We devote a third of our lives to education, spending this time religiously filling in worksheets, tests and examinations.

When we venture into the working world, our student self becomes estranged. Formulae once had at the fingertips disappear down the abyss of forgotten memories. We look back and wonder why we ever cared about memorising every detail in textbooks. We joke about learning things that had little application to the real world.

All is well until something triggers a memory and everything comes tumbling back.

For many Singaporeans, especially those who don’t want to remember past academic debacles, the SingPass Mobile app’s newest feature is yet another reminder about just how competitive the education scene is.

Being big on getting stellar grades is so Singaporean. Parents debate on forums over which is the best school to attend. We spent S$1.4 billion on tuition last year. Bookshop shelves sprout papers from elite schools whenever a major examination period rolls around. And in a typical kiasu Singaporean example, students are being sent to enrichment classes beyond their current level of education.

So when SingPass Mobile’s latest upgrade was revealed, netizens, armed with screenshots of their results on the app, recounted the examination blues on Twitter with sardonic remarks on their academic performance.

Offline, there was less snark and more angst. People around me, even those who did relatively well, blamed themselves for their performance. A friend shared that someone he knows opened his past results, and the resultant trip down memory lane unfortunately ended with an existential crisis.

Others have now kept the SingPass app out of sight on the Home screens, declaring: “I’m not looking at it. Why would you want to hurt yourself like that?”

Reducing our worth to just numbers and letters

We have taken our grades far too much to heart, setting too much of our worth on a combination of numbers and letters. Fear of failure is the driving factor for students to push themselves harder. And that has dire consequences.

A psychologist shared how a 12-year-old was so anxious about her Primary School Leaving Examination results that she almost had a breakdown. She believed that her route to a good education lies in acing the very first National Examination. In May 2016, a Primary 5 boy took his own life in fear of sharing his results with his parents.

And more teens are seeking help.

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And before you dismiss these episodes as growing pains or something all Singaporean children just have to “deal with”, you should realise that no matter where we are in life, these memories of restless nights over unattainable results follow you for a long time.

When I was in secondary school, I once admitted to a teacher that I was afraid to raise questions during his lessons as most of them were unrelated to the syllabus. I told him that I was worried that the stares I would receive from my competitive classmates could burn me alive.

He simply sighed and replied: “Education is selfish, Jamie.”

Students studying in Singapore
Image source: Jamie Wong

And now, thanks to SingPass Mobile, the results on my screen are a glaring reminder of my journey in Art and how I had passed it by the skin of my teeth. Initially, I had opted for it, hoping it would deepen my understanding of the creative process. Instead, I was driven up the wall in a bid to succeed in the conventional method of assessment at a subject that is inherently unconventional.

To my teacher, I was the student that needed to come to her senses with her subpar performance. Where I was struggling to reproduce photos to the last detail with colour pencils, he saw it as a sloppy work ethic. Where I wanted to use Internet images to include lions and seals in my artwork, he saw it as taking the easy way out. He had a game plan for us to do well, at the expense of doing what we enjoyed. My time as an art student felt like I had to constantly keep my head above the rapidly rising water. I was glad to leave it behind.

Such is life, we say to ourselves. Reality is harsh and cold as a thunderstorm. We move on by throwing the negative parts of our years (in school or otherwise) in a box, locking up and burying it deep down in our mental reserves. “What’s the point of looking back? It’s over,” my friends tell me, almost defensively. Mr Brown sums up that philosophy perfectly:

But instead of sweeping all our bad experiences under a carpet and locking our sights on the road ahead, would we be able to learn a thing or two from looking back once in a while?

For years after I graduated, my relationship with art was complicated. I would begin a piece and push myself to complete it under an hour even when I had the whole day. I drew and painted in private and kept my works to myself. I dodged requests from others to see my work. I felt afraid of being “graded” again. It was meant to be an act of self-expression but it felt as if I was committing a crime.

The side effects of being put under pressure to achieve attractive grades are common among students, too. On the day the O-level results were released, I watched my friend’s face fall when she saw that her aggregate did not meet the target set by her parents. She burst into tears, at a loss over how she was going to break the news to her parents.

We should not ignore negative feelings. But there’s a difference between reflecting on them and dwelling on them. Properly dealing with failure or negative experiences has been proven to broaden one’s perspective of relationships and boost a sense of well-being.

We should take stressful experiences apart logically and constructively to understand ourselves. Instead of the failures and weaknesses, focus on the strengths you may have inadvertently cultivated from surviving a bad experience.

From my terrible time trying to draw in a style that I never liked, I learnt to always gauge my own abilities and passions before deciding on a project. From having been made to redo my sketches for no clear reason, I learnt how damaging non-constructive feedback could be; this epiphany in turn helped strengthen my relationships with other people.

While we focus on the now and tomorrow instead of griping over our painful past, it is worthwhile to comprehend these feelings for self-development in the long run.

Over time, my results eventually grew less relevant, and the bitter feelings receded. In its place remained handy tips to navigate through life. These are the lessons that my scores failed to reflect. With this, I no longer held my failure to do well over my head, no matter how often it may pop up on my mobile phone.

So, what lessons can you take away from the tough years in your student life?

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Top Image: Jamie Wong