By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer
WHEN cousins Yen Wei Shing and Lim Zhi Wei scored an A and a A* respectively for Chinese in the Primary School Leaving Examinations last year, teachers and pupils at Nan Chiau Primary School were stunned.
Their results were unexpected as the 13-year-olds were known to be struggling with the subject. As children from single-parent families, both were too poor to afford private tuition.
Wei Shing also has dyslexia, which had caused him to consistently fail the subject. Zhi Wei, although a good student, had been falling behind in school, distraught that his mother was dying from brain cancer.
One woman, however, turned their grades around. Upon learning of their plight, Chinese Language teacher Chin Seow Kiat tutored them a few times each week free of charge, counselled them and even offered Zhi Wei financial assistance.
What Madam Chin did for the two boys has been held up as an inspiring example of what schools and teachers can do for children with family problems.
'Teachers are in the front line, they are in touch with children, and if they can identify students who need help, their schools can reach out to them,' says Nan Chiau Primary's principal, Mr Tan Chung Ming.
With the downturn affecting many families, he says teachers like Madam Chin are even more crucial in helping to turn around boys and girls who might otherwise be overwhelmed by what is happening at home and let their studies slide.
Madam Christine Goh, 49, who is Wei Shing's mother and Zhi Wei's aunt, agrees.
'Madam Chin knew about my financial situation. My son and my nephew were not even her pupils but she went out of her way to help them,' says the unemployed widow with two older children aged 15 and 17. Her husband, a company manager, died from liver cancer in 1999.
It was a year ago that Wei Shing's Chinese Language teacher advised Madam Goh to get the boy tested for dyslexia.
'He was always failing, sometimes even getting zero marks for his tests,' she recalls. 'He struggled with reading and writing, and could not recognise characters. He would even write his surname wrongly.
'It was as though his brain was not wired to study Chinese. I couldn't afford a private tutor to help him.'
When tests confirmed her son did have the learning disability, Madam Goh decided he should drop the subject.
She had left her administrative assistant job about a year ago to look after her children, as well as her sister, Zhi Wei's ailing mother. Although she has sent out numerous application letters in the last six months, she says the recession has made it very difficult to get a job. She did not need another battle, helping her dyslexic son cope with Chinese.
But Madam Chin, who used to teach her daughter, advised her against doing so and offered to coach Wei Shing.
Madam Goh - whose children are all receiving financial assistance from their schools - recalls: 'I told Madam Chin that I wouldn't be able to pay her. She said: 'Who's asking you to pay?''
A graphic designer who took up teaching six years ago, Madam Chin says she decided to help Wei Shing for several reasons.
'If there is hope, you have got to pursue it,' she says. 'Knowing Chinese is very important and useful since China is such a powerful economy. Moreover, we are Chinese, how can we give up the language?'
Married to a graphic designer, she also believes that every child can be taught and that a teacher just needs to find the right method to do so.
In Wei Shing's case, she spent a lot of time encouraging him to speak, using everyday situations to explain the meaning of words, phrases and proverbs. She also used a lot of graphics and visuals to help him remember words.
They met two or three times a week, whenever Madam Chin coached her only child, Yi-Chao, who is of the same age.
Now a student at Sin Ming Secondary School, Wei Shing says Madam Chin was a patient teacher who made studying Chinese fun.
'She understood how I felt, knew when I was happy or sad,' says the bespectacled boy, adding that she would even take him out on little excursions when he did well.
'Yi-Chao also motivated me. When I did badly at tests, he would comfort me and tell me that there was always a next time.
'I never expected to score an A. I would have been very happy with a C.' Wei Shin obtained Bs for English and Science, and a C for Maths.
Zhi Wei also came under Madam Chin's wing last June. He was then staying with his aunt and cousin as his mother was critically ill from brain cancer, and was in and out of hospital. His father - whom he declines to talk about - was not around to help him and his elder brother cope with the trauma. His studies started to suffer.
Madam Goh says: 'He was very down and couldn't concentrate on his schoolwork. Sometimes, he would cry himself to sleep.'
When Madam Chin found out what he was going through, she got him to join Wei Shing and her son.
'She was very kind and encouraging, telling me not to give up. She motivated me to study hard for my mother,' says Zhi Wei, adding that the sessions cheered him up.
Unfortunately, his mother's condition took a turn for the worse.
'On the day I took my PSLE Chinese Comprehension, she slipped into a coma,' he says softly.
However, he aced the exams, scoring A* for Chinese, and As for English, Science and Maths. His results got him into Chung Cheng High School, a Special Assistance Plan school.
He keeps quiet when asked if his mother - who died in January this year without waking up from her coma - knew he had done so well.
Madam Goh says: 'She knew. One of my other sisters told her that her wish for Zhi Wei to do well came true, and even though she could not respond, tears fell steadily from the corner of her eyes.'
Nan Chiau Primary's principal, Mr Tan, hopes that more teachers could be like Madam Chin, especially during this downturn. Besides applications for financial assistance, there are other signs which indicate the recession has made life tough for many of his pupils.
'For instance, we've suddenly got a lot of parents questioning why the school is subscribing to certain publications for their children. It's a clue that they are trying to tighten their belts and cutting down on expenses.
'I tell my teachers to look out for tell-tale signs such as rebellious behaviour or slipping grades among the students. The issues could be a lot deeper,' says Mr Tan, adding proudly that some of his staff even dig into their own pockets to help needy pupils buy books and other necessities.
The fourth of six children of a businessman and a housewife, Madam Chin says her late father always taught his children to repay society.
It explains why the grassroots leader at Punggol 21 Community Centre has always been active in community work.
'He said I have to follow my grandfather's sense of justice. My grandfather studied in Japan and was a supreme judge in Guangzhou. His name is in the history books,' says the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts graduate who switched to teaching because she felt that nurturing young minds was one of the best forms of community work.
To help families in need during the recession, she plans to round up a group of teachers to conduct extra classes after school.
Madam Chin says if teachers set a good example, their pupils will follow. 'I tell Wei Shing and Zhi Wei that just as I have helped them, they should also help others when it is their time.'
She still keeps in touch with her two charges even though they have left Nan Chiau Primary.
Wei Shing sheepishly admits that he is struggling with his Chinese again. Zhi Wei, meanwhile, also says that Higher Chinese - which he is now taking - is a lot harder than expected.
Madam Chin is already making plans to help them. 'If they need help, of course I will help.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.