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Gen Z Speaks: I was the black sheep in school. But it was never too late to turn my studies around

As a seven-year-old kid who was just entering primary school, I remember being dismissive when my parents told me: "Your studies are the most important — you don't want to end up like me."

I felt everything change around me right after I made my own determination to do better for myself, says the author.
I felt everything change around me right after I made my own determination to do better for myself, says the author.
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As a seven-year-old kid who was just entering primary school, I remember being dismissive when my parents told me: "Your studies are the most important — you don't want to end up like me."

I was a stubborn and naive child then, but that did not stop my parents from enrolling me in a reputable primary school, thanks to my mother's volunteer work.

Everyone was over the moon for me because it seemed like I hopped on a steady train towards success. My parents, aunts and uncles gushed about my acceptance into this school, as if I will surely make it in life.

But I was never going to be the brightest kid in class, and I was filled with doubts about my ability to learn.

Right when I started primary school, my parents also signed me up for piano, swimming and abacus classes. I was a jack of all trades and a master of none.

I remember the tears dripping onto my piano after a failed practice session as a seven-year-old. This was the piano that my mother bought for me using her yearly bonus.

I remember thinking that something was wrong with me, that I could never do anything well. After all, it's me.

Little did I know that at my new primary school, I would be surrounded by child prodigies, national athletes and mini geniuses. Compared to them, I was a black sheep.

My grades continued to plummet after each year. Cs and Ds printed like clockwork on my report cards, and I didn't possess any remarkable accomplishments in my extracurricular activities.

Other kids would mock me for not understanding concepts as quickly as them, and would jokingly call me names like "slow", "stupid" or "dumb".

I remember brushing it off and laughing in front of them, but behind closed doors, I was miserable. The criticism had come from people I regarded as friends, and their words were like a stab in the chest.

Foolishly, I believed them.

I remember crying every day on my bedroom floor, dreading school, and turning to computer games when I should be studying for examinations.


By the time I got to Primary 5, my parents got worried by my academic performance, especially as the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) neared.

So, I received extensive private tutoring in English, Mathematics, Chinese, and Science. Separately, my teachers also sent me to remedial classes for almost all my subjects due to my poor results.

In these classes, whatever my teacher taught sounded like she was teaching a completely foreign language.

"What am I studying for?" I kept wondering.

I looked at my answer script. Blank. Nothing came to mind. I didn't want to do this. Because whenever I thought I had moved one step forward, I was ten steps behind.

On November 25, 2015, I received my PSLE results. I scored a 198.

"With your aggregate, you can go to either the Express or Normal (Academic) stream," my form teacher said to me then.

To me, it meant choosing between an Express class, where I will once again be at the bottom of the pack; or accepting the much-maligned label of the Normal (Academic) stream.

The number "198" pierced my mind.

I rushed to the nearest bathroom, locked myself in one of the cubicles and started breaking down hysterically. I could only imagine how disappointed my parents were. I thought about my father, who always said "clever girl" when calling out to me.

At that moment, I felt like a pathetic and incompetent failure. I thought that I had come to a dead end at 12 years’ old.


But life goes on, and I ended up in the Normal (Academic) stream.

Although unsaid by my peers at the time, I could feel a social stigma around us, because it was easy to be looked down on by some Express stream kids.

Yet, my alma mater — Zhonghua Secondary School — taught me grit, and that nothing is out of reach. I learnt how to find the motivation to put in the hard work to get to any destination I set for myself.

I had a eureka moment.

It wasn't my mental capacity or competence that was at fault. Rather, it was my attitude that needed to change.

I wanted to prove everyone who ever doubted me wrong. I would work twice as hard as everyone else to keep up. Who knows where that would lead? Perhaps I would surprise myself.

I thought: "I can, and I will."

I felt everything change around me right after I made my own determination to do better for myself.

Instead of hiding away in the crowd during morning assemblies, I would be on the sidelines with my subject teacher each morning, discussing my past examination mistakes.

When school was over, the school bell didn't dismiss me. Instead, I would only leave when I completed my homework.

I would be exhausted when I reached home, but re-energised when I think about how there is a more intelligent, faster, and harder worker than me.

Every day, I challenged myself. To be better than who I was yesterday. One step at a time, until what used to be a chore became a familiar routine.

Slowly but surely, I saw my first "A" in my result slip. The gratification from achieving something I've worked so hard for was indescribable.

I became at the top of my class, and then the top in the cohort for Normal (Academic) students. I also received a scholarship from my secondary school, the Chuang Yong Eng Scholarship.

With an almost perfect N-Level aggregate of six points, I entered the Polytechnic Foundation Programme. The scheme is a through-train programme for the top Normal (Academic) students in the cohort to enter polytechnic.

By the time I finished secondary school, I was astonished at how a change in my work ethic and attitude was able to take me. Two years into the polytechnic, I was on the director's list, which is meant for the top five per cent of my cohort. I scored a cumulative grade point average of 3.9 out of four.

Looking back, I know that I have made the 12-year-old me proud.



Shina Tan, 19, is studying Communications and Media Management at Temasek Polytechnic, and currently runs a small business selling crystals and handmade jewellery online.

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