Life in the Pressure Cooker


This is the perceptual diary of a typical Singaporean teenager:
 

 Enormous beads of perspiration trickled slowly down my now oily forehead, onto my abnormally dry lips. My usually cool cheeks felt flushed and hot. My tired eyes were moist and glistening, brimming with tears, preparing to spill -- over this test that I was about to flunk -- yet again… I licked my chapped lips, involuntarily taking in the salty drops of moisture resting on them. My mouth tasted funny, strange, and unfamiliar.

“What should I do? I can’t afford to fail!” I asked myself in desperation. The reply came almost immediately. The words “Cheat… cheat…” rang eerily in my ears.
My clammy hands trembled violently as I cautiously reached for the History text under my untidy desk, keeping both my eyes steadily on Miss George, who was still peacefully marking her students’ assignments. Despite my nervousness, I located the page I was searching for with just two experienced flips, then fought hard to stop the shaking pen I was grasping in my cold sweaty palms.
The old school bell rang out loud and clear all of a sudden, causing me to jump up with a start. The sudden movement jostled my cluttered desk and my History text fell to the ground with a clatter. Miss Andrews looked up instantaneously and with amazing agility, got out of her seat and started towards me. My heart thumped madly against my ribs as I avoided her staring eyes that bore like gimlets into me. The tears I had succeeded in holding back all this while spilled down my now scarlet cheeks and I began to sob uncontrollably.
 

 Argh! I could hardly stand it any longer! I had to have the ultimate torture of silently watching the entire caning process before actually experiencing it!
I gave another grimace and a groan of agony as the principal, Mister Kew, swished his thin cane high up in the air. I shut my eyes tight only to hear him bring it down again mercilessly and yet another loud whack. My best buddy, Lee’s bloodcurdling scream of pain and distress unsettled me -- he, too, had tried the same tactic during his test and both of us, of course, ended up in the same boat.

“Kill me,” his loud scream told me, “Kill me and end my suffering…” Hot tears welled up as before in my eyes and I desperately tried to blink them back. My wobbly knees shook involuntarily, knocking against each other and my normally wavy hair stood straight on their ends. “Please Lord! Save me and I promise I will believe this time!”
The rusty fire alarm sounded all of a sudden.
 

 My heart had yet to fail me; it still pounded wildly as the well-known school bully advanced menacingly step by step. I squinted hard against the rude glare of the burning afternoon sun peeping in through the shaft to focus better at Wilson who was swaggering along, looking absolutely fit and muscular. Then I looked down at myself, self-conscious all of a sudden; what thin legs with knobbly knees I had, what a soft and flabby tummy I had, what a scrawny little shrimp I was… Wilson sneered at me as if reading my thoughts, “Oh hi there, ain’t that dear old ‘Copycat Jeremy’?”

I could feel the warm blood gushing rapidly up my head; I backed off, only to come to a dead end against the cool cubicle wall of the school’s boys’ toilet. “What ought I to do? Could I possibly slip in between his legs?” I sighed inwardly, almost resigned to fate as we came face to face. Wilson continued his childish taunts one after another; while I could only look on at the tightening of his handsome, well shaped jaws and listen to the cracking of his knuckles as he clenched his powerful fists tight.

I felt a single hard punch in my weak stomach as Wilson gave a sudden frown of deep concentration. I was practically sent flying to the ground. I could hear the dull crunch of my new black rimmed glasses as Wilson stomped on them. I could smell the strong disinfectant on the toilet floor. My head reeled. I just managed to suppress my moan as Wilson, warming up, had gained confidence and began bashing my head against the clean and newly whitewashed walls.
A lone teacher strolled leisurely down the deserted corridor outside the toilet, oblivious.
 

 They say a man would go through a flashback of his entire life just moments before his death. And as I felt my mind breakdown, an antique scroll with old Latin-like fonts was displayed, in a split second, before my very eyes. When an unfamiliar voice read it out loud and clear, I gradually came to realise that it was another one of the essays I had been working on recently for the school project. I was hard pressed for time and the assignment was long overdue, there were too many things to be done and too little time to complete them, in other words, I was all stressed up. I could feel my sensitive eardrums vibrating as the words echoed softly around me…
 
“The large spacious room stood cold, gloomy and dimly lit. The fire was slowly but surely going out. The silence was overwhelming, so much so that the occasional crackling of the dying flames and the uneven scratching of pen against paper were magnified. The sudden rush of cool air from the open window against Jenny's cheeks brought about her goosebumps. The atmosphere was tense... and eerie... Somewhere in the house, an old grandfather's clock chimed. Once, twice, three times... twelve times. Jenny jumped violently from the essay she had been working on. "It's only the clock," she thought, as she returned to her ghost story only to spot, from the corner of her eye, a ghostly figure near the door. Her spine stiffened and her blood ran cold as she lifted her bent head to take a better look at her unexpected visitor. A cloud of cold mist surrounded him. He seemed translucent, Jenny could see and hear the antique oak door creaking shut behind him. Outside in the dark woods nearby, a full moon shone brightly above a howling wolf as a mysterious figure lurked among the shadows of the tall pine trees...”
 

My usually clear vision was distinctly blurred, my sharp hearing was now a mixture of deafening noises roaring in my ears and my world was swirling ceaselessly around me as my brain screamed out loud,

“Argh… yes! The Singapore way of life IS a rat race… the Singapore education system IS a pressure cooker! Certificates, degrees, honours… the list goes on… is it ever ending? Do they ever cease… do we ever stop climbing? Is this what a fifteen year old ought to be doing in the prime of youth? Is this what they call good planning, preparing for one's old age? Am I really willing to slog my way till the end? Is this the way I want to complete my life? No, no, no, no, no, no! I will survive, somehow I will… but the question is, do I really want to!”

Yes, I was in the midst of the examinations, busy cramming an empty mind, burning the midnight oil, just before I unintentionally fell into a deep and troubled sleep…
 
 

Name: Magdalene
Age: 15

 

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