Meaning of Life, School

Believing I was a good-for-nothing, I had given up on my future

By Andrew Tan , 19 June 2020

Growing up, the only thing I remember about school is constantly being scolded and punished by my parents and teachers because I just didn’t get it.

Why do angles in a triangle amount to 180°? Trigonometry was the worst of all. I just couldn’t memorise the times table – until today I still can’t do mental sums in my head!

I remember always being picked out during every mathematics class to answer questions. With certainty, I would always end up either standing on the chair or outside the classroom for the entire lesson.

And I didn’t really like books either. Seriously, I can remember only finishing one English storybook through primary and secondary school life!

The only thing that made me go back to school day after day was that I got to be with my friends.

Life in the future just looked bleak to me.

To make matters worse, my younger brother was simply brilliant. He didn’t need to put much effort into studying but would get straight As. He was a model student – top in his class and school every year.

I didn’t like to be compared with him. It always made me think that I was stupid or a good-for-nothing with no future and no hope. Life in the future just looked bleak to me.

Ultimately, I didn’t do well for my Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) as I got an “F” grade for math. I ended up in a secondary school – my fifth choice – under the Normal stream.

I was sad on the day of the results, but mostly at the fact that I would not be able to go to the same school as my friends. I was probably too young and still too playful to fully realise what my results meant.

Andrew’s PSLE results

Secondary school was a bit better, but I still did not like to study.

I preferred subjects that were more hands-on like physics and chemistry, or that were more technical. Slowly, I even started to like mathematics.

But I still struggled with languages, and in Singapore you have to do well in your first and second languages.

As such, school was still about hanging out with friends and not so much about acquiring knowledge.

Hanging out with the wrong people, I skipped school and started smoking because I thought it made me look cool. I also chased girls and got my first girlfriend in Secondary 1.

Soon, our mischievous bunch had made a name for ourselves in the who’s who of the prefect’s list.

Our language became punctuated with vulgarities, and the only books we read were those that I’m too ashamed to mention (imagine being caught by the teacher reading that during a lesson!).

Andrew’s O-Level results

No surprises, but I didn’t do well for my O-Levels. My results didn’t shock any of my relatives or parents. The people around me only confirmed what I was feeling inside – that I was stupid and a good-for-nothing.

Still, I didn’t feel sad. I just went through with life with no expectations, thinking that was the way to avoid disappointment. 

I had thought O-Levels would be my exit point and highest qualification achieved. So even my pursuit of further education was a half-baked effort.

My approach was simple and stress-free: I would study in any school, whatever the subject or course. What mattered was who pitied me and bothered to offer me a place.

And, well, a miracle happened. I actually got a place in Singapore Polytechnic for Mechanical Engineering.

I was happy as I didn’t have to deal with English and Chinese anymore. Subjects would be hands-on, practical stuff with the occasional boring lecture – that was what I gathered from friends about what polytechnic would be like.

I just went through with life with no expectations thinking that was the way to avoid disappointment.

While waiting for polytechnic to start, I got really bored during the school holidays from January to June. Because after the O-Levels, no school meant that I no longer hung out with my usual group of friends.

However, I came to know that a group of friends in school would meet up every Sunday at Orchard Road, so I desperately wanted to join them.

What I didn’t know was that they would first meet at 10am in a church nearby before hanging out. But because I was dying to hang out with some friends, I decided to join them regularly.

And that was when everything about my life started to change.

Honestly, accepting God into my life wasn’t a thunder-and-lightning experience.

Over time, I got curious about this Jesus through the sermons I heard. I started reading the Bible, even though I don’t like books! But this Jesus really got me interested to find out more about Him.

Slowly, I started to see my life change – the biggest change was in my language! God gave me a brand new perspective. For the first time in my life, I had direction.

All along, I thought life amounted to what people said about me. I thought it was all about whether I had a good degree, what school I came from or whether I could afford expensive things in the future.

When I had given up hope of any future, God was the one who believed in me, thought the best of me and pursued me. I never had a person who believed so much in me, who encouraged me to do the impossible.

I got excited about life – I got excited about God!

Looking back on the last 30 years, I can only stand in amazement.

I am a living example of how God can turn things around. I thought the worst of myself. I believed in something that God didn’t say – that I’m good for nothing – and yet He took me onto a very different path.

And guess what? At the age of 45, I graduated with a Master’s in Counselling. 

As a pastor, I furthered my education because I wanted to upgrade myself even though I don’t like studying.

Who would have thought that the boy who messed up his PSLE would actually go all the way to do a Master’s? God was actually leading me on this journey even when I believed that O-Levels would be my exit point.

And if He can change my life and my situation, He can change yours too.

Who would have thought that the boy who messed up his PSLE would actually go all the way to do a Master’s?

Today, my life, hope and destiny is not dictated or shaped by what people say about me, or what society says of me or the paper qualification I have. Instead my identity is founded on what God says of me because only He knows me fully well.

So never let a piece of paper tell you who you are or determine your destiny. Because exams are just like milestones or signposts in life. They only tell us how we are doing academically, whether we need to keep it up or put in more effort.

Imagine a Primary 1 boy who fails his first spelling test and concludes that his whole life is over. It sounds silly and over-dramatic, but isn’t that exactly how many of us react when we receive an important result?

Life can be challenging and education can be difficult. And God didn’t promise to take all these hard things away from us.

But He said He would aid us, and that we can always come to Him because He wants to be glorified in and through our lives.

All we have to do is trust in Him and ask.

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