The Difference 30 Years Make
The year was 1986, the golden year in comics. Inside the conference hall on the 6th floor of President Merlin Hotel on one May afternoon, students, civil servants and other professionals jostled and shoved their way towards the comic stalls lining the side of the hall, which sold comics, local and foreign, mainstream and independent. In the middle, more than 200 people listened to a debate between “Friends of ‘Ol Marvel” and “DC Diehards”.
“It was very amateurish. We did up a poster, and invited comic shops to set up stall, charging them 50 dollar each. We printed 100 tickets hoping to sell that to cover the costs,” Mr Larry Choy, one of the seven organisers of Comicon ‘86, told us. In the end, 2500 came.
Exactly 30 years later, some things have changed. Mr Choy is no longer in his first year as a teacher, but in his last. His eyebrows are thinner, his hair wispier and he now packs a paunch. Otherwise, much has not changed. The debate between Marvel and DC has yet to be resolved, Choy’s passion for comics still remains fiery, and he ends his career where he started: in a Junior College on the East Coast.
The Test of Time
“I taught over 1500 students…I think I terrorised them.”
Victoria Junior College has stood the test of time. Its flat, largely monocolour four-story campus, surrounds a large sunlit garden, in stark contrast to the seven-story Victoria School (VS) monolith two bus stops away. Since the new VS campus opened in 2003, a S$500,000 AstroTurf field has replaced the conventional field and a S$5 million two-story multi-purpose sports hall has been built. On the other hand, VJ’s campus has stayed largely unaltered, with its bold red gates watching more than thirty batches of students come and go, each with their own unique stories crafted within the unchanged campus.
When asked whether beyond its unchanging facade, VJ has seen sweeping changes, Mr Choy took a long pause before replying; his wholesome reply indicative of his characteristic demeanor, always cool and composed. “VJ has not really changed over 30 years. It is a vibrant institution and is quite a nice environment to live and work in. The students are fairly happy, as happy as they can be.”
It was perhaps because of the peaceful and stable nature of his job, rather than in spite of it, that he had never considered the possibility of switching careers nor switching school over the three decades. This, despite the fact that he had initially wanted to be a librarian, and early on, felt that it was a “wrong choice” he did not pursue that path.
“The colleagues here are generally quite intelligent and there is very little backstabbing. All the horror stories you hear about teachers outside who are trying to clamour to the top by stepping all over you, we don’t have that here,” he says, emitting a soft, slight smile, brushing his hand across the top of his head.
Mr Choy summed up the appeal of teaching to being able to “press on the reset button every two years”, each time allowing him to play with a fresh set of students. He has since pressed it 15 times. “I taught over 1500 students…I think I terrorised them,” he said with a laugh.
Good Old Days
“Younger teachers are very fun to work with. They are quite new and naive. It’s fun to make fun of them.”
Mr Choy posing with his Comics Collection in 1987 for The Straits Times
One April Fools’ several years ago, Mr Larry Choy and an Economics Tutor who taught the same class decided to play a prank on the class. She would teach GP and he would take the Economics class. He had some background in Economics but definitely not enough to teach.
“I went in and said ‘Your teacher is not going to be teaching economics anymore and I will be teaching you Econs.’ So they said, ‘Okay’ and I said ‘Okay…so MCQ you are supposed to do these few. The answers are A, and this one is C, and this one is B.’”
“After a while, they asked me, ‘Why can’t it be C?’, and I said, ‘That is a very good question. Why don’t you go back and find out and then next tutorial, tell us?’ So that went on for a few questions, until they said ‘There’s no point la’, and I said ‘You all are learning very fast!’”
He then continued in his characteristic frank and direct manner: “Sometimes, not to put the students down, but some of the things you all put up are really quite inane, quite silly. So, we will look at it and say, ‘Surely you all can come up with something more interesting, less slapstick.’” He recalled once during Mrs Chan’s time where the teachers told the students during Teachers’ Day, ‘Oh, Victorians, everyone go to the PT and sit down and we will do a string of performances instead.’
A similar spirit endures in VJ today. Skits and videos produced by teachers sometimes elicit more laughter than those of students. In a Children’s Day video shown last year, CT Reps were pranked by their civics tutors, the tutors dancing off behind their backs while the reps droned on about how great VJ was.
To Mr Choy, most of the changes over the years came from the students. “Initially, the students were not very bright…but they were more interested in life and living. I remember my first batch, they invited me to go camping with them in Ubin. In the middle of the night, they decided to go to the jetty. They would pick up the big rocks and throw them into the river and see the ripples or the reflections of the stars. Those were the things they liked, the simple pleasures of life. Back then, they didn’t have so much tuition. At that time, one A or two As would be enough to go to University. Students nowadays are more vocal, but doesn’t seem to be as sure of themselves. There is a lot of face-saving now.”
Reminiscing on that one Friday evening with us about the good old days, he came across completely relaxed and stress-free. At one point, he even broke into song, singing to the tune of “Go West”, as he recounted how the teachers had parodied the 1970s disco hit, to mark Mrs Chan’s departure west to MOE HQ in 2001: “Go West, though it’s very far, go west and you have no car. Go West but if you kill SPA, the best you will be our star.”
(“Back then they just introduced SPA, and all the teachers hated it!”)
It really only hit us how long 30 years was, when he told us the laundry list of CCAs he managed and in the process, name-dropped at least 3 teachers who were his former students. Mr Choy had been teacher-in-charge of a wide gamut of CCAs including Choir, Dance, Interact and SpeakOut. Among all, the student-initiated Dragon Boating was his fondest due to the students’ enthusiasm. It was discontinued in 1989.
The Final Third
“Uncharted 4 is waiting for me”
As he counts down to his final 50 days in VJ, there is little wonder that Mr Choy is “bouncing up and down”, as Mr Alex Lum, an economics tutor, puts it. Choy told us the grand plan of his life: Study ⅓, Work ⅓, Enjoy ⅓ of the time. Now he was entering its most enjoyable phase. I asked him what it felt like to be at the cusp of this shift. His reply was quick: “Excellent, it’s great fun.” There is now less of a burden on him as he doesn’t have the pressure anymore of being directly responsible for students’ results. Furthermore, with fewer duties and most administration work taken away, he can focus on what most teachers often want to but are often unable to concentrate purely on: teaching.
Mr Choy feels that he has neglected his health and fitness for the past few years and hopes that he would get back into shape to run a marathon again. (He completed two some years back.) After that, he can focus on his hobbies: “My books and comics need tidying up.”
His love for comics is certainly long and storied, one which gained the attention of The Straits Times way back in 1987. At that time, it was said that he had over 5000 comics, spending about $500 (in today’s currency) on more than 30 types of comics a month. Today, he says that the ‘5000’ was an ‘underestimation’, leaving us to marvel at the potential size of his comic collection now, 30 years on.
His teaching career and his comics hobby has not been entirely separate the past 30 years, having used issues pondered in comics, which he finds “intellectually stimulating”, as examples for discussions in class. He often brought up Batman when discussing the psychology of motivation, for example. We even discovered him on a 1996 discussion board, in which he debated the “DC’s treatment of female heroes”. He told us that at that time, it was indeed a serious issue, as males completely dominated the medium, reducing girls to mere doppelgangers, promoting stereotypes in our society. He shared one episode where Batman was asking Batgirl for help in fighting a crime, and Batgirl responded by telling him to wait, as she had to put on her makeup first.
Choy’s resolute and firm character extends beyond lessons, shining through even when discussing his hobbies. To the visible dismay of an Xbox fan who sat in during our chat with Mr Choy, he said: “I’m a PS4, I’m not an Xbone,” comically borrowing the derogatory term used by critics of Xbox One, “It’s awful, there’s no good games!” When stating his opinions, he is unafraid to debate at lengths on it, whether in class on the feasibility of solutions in Project Work, or outside class, for example, when we disagreed with him that Superman was better than Batman. For that, he has gained the respect of his students throughout his years in teaching, who noted that despite the passionate nature of the debates sometimes, he never blames the students for their audacity to debate with him or hold any hard feelings, which some teachers still surprisingly do.
He tells us his justification for Batman vs Superman: “Superman is the person you should look up to. He has always been groomed to be an icon for everyone. Batman is such a psycho, don’t you think so? Didn’t you see Arkham Asylum? He doesn’t trust anyone and he kills at will sometimes.”
Bringing up a quote from Superman he shared with the school at last year’s Teacher’s Day, Mr Larry Choy subconsciously reminded us of his ability in tying in his hobby to his job: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal.”
After the Students’ Council investiture last month, he emailed his former form class a link to a song played at the ceremony: The Nights by Avicii.
In the song a father tells his son: “One day you’ll leave this world behind. So live a life you will remember.”
Sean Tan, 15S49
Kwek Zhan Hao, 15S49