By Choo Shuen Ming (16A01E)
Honestly, we were weary.
Alongside the mild fun talking with classmates and wrestling with our ties, the usual cynicism was very much alive and many of us were sleepy and grumbling in some way or another about having been volunteered by a random number generator, having to wake up at 6am, and having to get ourselves there early on a Saturday morning. Then we tried to console ourselves with the knowledge that we had free lunch catered. (The comfort didn’t last.) During the ceremony itself, aside from some high points like seeing batchmates/seniors/beloved teachers we knew receiving awards there was the usual inattentiveness, as most of us either chatted, dozed or flipped listlessly through the event booklet. It was largely the same reaction as with most of these events and assemblies – we go in with a sigh, expecting it to be boring and the meaningless.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. I had an article to write, so I battled to stay awake and give the ceremony a chance, and ended up finding some food for thought in that Saturday morning.
For instance, do we appreciate our teachers enough? Founder’s Day was the first time some of us saw our teachers putting on academic gowns and partaking in the staff procession done in the spirit of recognizing our teachers’ contributions. Also noteworthy was how with the Stamford Raffles Award (awarded to a Y4 and Y6 student with ‘high intellectual attainment, outstanding achievement in CCA, as well as exemplary character and leadership’), the teacher who most inspired the awardee was recognized as well. Seeing these, I wondered, perhaps we don’t appreciate our teachers enough, as we say “Thank you and goodbye” day after day in our slow, dead voices.
The ceremony also surfaced the prevalent attitude of quantifying and concretising things. For instance, principal Mr Chan’s school report opened with a slew of numbers — how many distinctions, how many medals, how many colours awards — extending even to the arts (15 events for Artseason 2015). It does reflect the range of pursuits Rafflesians engage in, but one can’t help but wonder if this emphasis on how many and how much is healthy, and if there might be other better ways to view things. In the Stamford Raffles Award and Wijeysingha Scholarship as well, there’s an attempt to attach the tangible marker of an award, to characteristics such as ‘exemplary character and leadership’ or ‘best [manifesting] the Rafflesian spirit’ respectively. I believe it’s good to recognize pursuits beyond the usual academics and competitions, but might awards have limitations when it comes to such subjective things? Could there be other ways of recognizing character?
The ceremony also raised the question of time. With our outgoing Head Councillor Isaac Leong noting that it would be his penultimate speech in RI, and Founder’s Day itself being an anniversary, there were subtle reminders about how quickly our time in Raffles will come to pass. Even the prize presentation added to that awareness of impermanence. Soon, we might (hopefully) be the ones onstage, receiving a certificate for our outstanding A level performance. Further still, in a few decades, we may find ourselves back in the hall again, as one of the many parents craning to get photographs of their children.
Another issue that came up was the question of what school should be about. Isaac also talked about how we should “look past the A levels” and explore beyond the exam scope, and Mr Chan similarly urged us to make time amidst our academics and CCAs to do good and help others through service. School is indeed more than just the A levels, but in the end all of us only have 2 years here in Y5-6, and so the question is, what do we want to do with this time? None of these questions are simple, and some even deserve articles of their own. I certainly won’t attempt to answer them here. Instead, the point is, perhaps what’s worthwhile doesn’t necessarily lie in the events themselves, but in what we make of them. The ceremony taken on its own was fairly ordinary as ceremonies go, but as seen above, it could be much more worthwhile if we started delving deeper into things instead of just taking them as is. By examining things a little more closely, and mulling over them, the time spent becomes more meaningful and worthwhile than it otherwise might be.
Too often though, we don’t wonder about all these issues. If I hadn’t been taking notes, all the above thoughts probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind. The physical realities of waking up early can be overpowering, and I would probably have done what most were doing: meditating, or chatting in whispers. Some activities of choice were: 1) The Casual – slouching back 2) The Deep in Thought – hunched over 3) The Hardcore – brought a novel 4) Feeling Social – chatting 5) Artist at Work – doodling.
When we zone out, our behaviour actually becomes rather weird, if you think about it. Take the prize presentation for instance. As the endless list of names was read out, we applauded after each one — name, applause, name, applause, nameapplause, napplesauce, till the names stopped meaning anything and became sounds, and our applause was robotic, and we were talking to the people beside us or dozing off. So for 20 minutes, we put on one big surreal and inexplicable performance. Who were we applauding for? Why were we applauding exactly? We didn’t really know and it didn’t matter, we just did it, because we were zoned out, unthinking.
The other usual alternative to tuning out is to be cynical and dismissive, as some were. We tend to do this a lot, when we dismiss talks as being a waste of time or mere propaganda, and when we go in already having decided not to pay attention since we believe it won’t be worthwhile. Then, at the end of it, we do in fact end up bored and miserable, having not gained anything since we chose to reject the talk in the first place. Neither alternative satisfies. All too often, we end up walking out of the hall dazed, groggy and vaguely frustrated – we’ve wasted our own time sitting there, sleepily vegetating or fuming cynically.
So naturally the question arises: why do we keep doing this to ourselves? As far as zoning out goes, most of us are sleep-deprived, from long hours at school and our various commitments. Tuning out is often a natural result of all the exhaustion. It’s hard to help in the moment itself as dealing with it would involve long-term adjustments in our lifestyle and sleeping habits, which judging from the number of unconscious people in the hall on Saturday, is something we should probably consider spending some time fixing. Our cynicism, on the other hand, is a more immediate affair. We feel dissatisfied at having been effectively made to show up. So, our way of tacitly rebelling is to be dismissive, to adopt the attitude of “we don’t want to play your game”. Perhaps we believe that if we pay attention, we’re resigning ourselves to our fate of being there, playing along and giving in to the system. But we’re not. Paying attention doesn’t necessarily mean being brain-washed. What you want to ponder and question remains up to you. We always have a choice, about how we wish to approach things, and what we want to think about.
As David Foster Wallace talked about in his commencement address to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College,
… it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. … But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice … you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.
We don’t have to just sit there, taking in the ceremony passively as we work ourselves up. We can choose. So why not choose to wonder, to rouse ourselves from our stupors, and make sense out of all these somewhat absurd occasions that crop up so often in our lives? I acknowledge that it’s not easy. Between handling school commitments, pursuing our own interests, and being there for the people in our lives that matter, most of us, myself included, won’t be able to help but be overwhelmed on some days. On those days, we’ll stumble through things half-awake, and just tune right out. That happens, and it’s only normal to have some days like these. But on those other days, when we have the will and energy to, we can choose to think, to see what’s absurd instead of surrendering to it, and maybe even do something to change those for the better. In the face of all the mundane yet somewhat odd things that get thrown at us, instead of just taking it, why not question, think, and do a little wondering?