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.
My sixth-form Biology teacher was very quirky. He made it very clear in the first class that since sixth forms were to prepare for university and undergraduates learn mostly by themselves, sixth form students have to start the adjustment process. He was indeed a man of his word. Some dissections he just put down the animal specimens and told us to practice ourselves according to the instructions of the dissection manual, while he returned to the staff room. Once I took less than five minutes to turn a small shark, supposedly to be dissected, into maimed meat, as if it was canned tuna; I was about to go to the staff room and ask for help when I saw the teacher happily humming a song, “floating over white clouds and skies, not knowing old times die…”. I was poor in self-learning; naturally, my grades were down, so the Biology teacher was sure that I had Biology-phobia.
After flunking my first A-levels, I hadn’t made contact with that teacher. Until many years later, right before I was about to pursue my further studies overseas, we met again outside the Chung Chi Restaurant. (Editor’s note: The Restaurant is the Canteen of Chung Chi College, one of the founding colleges of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.)
“We haven’t met for a long time, you coming for a trip to CUHK?” “I study at CUHK.” “What do you study?” “Biology.” “Oh…you’ve overcome your fear of Biology?” “Sir, I’ve graduated with my Master’s degree in CUHK, I’m going to the States for my Biology Ph.D. tomorrow.”
Revelation from my “mentor”: Your greatest fear today might become your lifelong favorite.
I took a molecular biology class in my senior year. The teacher described a bacteriophage, visible only under an electron microscope and a hundred times smaller than a bacterium, in such vivid detail that it took most of the semester to go through a book with just a few dozen pages. Since then I was hooked with molecular biology. The teacher taught me that slow work makes excellent products, and high-achievers are ground. I once became a master’s student in his lab for half a year and discovered that this teacher understood the schedules of his students. He knew that everyone was busy during the day; however, when night falls, the later is the merrier. As a result, he set many lab meetings at 23:00. Those days the CUHK labs were bustling during the night: we worked while listening to “Heart to Heart” and “6-and-a-Half Pairs”, if we became hungry we could use lab beakers and distilled pure water to cook instant noodles. (Editor’s note: The two radio shows were popular in Hong Kong. “Heart to Heart” was hosted by Pamela Peck, “6-and-a-Half Pairs” was run by an ensemble of 13 DJs.)
Revelation from my “mentor”: High achievers are ground in the night.