Mrs Toh Kah Beng has written her autobiography, Tapestries, A Teaching Life, a great deal of which revolves around her teaching experiences in RI during the 1970s and 80s.
With a teaching career spanning 37 years, Mrs Toh looks back fondly on her years in RI as being her very best. She recollects how, upon entering Headmaster Mr Philip Liau’s room for the first time, she was struck by how he resembled a colonial gentleman, with a pipe in his mouth, and The Straits Times spread on the table. The subsequent conversation took place in two sentences.
‘I will give you Sec 3 Geography to teach. Can you manage?’ he asked.
‘I will try,’ Mrs Toh replied.
And thus began her teaching career in RI in 1967. She taught Geography as well as English.
On one occasion, she requested a plot of land for vegetable farming for her class, and Mr Liau gave his consent without asking any further questions, such was his trust in her.
In the classroom, Mrs Toh was all business. ‘In my class, there was no writing on the chalkboard or highlighting chunks of information in the textbooks. I condensed my notes into precise points and narrated them to my students. So, if you paid attention, you would get my notes. If you were daydreaming, you would have trouble catching up.’
This is corroborated by Ku Swee Yong who, in his foreword to the book, reverently describes Mrs Toh as ‘the third most-feared teacher in RI’ during the ‘70s and ‘80s.’
In both its content and publication, Tapestries largely reflects her close bonds with her ex-students: while the book was penned by Mrs Toh, its cover and foreword were both contributed by alums, and similarly, the proceeds from the sales of the book will be managed by a former student.
Tapestries was launched on 29 November 2014 at the National Library’s Central Branch. About 50 people were in attendance, many of them Mrs Toh’s former students, including psychiatrist Dr Ang Yong Guan. Mrs Toh regaled the crowd with anecdotes from her teaching career, and gave away two of her paintings as quiz prizes.
Tapestries is available for $19.30 at bookshops islandwide. All proceeds from this book will go to the Agape School for the Deaf in East Timor, which Alvan Yap (an alumnus and currently Deputy Director of the Singapore Association for the Deaf), helped to establish.
Here is an excerpt from Tapestries:
Teach Your Passion!
GEOGRAPHY IS AN interesting subject that comprises physical geography, regional geography and topography. I love all of them. In fact I bought more books to read out of interest. I believe my love for the subject had instilled in my students the love for it too. Therefore the teacher must love what she is doing. As I had said, every day was a challenge, an adventure. The boys of the ten classes I was teaching were witty and we pulled one another’s legs. Of course knowing me, I would not allow them to cross the line. I remembered one April Fools’ Day, I was all geared up. I knew that my boys would surely not let me off . As I entered the classroom, from a distance I saw something odd on my table. As I approached, I saw a bloodied thumb with cotton wool and lots of red ink. I just walked to the table, took up the thumb and threw it into the waste paper basket, much to the sounds of despair from my boys. Now to think of it, perhaps I should have shrieked and acted the part of a fainting woman.
On another April Fools’ Day all my boys from the ten classes decided to change classrooms to confuse the teachers. I just entered the classroom I was supposed to be in and carried on teaching, amidst oohs and ahhs from the boys. I think by now you will understand why I was a teacher. Once, a student asked me why I was a teacher and I answered, “Well, you see, I need to earn a living— to be frank with you —and secondly, I love my job”.