SINGAPORE: When Yap Zi Yang saw the score ‘140’ on his Primary School Leaving Examination result slip, he was crushed.
“Study so hard, also fail,” he said. “I just wanted to give up.”
And give up on himself, he did.
Just barely making it into the Normal (Technical) stream at Bedok Green Secondary School, he skipped classes three times (or more) a week to stay home. When he did bother to show up, he was often splayed out in his chair at the back of the classroom, fast asleep.
“I felt like I had no future,” he said. “I just took one day at a time.”
Directionless, low on self-esteem, and resentful of the way he thought his peers in the Express stream looked down on him, Zi Yang lashed out.
“We targeted the smaller students. Sometimes I would take their bags and throw them on the floor.
“Our teachers always said Express students don’t look down on us,” he added. “But we just felt like they did.”
Shafik Said knows how students like him feel. “When you’re in the Normal stream, you kind of are compared,” said the senior youth worker with Children-At-Risk Empowerment Association (CARE Singapore).
You tend to believe you are way less capable than others. You aspire to less.
Each time he walks into a class and asks “how many of you think being in Normal Technical means it’s the end for you?”, Shafik said, “a few of them will raise their hands”.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
But there was more to Zi Yang than the rebellious, couldn’t-care-less side he showed in school.
When the school bell rang, 13-year-old Zi Yang, instead of hanging about with his friends, would head straight home, where he’d help his mother around the house and care for his ailing father.
A seamstress, Madam Chin Bee Ching had been taking on more work making curtains ever since Zi Yang’s father suffered a mild stroke in 2014 and could no longer work as a taxi driver.
Zi Yang looked up to his dad. When he was younger, they’d go for supper together, just father and son, at the coffee shop near their home. Over prata with egg, they’d have heart-to-heart conversations about everything.
“My father was one of the closest people to me. I would talk to him about things that I went through, sometimes he would talk to me about his issues. He understood me,” Zi Yang, now 17, remembered.
In January 2015, the month Zi Yang entered Secondary 1, his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The man he looked up to rapidly wasted away before his eyes.
“He couldn’t even hold a spoon himself. Sometimes in the morning, if I needed to feed him, I’d stay home,” said the teenager who, without anyone asking, became his dad’s main caregiver.
Instead of going to school on some mornings, he’d help his dad down to the void deck, where the older man loved to sit and enjoy the breeze. It was there that Zi Yang’s father put on his young shoulders a responsibility that he holds close to his heart to this day.
“To my father, boys must always support the family,” Zi Yang said. “He told me to start to think about how to help my family.”
Three months after being diagnosed, his dad died. Zi Yang lost not just a father, but a confidante.
“My father would sleep in my room,” the teen said, “So after he left, it was like there was no one sleeping beside me.”
“When he passed away I couldn’t take it. It just hit me very hard.”
A CHANCE TO BE MORE
For a whole month, Zi Yang stayed away from school, shut up in his room most of the time.
But his father’s words kept coming back to him. Seeing how his mother was working hard to make ends meet for himself and his older sister, he returned to school and started to buck up in class.
“He wanted to take care of the family,” his mum Bee Ching, 53, said. “He would help me with the housework.”
The three of them moved in with her father, and Zi Yang’s grandfather became the disciplinarian the boy needed in his life. “If I skipped (school) again, my grandfather would really cane me, so I didn’t dare.”
With the renewed effort that he was putting into his studies, he was pleasantly surprised when he discovered that he had a flair for Mathematics.
When you solve a question and get the correct answer, wow, it’s like, mission accomplished.
As the months passed, Zi Yang’s ‘U’ grades turned to ‘A’s, and by the end of Secondary 2 he’d topped his class in Math.
“His results were quite remarkable for a Normal Technical student,” recalled Hafiedz-ul Tamrin, who was his Design and Technology teacher. As a result, Zi Yang was offered a transfer to the Normal (Academic) stream – he was one of only two students in the school given the rare opportunity.
WATCH: The mentor who helped a teen believe in himself (6:33)
His form teacher encouraged him. But doubts assailed Zi Yang. With the move up, he’d have to repeat an entire academic year, with a class of strangers no less, and he’d have to take on three additional subjects. He feared he’d falter and fail.
“I might get demoted, and I didn’t want that feeling,” he said.
His mum, however, refused to let him pass up the chance to do better – especially when she believed her son was capable of anything he put his mind to.
“If he wants to get something done, he can do it well,” she said. “(But) he always needs someone to push him.”
And so, she insisted on the transfer, which Zi Yang took without much confidence. For the first few months, he struggled.
That’s where Shafik came in.
NOT ‘JUST ANOTHER TEACHER’
The 30-year-old youth worker had been assigned as mentor to Zi Yang’s entire class in Sec 1 as part of The Scaffold Programme.
Developed by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), the pilot programme in 11 mainstream schools sees youth workers working with teachers and families, to help students from the Normal stream build their confidence and set future goals.
The programme targets lower secondary students who – due to factors like poor self-esteem or family troubles – might be at risk of dropping out during the transition from Primary 6 to Sec 1, and from Sec 2 to Sec 3.
Shafik was uniquely suited to understanding how these students felt: He himself had been in the Normal (Technical) stream, and like Zi Yang, had at first seen only a bleak future for himself.
“I was ten times worse than Zi Yang,” he laughed, recalling how he’d bullied other students, sometimes even teachers, and got into fights and bad company.
“I remember the first time when CARE Singapore mentors came, they asked ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ And I said, ‘Boys’ Home’.”
But then, a youth worker came into his life under CARE’s Uth Power Programme. Giving advice and encouragement over even the small things – like publicly praising Shafik for how well he’d mopped a floor – the persistent mentor convinced him he had something worthwhile to offer.
The “naughty” teen eventually became a student council leader. “(The youth workers) had this belief in me, which allowed me to really believe that I could achieve a lot.”
And so, after he earned his Nitec in Aerospace Technology from the Institute of Technical Education, Shafik decided that what he really wanted to do with his life was to help troubled youths. He joined CARE.
To help someone like Zi Yang, though, required first getting past his walls. The mistrustful teenager thought of him as “just another teacher”.
But when Zi Yang was absent from school for several days with a high fever, Shafik and another youth worker went to his home to check on him. It made an impression.
“I felt like they really cared about me and my family,” Zi Yang said.
And Shafik, on that short visit, saw something in Zi Yang at home that gave him hope that the boy, who sometimes acted like a gangster in school, had potential in him yet.
I saw how he loves his mum a lot. That’s when I knew the boy has a heart.
THE ZEN OF POOL
Playing pool became Shafik’s way of getting through to Zi Yang.
The school’s clubroom had a pool table, and when he found out the teenager couldn’t play, Shafik offered to teach him. He used the game to patiently impart life lessons – for instance, turning it into a metaphor for achieving goals.
You had to plan out your moves, and aim before shooting, he told Zi Yang over the clacking of balls. The den, with its cartoon-doodled walls and foosball tables (Shafik was proud of the fact that Zi Yang had helped to decorate it), became an informal counselling room abuzz with laughter.
“He is a very good person to talk to,” the teenager said. “A very good friend. He understands me very well.”
In his big-brotherly way, Shafik was filling the void Zi Yang’s father’s death had left. He regularly got feedback from the boy’s teachers. He and another youth worker checked in often with the teenager and his mother.
And, when a frustrated Zi Yang was struggling with the switch to Normal (Academic) classes – he’d sit at the back “stoning”, as he put it, not understanding what the teacher was saying – it was Shafik who reminded him why he was there.
“We told him that the new environment will challenge him,” Shafik said. “If you’re too comfortable in your environment, you won’t grow.”
And by now, Zi Yang had found a goal to shoot for.
During a Scaffold Programme session in Sec 1, his class was tasked to set their future goals.
“I didn’t even have a goal then,” said Zi Yang. “Mr Shafik told me to just write down what interests me most. I like to do things with my hands.”
He’d spent some time in his grandfather’s car workshop, and was fascinated by auto mechanics. So that’s what he put down as his goal: To become the owner of a car repair business.
Next, Shafik guided him in planning how to get there step by step. “What would you need to open a shop? Which course should you study In ITE? Which ITE offers that course?” he pressed.
The job, of course, would only be a means to a more important end for Zi Yang – taking care of his family. “My goal is to let my mother travel around the world. That’s her dream,” he said simply.
A WORK IN PROGRESS
In Sec 3, Zi Yang made more strides when he was elected as a student leader. He was also appointed logistics head for a camp jointly organised with CARE.
“Having a leadership role helps a lot in allowing students to see their own potential,” Shafik pointed out.
More than 2,000 Normal stream students have gone through The Scaffold Programme, and Zi Yang is not the only one showing results of the intervention.
“About half of the students showed academic improvement,” said Tina Hung, NCSS’ deputy chief executive officer. The students were also “better able to build social relationships and set future goals.”
Zi Yang’s teachers and schoolmates too have seen a difference in him. “He tries his best to pay attention,” said his teacher Hafiedz. “He’s putting effort into his daily work.”
His friends quipped about how he used to walk around looking like a scary “ah beng”. But now, said classmate Marcus Ng, “he will approach me when he sees me struggling with Math. He’s quite a good teacher, I really understand when he teaches me”.
Said his mum Bee Ching: “A few months ago I went to the school … The canteen aunties told me that Zi Yang has turned out to be a very good boy, not like the rebellious boy when he first came in.”
Reflecting on where he’d be without Shafik and The Scaffold Programme, Zi Yang said: “Maybe I wouldn’t even graduate from secondary school. Maybe go to Boys’ Home.”
Shafik, nonetheless, describes Zi Yang as “still a work in progress. There is still doubt in him. What he needs is just that extra caring adult, to assure him that he is more than what he thinks he is".
“We believe that there is always a success story in in every child – no matter how rotten you think you are, there’s always a star in you,” he added. “You still can achieve more.”
This story by CNA Insider was done in partnership with Gov.sg.
From 2020, Bedok Green Secondary will be one of 28 schools piloting full subject-based banding, where students will no longer be streamed into Express, Normal (Academic) or Normal (Technical) courses, but will take subjects at different levels according to their abilities.