The day I dreaded most had come. Pulling the blanket over my head to block out the blinding sunlight streaming into my room, I could hear Mother nagging at me :
“Remember Casey, if you don’t score above 260, you’re not to step out of this house until holidays are over…”
The warning was all the more fearful for what was unspoken: the entire parental armoury of knocks on the head, a whole load of new assessment paper and books and back-to-back tuition classes which would leave me with a throbbing headache at the end of the day. Thinking of the worst to come, i dragged myself out of bed and washed up.
As I pulled the blue pinafore over my head, Mother started nagging again. “Casey, you better show me that all my hard-earned money hasn’t gone down the drain. Do you understand me? I spent all my time at home teaching you and using my savings for your tuition where I could be in Korea or Europe enjoying myself. You better not be another let down!”
Her last few words rang in my head. “Another let down”. Instantly, I knew who she was referring to – my older brother. He is 19 now but still unemployed. Just seven years ago, my elder brother was like me, a short puny twelve-year-old about to take a high-stake national exam for the first time in his life – The Primary School Leaving Examination, in short the PSLE.
That year, Mother had cancelled her business trip to Taiwan just to tend to my elder brother as he prepared for the big exam. Just like any other kid, my brother was oppressed by the ubiquitous shadow education system, otherwise known as private tuition and an intimidating pile of assessment books and mock exam papers. Only five then, I could still remember vividly how our bookshelf filled up a quarter of our study room and the reference books spilled over to the ergonomic study desks which occupied the rest of the space in the room. Mother spent much time with my brother and even took cooking lessons in the night so that she could whip up nourishing dishes for him.
“Look what our neighbour, Auntie Lucy, did for her daughter last year and where it got her. She is now in the top school. We cannot lose out. Ah Boy, you jolly well pull up your socks or I wouldn’t be able to face our relatives and neighbours” While Mother was busy fussing over my brother, I was given to the care of a nanny who came at eight in the morning to ten at night. However, to Mother’s horror, she found out that my brother had been skipping after school enrichment classes to go for hip-hop classes just a month before PSLE.
That day was the worst day ever. It was as if Mother who could not even bear to kill an ant, had become a totally different person. The veins on her temple popped and her facial features were contorted by rage. She clutched at her chest as if she was suffering from a cardiac attack. She stormed into the kitchen to grab a long bamboo pole used for hanging clothes. The pole mercilessly landed on Ben’s back, arms and hips-anywhere and everywhere. I was carried to the bedroom by my nanny but Ben’s attempt to flee proved futile. My terrified scream, Ben’s plea for mercy and Mother’s hysterical cries filled the house. The bedroom door gave little protection from the yelling and the crack of the bamboo pole on my brother’s back.
“Ben, how could you do such a thing? You know how much I spent on you? You know how crucial this year is for you? You are taking the PSLE in a few more weeks, mind you! How could you go for dance classes without my permission? How many times have I told you to focus on your studies? Don’t waste your time learning such frivolous things! Why can’t you be like Auntie Lucy’s daughter, study hard and become a doctor!”
I shuddered at the traumatising memory and prayed fervently that I would not be given the same treatment. “Casey, are you done?” Mother’s voice snapped me back to reality. “Yeah, coming!” i replied as I shoved the thick stack of secondary school options into my haversack.
While Mother drove me to school, I sat slouched in the car seat, bracing myself for the worst. I did not want to end up like my elder brother.
“Casey Ng Jia Xuan!” Mrs Nair’s high-pitched voice rang out shrilly from behind her station in the school hall where the results slips were neatly stacked according to our register numbers. Upon hearing my name, I made my way to the front as Mother shot me a warning look. Goosebumps started appearing on my arms as my result slip was handed over to me. Mrs Nair’s warm hands reached out for my trembling ones and gave them a squeeze as she declared with a big smile on her face, “Good job, Casey! You are the top student of your class!” it was surreal as if time had stopped at that moment and the earth had stopped spinning on its axis. Pinching myself to make sure all was real, I pushed my way through the crowd to look for Mother, still giddy from the unexpected news.
Just as expected, Mother was already lost in deep conversation with Nicky’s parents, my closest rival in class. Delirious with joy, I ran up to Mother and showed her my PSLE results and the magical three-digit number that would prove my worth to Mother and all our relatives and neighbours. Like Auntie Lucy’s daughter, I would don the navy blue pinafore and wear it like a model. Like Auntie Lucy’s daughter, I was on my way to walking a tried-and-tested route to becoming a doctor. Mother’s eyes shone with pride as she reached out to embrace me. “That’s my girl, a terrific score of 272!” Mother exclaimed. Despite relishing the love Mother was showering on me, I could not help but think what she would say if I had not met her expectations. What about my dream to become a singer?
I pushed those thoughts out of my mind quickly as Mother gave me a nudge while glancing at Nicky’s mother whose face was as dark as thunderclouds. I gave Mother a weak smile as I felt a strange tinge of sadness and emptiness within me. A myriad of thoughts filled my mind. What if i hadn’t done well? Would Mother still be this happy or am I only worth as much as my PSLE score? Have I become reduced to mere digits? These scary thoughts whirled in my mind as Mother continued to brag to other parents.