English Translation of Professor Hon-Ming Lam’s article on 20 April 2012. First published by Professor Hon-Ming Lam in Traditional Chinese on Facebook, the story was subsequently republished as part of the book “Professor’s Notes — Teaching, Research, School” in 2016. Part 1 can be found here.
A former student called me his “mentor” on Facebook; although I don’t deserve the recognition, I was indeed proud for quite a few days. The traditional Chinese education mission of teaching lifelong lessons, imparting knowledge and untangling questions has reduced to giving out knowledge, even a tool for awarding degrees. It’s hard for a student to cherish the care from their teachers growing up.
Settling down and recalling my growth, the different ways my “mentors” encouraged, motivated and supported me had a profound influence.
1. Supplemental Exercises
Our family was deprived when I was in primary school;
(Editor’s note: Hon-ming grew up in a public housing estate; at the time, many of the residents only had access to community restrooms and kitchens.) without a good grade in the Secondary School Entrance Examination, I would have to drop out of school and be an apprentice. To pass with flying colors in the public exam required buying supplemental exercises for drilling; it was an economic burden to my home.
There was this one very reserved Math teacher who my classmates were afraid of; when I brought up my courage to ask him whether he could give me complimentary supplemental exercise samples from publishers, he immediately took a few, even instructing me to get some more from him after finishing them. He was the only teacher who responded to my plea, so I was determined not to disappoint him. Waking at five every morning, I used Mom’s knitting machine as my study table, precisely calculating every single question in the supplemental exercises.
Revelation from my “mentor”: Teachers shouldn’t be tightfisted when it comes to supplemental exercises.
2. Meeting my parent
Getting into a prestigious secondary school from a primary school located in the settlements, my schoolmates set the bar very high; this combined with English as the medium of instruction made it hard for me, this obscure kid from public housing, to fit in.
By the first semester of Form 4 (Editor’s note: equivalent to Grade 10), my report card was stained bloody red — English, Maths, Geography, History and my overall grades were failing. Trembling, my seamstress mom met with my class teacher and asked her what to do. The teacher told Mom that there was nothing that she could do as well, advising her to go home and prepare me well for what would happen next. Seeing the hopeless look in her eyes as if I had caught a terminal illness, I decided to give her a miracle by working really hard. I was able to continue my sixth forms at my original school with excellent grades in the HKCEE examination.
Revelation from my “mentor”: It’s possible to encourage students by triggering their parents.
3. Graduation counseling
Good times didn’t last, and my good fortune ran out. Relying on sheer luck without sufficient preparation naturally led to poor results in my A-levels. I performed the worst in class, getting nothing but Ds and Es; at the time it was definitely not enough to get into college. I thought of asking my class teacher about my prospects, but she said she was busy advising other graduates who were considering whether to go to med school or law school and asked me to think about it myself. I speculated for half an hour; seeing the frustrated looks on my teachers and classmates’ faces as to what major to choose made me not dare to bother her, and I slipped away from the scene.
Revelation from my “mentor”: I was determined to become a good teacher.