Growing up was somewhat difficult.
I was a very slow learner. My parents and teachers even thought I had some sort of mental deficiency that prohibited my cognitive development. It might be relevant to note that according to my family members, I said my first word when I was four years of age (and it wasn’t ‘mama’ or ‘papa’). I also recall one of my primary school teachers informing my mum that I would never succeed in life because I was slow and undisciplined, a playful daydreamer.
I remember being removed from my classes on occasions to attend the desolate kelas pemulihan, ‘special classes’, numerous times. – sometimes after school hours because I tended to fail in classes.
If I recall correctly, I was one of the only two who had to attend these ‘special classes’.
We didn’t really do much. We played with the chalk sticks, throwing them around the room; messed around with the counting aid; the teaching materials were toys to us.
The good part was that our playful behavior did not get in the way of learning that wasn’t going to happen. The rehabilitation teachers never really did much, they pretty much left us to our own devices.
In retrospect, I believe their inaction was probably caused by their lack of training in educating ‘special’ kids. Then, as now, our school system needed a major revamp of its treatment of slow students.
I guess it should come at no surprise when I say that I never really benefited from these ‘special classes’ back then.
True, I was a difficult boy to be trained and molded. But, in my defence, I would consider myself to be very imaginative and creative, and it was unfortunate that the education system did not recognize my potential.
In a sense, I think the patronising, stigmatising, stifling and non-conducive learning conditions made me an outcast, and they were a kind of preconditioning that had a detrimental effect on me as I struggled into adulthood.
As a teen, I became more aware of my identity.
Just like many other teens who experienced existential crises, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life so I became a sheep, and did what my peers did.
I went to a private college after high school. My heart wasn’t there. I dropped out after my first semester.
I wasn’t happy being around the pretentiousness, where kids sought to be defined as cool through the clothes they wore, the talents they exhibited, the car they drove (lent or bought by their rich parents), the latest gadgets they carried around, how hot their girlfriends/boyfriends or sexual partners were and how much they partied.
I had few friends. I didn’t do anything outstanding. I didn’t have natural good looks. I was below average, I was pimply.
Maybe my disdain for college could be attributed to the fact I did not belong to the in-group. In any case, everything felt superficial.
Then the 1997 economic crisis happened, and private education suddenly became very expensive. I didn’t think much of it before, but now it certainly made more sense to say “Screw it! I’m going to do something different!” Eventually, I ended up at the Science University of Malaysia in Penang (USM). It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.
At USM, life kinda took a 180 degree turn and I met so many inspiring individuals who propelled me to reexamine my own identity.
I had a philosophy lecturer who kept encouraging me to actively question the state of the world and the meaning of life. I had an academic advisor who seemed to have an answer to everything. And there was this senior, a pharmacist, who loved reading novels.
For the first time, I knew what I wanted do to with my life: to become somebody, just like these individuals.
10 years on, I am a PhD graduate with two Masters degrees; one in linguistics, the other in criminal justice. I’ve also been dabbling with forensic linguistics, narratives of injecting drug users, and linguistic research relating to the empowerment of the disenfranchised and vulnerable.
Looking back, it seems clear that the desire to prove my primary school teacher wrong was initially a purpose early in my life. But now that I’ve achieved a number of milestones , I’ve changed and am now pursuing a new kind of purpose.I want to live an adventure, one by which I define and create.
To that end, I have taught inline skating, given guitar lessons at a community centre, done professional photography work, and participated in NGOs amongst others. I have even appeared in a reality TV programme. And I know there is more to come.
The point I am trying to make is this: Purpose is what we all have to define and create for ourselves in order to live very fulfilling and successful lives, and of course, to overcome our existential crises.
You don’t have to be a straight A student to succeed in life, but you do need to have motivation (in my case, it was initially ‘vengeance’ against my teacher and the ‘system’), the passion of wanting to be more than you currently are, and a zeal of wanting to keep upgrading yourself.
You also need to know where you stand, and where you want to be. Setting whatever goals you may have, working hard and smart in getting there, figuring out why you stumble and fall, getting up again… these make life meaningful.
So really. Go out there and be an übermensch. I promise you, you won’t regret it.
(photo by Designshard)
David Yoong is a discourse analyst and senior lecturer at the University of Malaya who enjoys being called a ‘cunning linguist’ because he likes to tell his students to read up on Sacks et al. When he is not lecturing, marking assignments, attending a multitude of meetings and writing research papers, he can be found day dreaming,trying to be an 80s rock star.