Michael has another problem: his teachers don’t like him. Why? Because he asks questions. He is often slapped down in class for daring, as his teachers see it, to challenge their authority. Hong Kong is a society in which respect for teachers has become entrenched, ossified into a sterile convention that stifles creativity and individuality. The influence of Confucianism, combined with a feeling among most students that by asking questions they may appear to their classmates to be stupid and thus will lose face, means that students like Michael, whose style of learning does not conform to local classroom norms, struggle to make headway.
Yet Michael is of above average intelligence. He recently passed the Grade 8 exam of the UK’s Royal College of Music in violin. However, his interest in and talent for music have also landed him in trouble: his mother frequently scolds him for listening to music while studying, even though he finds it useful because it helps him to remember key pieces of information by association with the music he is listening to.
What Michael needs is a sympathetic teacher or, since this is most unlikely in his present circumstances, an experienced mentor. This is where Paula entered the picture. His parents were worried about his academic progress, and a friend of Paula referred them to her. Her initial meeting with Michael was scheduled to last an hour but lasted three. Michael described, in quaintly unidiomatic English, the weekly ‘brain-draining’ that he received at the hands of his parents. They wanted to know what he’d learned in school that week, thus unwittingly piling even more pressure on him. However, most of the discussion was in Cantonese, and it is clear that Michael needs more practice if his command of English is to be raised to the required standard for entry to university.
When Michael recounted how his mother disapproved of his listening to music while studying, he was surprised (and delighted) to learn that Paula had always listened to rock music while studying at university, and that I frequently do the same when writing, although in my case I do have to be selective. I will have no problems if Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll or Deep Purple’s Highway Star is thumping away in the background, but something like Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues would be disastrous. Too many words.
Anyway, Michael went away happy, and his parents were also delighted when Paula told them that he already thinks like a university student. This remains a work in progress at the moment, however, and Paula will be successful only if she can educate Michael’s parents in the best way to encourage their son. As for all those questions, no one has said it better than Jacob Bronowski, in his landmark BBC television series on the history of science, The Ascent of Man:
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.