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Jun 30, 2019

The spirit lives on

[Source: The Straits Times, 10 November 1982]

By Irene Pates

'Learning, the principal of St Nicholas reminded her students, constitutes only a part of the personal quality, and in life she would have them remember the spirit of St Nicholas:  "A spirit ... of strong convictions, high ideals, devotion and simplicity"'

Ten years ago, a six-year-old girl started her first day at St Nicholas Girls' School.

For more than a week she sat somewhere in the back row, and during Chinese and civics lessons she sulked.

She knew no one in class, but what made her feel so morose was that while all the other girls responded to the teacher's questions with an enthusiastic "yes" or "no", she had no idea what was being said because she did not understand a single word of Mandarin.

She did not know how to say "yes" and "no" in Mandarin, although she was soon to recognise these words by her classmates' enthusiasm or lack of it.

Her parents had decided to send her to St Nicholas Girls' School for several reasons.

Both of them had been brought up in the tradition of mission schools.  Both had been educated in English.  While her father could read and write elementary Chinese, her Straits-born Chinese mother was not even able to write her surname in Chinese.

Both had had fairly traditional Chinese upbringing.  Her paternal grandparents had come from Shanghai in 1939.  Her mother is Peranakan, whose ancestors had settled in Malacca centuries ago.

Her parents realised that there are many universal values taught in all schools and that traditional Chinese teachings or Confucianism has no monopoly on what is good and worthwhile in enduring values.

However, they wanted their first child to be at home with both English and Chinese.  They realised also that in an age when children were given more freedom because of Westernisation, a Chinese education could help to temper in their daughter the possible adverse effects of so much exposure to a Western way of life.

Their little girl came from a home where English and Cantonese were spoken.

She recovered from that initial culture shock, or rather, language shock, of her first few days at school.

She soon learned enough Mandarin to understand her teachers in class.  But during recess she was more friendly with those girls who spoke English or Cantonese.

This proved to be short-lived because she found out soon that the principal wanted the girls to speak only English to each other on certain days, and Mandarin on other days.

The St Nicholas girls love their principal and they obeyed.

Thus her exposure to Mandarin was increased.

The first few Chinese dictation exercises that she brought home for her parents to initial were merely a series of triangles, topped by the teacher's nought.  She found learning to write Chinese characters very difficult.  She did not know where to start.

Her mother, a teacher, made an arrangement with one of her pre-university students who had attended the Catholic High School.  She would give him and a group of students extra help in the General Paper after school hours.

He in turn would help his teacher's daughter with Chinese.

Being helped in Mandarin by a gege (big brother) whom she liked did the Primary One pupil a lot of good.

He made sure that she learned to write Chinese characters with the correct strokes and in the proper order.

She began to show some improvement in class.

Soon her father was left behind by his daughter in Chinese.  As her Chinese outpaced his, he could no longer give her very much help.

Then followed a short period when she had the help of a home tutor, but her parents felt that she had to learn to work on her own.  Her teacher in school was always available when she needed help.  So private tuition was discontinued.

So the years went by and then it was time to decide on the school that she should attend after Primary School Leaving Examination.

Initially, her parents had thought that she should attend an English secondary school.  She had the advantage of an English-speaking home environment.  The six years' education in the Chinese medium would give her a head start with Chinese as a second language.

However, so pleased were her parents with the care that she had been given by her teachers in her six years at St Nicholas, that they hoped she would qualify to be able to continue her secondary education in the same school, which she did.

This 16-year-old schoolgirl and her classmates attended the Graduation Ceremony 1982 of the school.  Graduating with them were the pupils of the Primary Six classes.

The principal, Mrs Hwang nee Lee Poh See, describing hereself as "a mother reluctant to see her children go", spoke of the St Nicholas spirit that had infused all of the girls in her care.  It was this spirit which helped them through their school days. 
She recalled the times when, putting the welfare of the group as a whole above individual excellence, the girls would stay in school after class in order to help one another.

In Chinese, for example, those who were more fluent would help the less confident ones.

Learning, she reminded them, constitutes only a part of the personal quality and in life she would have them remember the spirit of St Nicholas :  "A spirit ... of strong convictions, high ideals, devotion and simplicity."

Half the hall was filled with parents which as Sister Celine, the guest of honour, said, was testimony to the care and concern that these parents had for their daughters.

The parents sat in the school hall and watched each girl go on stage to collect her certificate.  To Mrs Hwang and her teachers, these girls had been their children - some for a period of six years and some for 10 years.

As the parents looked out, they saw, through the arched doorways, the school field and the grass that struggles to grow despite the weight of more than a thousand white canvas-clad feet at morning assembly.

Beyond the field is the old chapel and the playground.

In the school hall the old ceiling fans stirred the air.  Some lights were on.  Not many schools have such old ceiling lights.

All these would be changed when the new school at Ang Mo Kio is ready and St Nicholas Girls' School, so long at Bras Basah, will be resited.

How many more graduation ceremonies will there be in the old school hall?

Meanwhile at this ceremony for the pupils who would leave at the end of 1982, pupils parents and teachers together sang:

My friends and my teachers,
These old crumbling walls,
Creaky floor boards,
Echoing rooms,
Everything old and familiar ...
I'll take with me memories,
Memories to treasure
Memories to dream by
To staunch the tears.
And when these girls leave, they will also take with them the strength of the St Nicholas spirit, acquired during their school days.

I know it because that little girl who was so unhappy 10 years ago is my daughter.



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