SINGAPORE - While her contemporaries gun for top schools, teacher Vithiya Vannan chose to mould lives from the bottom up.
She was then fresh from university when she decided to apply for the education officer position at Boys' Town, a home for at-risk boys.
"This was despite protests from my family. They said I am a mere girl. What do I know about fending off these troubled teenaged boys," Ms Vithiya, 25, told The New Paper.
She said she was attracted to the alternative schooling programme at the 65-year-old Boys' Town, which reaches out to youths from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
The programme was formed to support boys with different learning needs and provide them a home-schooling environment.
In addition to academic certification, it imparts life skills such as customer service, work ethics and offers vocational training they need to become responsible and contributing members of society.
Ms Vithiya not only takes the boys in moral and civics education, as an education officer, she also coordinates part-time teachers who come in to teach them subjects such as English, Chinese, Mathematics and Science.
Like most people, Ms Vithiya had preconceived notions of Boys' Town and its residents, but that impression changed as soon as she walked through its gates.
"I found out that these boys need guidance and support from a mentor and friend, rather than someone barking instructions at them," she said.
So she decided to be just that - a mentor and friend.
She added: "I was once a rebellious teenager. I played truant, ran away and was suspended from school, but my family and my teachers never forsook me.
"They gave me the support and care that I needed to see me through my diploma and degree after that."
So Ms Vithiya is paying it forward.
"These boys are misunderstood - some abandoned, others put here because their parents took out a court order on them. All they need is a little guidance and that will take them a long way," she said.
Often, she would put herself "on a par" with her charges, teasing them as much as they tease her.
"I am rather heavyset so once the boys asked if I worked out, as my arms are huge. I told them I do weights, working every day with cheeseburgers in each hand," she said, laughing.
Like the idealistic teacher played by US actress Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie Dangerous Minds, Ms Vithiya battled apathy and scored sweet victory months later.
With her help, Tony, 17, and Ryan, 16, (not their real names) realised that their lives were not so bleak after all.
Tony, who was doing well in his lessons, was placed on the Boys' Town Work Readiness Attachment Programme (Wrap) earlier this year.
Wrap is a pilot programme to provide students with general skills needed to enter into the workplace. These include teamwork and communication. There is also a one-week job attachment to help students identify suitable career paths.
Said Tony: "The five-day job attachment helped me gain experience and earn a bit of pocket money."
Ryan said he now finds lessons "fun, especially the videos she shows during civics".
But not everything was rosy at the Home.
There were times when Ms Vithiya found herself getting in the middle of a fist fight between the boys.
"It was when the bigger boys saw that I could not handle the fracas that they helped pull the feuding boys apart," she said.
But all that is part and parcel of working at a boys' school, she said.
Ms Vithiya has also received a threat in her year of teaching at Boys' Town.
"Only that one time from a boy via SMS. I had to report him because he had told me something he did that was not legal and he got angry after that," she said.
Now, Ms Vithiya "draws a thick line" and makes sure the boys under her care know that while they can confide in her, it is still her duty to report any illegal activities.
When asked if she would, given a chance, transfer to teach in a top school in Singapore, Ms Vithiya said: "Nope. I am here to stay."
If you care for young people, have strong interpersonal skills and can commit daily for a year to guide and mentor young people, join Boys' Town as a part-time teacher. Candidates should be 25 years old and above. E-mail email@example.com or call 6690 5420 (ext 446) for more details.
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