Against The Stream ~ A LETTER TO
MY OLD SCHOOL TEACHER
DEAR MR. RAVENSCROFT,
I have not written to you for quite some
time, and there is something I would like to say.
Would you mind if I tell it as I often tell it to
the refugees in the Camp here?
When I was a boy, I hated going to school,
not because I was dull and incapable of learning,
but maybe because I did not like being made to learn.
I was a naughty boy, and sometimes used to play truant;
perhaps I was the naughtiest boy in the school—
I cannot think of anyone who was naughtier; I was
caned many times.
When I left school, I was very happy to
do so, but now, after all these years, I realize that
I never left, and that I am still in school, but that
the school I am now in has a roof but no walls—
the sky being the roof. There is a difference now,
though: I enjoy learning; my life, day-by-day, is
an adventure, an unfolding, a journey of discovery.
I learned many things from you, and some
of the things I learned have surfaced only in recent
years, so long after. And did you not explain to me,
several years ago, that what is not in a painting
is just as important as what is there? This is redolent
of Eastern philosophy— Chinese in particular.
Like the empty space between the notes of music, or
between words: without the space between, there would
be meaningless confusion. Did you ever study Eastern
I’m writing this to express my belated
gratitude to you for your patient efforts with me
(even the canings were good for me— maybe I
should say: especially the canings!) It takes time
for a seed to germinate and grow; it does not immediately
become a fruit-bearing tree. As I look back, I don’t
know why I didn’t receive more canings; I certainly
deserved them! Now I am somewhat in the position that
you were then, and I understand how difficult it is
to be a teacher trying to impart knowledge to others.
People call me ‘Sir’ now, and expect me
to know things that they don’t know. Well, what
I feel I have to say is that we should break out of
the habit of always waiting to be taught, and, in
all humility, become a learner— which is something
quite different than being a student, wouldn’t
you say? I feel that everything is trying to tell
us something; should we always think that all knowledge
lies in a person or persons? The nature-studies we
had in school were excellent lessons; I only wish
there had been more of them.
Once, I had a desire to become a history
teacher, but that never came about. Now, although
I realize that the present rests upon the past, like
the snow-cap on a mountain-peak, I have lost interest
in history as it is recorded— after all, it
is ‘his story’, and is often biased and
distorted. To be sure, there are many things that
we can, and should, learn from the past in living
in the present, but it has gone, beyond recall, and
cannot ever be changed. There is only one 6-Aug-1982;
there has not been such a day before, and there will
never be another. Life, with all its pain and sham,
is still worth living, as long as we learn something
from it; we will then not depart empty-handed.
(Bataan Refugee Camp, Philippines. 6-Aug-1982).
There is something I should add to this,
as an up-date. You see, I returned to England at the
end of 1985, and on New Year’s Day, 1986, went
to visit Mr. Ravenscroft. I found him old and shrunken,
and so senile that he could not remember me. But I
could remember him, and that was the important thing;
I could remember him and thank him, in person, for
helping me understand something. I left feeling lucky
to have seen him again.
Ten years later still, I was again back
in England, and went to visit my home-village. There,
in the church-yard, among the ancient moss-covered
tombstones, I came upon a new granite slab marking
the resting-place of my old school-teacher and his
wife. I gazed for some moments in remembrance.
Since I wrote that letter in ’82,
there have been many changes, of course. One change
in me has been the resurgence of my interest in history,
because, although it is no less true now than then
that recorded history is his story, the past is an
immense treasure-trove for us to enrich ourselves
from. We can make sense of the present only by means
of the past; otherwise, it has no meaning.
The present is the past, with a little added
to it; without it, there would be no present. Perhaps
we may compare it to a coral-reef, slowly and imperceptibly
being built up by countless tiny polyps. The past
has not gone, as many of us think, but is still here,
speaking to and teaching us in so many ways; we are
so indebted to it. As stated elsewhere in this book,
we accomplish whatever we do accomplish, not simply
by our own efforts, but because we are enabled to
do so by others before us; by ourselves, alone and
in isolation, we can do nothing. Being a member of
the human race should inspire us to contribute whatever
we can to its continuous unfolding.