Mr Gregory came to us at the right time.

I was 14 and studying at Raffles Girls Secondary School in Singapore. Our English Literature teacher had gone on maternity leave, and Mr Gregory had come to take her place for three months.

It was also around this time that the film 'Dead Poets Society' was released, and all of us had watched the film and longed for a teacher like Robin Williams' Mr John Keating, a radical English teacher who did not hesitate to deviate from the curriculum, the strict methodology and the rules and regulations. Instead, he encouraged his students to enjoy the true meaning of poetry and 'seize the day!', or 'Carpe Diem!' in the charming words of Walt Whitman.

The Singapore education system has been at or near the top of international league tables when measuring the reading, mathematics and science scores of children nationwide for more than a decade. Students are pushed in academia from a young age and have become proficient at taking exams and producing results. And it has been this way ever since I could remember.

But does that come at a cost? Can excelling in the kind of exams we have go hand in hand with true appreciation of prose and verse?

My peers and I clearly yearned for a different kind of Literature lesson, and our wish was granted, for in comes Mr Gregory.

He had us reading and analysing poetry in a way we'd never done before, always personalising every theme and getting us to relate to the essence of what was being conveyed. He was our very own Mr Keating.

April Fool's Day soon came along, and as a class, we devised what we thought was the perfect April Fool's joke.

When Mr Gregory entered the classroom that morning, we cheekily stood up on our chairs and chanted, "Oh Captain! My Captain!" as the students of Mr Keating did in the film. We then proceeded to sit with our backs facing the front of the classroom.

Unfazed, Mr Gregory solemnly instructs, "Open your Chemistry textbooks to Chapter 7. Halogens."

It was a reaction we certainly hadn't been prepared for. As we pulled out our Chemistry textbooks, Mr Gregory continued, "There are 5 non-metallic elements on the periodic table that belong to this category of halogens. Halogens have 7 electrons in their outer shells, giving them an oxidation number of -1..."

Slowly, one by one, we turned around to face him. Puzzled, we felt beaten at our own game. When the last of the 42 students in the class had turned round, Mr Gregory broke out of his oh-so-serious face and smiled, saying, "Now that you are all facing the right way, let's turn to pg 42 of your poetry book."

We found out from our Chemistry teacher much later than Mr Gregory had spent an hour getting a Chemistry crash course on Halogens in order to pull off his April Fool's prank.

That was the kind of teacher he was - witty, fun, and full of surprises.

Instead of following the curriculum strictly and memorising model answers to past year exam papers, by motivating his students to love English literature and poetry, Mr Gregory had us studying, reading and thinking more than any other teacher managed to.

I found myself reading the poems in our prescribed textbook out loud when I got home just to feel the crunch of each syllable between my teeth, the rhythm of the stanzas in my bones, the rise and fall of the melody in my breath, and the words dripping from my tongue.

I was falling in love with poetry, with literature, with language. And that spurred me on to read more and learn more.

I got to enjoy several months of Mr Gregory's lessons before he had to leave. Our regular teacher was coming back. Armed with newfound motivation and passion, I greeted the introduction to our prescribed coursebook - Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew with excitement and enthusiasm.

But soon, lessons returned to exam-led syllabus-driven classroom exercises and the rigamarole of reading aloud, memorising quotes, and forced discussions. But the final straw came when we were told to write a discursive essay about the relationship between the two main characters - Kate and Petruchio.

After a lot of thought, I wrote a piece about how Kate had loved Petruchio from the day she met him for he was the first man to not fear Kate nor put her on a pedastal. He was after all the first man to respect Kate as a person and not treat her as a weak female.

This clearly did not go down very well with my teacher and I failed the essay. Shocked, I went to see her after the lesson and was simply told "That's not what the model essays have as the right answer".

I was gutted. And thanks to Mr Gregory, I knew that this was not what literature was meant to be about. And I knew that if I were forced to produce 'right answers' so as to get 'right exam results', I would learn to hate literature and all that it represented.

So that term, when I was told that having ten subjects at GCSE 'O' Levels was one too many, I volunteered to drop English Literature. It made me sad, but I knew it was the only way I could preserve my love for the English language and my passion for literature.

And that love and passion still burns brightly today, not because of any rigid curriculum or exam, but because Mr Gregory came along and provided that first flame.

"I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.
I wanted to to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.
To put to rout all that was not life;
And not, when I had come to die,
discover that I had not lived."

Dead Poets' Society quoting Henry David Thoreau

 

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