Friday, 5 August 2011

Here Lies Greatness

What makes a man great? And what makes a great man?

I guess we could say the answer to the first would be his words, his thoughts, his deeds, the effect he had on the people around him and more. The answer to the second could encompass background, education, mentors, faith… the list goes on.

I could think and write a little about all these but I would prefer to write a little instead about a great man I knew. One whose life embraced all of the above. And then some.

He would understand too that I now choose not so much to write investigatively, but to write anecdotally instead. For here was a man whose life was a rich tapestry of stories. And if the measure of a man were the stories he left behind on the lips, in the minds and in the hearts of those whose paths crossed his own, then Mr Sebastian Vincent would be a giant among men.

Indeed to us, he seemed that way - a towering personality who struck terror and humour into our souls at the very same moment. A no-nonsense Physics teacher who took his work seriously and would just as readily take the mickey out of his students. There were those who made fun of him just as he made fun of us. In either direction the gentle mocking remained just that - good humour that never even so much as glanced in the direction of aggression, vitriol, or anger.

In the great play of life that was the lot of the Physics student in La Salle PJ, Mr Vincent was the murder prop - a glinting shining axe that looked menacing and added an edge of fear while being just that little bit incongruously comical. An axe that bound the play together, gave it direction and purpose.

My mother, who made up for lacking the better judgement not to stop at 6 children in the first place, decided that I needed to attend tuition at Mr Vincent’s in preparation for my Form 5 exams. One bad decision balanced out by one brilliant one and so I found myself cramped into this rickety add-on room in No 1 Jalan 5/9B. A room we all thought was partly a stubborn personal DIY project at best (for certainly a qualified carpenter/builder worth his salt would dare not leave this job in this parlous state!), and a physics experiment gone seriously awry at worst.

Still, we trusted the man and figured if the whole shebang collapsed, we would at least get some free Physics lessons while we awaited extrication.

And this would have been, despite the stories we can all tell, a pleasure and a great help.

I had, of course, known Mr Vincent for some years as our families were friends, his wife was my mother’s colleague, friend and church-mate (and my Standard 4 class teacher) and his children were part of my limited social circle every Sunday when we had the SFX Church Children’s Group gathering and mass.

He had never taught me, however, until that moment I stepped into that re-creation of a Black Hole. The immense gravitational pull of his knowledge, personality and sheer presence sucked us all helplessly in. Either that or we had paid good money and there was air-conditioning.

Mr Vincent was a teacher like no other I have ever met. He seemed always to be thinking of something else. A mathematics problem perhaps. Or the mystery of faster-than-light travel. Even maybe when my ancestors actually came down from the trees. This last one was quite likely as really, I sometimes displayed a particularly painful disinclination to comprehending Physics.

When talking to me, I noticed he often failed to make eye contact, preferring instead to look at a point just below my left knee, or a little off my right shoulder. I took this to be a result of being preoccupied with my ancestry of course and never once doubted that though his eyes may not have been fixed on mine, his mind was always probing my own severely lacking version of the same.

And when I opened my mouth to answer a question (usually rather badly) I think now his mind was in hyperdrive, thinking of ways to accelerate to light speed my evolution from chimp to Champ.

One day when the reason I was not making eye contact with him was simply because I was facing the wrong direction and clearly not paying attention in class, I heard my name being called ‘John Cheong’ with the chilling follow-through ‘answer the question’…

I turned to where the voice had emanated and mumbled ‘Me, Sir?’ I had of course just the tiniest idea what the question was, and probably an infinitesimally smaller idea of the correct answer. I think I felt at that moment like a moth caught in a flame… Still, I had to plunge headlong and so when he said ‘Yes - you’ I rattled off a 20-second answer ‘bla bla bla bla bla….’

At the end of which Mr Vincent went ‘Good.’ and I beamed a little crazily at all who had doubted me. Until I heard his voice go ‘More.’
‘More, Sir?’ I stammered amidst the chuckles of the others in class.
‘Yes, more.’
So I plunged further into the abyss… ‘bla bla bla bla…’ I went on for another 30 seconds.
‘Good!’ My relief must surely have been visible despite the almost maniacal edge to my smile then.
My relief fell to earth like a meteor in all its flaming glory, arcing across the night sky. Roarrrrr, boom, crash, pow….
I sucked in a deep breath and ‘bla bla bla bla bla…’ 20 more seconds of sheer agony, fear, imagination, make-believe, prayer, and utter undeniable plain-for-all-to-see complete nonsense and bullshit.
‘Ah.’ he went.
‘Ah? I thought.
‘Good!’ he went.
‘Good?’ I thought incredulously.
‘But all wrong’ he added as his final masterstroke, the last nail on my cross of suffering, hammered in with particular glee right smack OUCH! in the middle of my uhm… intellect. It had been wrong from the very first second and he knew it. He knew I would have no hope in hell of rescuing myself in the 3 opportunities he gave me. He was cunning, devious, wicked.

Wickedly funny that is. We laughed. I laughed.

And now, almost 30 years later, I still laugh.

And the funniest thing is that I did learn. And I actually did rather well. For a student not predisposed to the Sciences (well, OK to studies in general) and one who eventually only barely scraped through with passes in Chemistry and Biology, I got the highest Credit pass for Physics - a C3 - and I still wonder about the gravitational pull of Black Holes.

I did Arts in Form 6 and thus missed him. I didn’t miss the stories though and I’d like to recount another here which involves my cousin, Carol Rozario. She attended La Salle for Form 6 and did Physics and it seems Mr Vincent chose to widen his aim to include my extended family too for he wickedly (and deliciously) took the mickey out of her too.

It was just after the first Physics exams of Form 6 and he came in to class with the results. He declared that he would announce all the results out loud by calling each student’s name and their mark out of 100 and should any student not wish to have their marks revealed publicly, they should raise their hands, come up to him and he would whisper it in their ear instead.

Now, I do believe that Carol had her challenges when it came to Physics too - perhaps it had something to do with our common ancestors having only been recently enticed down from trees and introduced to walking upright. Whatever, Carol knew she had done badly so when her name was called out, she waved frantically and rushed up to have her mark quietly revealed in her ear.

Mr Vincent was true to his word and whispered her mark to her, then as she sheepishly made her way back to her seat, he turned to the class and announced in a booming voice ‘Carol Rozario got 29 upon 100 for Physics.’

I wasn’t there but I can just see and hear it in my mind. Utterly, completely, uncompromisingly devilish. And 100% Mr Vincent.

I recently reconnected with an old schoolmate whom I have not seen since 1982 nor communicated with since the late 80s. As early as our second email to each other we wrote about Mr Vincent. We had both attended his tuition class and both felt he had been such a big part of our 16-17 year old lives that now, three decades later, the memory lived on.

When he retired from teaching in our school, we organised a farewell like no other. He arrived in school flanked by schoolboy outriders, in a car with dragging cans and a sign that read ‘Just Retired’, rode in an open jeep through the school field trailed by pretty girls bearing Bunga Manggar and was even garlanded. It was a grand affair befitting of a grand man.

A little later in the year another much-loved teacher retired with much less of an event to which a younger student remarked it didn’t seem fair.

He didn’t know, you see. Didn’t know the enlightenment a truly inspired teacher can bring to even the dimmest minds. Didn’t know that sarcasm could be wielded so effectively and efficaciously. Didn’t know that love can take many forms including patient and dedicated nurturing. Didn’t know that when you’ve endured 2 years of tuition in a ramshackle construction that could also be your tomb, you’d be so glad to see the last of the man who taught there that you’d send him off in the grandest possible style.
He didn’t know.

And I didn’t really know something else too. I didn’t know what Mr Vincent’s life was like these last few years. Well, not directly at any rate.

Some years ago he suffered a stroke while returning from India and eventually came down to Singapore where I live. My brother, Tony, and I went to visit him at the hospital. Tony went up first to his former Physics teacher, now lying in a hospital bed flanked by some of his family. Tony looked down and said ‘Hello, Mr Vincent, it’s Anthony Cheong.’

And Mr Vincent reached out and grabbed Tony’s arm tight. He tried to pull himself up and to say something. The words didn’t come out. They couldn’t. The stroke had taken that from him. As he struggled to tell Tony something, it was instead tears that came. Tears of frustration and struggle.
This man who’d communicated so effortlessly, clearly, lovingly, effectively now couldn’t get a few words out. And cried not from the effort but the failure.

I’m ashamed to say I hung back. I couldn’t. This wasn’t the Mr Vincent I knew. I didn’t want him to struggle for words and to cry. I just couldn’t bring myself to cause him more tears. And I’m ashamed to say that in the following years I failed to make the gesture of a visit to No 1 Jalan 5/9B. I thought of him and asked after him often but at the end I didn’t want to see how he had changed. I wanted to remember him as he had been in the 80s.

I was stupid.

He hadn’t changed at all. Sure he couldn’t talk, or walk or swallow even. But that wasn’t the point you see. The measure of a great man is not just what he is in the present, but also what he was in the past, and more importantly, what he brings to the future. Above and beyond the wonderful stories we all have of him, we have something else too. A mark, a standard, a guide which says ‘Here lies the point at which we know we are on the right track. Here lies dedication and commitment beyond which we discover excellence. Here lies greatness.’

Thank you Mr Vincent for helping me understand Newton’s 3 laws of motion for which I received a C3 in Physics; and for so many other life lessons for which the rewards are far, far greater.

RIP Mr Sebastian Vincent (1929 - 2011)

cross-posted on

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