Reading Is Life Long

I found out from RCPsych website that my exam result would come up in February. More than two months after the exam itself!

In my mind, I went “Another month of waiting and uncertainties?? I couldn’t bear it!”

We were speculating among ourselves: “Maybe most of the candidates had performed so badly that they need to review the questions again to decide which ones to include in the overall marking.”

This can be bad and can be good.

I am just not sure which one is which for me.

We had also gone to the website to analyze previous patterns of result pronouncement.

Guys, most of the time the result would come out only one month after the exam! So, this is a new pattern emerging all of a sudden!

I just don’t know what to think.

I was not kidding when I said the exam was tough. It was not false modesty on my part. If I pass, it would totally be by the grace of God. Most of the exam questions were HOT (higher order thinking). There was  not much of a straightforward question. It’s not a true and false…. which only requires you to KNOW rather than to apply.

Questions in MRCPsychs gave you situations and asked you to pick the BEST answer rather than the TRUE answer. Several of answer options could fit the situation just as well… and you really have to KNOW in order to apply your knowledge to choose which one is the BEST answer.

By the end of the exam, we were exhausted and depressed. Haha. One of my friends from SP did not finish answering six questions due to lack of time. I myself only finished answering all questions 5 minutes before the allocated time ended. I did not even have the time to check all my answers properly.

And now that the RCPsych examination board had moved the result date to another month, I am assailed by all kinds of apprehension.

Previously, I felt like I could use the waiting time to read a lot of fiction and literature, catching up on my readings. I told myself that it’s okay to be hedonistic for one month! But for two months?? My superego started prodding me to feel guilty! I couldn’t believe myself when at last I picked up my academic book after one month of complete fun reading.

My mother was astonished that I had bothered to study again. She knew me. I only study when the exam is near. (My parents used to badger us to study all the time when we were kids. But by the time we started studying away from home in residential schools, they pretty much thought that we were mature enough and left us to our own devices. I remembered thinking back then, “Yeah, freedom at last” hahha.)

“Baguslah kak ngah study.” She said one day, upon seeing me holding an academic book, while grappling with disbelief at my dramatic behaviour alteration. 

I cringed. “Lama sangat baca buku lagha. Takut otak angah berkarat,”

She laughed.

So nowadays when I am at home, I read on addiction since I am an Addiction MO. And in the clinic, I read a non-fiction book titled “Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry” by Jeffrey A Lieberman which was lent to me by my colleague. I am currently 3 chapters through the book. I must say, this book is quite good and doesn’t feel dry  even though it is a non-fiction.

So be proud of me, dear readers. I am diversifying into non-fiction too, these days! Hahah. I am proud of myself. 😉

You need to read a lot and diversify your reading in order to improve your knowledge and your writing. I believe that reading is the kindest thing you could do for your brain and your soul.

It’s like you are updating your brain software, you know.

My mom had once said to me, “Sampai ke tua ke angah nak baca buku cerita ni?” She had asked, half playfully and half incredulously.

“Ya lah, mak. Mestilah sampai tua. Takkan bila tua tiba-tiba nak berhenti baca buku pula?”

Really! Has anyone stopped feeding when they get old? Reading is like feeding to me. I cannot stop.

Some people are obsessed with gadget. They hold their smartphones all the time.

When I am alone at home, I hold books. So my friends already know not to whatsapp me if they want something urgent from me. Because I won’t notice the messages. If it’s urgent, just call. And I will pick it up, if I am in the mood.

If you are not a good reader yourself, you will never understand the difference between those who read and those who don’t read. I don’t connect with people who don’t read. I can do superficial conversation with them but I don’t feel  stimulated by their talk and their thoughts. I am bored to tears by ordinary small talk.

Stimulating and fascinating conversations can be found among readers… like Miss A, Miss L, Mr. D.

And great writing can only be produced by readers who read a range of books from trashy (picisan) to commercial fiction, to literature to non-fiction and finally academic books. If you don’t experience each category of reading, you yourself are not qualified to give a fair review of books. If you are an English teacher who don’t read a lot, you are going to be clueless on how to give marks to your students’ essays. You will set a low standard. And towards anyone who surpass your standard, you will have no idea how to deal with them.

A ‘picisan’ essay that is not glaringly obvious in grammatical error can obtain an A just like other better essays from other greater students. The marking criteria for English essay is so low that just anyone can get an A. (It’s like budak sekolah agama dapat A dalam karangan bahasa Arab. Entah-entah punya banyak orang yang lagi terer sastera Arab akan rasa karangan Bahasa Arab yang dapat A ni macam level sekolah rendah. Haha)

When I was in high school, me and my friends would read each others’s essay. I can tell, simply by reading their essays, what sort of books are their main staple.

I give you an example: Let’s say you are asked to write about your best friend.

Below are the examples of the many possible introductions to the essay. And I would tell you what I meant when I said I could tell what you read by how you write.

First Example:

I have a best friend named Ratna with whom I always hang out. I have known her since kindergarten and our friendship has remained strong through all these years.

(This is trashy/picisan, folks! While there is no grammatical error whatsoever, I would not give this essay an A. The sentences are simple rather than complex. There is no rhyme or rhythm; no variety in techniques. But at SPM level, this is already considered good enough and MOST English teachers would not mind giving this essay an A as long as there is no glaring grammatical errors. But in my opinion, this introduction is uninspiring, straightforward and nothing special. It is too clinical to be interesting. Sure, the language is effective enough to tell a story… but is it good? Heck, no! So, can you imagine my distress when I was in high school seeing other people had gotten the same A that I got? Look, I wasn’t great myself. Miss A was MUCH better than me. I bet, Miss A had also felt distressed that I got the same A for my essay as she did. Hers was literary, out of the league. Mine was inferior than hers. But what I am trying to say is, picisan kind of writing doesn’t deserve an A. But that’s the SPM level during my time). 

Second Example:

When I first met Ratna, I was struck by the elfin mischief in her eyes as she held my hand and whispered to me, “You and I are going to have the greatest adventure of our lives.”  Since that fateful first meeting, I was stuck with her through thick and thin and only now do I admit that there is no one better I would want to be stuck with.

(This is better! There is usage of complex sentences. The writer also employed the dialogue technique to create a variety. The usage of idiom “through thick and thin” would give the writer an extra mark. There is also an element of suspense when the writer wrote “You and I are going to have the greatest adventure of our lives”. The introduction is already gripping enough that you WANT to know what is going to happen next. You can picture Ratna as a mischievous, fun-loving girl who would bring some sparks into the life of the narrator! You cannot wait to read how the story of their friendship would unfold. I would say the language level of this writer is competent. I would say that the writer reads mostly commercial fiction. I wouldn’t mind giving an A to this writer if the rest of the story is as good as the introduction with no glaring grammatical error. This is good… but not great! I believe that when I was in high school, this is my level of competence. I tried to inject some element of suspense in my essay from the very beginning of my introduction and I use commercial fiction language to do it).

Third Example:

A friend is someone who knows the poetry of your heart and can recite the stanzas back to you when you have forgotten all the poignant words. Someone who can read the unspoken messages between your spoken lines. Someone with whom you can cast your silvery glance at her direction and she would smile meaningfully at you because she knew the hidden treasure of your mind at that moment in time. 

(See? Can you see the difference of the level of competence between all these examples! This one is literary! A lot of metaphorical words. There is some rhythm and rhyme to this whole paragraph. This is the level of Miss A when we were only just high school kids. Most adults and even most English teachers don’t get to this level of competence because they STOP reading… OR because they don’t read literature. This is only an introduction to the essay, not even the whole composition yet! But the beauty of the words struck you somewhere in your chest, and you just KNOW it is going to be a good story. You also just know that this writer is a better reader than you! And you will become slightly envious of her. Hahah)

So, this is why I read! Believe me, language becomes rusty if you don’t polish it up consistently. Ask your friends who attended Chinese School growing up. They forgot their Mandarin if they don’t practice enough after having graduated from school. Even my elder sister had said that her English has become rusty after she started working and having kids because she doesn’t have enough time for reading anymore. It is so sad when you don’t have time to read.

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***

I got along with my English teachers, most of the time. Out of all my English teachers I have had, I was in bad terms with three of them only. That’s not a lot, right? Hahha.

Mr. M was my English teacher when I was in standard 5 and standard 6. The reason we clashed was because I was always caught talking with my two friends at the back. We were not noisy or anything, but we might not be paying that much attention during his class. He called us ‘The Three Musketeers’, when he was in a good mood. But when he was in a bad mood, he would criticize my handwriting (okay, fair enough. I had the worst handwriting in the class. If I had known then that I was going to be a doctor, maybe I could tell Mr. M why my handwriting was actually prophetic in nature. Haha). But otherwise he was a great teacher. He gave something extra in his lessons that were not in the syllabus. He taught us idioms and where to place it in our essays. He explained why a particular sentence was grammatically wrong. Not many English teachers can properly explain grammar, trust me.

But I didn’t get along with my English teachers in MRSM Langkawi. When I was in Form 4, we were asked to form a group to come up with an essay. I attached myself to Miss A, of course. By that time, I already knew that Miss A would come up with better prose than I ever could. We also had another girl from KL whose command in English was great too. We were supposed to write an essay in two pieces of mahjong papers and read it out loud to the class. We had a great team and we wrote a great essay, in my opinion. Ours was the last group to present. But even before the presentation, some of my friends in other groups already commented on what a beautiful story our essay had been.

At the end of the presentation, we fully expected that the teacher would give us a good comment. It was so glaringly obvious that our essay was better than the rest. We had Miss A in our group. It’s a given! But the first comment from the teacher was, “Where did you get the idea for this essay from?”

We were so upset by her comment. It was as though she could not compute that we could come up with something like this on our own!

When I was in Form 5, again another English teacher had accused me of plagiarizing from a novel which she could not even name! How the hell was I supposed to plagiarize during an exam, I had no idea. How her brain could justify such a claim when there was no evidence whatsoever, I could not credit. (But I admit, that essay was controversial. She was a conservative. I was just being creative about a taboo subject. Haha. Like I said, my writings do get me in trouble at times). My mother came to my school to confront the teacher. For the first time, my mother had stood up for me against my teacher. Because my parents knew what I was capable of. They knew that this time their interference was justified.

I didn’t mind if my English teacher didn’t like the subject of my essay; I understood even then how conservative people could be. But she could just tell me why she disagreed with what I had written and why she found the subject distasteful. I could accept that (perhaps not gracefully, but at least I wouldn’t feel a sense of injustice had she simply said that she didn’t like the essay). But to accuse me of plagiarism, that’s a hit on my integrity and my pride and I would NEVER take such an accusation standing down. No way! No matter how controversial and distasteful the subject matter was, I came up with it myself during the exam and her accusation was unjust and unfounded.

She finally apologized… but I was still upset because I didn’t think she would have apologized if my mother hadn’t come to see her, bringing a whole lot of my previous essays and short stories as a proof of my creative acumen. (If it was my father who came, he would straight away see the principal. So, I was kind of grateful that it was my mother who came. I really didn’t want to make a big issue out of this. My father was far more intimidating and forceful than my mother. And as upset as I was, I really didn’t want that teacher to be in trouble. But at the same time, I had to stand up for my rights.)

What I have learned from this experience is that people can only judge you based on the level of their own capability. If they themselves have never been able to come up with something great, they would find it difficult to believe that other people could do something they never could.

Miss A has a far better command in English and writing than ANY English teacher I have ever had as a student. If Miss A were my English teacher, she would never think that her students could not come up with a good essay because she herself had been able to do it multiple times. To her, writing excellently is nothing extraordinary at all and thus she would not have any trouble believing that others could come up with the same quality just as well. She would have no reason to be suspicious of other people’s ability that she herself could display so effortlessly. (But Miss A is now a doctor in a Klinik Kesihatan. She is brilliant in BOTH arts and science). But these English teachers were not that good themselves, so they just found it unbelievable that their students could come up with something better than they could ever dream to come up with! So, the only explanation they could think of is “the student must have plagiarized this from somewhere. It’s just too good”.

I would respect a teacher, if the teacher has a skill worthy of my respect. I would even respect a teacher who may not be skilful in English, but has the mental capacity to recognize a good writing when she sees one. But I could NOT make myself respect someone like my English teacher in MRSM Langkawi.  If that means I ‘tak hormat cikgu’, well, be it!  Memang aku tak hormat pun!

Another lesson I have learned is teachers and authorities are not always right.

I believe that KPM has far better teachers than MRSM. MRSM was great because in the first place they have already chosen straight As students to begin with. My seniors won National Olympiad Competition (for physics, Math and Chemistry) beating TKC and other top schools because they could answer questions that were only appropriate for university level! In our school, it was not surprising to find students who could answer advanced physics and Add Math questions far better than the physics and Add Math teachers themselves. That’s how our school won the Olympiad… our seniors were geniuses whose understanding in those subjects had far surpassed what could be found in regular SPM textbooks and revision books.

Sometimes, we learned from each other far better than what our teachers could teach in the class room. During my time, MRSM teachers were much younger than KPM teachers, and they did not even have diploma of teaching. One of our Physics teacher has a degree in engineering rather than a degree in teaching physics. I also heard a rumour once that one of our biology teachers was supposed to be a doctor but ended up being a teacher in MRSM because she was not able to complete her training and thus she repaid her MARA loan by giving service to MRSM. (Again, she  didn’t have diploma in teaching) When I was in Form 5, our chemistry teacher had some health problems and rarely made it to class. We studied with each other using revision books and by doing a lot of questions.

In the first place, MRSM already have a highly motivated students who are also competitive with each other and would try to beat one another’s marks! Very little of our progress depended on the teachers alone.

So when my specialist Dr. S had sent her young daughter to MRSM Langkawi, I endorsed the school because of the learning environment prevalent in MRSM. But I told her “Tapi cikgu KPM lagi berpengalaman. Cikgu saya kat Asma lagi pandai mengajar. Cikgu kat MRSM pula, lepas diorang grad, sambil bekerja diorang akan buat teaching diploma walaupun diorang dah ada degree dalam bidang masing-masing. Sebab time degree dulu diorang tak diajar teknik mengajar because their degrees are not in teaching. They have degrees in biology, physics, chemistry… but not a degree in TEACHING biology/physics and chemistry. Some of them were supposed to be engineers, doctors or biotechnologist to begin with. Cikgu KPM pula waktu belajar kat uni dulu memang degree in teaching and they will be taught P&P techniques (teknik pengajaran dan pembelajaran). Diorang tak perlu ambil separate teaching diploma dah sewaktu bekerja.”

She shared the same view as I do that KPM teachers are better, because she said her own daughter had said the same thing. “Cikgu Sultanah Bahiyah lagi bagus daripada cikgu MRSM.” even though her daughter obtained four flat in MRSM Langkawi. That four flat was not a reflection of good teaching skills, but good competitive environment. All your friends are clever in MRSM and it is embarrassing when you get bad grades. And thus you tend to work harder and push yourself. So, don’t underestimate learning from peers and peer-driven excellence. Sometimes it might be the only thing that helps. 

***

If you are a science/Math teacher, your students can prove that they are better than you by producing OBJECTIVE answers to questions that you could not answer. (Ni dia, cikgu! Ini jalan kira dia. Ini formula yang kita kena pakai). The fact that you could not answer a question that your student could, is already an objective way of proving that the student is better than you. Math and Sciences are factual subjects. If you learn them, you will know them… and no one can dispute your answers!

But how would a student who is better than you in language or arts can prove to you that she is better than you? Arts and language are not factual subjects. There were times when I wished that I had had the heart to go to her and say, “Let’s compete! Choose one title for an essay. Let’s write the essay based on the title that YOU choose. Set a time limit. And let us write the essay within the given time. Then we can let other English teacher decides whose essay is better! Let’s see how good you are. Let’s see whether your grammar is flawless. Let’s see whether you can use complex syntax and metaphorical prose. Let’s see how well-read you are and whether or not you are qualified to judge my essay or Miss A’s essay. At the end of the day… let’s see whether we are the ones who can teach you how to teach English!” (But people would think I am rude if I ever say such a thing, right? Hahah. Tapi kalau kau tak cabar aku, aku pun takkan cakap macam tu! Aku tak pernah terfikir nak cakap macam tu pun to my other teachers in ASMA or KMB, for example.)

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Art is a talent. It is VERY LIKELY for you to be an art teacher and then find out that your students’ painting is much better than yours. A vocal teacher may not be a better singer than her own students. That’s why not all vocal teachers are also singers.

Language is partly talent and partly effort. Just because you are a language teacher teaching ‘high-school level’ language, doesn’t mean you are a talented essayist.

A teacher who doesn’t read well, would never be able to appreciate whose essay deserve what marks. That teacher may not even be able to appreciate whether the language used is trashy/commercial/literary if she herself is not good at language in the first place but just happens to choose TESL as her undergraduate subject. Even my own sister had admitted that her friends who were studying TESL with her were not very good in English and she could not compute why they wanted to be a TESL teacher in the first place. I was surprised that some of my friends whose command in English are far inferior than me ended up being an English teacher. They may be slightly better than the average Malaysian students (who don’t read much and prefer gadgets over books)  but if they ever come across an above average student who has been reading English all her life, would these teachers still feel they are better than the student? Would these teachers be better than my nephew Eshan and my niece Aayra when they grow up, for example? Maybe when Eshan and Aayra are still in primary school, these teachers might still have something they could teach the kids. But by the time Eshan and Aayra grow into their reading, get into secondary school and become friends with better readers than them, would these English teachers still be able to teach them much if they themselves have mediocre command in the language and just happened to choose TESL as an undergrad once upon a time? Or would they end up accusing their brilliant students of plagiarism just because their brains cannot come up with something good themselves?

So it is even MORE imperative for English teachers to get into the habit of reading continuously so that they can upgrade their language skills and would not embarrass themselves in front of students who are better than them. But how many Malaysian adults STILL read by the time they start working? Most of my friends don’t read anymore, citing petty reasons such as ‘Tak ada masa, anak kacau, banyak housechores’. Most of my doctor friends only read academic books when they are studying for their master, but how many of them read great works of literature? Not many of them do so.

‘Tak ada masa’ is simply an excuse, in my opinion. These people think that reading is a waste of time and something trivial and just a hobby for some people. They didn’t think of reading as a nourishment for God’s greatest gift to His greatest creation. The brain is God’s greatest gift to us, folks. Don’t neglect it.

So this is why I will always continue reading commercial fictions, literatures, as well as upmarket works. And I am now diversifying into non-fictions as well. You can never read enough. You can never improve your writing enough. Reading and writing are the exercise for your brain. It is one of the reasons I have a blog. I also have one specific folder in my computer for other essays/short stories that I write for fun, only to be read by myself and other close friends and family members.

And you cannot write well if you don’t read well. And this is the universal truth!

So I implore you to read continuously for the rest of your life. Reading has stopped becoming just a hobby for me. It has become my mental nourishment, my definition of having a quality of life. I am an advocate of reading because the joy of reading is too immense not to be shared with the rest of mankind. Try it and see for yourself how different your worldview will become the moment you realize how much reading has opened your mind.

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