07 January 2006

Catholic School

Every morning we lined up at the courtyard and said our morning prayers before singing the Majulah Singapura. Tall and thin, clad in white, Brother Michael stood at the microphone. His deep, calm voice leading us through the ancient words, leading us like a steady hand through the darkness of our closed eyes. Our Father. Hail Mary. Prayer of Saint Francis Xavier. The murmurings traveled like wave upon wave inside your head, going deeper and deeper till they vanished into nothing. Then the first strains of Mari Kita began and it was like you’d suddenly just woken up and stepped into a real, more solid kind of world.

The school was very old. It had stone floors and archways and long corridors. The Japanese had used the building as a base during the Second World War. They killed some old missionaries here. Chopped their heads off. It was true. You could read about it in the history books. You imagined the Irish priests kneeling before the executioners, heads bowed as if in offering to the bayonets. The sturdy silver blade, stained with blood, repeating the downward stroke. You wondered how holy you’d have to be to tell yourself then, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do".

There was a library. Dusty books stacked so high you had to stand on a chair to reach them. On geography, science, maths and history. And on theology. T-h-e-o-l-o-g-y. You remembered Father Tseng saying that word once, during Bible Knowledge class. An old man with stooped shoulders. Plucking precise verse out from memory. Speaking about the agonies on the cross, the betrayals of a traitor, forty days of wandering in the lost desert conversing with the devil. You looked at Father Tseng, grey-haired, frail and distant, moving around slowly with his battered, dog-eared bible in hand. You imagined him standing calmly before the Japanese – yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil. You suspected that somehow Father Tseng, like God, might live forever.

At recess, Daniel Mark said that Kok Cheng was going to hell when he died. "You're going to burn, Kok Cheng," Daniel Mark said, sounding evil. And very sure. Daniel Mark would go to heaven because he was Catholic and went to church every Sunday. Kok Cheng looked scared. He never said his prayers at morning assembly. His parents were Buddhist. Also, he had a girlfriend from the convent school down the road and he said he’d fucked her. Twice. Kok Cheng said he didn’t know then that it was a sin but Daniel Mark said that God knew he was lying and that everyone ought to know that fucking was a sin. "It’s too late now, Kok Cheng," Daniel Mark said solemnly. "You’re damned."

I felt sorry for Kok Cheng. You couldn't help it if your parents were Buddhist. You couldn't help it if you had a name like Kok Cheng, instead of Michael, Abraham or Daniel Mark. I didn’t know anything about fucking, except that it was something dirty and you had to study it in Sec Three biology. I didn’t want to fuck anybody. I wasn't Christian myself, but I said my prayers anyway. Our Father in Heaven. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Amen. Amen. It was easy enough. I was quite young and I didn’t know a lot of things. But I knew it was better to be safe than sorry.
posted by Gilbert at Saturday, January 07, 2006


Blogger ericlow said...

u're from SJI?

January 08, 2006  
Blogger trisha said...

Hi Gilbert,

What you wrote about SJI evokes similar feelings about the convent school I went to just down the street from SJI.

And I was the Buddhist student then who didn't understand why we had to thank God for our daily bread, and why nuns had to be single.

Still, those were good memories. And you expressed the magic of the old building beautifully.

January 08, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Crywolf, yes.

Trisha, thank you. I'm glad you identified with this. I've a feeling that my regular readers from overseas won't. I suspect you need to be quite Singaporean in order to like this piece. :)

January 09, 2006  
Blogger ericlow said...

sec school, best time of my life. i was/am a patrician. haha, brother school.

- eric

January 09, 2006  
Blogger Cocaine Jesus said...

i certainly get the final bit about covering your options! have you read the Life of Pi?
try it.

January 09, 2006  

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