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My friend and nominator  Shirley Leong surprised me in August 2008 when she called to say she was nominating me for the Mediacorpradio Lifelong Learner Awards.  It set me reflecting on my learning journey. Maturing without losing innocence, curiousity and the adventure spirit of a child keeps me fresh and alive as a person and as a writer.

In 2003, the Management Development Institute of Singapore where I did my diploma in Mass Communications (MC) published an article which I wrote I wrote about studies which has the seed of what I am elaborating on here…

One day my Mass Com classmate Bob and I were travelling together on the MRT to go for our exam. Bob asked me, “What questions did you study?” He meant what questions did I spot?
I told him, “I studied everything.”
He was very shocked. He said, “Everything?”
I said, “Yes everything. I didn’t go back to school to pass an exam, I went back to learn. So I’m learning.

I did poorly in secondary school because I was playful and couldn’t find meaning in what I was studying for. My poor grades were something I lived to regret for a long time. When the opportunity came to go back to do my MC in my 40s, I was thrilled no end and saw it as a gift, a second chance. Many people go to the university to get their education, I learned along the way that there is such a thing as formal and informal education.

Mark Twain is attributed to have said, “Never let school interfere with your education.” That was a great comfort and inspiration to me. I have never let my learning become limited by “school” as we know it.

According to Dictionary.com, the word university comes from the Latin universitas, “the whole,” from universus, “combined into one.” I got my education mostly from the University of Life.

An interesting thing I discovered, about the word “school” while writing this post: the word school traces back to Greek skhole “lectureplace,” but earlier it meant “leisure,” “learned discussion,” and “study.” I like the original meaning of school… leisure.

In the 90s, I took a series of ten-weeks evening classes at the Singapore Bible College. I found out that my favourite teacher, an elderly lady, had gone back to the university in her 60s to upgrade herself. I made it my aspiration then never to stop learning.

Wikipedia.com says the term disciple is derived from the New Testament Greek word μαθἡτἡς“., coming to English by way of the Latin discipulus meaning “a learner“. There are many people I know who have stopped learning.

Another friend once told me, “Never reject a new experience if it is not morally wrong.” Well I have not accepted every single opportunity but for the most parts, I have tried as much as I can to at least try it once.

What are some skills I have learned along the way?

Mostly through informal learning, short courses, networking, personal reading, I’ve learned to use the computer, use graphic design software like Adobe Photoshop, inDesign, Macromedia Dreamweaver, Adobe Premiere etc. I can take photos and make digital stories, videos, design websites, do blogging, cross-stitching, cook, write, speak Filipino…

Some of the things in the recent years that I feel a great satisfaction over: getting my articles published in The New Paper, Today paper, Chicken Soup for the Singapore Soul, and publishing my book, “How the Moken Sea Gypsies got their Book“. (I did my own layout and design too!)

What has helped me in my learning journey?

Understanding my learning style has made a big difference in getting me where I am now. While I was playful (and irresponsible) during my school days, I believe that a small (I emphasise small) part my failure had to do with the one-track way in which lessons were being taught.

For instance, I realise that I am a hands-on person. When I wanted to learn how to make websites, I started out asking questions from friends who knew how to make them. From the things they taught me, I started trying them out on my own. I borrowed many books from the library and learned by trial and error. In all I tried about four different types of software: PageMill, FrontPage, DreamWeaver, and now WordPress.

I also did a lot of surfing on the internet. There are so many resources out there, even video tutorials.

When I felt I had hit the ceiling, I enrolled in an evening class. By they, I knew exactly what I didn’t know. I went to class with my ammunition of questions. I don’t think my teacher liked it very much. He said I asked too many questions. I didn’t let the school determine everything I wanted to learn because I knew to some extent what I wanted to know.

I also realise the value of formal education having gone back to do my diploma. Being in a routine, being with people who are pursuing the same disciplines, having systematic teachings, taking exams are helpful for me.

There is a saying, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Right now, I am part of a small writers support group – this is also very helpful for me. We keep our writing passion going. There is celebration when one succeeds. It inspires the rest of us to press on. And, there are friendly jokes and gentle reminders when we slack.

What keeps me learning?

I learn because I enjoy learning. I derive much pleasure when I can do things.

But I also have a bigger reason that keeps me learning. Recently I read a quote (I forget its source now). It said,

Success is when you add value to yourself.
Significance is when you add value to others.

When I went back to school (MDIS), I made two decisions that would steer me through my course — To be the best student that I could be (my only competitor was myself) and to serve my classmates. I believe I did them both in my 15 months of studies.

I don’t want to just be successful. That becomes meaningless after a while. I want my life to have significance. That to me is real success.

My other role model is Aunty Say Bay, a 74-year-old anthropologist — I had the privilege to write her biography. She never stops learning and she is always thinking about others and how to make them succeed in life.

Some things I have done?

Gone for community service trips to serve the poor and then later leading a team to build houses for 2004 tsunami-hit victims in Thailand. I have always said, “I have more ideas than I have life to live.” I can’t help thinking and dreaming about things I can do to build people up and then being a catalyst to encourage others to do the same. I know what it’s like to fail and to feel like a failure.

I don’t think I have done much in terms of “productivity” or “making more money” etc. But I like my life as it is: making a difference in the lives of other people.

Many years ago, I took up piano lessons. I played the drills and the scales but I couldn’t hear the music. I find that ironical because my father and his siblings loved music. It was always a part of my life.

I think a good teacher is one who can help the student to have a love for the subject, whatever that subject might be. And then, they should give them basic skills on how to learn on their own and how to find resources. I think if a teacher can do that, they have set their students up for life and they would never stop learning.

To all those who have gone before me, taken time for me, and believed in me. Thank you.

I hope I never stop being a learner.

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My little and only sister passed away on 31 December 2008 after a 20-year-long battle with Lupus. Here’s the tribute I had been meaning to make for the longest time. Her story was published in TODAY newspater and Chicken Soup for the Singapore Soul.

Cecilia gets published again on the Straits Times forum  page, Tuesday, 16 September 2008…

‘She would know she cannot bite, not because there are no teeth, but because it is unattractive.’

MS CECILIA NATHEN: ‘I refer to Friday’s article, ‘Sex up the image, Asean’. If Asean were a woman, then the generation she seeks to attract would be men.

A truly progressive woman would be intelligent enough to know that sexing herself up is not the right way to attract the right man. She would shun men holding shallow views that being more interesting means having more colour on the lips, cheeks and hair. She would be well aware that such men would only flirt in online forums and treat Facebook at face value.

Rebranding means relooking into how her inner qualities should be showcased rather than how her external facade should be spruced up. If Asean were a woman, she would focus her courtship only on those genuinely looking for a lady of substance. She would know that in effective courtship, she would need to communicate a lot and make careful decisions which can be time-consuming. But she cannot bite, not because there are no teeth, but because it is unattractive.’

I needed a good topic to begin my blog and what could be better than to tell about the literary session with famous Indian author Anita Desai that I attended on 23rd August 2008, at the National Library.

All of us may not have started as writers as she did. She wrote everyday even when very young and was named writer by her family members. After marriage and even with four kids all she needed was a pen and paper to create a story for a novel out of the ordinary world around her. Wow, and a few of her novels were nominated for Booker prize.

What an inspiration for all aspiring and budding writers.

Cecilia, Lata and I had the privilege to attend Angel’s talk at Nanyang Girls High School earlier this month. Angel shared about her journey in writing the book How the Moken Sea Gypsies Got their Book to some 430 thirteen-year-old students and their teachers during their Life Skills pre-camp preparations.

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We learn from one another. How exciting to witness our journey as writers – dreaming about our stories, doing research, conducting interviews, conquering writer’s block, celebrating achievements, critiquing, writing, editing, publishing, marketing, etc. It can be lonely and challenging at times, but it is fun and nourishing when you have friends on your side who share the same heart and passion for it.

I found them at the Writers Coffee Lounge. 🙂