Schools are helping students develop in their areas of interest, however uncommon they may be.
The Insect Investigator
One of the best gifts Justin Soh got from his days at Guangyang Secondary was a plot of land in the school.
It was a very unusual gift, but Justin was also an unusual student. Every recess, instead of eating in the canteen or playing games in the courtyard, the science enthusiast would spend his time exploring a grassy area near the school’s general office.
One morning, the Principal noticed him doing this and walked over. “What are you looking at? It’s just grass,” he asked, intrigued.
“It isn’t, Mr Kwok,” Justin replied. He quickly proceeded to point out spiders, caterpillars, dragonflies, even locusts — all camouflaged and hiding in plain sight. Mr Benjamin Kwok was impressed. It so happens he’d been thinking about starting some environmental programmes in the school, so he asked the boy if he had any experience in gardening.
“I have some, but I haven’t done much,” came the answer.
Mr Kwok said: “Why don’t we give you a plot of land, and see what happens?”
Over the next few months, Justin was at the same grassy spot on his own every day, observing insects and testing the soil. He attempted growing herbs and sweet potatoes. At first, his activities drew derision from schoolmates who couldn’t understand Justin’s passion, but he also attracted some kindred spirits. They gathered at the plot regularly, and slowly got to know each other. They learned each other’s strengths—electronics, plants, insects, organisation—and began exploring science concepts with minimal supervision, all in their own time. They came to be known as the Green Ambassadors.
Within a year, there were 10 of them, and they drew up a proposal for an aquaponics corner, which involved using biological waste from fish tanks as fertiliser for plants. Guangyang supported them. The group used its collective know-how to install solar panels to power the set-up, and put together worm-composting bins.
These activities stoked Justin’s interest in biotechnology. He became determined to pursue a diploma in the field. Unfortunately, he did not perform well enough in his O-levels to get do biotechnology at Singapore Polytechnic—his dream course. While he excelled in his Science subjects, he was dragged down by the rest.
“It was a really dark time for me,” he recalls. “I wondered where I could go.” He considered re-taking his O-levels, but his parents were not keen on the idea. So he appealed to the polytechnic, citing his experience with the Green Ambassadors.
Today, Justin is studying molecular biotechnology, and recently completed a 2-year part-time research stint at the Genome Institute of Singapore. His work establishing Guangyang’s Green Ambassadors lives on, as the group has since been formalised as a Co-Curricular Activity and renamed Green Club.
He credits his alma mater for its openness in supporting the audacious idea that a bunch of students could do whatever they wanted with a plot of land in the school. “Guangyang has a very accepting environment. They’ve accepted many other student proposals as well, such as a talent competition, and a Masterchef-style event. It really brings out the passion in the students, making them come together and form a very interesting school community.”
The T-Shirt Tycoon
On the other side of the island, Xavier Tan was on a similar journey at Westwood Secondary School. Not for gardening, though. His interest was entrepreneurship.
Xavier had an uncommon habit of bugging his teachers to sign him up for business competitions—anything that could give him exposure and experience, and more importantly help him forge a better life than his parents had.
Principal Diana Kang saw how earnest he was, and got him into the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) Programme, which culminated in a global showcase in New York in 2017. She also assembled a crack team to prepare Xavier for his big pitch: a Principles of Accounts teacher to critique his business model, an Art teacher to advise on the design of his booth, and an English teacher who came in at 6.50am every morning to coach Xavier on his language and presentation skills.
Xavier returned from New York without closing a deal, but was determined not to lose momentum. He set up his own T-shirt printing business by knocking on the doors of suppliers and asking for credit. Today he has a second business—a fashion label—and is preparing to launch his third, running camps for students.
Unlike Justin and Xavier, Firdaus Ahmed didn’t have a clear life goal in secondary school—he was often depressed, angry and lost. But East Spring Secondary School gave him a direction.
In an inspired move, then-Vice Principal Chew Ing Lim arranged for a vendor to run a circus arts programme for at-risk students in the school. She felt that learning circus tricks would give students like Firdaus an important confidence boost.
That, it did. Over 13 weeks, Firdaus learned to twirl plates, juggle balls and toss yo-yos. His temperament improved greatly and he made a few good friends within the programme. What he didn’t realise at the time, was that he’d also found his calling.
He reconnected with his fellow circus arts participants years later when their trainer decided to set up his own circus company. Firdaus began performing with them, and fell in love with the job. He took a theatre degree at NAFA to deepen his skills and returned to choreograph his colleagues’ routines. He even developed his own onstage persona: Pyro Guy, who specialises in dramatic fire-twirling and fire-eating.
Today, Firdaus continues to perform professionally, and shares his gifts by coaching a new generation of students like him in the circus arts.