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  • A.K. Lee

Mr A.

November draws to a close and it’s very nearly the end of the year. Endings are difficult, sometimes. We don’t like knowing that all good things come to an end, much as we know that endings are part of the cycle of time.

This month, I want to share about a late colleague.

Mr A. was an experienced teacher who returned to teaching English and Literature after retirement. He was a jovial, eloquent man, with a deep and abiding love of drama, and near-infinite wells of patience (though the kids did try him often). Mr A. always wore a plain, long-sleeved shirt with cufflinks and pressed dark slacks, and his gold-framed glasses were attached to a thin black strap. He was about as tall as I was (which is to say, not that tall), and exercised daily in the morning before he came to work. In a school where everyone had a Singaporean accent, Mr A. spoke with crisp, beautiful Received Pronunciation.

I learned a great deal from him about teaching, but what made Mr A. stand out from other teachers was how humble he was. Despite having more experience as a teacher than half the English department combined, he nevertheless kept learning from us young whippersnappers, and he never forgot to have fun. One of my strongest recollections of him was when he took part in a student-teacher performance, and he was dancing with the teens from the Drama Club, all of them laughing, his wrinkled face glowing with delight and good cheer.

When he passed away, everyone who knew him was deeply saddened. I grieved, because he had been someone I considered a mentor. My colleagues and I went to pay our respects at the wake, which was at his modest bungalow, where we learned he had lived with his mother until her death. His nephew shared with us hundreds of photos of Mr A.’s time as a student, his life as a young teacher, his performances on stage, his colleagues from different schools he taught at… We shared stories about Mr A., we laughed at some of them, we teared up at some others, we toasted his memory.

At the end of the wake, his family urged each of us to take a book from his massive collection to remember him by. I took a copy of The Guinness Book of Words, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s an interesting book on how English came about, with some etymological discussions of certain words and idioms, together with word games and interesting quotes. It’s not earth-shattering. But it’s a book that I will treasure, because it belonged to Mr A. once, and I respected him greatly.

Even today, many years on, those colleagues who had had the privilege of working with Mr A. still think of him fondly. I think that is the sign of a life well lived. Mr A. wasn’t famous. He wasn’t stylish. He wasn’t wealthy. But he was kind, and generous with his time, and he made all of us want to be better people. As the year draws to an end, perhaps it’s time to take stock, and give thanks to people who have taught us how to be better people.

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