This article is about my dream of helping every child to find purpose in their lives, to develop their unique talents fully, and to live a life filled with love close to their loved ones.
My dream was inspired by someone I love. That person is my brother. I once silently swore to myself, that I will give up my life for him.
I have three siblings. I am the eldest. Since young I have been taught to look after my brothers and sister. To set an example for them. I always try to play that role well.
To know how my brother inspired my dream, I would have to bring you back in time, to hear my story since I was very young.
I was quite smart as a child and my parents taught me well, so I more or less cruised through my primary school life. I excelled at all academic subjects, and I represented my school for pretty much all story-telling and public speaking competitions. I did well in primary school and was given a chance to come to Singapore to continue my secondary education in The Chinese High, one of the top schools. Life was good for me.
Not so for my brother Mango, who was 4 years younger than me. We attended the same school. It’s probably not hard to imagine how he was always regarded as “Jiesheng’s brother”. Everything he did was benchmarked against me. I never knew how it felt to grow up like that, but it probably wasn’t too pleasant.
Mango was an adorable and obedient kid. He was not as book smart as me, but was a more outgoing, hands-on, down to earth person, who loved chit chatting with relatives, while I always hid myself behind books. Mango was also athletic and dashing, quite the opposite of me. His idol was Bruce Lee and some Canto teenage heartthrob, much to my parents’ displeasure.
We were not especially close as kids. As we grew up, as I started studying in Singapore, life got very very hectic for me, and I started to lose track of what was happening in his life. I heard that he did so-so for his UPSR (a Malaysian equivalent of Singapore’s PSLE) and he would attend a local secondary school.
Things were fine at first. Mango had fun in school. He even brought back his classmates home, and I remembered hosting them. Quietly I was assessing his friends’ characters. They were good kids.
A few years later, amidst all my busy-ness, I heard from my parents that Mango got into bad companies. That he neglected his studies and just wanted to play with his friends all the time.
My parents got really worried. They asked him to stay focused in his studies and leave his friends. He refused.
After much deliberation, my father decided to transfer Mango to a school in Klang, which is about 6 hours by bus from Johor Bahru town, where we stayed. He would stay with my aunt’s family.
Mango could not do much. We packed his stuff and sent him to Klang to live with our relative. I did not even send him off. I was too caught up with school life in Singapore.
I heard that he shut himself off from others for a long time after he moved to Klang. His best friends no longer contacted him. His life was turned upside down. My parents did what they knew best. They were trying to save him from their perceived bad companies. They were heartbroken to send him away too. But they felt that they had no choice.
Hard to say goodbye
Every school vacation, Mango would come home to stay with us. He became very quiet, and he never told us anything about his life in Klang. At the end of every vacation, when he had to go back to Klang, my father would send him to the long distance coach station. I heard that Mango would be all teary during those occasions, while my father would try hard to blink back tears. The end of vacations was always heart-wrenching.
All these school transfer and change of environment did my brother no good. It backfired. Not only did he not mix with “bad companies” in Klang, he also did not mix with anyone. He just became silent and withdrawn.
Perhaps, something was broken in him during that few years, and it never really recovered.
End of school life
Mango struggled with studies. After some years, my parents decided to stop his studies and bring him back to help in my dad’s construction business.
At our father’s construction business, Mango worked hard quietly. He never complain about trading pen for sledge hammer. All the hard labour at work site transformed him from a scrawny boy to a hulking man. But even as he worked hard, his heart was not in there. He never bothered to learn the ropes to take over the family business.
That was when the real problem started to appear. Mango seemed to have no directions in life. He would not expressed much interests in jobs. I could not find anyway to motivate him. In fact, my frequent lectures just pushed him away from me further.
The only time I saw him getting excited was when he got recruited to be an insurance agent. For that two to three years, he was a different person. He would wake up early to attend meetings. He would talk passionately about how capable his manager was, and how he aspired to be like him. I was actually very happy to see his change.
However, his insurance days did not last long. After some initial successes, Mango’s insurance career went into a slump. His manager stopped pushing and stopping guiding him. After a while, he just stopped his work in insurance. He was back to his closed-up self.
What could I have done?
I asked myself, what could I have done to help my brother?
Does learning have to be so difficult for someone like him, who was athletic and not bookish?
How would things be different, if someone could see the talent my brother had, and offer a way to develop his talents into something more concrete, with a more foreseeable future?
How can one counsel rebellious teens like my brother, so that they can understand how to communicate better with their families and empathise with their parents?
So that they can have a healthy sense of self-identity, even when they are different.
And so that families never have to take drastic measures like what my dad did and suffer the pain of separation.
Perhaps something deep in me still wanted to help my brother, even though he is now already all grown up and has his own family.
What I want to do: the third place
My vision is to create a “third place”, which is not school and not home, which is a great place to hang out for young people.
At this place, they are not judged for being self-expressive or different. They learn to communicate with one another respectfully and truthfully. They learn to follow the rules of this community.
There are greatly skilled teachers with hearts for young people at this place. These Coaches are trained to help them learn effectively using well researched learning techniques and suitable learning styles. The aim is not to produce how many A-star students, but rather cultivate the confidence of their ability to learn, and curiosity to learn more.
Some of the adults, called Guides, in this place are also trained counsellors. They are trusted and respected by young people. They teach young people about the adults’ world and how to empathise and communicate with their parents, school teachers and other adults.
These Guides are not all young. Some of them might have their own young or grown up children, but they are all young at heart and are humble enough to always be learning new things, to keep up with times. They also have ample life experiences to share to the young people in this place. Most importantly, because they can relate to the young people and the adults around them, they are able to act as an effective bridge of communication between the young people and the adults.
There are teacher-led or peer-led group programs in this place, that focus on developing each individual’s spiritual, emotional, mental and physical wellness.
Spiritual development is non-religious and non-exclusive, aiming to help every participant understand their purposes in this life and ponder about the big picture of life. Tools like dream map, personal contract and declaration of excellence will be used.
Emotional development aims to help young people understand their feelings, desires and urges and how to turn them into allies rather than enemies. Much of these might be achieved through artistic activities like drama, bands, painting, pottery making, writing, acting, videography and photography, etc.
Mental development will focus on how to use their brains for what it’s worth: critical thinking, creative thinking, design thinking, cognitive process, divergent thinking, analytical thinking, memory techniques, etc, are all possible.
Physical development will be done through many small programs which give young people exposure with various sports. The hope is that they would pick up something that would stay with them for life. Performance will not be the focus here, but rather enjoyment of the sports. How to eat well, how to cook well and how to look good (personal grooming) will be taught in programs which are free for sign up.
I did a survey recently among my teenage students. It showed that the two favourite places to study are their own homes, libraries and cafes. That sends a compelling message that the concept of conducive learning environment is something more casual, more comfortable and more communal than the standard classrooms. Maybe there is a need to be a dedicated learning corner with white boards and flipped charts, and we might need desks for project work, but these desks and chairs should be movable and adaptable, according to young people’s need.