Tue, Nov 10, 2009
The Straits Times
Learning outside the textbook

By Lee Siew Hua

The way I remember my convent school days, there was a circle of girls who always danced, always looked like sylphs.

I remember, for they moved with beauty and precision. Also because I'd hoped to join them.

Okay, I fancied myself a graceful swan. So when a teacher who was a ballerina formed a troupe to dance on the national stage - maybe National Day? - I just had to try for a place.

So, I didn't make it. But, surprisingly, my teenage heart wasn't crushed.

If I could not dance, I could still train hard and compete in gymnastics. I could try poetry. School was filled with pathways.

That made the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, my school, exceedingly alive.

In the humid after-school hours, girls would be debating, acting, running, playing basketball, marching - immersed in lots of fun and passionate pursuits.

The world was large enough for all to shine differently. We competed, but did not have to do so in any narrow, savage way.

In that spirit, it was really possible to excel and play.

It was possible to produce and fete athletes, artistes, academically bright pupils and all-rounders.

But neither were these the only worlds that mattered.

For there was also much space for the world outside school walls. The sense of community was imparted from a tender age.

At one time, we also had an orphanage on the sprawling school premises, so our link to the community was visible daily. The girls went outside to serve too.

I think this creative and caring ethos is embedded in more and more schools now.

This is wonderful for Singapore - but only if schools or parents embrace these open paths and do not insist on academic glory alone.

I'm still delighted that my school popped so many of us on that big road early in life.

All this flashed back when I received e-mails about Arts Jam@IJ. This is a daylong celebration of all things artsy and crafty at CHIJ Secondary in Toa Payoh this Saturday.

I can watch handbell and drama performances - or try flamenco and jewellerymaking.

From way back, we have been blessed to have grown up in an atmosphere of appreciation for the arts.

That opens perceptual windows to look at life and career from different angles.

We need elements of free-spiritedness to think and feel outside the box more, and that can arise from being creative.

The other day, I asked my niece, who is in CHIJ Primary, about creative pursuits.

She loves art, and tells me about the gallery and sculptures in her school.

She spent a season in the creative writing circle in school. The family enjoyed the funny dialogues and fantastical stories she spun.

It was a delight to see her young imagination take wing, and also good to know it was being anchored in skills and structures.

At home, she makes paper sculptures and has just designed trinkets that fill a little bottle for her mum's birthday. For her latest creations, she has a hand-drawn product catalogue.

She seldom asks for things, but is hoping for a tabletop sewing machine. I can't tell you how much that impresses me, for my mum had to bail me out of sewing in school.

In parallel, my niece has a curious mind and loves science.

When the arts are fused with 'hard' disciplines like engineering, more ideas and successes can be unleashed.

I like that. If I were a convent girl today, or any teenage student, I'd desire the maximum by exploring more worlds in and outside my curriculum.

I'd dance while working harder on my mathematics. Then, maybe, I wouldn't have those persistent dreams, even now, of not completing my mathematics exam paper.

Meanwhile, shall I try bhangra? Or learn the abacus?

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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