This was first published on my personal blog in 2017. An excerpt of this piece was posted in the Straits Times, here.
When I'd found out about the news, I was stunned, to say the least. It didn't feel real, like a gotcha! moment, like a trick of light, and I was ready to believe we had stepped into a parallel universe. An alternate reality, the worst timeline, something that just didn't quite fit.
But words had escaped me at that point in time. Because what could I say? How could I give voice to my frustration, my anger, my over-protective feelings for a place that I had once hated with a kind of resignation? How could I describe that feeling of history being snatched away from you? How do you come to terms with the growing trepidation that you would have to watch something you loved turn unrecognizable?
My relationship with junior college, and specifically, Innova, was a love-hate one.
I wasn't the first to speak against the system, but I was one of the noisiest. You could find me at any given time ranting about the ills of capitalism and how they had produced an education system that was too focused on productivity and success and not enough on the individual. I blamed the institution for its lack of welfare, its short-sightedness in delivering us an outdated syllabus and means of learning, and with regards to the school itself, I complained. A lot. About the administrative staff and how they never could do enough like open the gates early on exam days so we wouldn't have to walk one round (the Champions' way), about the food, about the ridiculous number of stairs, about the students, about the subjects we laboured endlessly for, everything.
But there are things you love to hate, and Innova was one of them. Because in spite of how it gave me my worst years, studying for the A Levels, it gave me so much of best, too. It was a pressure cooker, so even my living was condensed. I experienced the lowest of lows, yes, but also euphoria like never before. I didn't just study, I learned. About myself and my disciplines, about relationships and life. JC students aren't always happy. It's hard to, living under the shadow of the bell curve and a faceless marking committee in a far-away country that will determine your future. But what prized moments we did get, we seized. We clung onto good times, we clung onto each other, and we thrived in spite of it all.
So what did we have? What did we have that was so true to what I knew was Innova? What did we have that could possibly be worth revisiting?
We had the best two-person Literature department, one of whom had a simultaneous British-Indian accent that proffered truisms we used like punchlines. We mimicked them whenever we could, which was always; I had a groupchat that spent multiple nights trying to one-up parodies. "The things they are doing in WA CHONG ah, my God. Are you hungry for the A? Submit! Submit!"
We had a darling Econs tutor who once powered through with us a 13-hour long consultation at MacDonalds, a week before the A Levels, even though just a few days before she had declared she would no longer be giving us consults. (But she caved, and sat with us from morning to night at the drive thru, rotating students one-by-one, barely taking a break for herself.)
We had communism (don't tell the government). Well, we had two classmates who were communist zealots and were infectious enough that the J2 cohort ended up dressing up in North Korean military attire to ambush the J1s for their chapter on the Korean war, and once, waving a China flag that was bigger than me. We also had pizza parties after history-centric movie screenings, and feedback on our essays that took up half a page, every single essay. We had teachers that believed in us, despite our multiple Us and Es. That sat down with us long after they should have gone home, and responded patiently to our questions on Whatsapp, and joked with us on Twitter. That probably cried over us and our insistence on skipping school to complete homework, but returned every single time.
We had house cheers. And combination-house cheers. And school cheers. And mass dances. The number of mass dances we churned out, per year, borders on absurd. But we were Innovians, and that was just who we were. The infectious school spirit that I had seen entering Innova the first time had been a pleasant surprise- and I remember that it had been nearly the end of the Open Day, and yet with their fiercest and loudest voices students decked in green, red, blue, and yellow were doing something akin to the haka. I remember the first few weeks after Orientation and people were still going around the halls, seeking others from their own house, going "SHINGZ!" (and every other non-Aquilian would roll their eyes, but also smile, because it was silly, and it was Innova).
We had iced coffees that weren't healthy and should probably have come with warning labels, but did what you needed it to do. We had such long queues for Hotdog Wednesdays that everyone pretty much abused the 5-minute rule and came to class past the allotted time. Heck, we had long queues for everything, and yet we valiantly pressed on for sushi or freshly-made juice or yong tau foo.
We had friends who would stay with us till 11PM in school, mugging together and being each other's support. We watched sunsets together, and laid in the field for ten minutes or however long we could afford a study break. In the last weeks before the As, we pretty much lost it and the study area on level 4 became a cesspool of nonsense. People power-napped on floors. In piles. Someone labelled the dustbin, "my A Level grades". Someone else tried to snort Milo powder using a ten-dollar note (and I have the pictures to prove it, though I still don't know why). Our anecdotes have no other adjective to describe them other than Innovian. In those tumultuous times we became a community that stuck together and bonded over pain and suffering and that is never something to be taken lightly.
Sure, some of my teachers have gone and all of my friends, my cohort, has long since graduated. When each collective experience is transcendent because all of our interactions depend on who we were at that time in our lives, and we'll never be able to relive or recreate those two years again, it's technically not a big deal. After all, it was the people who made it such a memorable experience, right? Those hallowed hallways are now an empty husk; only concrete and mortar. It's the people I should be focusing on, not the school.
I can never forget what Innova gave me. And I am terrified to see that the future might. That they'll drive past where IJ used to be and not think about how it's a school for nobodies and everybody*. Because the best thing about Innova was that it welcomed the underdogs, the kids who didn't have alternatives. Those who couldn't make it and thought that every single day until they graduated. It gave me a fighting chance that I wasn't even willing to give myself.
And it's a damn pity, because for all the talk about merging JCs, they chose us a campus that didn't even have good/ new facilities. Not to mention that the JCs being merged were largely "neighbourhood" ones, while Eunoia's existence mocks us all the way from Dover. Tell me that "working hard" is all that matters, and that we aren't an elitist education system. Tell me that we're meritocratic and that it's the destination matters, not the journey. Because taking away Innova takes away what it stands for. And even if that never was the intention, there will be secondary school kids who have cried over their O Levels that think that. That there's no space for them and that maybe they don't really deserve to go university, or a chance at JC, because they can't make it now so how can they ever make it later? I know this, because I was one of them.
And Innova, for all that it had never been my first choice, was just the school I needed. *Except Yishunites. Go hard or go YJ.