Great Expectations

I always remember my second grade teacher. Plump and stocky with short legs, she comes to class every school day wearing a custom-tailored dress and a pair of black pump shoes. She was known as Mrs Fredericks. During English classes on some days we would have storytelling sessions where I eagerly look forward to them because it meant the school day was nearing its end. My classmates and I would gather around her at the front of the class, sitting cross-legged on the chalk-dusted floor. I have fond memories of the storytelling sessions where Mrs Fredericks introduced us to classical novels like “The Man in the Iron Mask” by Alexander Dumas, “Oliver Twist” and “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. One of the stories which I really loved listening to was her narrative of Charles Dickens “Great Expectations” which was about the orphan boy Philip Pirrip nicknamed Pip, the love of his life Estella and the jilted, wealthy and eccentric woman Miss Havisham. I have read this Charles Dickens classic many times during many phases of my life.

On the contrary I disliked our English dialogue sessions because she becomes a total different person full of beguiled expressions on her face and crude sarcasm. There was always a 10 minute Q&A session somewhere in between. There was one dialogue session where I dreaded her from that day onwards. I asked her why my father often forgets to pick me up from school. Her reply was “That’s because your father does not love you.” I was stunned.

I cannot recall if I was the last to be picked up from school that evening. Second grade that year was held during the afternoon session. Although my brother and I were at the same primary school, the 3rd grade was held in the mornings. When afternoon school session dismissed, it would be about 6.45 pm. The skies start to get dark. Sometimes I hear the sound of leaves rustling eerily in the wind. There was no one there except the school guard. There was a coin-operated telephone near the office but I was afraid when I walked away my dad would come in his car and not see me (would he had driven away?…Guess I never know). I feared my dad would never come to get me. In my heart I wished my brother was not just a year older but two so that I wasn’t alone waiting, waiting and waiting. My dad would always appear by 7.20pm and would apologize for being late.

The following day before being picked up for school, I approached my mom in the kitchen who was busy chopping away on her round 3-inch thick timber chopping board. I told her that, “sometimes I am the last one to be picked up after school, and when I asked Dad the reason he was late, he said he forgot about me.” My mom responded with a grunt and carried on chopping away. I continued to tell her, “I told my teacher about this and she said that if your father forgets about you, it means he does not love you! Is this true?” Immediately my mom slammed down her chopper on her chopping board, exclaimed who this teacher was who could say this horrible thing to me. She said there is no such thing and told me angrily that my Dad loves me very much.

“You are intelligent, independent and a good reader. Your father expects a lot from you,” was what my mom said to me. I asked her how could I be intelligent. I barely pass my arithmetic quizzes everyday, to the point of failing them sometimes. My written English is so bad. My mom assured me everything will be alright and I must learn to understand others before being understood, especially my father.

My mom acted on what I told her by hiring tutors for me. We read together a lot. She taught me to write better. My wardrobe became my library as I drove my dad crazy buying books particularly written by author Enid Blyton every week. I learnt various musical instruments. I swam till I have “swimmer’s shoulder symptoms” and freckles all over my face. When the year ended, I was ready for Grade 3 arithmetics and aced every unannounced Arithmetic quiz the dreaded Mrs Fredericks gave the class.

My dad on the other hand, is a man of few words who seldom expresses his affections. He does not splurge on things like shoes, clothes and holidays abroad. An avid reader himself, he understood the importance of reading and encouraged me on my passion for music. Nevertheless I found him being strict with me but less so with my siblings. I couldn’t understand the reasons why then. The love-hate relationship and sibling rivalry between my brother and I somehow added to my confusion if it is true that the second child is always the “black sheep” in the family.

I realised recently that what my mom told me about my dad when I was 8 was very true. He is a man of few words but of many dreams and hopes for his children. He did not love me any lesser than my siblings. Instead he expected more from me for reasons best known to him. My dad being an average blue collar worker with 5 dependants worked to give my siblings and I everything he could to the best he can for he aims to empower us with knowledge and skills to be more than we are so that we can do more than we can. Besides his (and probably for most people as well) wish for immortality, his greatest expectation is to have his children persevere, united and respecting each other’s personality differences, career choices and lifestyles.

I know this because I expect and hope to see my children to be there for each other, to be role models to each other. I expect each of them to be fearless and formidable in challenging times. I expect them to put a smile on each other’s faces at school. No matter where one is, the other is always nearer than he/she thinks. How can these great expectations be conveyed from a parent to his/her child(ren)?

I never spoke to Mrs Fredericks again after I progressed to third grade. But her words remain in my mind like cement to a pavement.