By Tay Shi'An
FOR more than four years, Miki Chong, 15, suffered a sleep disorder that made him miss about three-quarters of his classes.
But thanks to his perseverance and a teacher who believed in him, he overcame his disorder and got promoted from Normal Technical (NT) to Normal Academic (NA) to Express Stream.
He's the first student to do so in Westwood Secondary School's nine-year history.
He also topped his level and stream in three subjects this year - mathematics, science and design & technology.
Miki's double promotion is all the more impressive because the Ministry of Education (MOE) says that only a "small number" of students who go from NT to NA perform "exceptionally well" enough to get transferred to Express.
And it's an inspiration to parents and students who may not have done well in their recently released PSLE results.
The biggest hurdle for Miki was battling insomnia and an upside-down sleep cycle, which caused him to wake up at night and sleep in the day.
For his results, he will be receiving school academic prizes as well as the MOE Edusave Scholarship.
Miki's mother, Madam Maggie Tan, 51, said she is especially proud of her son because her family has spent the past two years as nomads.
The family has been facing financial difficulty since her taxi-driver husband died of heart and liver problems when Miki was 4 and his sister Miya was 7.
Things came to a head two years ago when Madam Tan had to sell their three-room Boon Lay flat because she owed the Housing Board a six-figure sum in outstanding payments.
With no place to go, she and her two children moved in with her sister's family for about a year, before she and Miki moved to her mother's rented two-room flat in Jurong, while Miya is currently staying with her friends.
In his Sec 1 NT class, Miki attended only 42 out of 173 days, or one out of every four days of school, and came in second-last in class.
The principal, Madam Betty Chang, said that after Miki's doctor wrote to her explaining his disorder, the school called the family and made home visits to better understand Miki's condition and frequent absences, and help him when he fell behind.
It was last year, when Miki was in Sec 2 NT, that things turned around - when he got Mr Hector Heng, 33, as his form teacher.
Said Mr Heng: "His attendance then was so irregular that some classmates thought he was non-existent. They would tease him, 'You take bus forget to alight is it?'"
But Mr Heng noticed that while Miki was in class only about 25 per cent of the time, he could do about 50 per cent of the work, which was "quite good". He only needed to hear a set of instructions once before correctly doing an assignment.
Said Mr Heng: "Based on observation, Miki had the potential to be in Express stream. But he was playing catch up all the time."
So he pulled Miki aside for a serious talk about his future, and mapped out a stream promotion plan for him.
The key issue: His attendance, which years of doctor's visits and medication had been unable to cure.
After some trial and error, Miki decided to try maintain a 5pm bedtime on school days. He would run, play basketball and computer games to tire himself out first.
If he managed to sleep, he would wake up in the middle of the night to do his homework, before heading to school in the morning.
If he didn't manage to sleep till the wee hours of the morning, he would start pushing his bedtime later and later each day, until he hit about 3am. Then, he would not sleep and head straight to school.
By the time he came home from classes, he would be so exhausted that he would fall asleep by 5pm - and the cycle continued.
Said Mr Heng: "When he found out he's able to do it, it made him find confidence and interest in school, which pushed him on to persevere, even though there are nights he couldn't sleep." That year, Miki aced his exams and topped his class.
But the good news was mixed with bad - the school wrote to MOE for permission to promote him from Sec 2 NT to Sec 3 NA, but was rejected, meaning he would have to repeat Sec 2, but in NA stream.
Said an MOE spokesman: "As the demands of Sec 2 NT and Sec 3 NA courses are significantly different, a gradual transfer from Sec 2 NT to 2 NA would allow students to better adjust to the rigours of the NA course."
The soft-spoken boy sat up straighter as he said: "I never thought of staying in NT. At least if I go to NA, do Sec 5 and go to poly, it's still earlier than if I stay in NT, go to ITE, then go to poly."
Miki's mum was thrilled by the results.
"When the principal used to call me, it was to say, 'Mrs Chong, Miki never come to school.Please make an effort. But when they called this time, it was to say congratulations.'" She said her son's success was all thanks to Mr Heng.
But the modest teacher, a former engineer who made the career switch just three years ago, brushed aside his role, saying the spotlight should stay on Miki.
This article was first published in The New Paper.