Two weeks ago, the results of the Cambridge GCE O level Examinations came out. They’re the final exams all Secondary School students take at the age of 16.
I’m pretty sure it must have been a mad rush for students and their parents to try and secure a place in the next institution that they want to study. At least, that was what I experienced 10 years ago (I can’t quite believe it’s been 10 years already, it feels like a lifetime ago!).
Within the next couple of days, the results of which schools the students are going to will be posted. Whether they’re going to Junior College, Millennial Institute, Polytechnic or ITE, their whole life will hinge on these results.
No actually, that’s a lie.
But that’s what I assumed when I was 16, waiting eagerly for my results of where I was going to go.
What happens after you put in all the hard work?
I still remember what it was like when I was 16, waiting to receive my results. The school would sit us down, make sure we’re wearing our school uniforms again and check our hair (those who dyed their hair actually had to go home and put black dye because it’s against school regulations to have coloured hair).
And then they’d tell us all about how our lives aren’t over if we got a bad grade, how we have to work harder from now on, how our lives are about to begin.
And 30 minutes later, I’d see people crying everywhere.
Yes, they can tell us however much they want that our lives aren’t over if we got a bad grade. But the truth is we’d been preparing for this day for 4 years, ever since we were nervous Secondary 1 kids with no friends to confident Secondary 4 kids hiding our mobile phones from our teachers and trying to wear our home clothes to school every chance we get.
Noooo… back when I was tiny and awkward. Then again I’m still tiny.
That one single day proved to us (and our parents mostly) how much effort we’ve put into our studies, how much we’ve done with our lives so far and how badly we want to get into a good school (if we didn’t get into a prestigious Junior College, we’re probably automatically stupid and lazy).
Now whenever I think back to that day, I think of how silly we all were. Those who were crying 10 years ago are now smiling with great lives and great boyfriends and great careers. I check out Facebook and see their graduation pictures and their office parties and travel pictures and I feel happy for them. Life has indeed begun.
There was a point my 16 year old life when I believed I wouldn’t be able to even graduate from O levels, and yet here I am with a Masters degree. Life has begun for me too.
But the thing is, fast forward to 2015 and there is still the same stigma for those who have gotten their O level results right now. Those 16 year old students this year still think I did badly for English / Maths / Geography. My life is over.
And this is because Singapore society still places such a big stress on getting good grades. If we didn’t get good marks, then we won’t be able to get a good job. We’re probably not smart enough. Our aunties and neighbours will gleefully compare each other’s children’s results as though they’re trophies, each one trying to outdo each other.
I’m not trying to criticize the Singapore society or education system. I think there are benefits to it, like how it pushes us to go further than we thought we could ever go, and it makes us more accomplished beings in the long run.
But I’m here to say that life isn’t over when that result slip comes out.
It’s been almost 10 years since I got my O level results. I admit, I was a bit disappointed when I first got them because I expected an A2 in English but got a B3, but I had a very hard time in Secondary School so holding my results were more of a relief than anything else.
And I ended up going to the course that was my first choice in Temasek Polytechnic, even though I didn’t get an A in English. My life wasn’t “over” just because I got one not-good-enough grade.
But 10 years ago, I was still a kid who didn’t know where to go. And here’s the things I wish I could have told that just-finished-O-levels me, here’s the things I wish someone told me when I was 16:
1) Don’t be afraid to go after what you want.
16 year old me was a pushover. No, really.
I didn’t know how to say no. And I was always a follower rather than a leader, even though a lot of the times I was in the company of people younger than me who could probably look to me for direction. Most of all, I didn’t know how to ask for what I want.
I’d have to rehearse a thousand times in my head before I can ask someone for something, and sometimes I’d just leave clues around hoping someone will get the gist of what I want.
But people are not mind-readers. And the amazing thing is, if I ask, people will likely say yes anyway. Can I have some time with you to do an interview? Can I borrow 20 minutes of your time to ask an important question? Do you mind helping me out with this? The answer is usually yes.
2) Don’t think, just do.
Ah oh my god, I still struggle with this till now. Maybe it’s because human beings have this resistance to doing things, they have inertia all the time and just want to stay in their own comfort zone.
There are so many times when I think about doing something, but the timing’s not right, or I haven’t thought this through or it isn’t perfect right now and then it snowballs into many months or a year and I haven’t done anything about it.
But the funny thing is how amazing I feel after I accomplish something, and how I can’t wait to feel it again. When I was 17, I pushed myself to get an internship at CLEO, and it felt amazing to accomplished that (not to mention the bragging rights).
But instead, I didn’t use that as a springboard. I still continued to stop myself and drag my feet instead. 16 year old me, don’t think, just do.
If you want to be an angel, go be an angel. I mean, unless you can be a unicorn, then maybe you should go be a unicorn instead.
3) Give yourself space to experiment.
I was lucky. My love of writing grew from a very young age, when my love for reading began. And my love for acting was found when I was 13 and in Secondary 1. I didn’t appreciate or hone both skills till I was much older though.
That’s because my heart kept searching. I kept looking and I kept wondering whether there was something else out there that I was good at. I wanted to draw but I’m pretty bad at drawing.
So I kept trying out different things in the years after I was 16, although other people kept telling me what I was good at was writing. I just wanted to try something else out.
And I’m glad I did. When I first finally got back into writing, I thought, what a waste of all these years. When I finally got back into acting, I thought, I should have done this again earlier.
But now I’m happy I took the time to try other things out. It gave me a chance to try sub-editing, and photography, and animations, and filming documentaries, and it gave me the realization that I am pretty good at studio directing actually (even though it’s super stressful at the same time).
HELLO! Welcome to my studio!
And most importantly, it gave me the understanding of how much I appreciate writing and acting when I finally came back to it.
4) Don’t worry about what other people think of you.
Another thing that I still struggle with on a much smaller scale now. But when I was 16 I had a debilitating fear of what people thought of me, and I suffered from anxiety issues. What I found hardest to deal with was the fear of what other people thought of me.
Which is silly because in the end this is my life, and no one else’s.
I mean, if I wanted to like rap songs and the colour pink at the same time, I should be able to, right?
But I was always embarrassed because I didn’t know what people would think of me, or how people would judge me. Which was why when I started modeling and acting, I rarely showed people any of my work.
When my bus ad came out, I waited for people to tell me they saw it than to tell people that I’M ACTUALLY ON A BUS, GO FIND ME. The ad might actually still be around in Singapore, I have no idea. But anyway, I was so self-conscious that I didn’t dare tell people. And I thought if I ever talked about it, I will probably seem really narcissistic.
I wish I could tell 16 year old me not to be so shy or self-conscious because I probably would not have been so afraid to do a lot more back then.
5) Embrace change.
Change sucks. I admit that myself.
But then again change can be for the better. And so much of the time, the changes in my life has made my life better, or at least it has taught me how to live my life better.
Change has given me the chance to grow, whether physically or mentally or emotionally or in other areas in my life. Change has forced me to confront things I didn’t want to deal with, change has turned me into a better and smarter person (but also more cynical, I admit that)
I was always afraid of change because I’d rather be somewhere comfortable. I hated changing classes, I hated switching from class to a workplace, I hated graduating.
But change is inevitable, and now I can look back and laugh. Because I know that my life has only changed for the better.
I think I look better now too. That’s one change I’m happier with!
6) It’s okay if you still don’t know what you want.
The one big problem with choosing which institution to study next is What if I don’t know what I want to study next? I’ve seen this dilemma happen time and time again, whether for JC students, or Poly students, or ITE students. Some of them don’t know what they like, so their parents choose for them. And then later they feel like they made a mistake going into this particular course.
Others, sadly, know what they want but their parents want something else for them and push them into doing that something else. And they again feel that their next 2 – 3 years will be a mistake.
That’s okay. Because no matter what, there’s always something else you can take out of the course, even if you didn’t like it. It could be leadership skills or teamwork skills or learning a new software. And these skills will soon come in handy anyway.
Whenever I go into a job and suddenly think it’s a mistake, I’ve learnt years later that there’s a skill I’ve learnt that will come in handy after all. Doing an events job means that I have the knowledge to train other people, doing customer service has taught me how to deal with people and how to do public speaking. There’s always something to learn somewhere.
And if you haven’t figured out what you want to do as a career, there’s time. It’s cliche, but it’s true. And many people have successfully jumped ship to other careers with the realization that their accounting / finance / information management skills have indeed helped them in one way or another.
7) School isn’t everything.
And finally, the one thing that 16 year old me really should have known all along: school isn’t everything. Yes, it was a huge part of my world when I was that age, because that’s what I mainly had to do at that time: go to school.
But there were so many other things in life that are pretty big and I didn’t quite grasp, like spending more time with my extended families, and trying to get to know my friends and schoolmates better. I wish I wasn’t so afraid to talk to my teachers and to people who were older than me.
I wish I understood that success in the classroom didn’t automatically equate to success in the real world. I was constantly so hung up on my grades because I believed that determined everything that I was.
I got depressed when my graphic design/brochure/poster projects all came back with below average grades. I got pissed off when I was rejected for a subject and took it out on my hands and the walls of the toilet. I was a young child, I was an angry child, and I believed that school was the only most thing important world.
I wished I spent more time on other things like health. I wish I relaxed a bit, and I wish I would stop constantly comparing passion with talent.
I wrote this to myself on 14 September 2006 (I was 17):
“We got back our exam results.
B for Marketing, B for Journalism 1, C for Media and Society, C for Essential Graphics and C for Graphic Design Fundamentals.
The ironic part of yesterday was that I was so happy initially. That I didn’t have to take any supplementary papers, and that my marks were okay.
It was only later at night when I realised the full extent of everything. That it’s true. It doesnt matter how much hard work I put in, or if I’m dedicated to the task at hand, or how much passion I’ll have for CMM, or even how much research I put in, if I lack the necessary skills, I’ll just… never be good enough.
It was only later at night that I really realised the full extent of everything, and cried in my bed.
I didn’t sleep until morning.
I feel like Joakim Gomez.”
I can look back at it now and laugh. Because that was my first year when I was 17, and I had barely begun to understand what I needed to do. But I would continue to struggle with school for the next few years.
That struggle has finally led to contentment now. I’m happy with myself, and I’m happy with my grades now. And most of all, I’m happy with the realization that my past grades don’t make me.
To that 16 year old me, just spend more time finding yourself and finding your voice.