any student about subjects as diverse as Metaphysical poetry to the music of Al Stewart. Today’s feature describes, amidst other things, Mrs Perry’s crazy stunts in class, her favourite books, and her long-standing love for the school and the people she works with.

What do students not understand about teachers?

There are so many things they do not understand. (laughs) I don’t think they always realise how much goes on behind the scenes in teaching. From time to time, I think they can be a little bit unaware of the amount of personal space that teachers have had to give up for the sake of students. I don’t think they understand how some individual actions can have such a huge impact in efficiency, especially when it comes to admin work. Things such as collecting pictures for an overseas trip, though silly and tedious, need to get done. Students can be a little selfish in not realising the importance of their own sense of self-responsibility. Sometimes they don’t appreciate how human we teachers can be, especially for the older and more experienced teachers. We can actually understand where students are coming from.

Why did you choose to be a teacher?

I don’t know if I actually chose to be a teacher. My literature teacher back in college asked me which university I wanted to go to, and I thought it was a joke. I never thought I would go to any university, I didn’t think I was clever enough. My father was a writer, so I guess I naturally gravitated towards the idea of being a journalist. Consequently, I applied to media school. Also, it was a good excuse to carry on studying literature! In there, I studied History of Philosophy and History through Literature. Once I got my degree, I was unsure about being a journalist. Everyone around me suggested that I would make a good teacher. I was good with kids and liked acting, so I decided to apply to do a PDC (Professional Development Course) and got in! The rest is history!

What was your childhood ambition?

Well, if you’re talking about what I am passionate about or my dream job, it would be acting. When I was 11, I applied to the School of Dramatic Arts and got in, but my father didn’t allow me to enter. He worked in the television business, and knew the harsh reality of an acting career for a female. He wanted me to have a stable income before going into acting of any kind. It’s true; it is a tough world for female actors. By the time I thought about training in drama professionally, I was already about to get married. I accepted that I would have to do all my drama through teaching and drama groups. So I decided to pursue my passion in drama here, where I could have a stable income and job, and also be engaged in drama through Raffles Players.

What is your life motto?

Always believe the best in people. That comes from my mother. Kindness is the most underrated word.

What is the craziest thing you’ve done in school?

Oh my, I’d love to think I’d done something outrageous back in school, but sadly I was really just a goody-two-shoes. Oh dear, I really want to have an exciting story to share with you, I must have done something! (thinks really hard) Nah, I was a bit of a mummy’s girl then, I think I did more outrageous things as a teacher (laughs).

As a teacher, I’ve carried 88 plums into an LT for a lesson in poetry, and let me tell you, it wasn’t an easy task! I did a lot of other crazy things such as coming to school dressed in orange from head to toe for the bone marrow drive (orange bow, orange shoes etc.).

What is your favourite pastime?

It has always been drama, both acting and directing outside school — mainly acting though! Less so in the couple of years for certain reasons. I also really like long walks and cooking (raw food is rather dehydrating!).

What movies do you enjoy watching?

My goodness, there are so many! I think a favourite movie depends on your mood. My all-time favourite would be Cinema Paradiso.

What are your favourite plays, since you are into drama?

Lots! I love Hedda Gabler, Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, Death of a Salesman and King Lear (definitely my favourite Shakespearean play)! As for musicals, I like Matilda and Book of Mormon.

What do you consider to be your favourite book?

Jane Eyre, The Woman Warrior, and Middlemarch. For the more modern books, my favourite would be Enduring Love.

What are your pet peeves?

Dare I say, Singaporean sniffing! (laughs) I always feel the need to offer people handkerchiefs! Another thing I am unable to tolerate is discourteous behaviour. Mr. Reeves and I are very particular about being decent, and I don’t like people who don’t say simple pleases and thank-yous. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but it annoys me when people are lacking in social graces.

What is your favourite thing about Raffles?

Hmmm, the students! I think the working environment on the whole is dignified, in terms of space and professionalism. I really, really love my Literature department! We have a very happy department and we work well together. They make me come to work with smiles. I’ve got a lot of long term friends here, and it makes me feel comfortable, perhaps too comfortable sometimes. (laughs)

I love the school cats! I love the way the cats are so indifferent and nonchalant about everything that has been going on. I love the greenery and the fishes too! There are quirky parts of our school — like that door! (points to a door at wishing well)  I mean, where does that door go to? I like that door; it’s a bit of an illusion. Just silly little things like that, I think they’re rather nice. I wish they had more pictures around school though. The school campus can be a bit clinical in certain aspects. I like the artworks placed around school, they humanize the place.

Do you have any special mentions for any of the colleagues who have made teaching in RI a more enjoyable experience?

Mr. Rollason (we pretend to hate each other but we love each other really!) and Mr. Reeves. I’ve known Mr. Reeves for 25 years now! Our families are good friends outside school. My husband was the captain of a soccer team that Mr. Reeves used to play in. Both of them were particularly supportive to me when I was going through a difficult time; they give me a reason to be grateful.

All my colleagues in the literature department are fantastic and I’m so grateful for them. And the cleaning lady! I feel that the cleaning staff is always so unrecognised but they make the environment so lovely and they do it so uncomplainingly.

My Birth by Hypnosis-page-002

What is your claim to fame?

I was the first ever Caesarean birth by hypnosis! When my mother was delivering me, she was under hypnosis — there were no sedative drugs. My mother was a nurse in a hospital working in paediatrics. She was a very kind and child-friendly lady. Prior to my birth, she worked with a doctor by the name of Mr Patrick Steptoe, who went on to become the pioneer for IVF babies. Then, he was very interested in the idea of hypnosis. When my mother was pregnant with me, she wanted to witness one of her children being born. So he said to her, “Would you trust me to hypnotise you so you can watch your child be born?” In those days, birth by Caesarean meant a straight cut from the bellybutton right down. So my mother watched herself be slit open and saw me being taken out of her own body. The newspaper article that came out was really funny. There was a line that went: Nicola is now a teacher living in Singapore, with two children of her own — both born naturally. My daughter, upon seeing that line exclaimed that she was on the papers, and that she was famous. I found that really cute! (laughs)

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