Inspirational, strict teachers and happy families

Sarmeni Ramakrishna (middle) and her mother Annathai Sumnugahy (left) are grateful to teachers Pauline Wong (in black) and Lim Shiyun for reaching out to them.
PHOTO: The New Paper

When Sarmeni Ramakrishna, 16, first met her co-form teacher in Secondary 2, she was afraid of her, as seniors had told her that Ms Pauline Wong was strict and fierce.

But three years later, the former Serangoon Garden Secondary School student sees Ms Wong, 34, as a best friend and a mother figure.

She recalled how when she was going through a tough period earlier last year - her parents were getting divorced, she had problems with her friends and her grades were slipping - Ms Wong was there for her.

"I had no confidence in myself at all, but Ms Wong encouraged me to work hard. I wouldn't have made it this far without her," said Sarmeni, who spoke to The New Paper on Monday after receiving her O-level results.

She scored 10 points for her L1R4 and was one of the top students in the school.

She intends to apply for the biomedical science course at Temasek Polytechnic.

Sarmeni, who has a brother, 18, and a sister, 13, said that the stress and tension from her parents' divorce had caused her to act out and play truant.

Unknown to her family members, the teen would skip school thrice a week and stay home to sleep and play games on her mobile phone.

Her teachers noticed her absence and became concerned about her.

Said Sarmeni, with tears welling up in her eyes: "It was an emotional roller-coaster ride, I was overwhelmed by all my problems. I was angry and felt that my parents could have chosen a different time to get a divorce.

"I also didn't know how to handle my feelings and problems, so I would ignore everyone and throw tantrums."

Concerned about the strained mother-daughter relationship, Ms Wong and Sarmeni's other co-form teacher, Ms Lim Shiyun, 28, decided to get the pair together to talk things out.

The meeting took place in May, after the mid-year results were given out, and ended up being a four-hour session, with both teachers playing mediators.

But it was worth it, as it brought about a breakthrough in the mother-daughter relationship and the first time the pair ever had a "heart-to-heart" talk.

Said Sarmeni's mother, Ms Annathai Sumnugahy, 46, an admissions officer at a private hospital: "We weren't very close and wouldn't really interact at home. But the talk allowed us to thrash things out and we are now closer than before. It changed our relationship."


Following the meeting, Ms Wong kept in contact with Ms Sumnugahy over WhatsApp, watching out for Sarmeni at school and reaching out to both mother and daughter often to see how they were doing.

Said Ms Sumnugahy: "If not for a teacher like Ms Wong, Sarmeni wouldn't have made it. Thanks to Ms Wong, we can be the happy family we are today."

Ms Wong, who has been teaching in the school for five years, said: "As a child's guardian in school, I believe in going beyond the job as just a teacher to a child. I can also be a friend to a parent."

Said Sarmeni with a smile: "I share everything with Ms Wong and you can never lie to her. Ms Wong is like a lie detector, she knows everything."

Ms Wong said that she practises tough love with her students and believes in being honest and straightforward when dealing with students and parents.

She said: "Students don't always accept a teacher who is firm, and it takes time for them to know what tough love is. But I've told my students before, one day when they fall, I will still be there for them."

Sarmeni is happy for that.

She said: "Even though I've left the school, I will still contact Ms Wong for advice.

"She promised that she would be there for me and she has shown that she will keep that promise."

He uncovers awkward student's inner gem

When Ryan Wu was younger, he often wondered why his friends mysteriously slipped away from his life.

He did not know how to reach out to his peers and social etiquette was a mystery to him.

It was only when he entered Swiss Cottage Secondary School that he learnt all about social cues from his then-form teacher Michael Rajanayagam.

"Mr Michael trusted me and helped me to become more confident. He cared for me and told me I had potential," Ryan, 16, who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), told The New Paper on Monday before he collected his O-level results.

The encouragement spurred him on. In Secondary 3, he transferred from the Normal (Academic) stream to the Express stream.

He scored an L1R4 of 13 for the O levels - a result he is satisfied with.

"I am passionate about clean and renewable energy and I am so happy I am eligible to do the course in Ngee Ann Polytechnic," he exclaimed after a fist pump.

Ryan was diagnosed with ASD as a child, but only learnt about the diagnosis late last year, during a medical check-up.

"Now it all makes sense to me (why I behaved the way I did)," he said.

He said that his parents did not tell him about his condition because they wanted him to grow up as normally as possible.

Ryan conceded he did not have many friends in school.

Girls would not want to touch the worksheets he had held because they did not like him. And nobody wanted to sit near him during school assembly, he said.

His classmate Koh Jun Kai, 16, said Ryan would sometimes put his sweat-soaked shirt on his classmates' tables, much to others' irritation.

Whenever he had an idea he was confident of, he would push for it strongly - something that came off as arrogance to his classmates.


"Actually, he is a very caring friend. His intentions start out right, but his actions somehow rub people up the wrong way," said Jun Kai, whom Ryan calls "my best friend".

Mr Michael added that Ryan was initially "manipulated" by some of his schoolmates.

"Many of the notorious students realised they could take advantage of Ryan and they made him do things that were not right... I had to figure out if he was a destructive kid (or just doing their bidding)," said the Physical Education teacher.

When Ryan started approaching him with questions like, "What should I do when this happens?", Mr Michael realised his student had been influenced by his naughty peers.

First, he made sure that Ryan was "protected" from the notorious students by assigning the class chairman to be his buddy.

Then, he gave him simple codes to help him study better. For instance, one hour of studying would result in a "D" grade, while four hours would result in an "A", Ryan was told.

"He is a good and very simple child who follows instructions well," said Mr Michael.

Today, Ryan is still a little socially awkward and he knows it.

But when asked if he feels different from the other students, he said simply: "Everyone is unique. I don't need to have all the friends in the world.

"I know that ASD is not reversible and it is hard for people to get better... But I am confident that one day, I can break out of this," he said.

As much as Mr Michael has been an inspiration to Ryan, he feels the same about his former student.

"I never had a student like him. He showed me that what I have done actually worked. He was a hidden gem. Now, the gem is uncovered," Mr Michael said with a smile.

This article was first published on January 13, 2016. Get The New Paper for more stories.