Friday, July 30, 2010

"I can smell the germs" - A story of no sense or sensibility

Every once in a while, in the short existence of our meaningful, meaningless or meandering lives, we inadvertently stumble upon certain individuals who stretch the boundaries of common sense and sensibilities. Individuals, who through the narrowness of their minds and their own self-centred universe, cause us to react in disgust, loathing and even pity. For such is the tiny state of your little mind that I pity you for being blind to what is the true beauty of the world we live in.

I had the rare occasion of stumbling upon aforesaid individual during the course of my work and it warrants a long blog post about it.

Almost a year ago, I was posted to a school specialising in education for autistic children. I was to be there for 4 days to help invigilate the pupils in a nationwide examination. It was an eye-opener for me and an enriching experience providing me with insight into the otherwise reclusive world of autism. It was an incredibly interesting 4 days and I was very happy to have been posted there.

The nature of autism is such that the pupils take the examinations in individual rooms. They are separated from each other because in a highly strung situation like the national examinations, some may "act up" in a need to release the tension and stress that builds up in their bodies. When a pupil "acts up", in invariably increases the stress levels of those around him. As a precaution the pupils are allowed to sit for the exams in individual rooms. In my role as the invigilator, I will accompany a teacher and the pupil into the room and ensure that the examinations are conducted in a proper manner. So there are just 3 of us in a classroom. The pupil, an internal invigilator (a teacher) and an external invigilator (me!). It is a non-threatening environment and works well for the pupils. After each paper, the external invigilator returns to the main room to submit the papers and to have a short breather. (You try standing in a room for two hours, looking at the same pupil and nothing else...the break is a welcome relief!)

Day 1 of my assignment starts out pretty well. I am in-charge of a young boy and he is proving to be quite humourous to talk to. After the paper, we would spend some time chatting about his life and what he plans to do after the examinations. Something about a birthday celebration and what his folks intend to do. I'm glad I could connect with him and he seems pleased to see me as well. End of the day he even has the courtesy to wish me a good day. I am bemused and secretly wish him all the best for his papers.

Day 2 begins with the Chief Examiner giving out our assignments to us. For the sake of familiarity, we are likely assigned to the same candidate on the second day as well. The Chief begins calling our names and telling us which pupil we are assigned to. Suddenly, a commotion draws my attention to a lady talking animatedly to the Chief Examiner. I shall try to recreate the conversation below.

(names are kinda changed to protect identities...but I so wish I could say who she was and which well known primary school she taught in Ang Mo Kio!)

Chief Examiner (CE) : Ok, Flo, same as yesterday, you will be invigilating Pupil A.

Lady : *eyes widen* Pupil A again! No! He's very sick you know! I think he has the flu and he keeps wiping his nose. Yesterday I invigilated him and it's so bad I can smell the germs in the room! Very bad leh! He is very sick!

CE : *in comforting tone* Oh...don't worry. We have isolated him and we are checking his temperature now. He will be taking the examination away from the main population and he will be wearing a mask. Both invigilators will also be required to wear a mask.

Lady : *reacts in paranoia* No...No...No! He is really sick. HE IS SO SICK I CAN SMELL THE GERMS YOU KNOW! Can you change me? I don't wish to invigilate him.

CE : *gives in, does not want a scene* Errr...ok la. We see if anyone can replace you ah.
*addresses the room* Ok, invigilators...anyone wishes to change with Flo?

At this point in time, I am seated on a chair nearby and I am shocked beyond words. Flabbergasted...utterly disgusted by this lady's behaviour. I am revolted by the scene happening in front of me.

Is it not bad enough that a child with autism lives with prejudice and labels his entire life?

Is it not bad enough that a child with autism has to deal with the nature of his condition?

Is it not bad enough that a child with autism has to deal with how the public perceives him?

Is it not bad enough that a child, autistic or not, is sick?

Is it not bad enough that a child, autistic or not, is in a highly stressed situation of completing a national examination?


Every child has feelings. And most certainly he or she can tell when you despise or do not wish to be close to him or her.

And here...we have a teacher. A PRIMARY SCHOOL TEACHER!

She is afraid of him...because he is sick? She can SMELL THE GERMS IN THE ROOM!?!?!?

Here's the scene as it appeared in my imagination...

*Eugene walks over to the teacher and SMACKS her HARD on the HEAD. Then Eugene delivers a string of profanities and vulgarities in her direction to show how much he loathes and hates her. Takes over her duty and says in her face...


Now...that was my imagination...I didn't want to create a scene. So I merely told the Chief Examiner that I would swap with the teacher. The look on the CE's face was priceless. And seriously...I wasn't bothered if the child was sick. He deserved a shot at the examinations regardless of condition. And no child should go through what he did yesterday - having to take a paper and sensing that the invigilator shuns you.

Looking back. I wish I had exploded and taught Flo a lesson. I was sooooo angry.

At the end of everything I found out that Pupil A merely had the sniffles. A common cold. Everybody gets it once in a while. And while doing the exams with a mask I noticed he had to remove it every few minutes to wipe his nose. It was bothering him. Immediately I asked the internal invigilator if she minded that Pupil A be allowed to remove the mask. The internal invigilator was glad to hear it from me. So with clearance from the CE, we got pupil A to remove his mask to continue his examination in peace. As a precaution, both the Internal Invigilator and I had to stay masked though.

The Internal Invigilator was very thankful to me. She even mentioned how paranoid the previous invigilator (Flo). This made me seethe in anger again. I could feel my blood boil.

But deep inside I was glad I did what I could for this child and made him more comfortable.

End of the day, the child could complete his paper in peace and both me and the internal invigilator were none the worse for it. So the rest of the days invigilating passed by without incident...and it seems that we could all do our jobs and go home happily.

So I figured...just didn't realise that I had to contend with you-know-who...

Here's what happened...

LAST DAY OF INVIGILATION...we are done for the week, eagerly waiting in the room as the scripts are checked and counted to make sure that all submissions are completed. I am seated at the corner of a table where the Chief Examiner is busy with counting and admin. Flo is seated two chairs away from me on the same table. I tell myself I will leave in disgust if she moves near me. Suddenly there is movement, a door opens and the Vice-Principal of the school steps into the room. The room lightens up. Her appearance signifies that all is well and almost all checks is complete. Flo begins chatting with VP. Here is an account of what happen. (will try to be still sticks in my mind)

Flo: Ms VP (name protected)...have you been in this school long?

VP: Oh couple of years.

Flo: are you under Ministry of Education?

VP: Oh yah, now I am. I was actually a succesful business woman and I started by volunteering at this school. Then couple of years ago, they decided that I was suitable to be a VP and approached me for the role. So I reviewed my life and decided to earn a little less money but do something more meaningful. That's how I became a VP here. *smile*

Flo: Wow, you are a great woman. You must be a CHRISTIAN right? (Flo has a necklace with a go figure)

VP: *smiles and declines to answer...goes about her tasks*

Eugene : OH MAN! *point at Flo* You ignorant fool! What kind of a comment is that?
*string of unpublishable profanities directed at Flo*
Are you implying that it is only the CHRISTIANS who know how to be magnaminous and generous and kind? What about my mother? She does kind deeds all the time and she's Buddhist? What about my best friend? He's a Muslim and he's a gentle soul.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? I know you are Christian.

Ok...that didn't happen. I wished it did. But somehow I held my tongue. I dunno why. Maybe its cause I dun have the courage to do it. Or maybe its because I always remind myself to stay happy and that the world is too beautiful to let the little things or the little people hurt you.

Whatever the case...I will always remember this incident.

It reminds me that I made a difference in a young boy's life, no matter how fleeting the moment.
It reminds me that life is beautiful and there are beautiful people.

It reminds me that some people are just not worth it. Leave them be.

It reminds me that sometimes....I should pluck the courage to tell idiots off.

Thank you for reading. It was great sharing this.

Be well and stay healthy and happy everyone. Tomorrow is always a better day. =)