Stories from the Classroom: Suet Li
Teaching in a high-need school is a highly challenging endeavour and a constant up-hill battle. It takes true leadership, passion and resilience to make a difference in the lives of students who need it the most. Here, our 2012 Fellow, Liew Suet Li shares her encounter with hope and aspiration as she experienced it in her English classroom in rural Negeri Sembilan.
My journey as a teacher is a massive roller-coaster experience. Some days I feel like I’m wasting my time with these kids, but some days I truly feel so contented that I feel like I can do this forever. Thankfully, today is one of those days that trumps a million of the other bad days.
I taught my Form 3 class about Martin Luther King a few days ago and told them about his “I have a dream” speech. I was supposed to move along the syllabus since I have to finish it by July but decided instead to take both periods today to get them to learn more about MLK instead. I had watched his speech again the night before and got goosebumps all over, and thought I could inspire my kids with it as well.
In class, I wrote out quotes from his speech and pasted them all over the room. I briefly spoke about what some of those quotes meant and the kids got more and more excited about MLK. I think listening to stories beat doing more grammar exercises and writing boring essays anytime!
“I have a dream that one day, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as brothers and sisters.”
I spoke about how bad slavery was in America and how African Americans couldn’t even board the same bus, use the same toilet or the same water fountains as whites. The kids were appalled and got riled up about it. They couldn’t believe how bad racism can get and we discussed the importance of civil rights and equality.
We then read out my favourite MLK quote: “I have a dream that one day, we will live in a nation where we will not be judged by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character”.
Before we watched the speech, I got the kids to write out their own dreams. They could write about anything they want, as long as those dreams are big enough that they seem impossible.
Then they pasted their dreams next to their tracker and we watched the speech together. They watched a few minutes of it, noisily commented on everything, before telling me that they couldn’t understand much of what MLK said.
I was a little sad that they couldn’t experience the same goosebumps I had but after the video ended, I asked if they would like to hear my dream now.
“I have a dream that one day, all 31 of you will be sitting in your university dorm room one day and will remember this moment. Then, you will go on YouTube to rewatch this speech but this time, this time you’ll be able to understand every word in MLK’s speech and will be inspired by those words as well. I have a dream that one day, you too will fight for something you believe in, just like MLK fought for his own rights.”
I choked midway while saying that because I was so emotional about it, so emotional about the thought of my kids achieving that dream. The class was silent for a while, and one boy quietly said, “Teacher, I want that dream to come true too..”
While they worked on their work after that, I read all their post-its in awe.
“I have a dream that one day, people who are stupid like me can be geniuses too.”
“I have a dream that one day, I will fight for poor people like me and help change their fate forever.”
“I have a dream that one day, everyone in this class will own expensive cars like Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, McLaren…” (He listed down ten different cars; obviously written by a boy!)
“I have a dream that one day, my village will be proud of me and will not look down on me or my family for being poor anymore.”
“I have a dream that one day, Malaysia will be the best country in the world.”
“I have a dream that one day, everyone in this class will be astronauts and we can live on the moon together.”
One after another, big dreams, wonderful dreams, inspiring dreams.
We then spent a few minutes reading about the guy who shot MLK and the kids got extremely angry at him, which made me really happy because it shows how affected they are by what happened.
I’m thinking back at this moment and I realized that I don’t know if I will ever feel such a strong rewarding and fulfilling feeling again. You know how people use the term “once in a lifetime”? Why go bungee jumping, why go climb mount everest, why do a million other things that you can do once in a lifetime when you can teach, once in your lifetime? When you can change lives, once in your lifetime? When you can get kids to dream big, to want to achieve more, to want to succeed, once in your lifetime?
I have a dream that one day…