Win the Game, Lose Ourselves

gradedI recall: one of the school days that has creeped by this week, was followed by dinner at Toa Payoh HDB Hub before a Youth Corps team meeting. I remember, sitting cross-legged outside Koufu on the second floor amidst others- all sparsely spread across the 10 wooden tables outside the air-conditioned area. I prefer the seats outside because the smell of the cooking and the food, sometimes the sweat of others seem to all be trapped in the air of the enclosed area inside, constantly circulated by the wind of the air-conditioning. From the outside, you can hear the sweet-sounding harmonica played from just downstairs. There is an old man, small-built and hunched over. One hand trembles a little as he plays the harmonica and with the other, he holds on tightly to a metal trolley. Every time I have dinner there, I enjoy the music from his harmonica without fail. And I wonder, what circumstance this frail man (who should probably be enjoying his retirement or the company of his grandchildren in the comfortable space he can call home) is in, for him to have to be standing here, bent double with fatigue. I pass by once more at 930PM when my meeting has ended, and he is pacing slowly away from where he was, dragging the trolley behind him.

There is a quiet heartache that comes with the question of what we have neglected in our game of catch-up with the fast-developing world. It seems that as the modern world context continually evolves, we have transferred the value of certain things and people to others. And I wonder, if we continue in this pursuit, will we increasingly find it acceptable to sacrifice those who can’t catch up? Will the importance of the values that we hold true to our hearts begin to decline? How far will we go?

In class one day, our Southeast Asian history teacher shared with us occurrences over the week that had left her somewhat disillusioned toward the direction of society in recent times. They were experiences of witnessing a parent reprimand a primary school child for a 13/20 in an English test, watching students of our school wail about grades and the ways of parents that have constantly fueled our definition of self-worth based on grades. “It seems,” she said, “that we must always get an A at the expense of someone else.” Our transference of value unto academic excellence is not unjustified, but the problem lies in how it has become as if this were some kind of survivor competition, where we must necessarily be differentiated from others through academic grades (i.e. your academic success is only valuable with another’s academic failure). Worse, in the occasion where we fail, we appear to prefer blaming external circumstances to thoughtful introspection: she quoted the example of PW ‘B’ grades being blamed on the grading system instead on one’s own shortcomings. At this rate, we will all be unhappy– this rules out the possibility of being happy together, celebrating each other’s successes together, striving for the betterment of society together, in the different ways through which we are capable. Our academic grades should be celebrated together: it should be taken as a competition against ourselves to continually do better than we did, and a goal towards which we strive because of the promises of opportunity and learning that this pursuit promises.

But there are things that are important to humanity that aren’t graded, and we should strive towards preserving them as well. Let’s not lose the things that make us human, to win the relevancy game.

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