TwentyFifteen 14/20: School of Hard Knocks by Bernice Wong

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I still have a vivid memory of the first day I went over to Mel’s place to speak with her. I was nursing a terrible migraine that afternoon and all I wanted to do was curl up in bed under my covers. But somehow, I managed to summon enough willpower to drag myself out of bed and drive down to Ang Mo Kio where Mel lives.

When I reached the void deck of Mel’s block of flats, I texted my friend Louisa. I told her to get the police over if I didn’t buzz her by 6 p.m., because that might mean I had been kidnapped. I was joking, of course! However, on hindsight, that joke was probably masking whatever trepidation I was feeling about visiting an ex-convict, one whom I had heard stories about.

Walking up the stairs to the second floor gave me a sense of what to expect. The stairs were littered with empty cans and plastic wrappers. They reeked of urine too. I trod my way carefully, lifting my feet cautiously over the litter, stepping on what seemed to be cleaner spots until I reached the next landing.

There was Indian music blasting from the flat adjacent to the stairs and the gates to the flat were open. I guessed that this was the place, and so I peered in timidly.

“Hi, are you Mel? I’m Bernice. I contacted you earlier because I wanted to speak with you, remember?”

She said yes, but it sounded rather unconvincing. I thought she might have forgotten our appointment. Thankfully, she still invited me in.

As I stepped in, I gave a weak smile to everyone in the room. There must have been six to seven children and teenagers inside the flat. It was very crowded: one triple-decker bed filled with bags and blankets, two cupboards flanking the bed against the wall, a black sofa, a huge trophy and a television set. Those were all the possessions they had in the living room.

As soon as I settled down on the sofa, which was tattered and torn with cotton spilling out at the corners, I heard Mel yell at one of her twin daughters to “go get che che [sister] a drink lah, goondu [stupid].”

One and a half hours later, I texted Louisa to inform her that I was safe and all had gone well. I knew this was going to be the start of something beautiful.

***

School of Hard Knocks looks at the issue of urban poverty in Singapore through the lives of Mel, a single mother, her seven children and a community of at-risk youths she banded together through dance. It also explores the ways they react to and cope with being disconnected from mainstream society.

Now 35, Mel has gone through a lot – from two prison stints for drug-related offences, to enduring years of abuse from her previous partner and mothering seven children alone. Since she was released from prison in 2010, she has turned to dance to mentor other youths. She now runs a dance group, Pluspoint, and is a bulwark to many of the boys there.

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