50-year veteran pens book to encourage peers and those considering teaching as a career
It is a rare scholastic feat, one which is yet to be surpassed. In 1988, all 43 students of Class 4A at Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) scored an A1 for English literature in the O levels.
A remarkable achievement, made even more so because the boys were not from the arts stream but were "triple science" students taking physics, chemistry and biology. In those days, science students had to include a humanities subject in their overall aggregate for admission into junior college.
There was no doubt in the students' minds who played the biggest role in their success: their English literature teacher, Mrs Lee Gek Kim.
Mr William Thomas, then the school's headmaster, assigned Mrs Lee to be their literature teacher for two consecutive years, instead of just one. He wasn't going to risk the future of any potential doctor or lawyer in that class just because they failed to do well in their humanities subject.
In her first lesson, Mrs Lee had told the boys that they all had the potential to score a distinction.
Many of them were sceptical. One even told her he had never scored better than a C6 for the subject.
Mrs Lee, who is in her early 70s, recalls: "But I told them to follow me. I had a strategy. I would lay the groundwork, train them for the exams."
And she did, by making sure that every boy understood "each text, each poem, and appreciated the beauty in the works and poets, and enjoyed the experiences, sights and scenes they had to share".
"I sought to open the world to them through what was once a closed door," says Mrs Lee, who by then had chalked up more than 20 years of teaching experience.
The students reciprocated her faith in them by working hard and trusting her.
"I was ecstatic," she says, describing her reaction when the results were announced.
Mrs Lee's lively eyes dance with delight as she recounts the episode, one of the highlights of her teaching career.
And what an illustrious career it has been. The English literature and history graduate from the then University of Singapore has taught for half a century at various schools in Singapore and overseas.
The bulk of it - 39 years - was spent at her alma mater, ACS, where her students included Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen, opposition politician Chen Show Mao, theatre luminaries Glen Goei, Ivan Heng and Adrian Pang and other who's who of Singapore.
Although she officially retired in 2006, she still teaches part-time in Melbourne, where she now lives, and in Singapore, where she returns each year for a few weeks to prepare primary pupils at ACS for their PSLE oral examination.
"I chose to be a teacher," she writes in the preface of her book A Reward Beyond Description, which chronicles her 50 years in the profession.
Vivacious and sprightly, she is the third of seven children of a civil servant and his homemaker wife.
"I'm true blue Peranakan," she says proudly.
Her heritage, she reckons, has shaped her personality to a large extent.
"We are very meticulous, systematic and proper," she says.
Like many Nonyas, she is a good cook. "My father said: 'No daughter of mine will marry into a family without knowing how to cook.'
"When we were growing up, we had to drop whatever we were doing and go down to the kitchen to help every day at 5pm," says Mrs Lee, who grew up in a shophouse in Koon Seng Road, near Katong.
It explains why she doesn't hanker after local food in Australia.
"The only thing I need in Melbourne now is a durian tree. Whatever I can't get, I make myself," she says with a laugh.
She completed her primary and secondary education at St Hilda's, where she received a good grounding in the English language, thanks to teachers who were native speakers from the United Kingdom.
One in particular, Mrs Dorothy Pike, became her role model and inspired her to become a teacher.
In secondary school, she wanted to become a Girl Guide but was not allowed to do so by her parents, who felt that hiking, camping and outdoor activities were not safe for girls.
"Mrs Pike came to my house and convinced my parents it was okay. Because we were poor, she even got me the money to make my uniform," says Mrs Lee, who went on to become the president of the Trefoil Guild, an adult branch of the Singapore Girl Guides' Association, in the 1990s.
It was also because of Mrs Pike that she became a prefect.
"One teacher's faith in me shaped my life in the years to come," says Mrs Lee, who still keeps in touch with her mentor, who is now in her 90s and living in England.
When she was 15, her late father, to whom she was very close, took her on a trip to Malaysia which changed her life. As the bus travelled along Bukit Timah Road towards the Causeway, she caught sight of a brick-red clock tower behind a row of trees.
"When I asked him, he told me that was ACS. He said it was a very good school which had produced many prominent Singaporeans and that it was very hard to get into. I didn't tell him then but I harboured a desire to study there."
After completing her O levels, she applied to the school's pre-university class instead of to St Andrew's, where most St Hilda's students went.
She got in.
"I felt out of place initially. Many of the students were rich kids who came in chauffeured cars, but what was I? But I'm not easily daunted. I mingled and adapted," she says.
There she met the man who was to become her husband, now retired. The couple have two sons, aged 44 and 48, working as a lawyer and librarian.
At university, she sewed her own clothes, gave tuition and taught in evening classes for adults to earn her own pocket money.
She had two teaching offers upon her graduation. One was to take over from Mrs Pike, who was returning to the UK, at St Hilda's, but she would have to wait one year. The other offer was from ACS and required her to start immediately.
"I couldn't afford to wait; I had to start earning money," says Mrs Lee, who started work at the school on March 15, 1968.
Except for brief stints and attachments at other schools, she stayed at ACS for almost four decades, retiring only in 2006. Along the way, she obtained a master's in English literature from the National University of Singapore as well as a string of teaching qualifications.
Her approach to teaching was simple, regardless of the classes she was given.
"When they give you the best class, they also give you the worst one. So you need to have dexterity of mind; you must adjust when you are in different situations and use different approaches."
She adds: "Kids are willing to learn if you have something to teach them. If you show you care, they're with you all the way. You have to let them know that you care, and that they matter."
Teaching, she says, is like flying a kite.
"You must know when to pull and when to let go."
Some of Singapore's most prominent personalities were her students.
Defence Minister Ng was in her Secondary 4 Literature class in 1974.
In a message for her book, he wrote: "She accepts her students as they are, yet always believing that each can be engaged, enthused and motivated, and that a way can be found, even if persistence is needed."
Mrs Lee remembers all her students vividly, including opposition politician Chen, whom she describes as "brilliant and outstanding".
Many of the Little Red Dot's theatre luminaries - from Ivan Heng to Ong Keng Sen - also had their start at the school's Drama Society, where she was teacher-adviser.
"Adrian Pang was a joker, very playful in class. He dutifully studied law but is now pursuing his dream," she says, referring to the actor who went on to found theatre company Pangdemonium with his wife, Tracie.
Although earmarked for bigger things, she chose to remain in the classroom. In 1976, she reluctantly agreed to take on the role of senior assistant (the equivalent of a deputy principal), which saw her teaching load halved.
After three years, she requested to go back to the classroom.
"Administrative work, anyone can do. I like to see the difference I can make."
Forensic accountant Wan Yew Fai, 53, came to Singapore in 1981 as a 15-year-old from Ipoh. His command of the English language was less than stellar when Mrs Lee became his literature teacher.
"I hadn't seen a book by Shakespeare in my life and there I was studying Julius Caesar. 'Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home,'" he says quoting the first line of the Shakespearean tragedy. "First line already I didn't understand. I was thinking to myself: 'Why am I learning all this rubbish?' I thought I was going to fail."
But Mrs Lee, he adds, was remarkably patient and encouraging.
"She made me see the beauty of the language. Slowly, I got the hang of it and by the end of the first year, I truly loved it," says Mr Wan, who ended up getting an A1 for the subject in his O levels.
He thanks Mrs Lee for giving him a solid foundation in the English language.
"I worked in the US Embassy, auditing foreign assistance. I could never have landed a job like that without a good command of English," he says.
Mrs Lee says she derives a lot of happiness from the relationships she has formed with her students over the years. Many have become close friends who invite her to weddings (including those of their children) and other important milestones in their life.
Her schedule when she returns each year from Melbourne - where she teaches at a Catholic boys' school three times a week - is jam-packed with reunions and dinners with different students.
Writing the book, priced at $29.90 and available at Chinatown Heritage Centre and other major bookstores, was her students' idea.
"They feel I should pass on my love for teaching to encourage other teachers or those who are thinking of going into the profession. My husband also felt I should write it," says the grandmother of two teenagers.
The septuagenarian is lithe and toned, thanks to daily Body Pump classes, which involve choreographed movements to music using weights.
Asked what else she does to remain youthful, she replies cheekily: "Now that's for another book."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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