M is unhappy that his tuition class is coming to an end this weekend. Sad, he wishes that I could continue teaching him. Different from his peers, M has asked me a few times, “Teacher, why do my friends call me ‘dumb’?”
Although his mother may be unaware about his condition, his characteristics remind me of 2 other students. Sharing many common traits, these 3 Chinese boys have etched a space for themselves in my long term memory and my heart because of their uniqueness. Mild autism.
Some 20 years ago, K’s parents made an appointment to meet me at my tuition centre in Ang Mo Kio. Although K had been diagnosed with autism, they were careful not to mention it to me. Instead they highlighted his slowness and inability to solve complex Math sums. Gradually, I realised that they did this because they found it difficult to find a teacher who believed it was possible for autistic students to understand and excel beyond the boundary of solving linear problem sums. Well, the parents did not have to worry about me because the thought of autism or the idea that it was impossible did not enter my mind until a few weeks afterwards when I repeatedly discovered that an invisible barrier stood between K and non-linear concepts.
K was with me for a full tuition year (10 months) and M, whom I am currently teaching, has been with me for perhaps 8 months or so. Venturing into their hearts and minds, I empathized with them, imagining how it feels to be different in a crowd of conventional students. Well, I feel sad for them. Why? Things have not changed much for them. They are teased and bullied in school. I believe many of them suffer from this although I have heard of the reverse too!
M feels sad because no one understands him except me perhaps. This partly explains why the tuition classes are important to him. Sometimes he would bombard me with so many questions that concern him as a beginning teenager. But I run a tuition programme, and I would remind him that these questions are outside of areas of paid discussion. However, I think I have answered most of his questions.
To those who think that such discussions are a waste of time, you must think again. When you enter the world of a person and touch his heart, something special takes place and often that person would be motivated to excel. In this case, from failing Math, M is now the 2nd top scorer in his Primary 5 Foundation Math class. He has become so motivated that he completes dozens of pages of Math practice sums on his own. This is an achievement. How many kids do this on their own?
As parents, teachers and tutors, we must enter our children’s worlds and experience a little of how they live life without judgement. Yes, even if it means taking 2 minutes to listen sincerely to a Korean song or patiently watch a Youtube video that tickles them (and maybe not you). Why? We can help them navigate better. Many of our young ones are lost and they need guidance. You can help guide them better if you are a part of their world. This is also true of our young ones who are a little different. Perhaps they need more of this from us – parents, teachers and yes, tutors too.
This weekend is the closing of a chapter in my annual book. It is the last class of my regular 2018 tuition classes. There are so many different things I have learned and experienced. Teaching M is certainly one of them.
(Note: K and M are not the initials of my students.)