5 February 2014

04. The Super Team

I’m posting this story today as a birthday gift to my former high school friend Edwin Prasatya. I wish you a Happy Birthday and may you continue to share your true kindness with the world.
 
Each of the 13 stories in this series was a candidate for the main anecdote of my graduation speech. They are actually the top 13 out of over 50 anecdotes which I listed out, ranging from the first day I stepped foot into the school to the very last days of school. Even just hours before graduation, there were still events that took place that were worthy of consideration.
 
No matter what the criteria was, all the listed anecdotes inevitably had something to do with belonging and how belonging is important to my cohort. So that was what I was looking for when I was short-listing the over 50 anecdotes down to 13. But then came the difficult part of choosing that one winner.
 
This anecdote won because I felt that it was the best representation of the importance of belonging to my classmates. But moreover, I feel that this anecdote presents the kindness of some members of our cohort that is so extraordinary because it demonstrated something that, having attended many different schools in the past, does not happen often; it’s distinctly Class of 2013. Most importantly, the anecdote presents a side to us that would otherwise go unnoticed.
 
However, this story, like many of the other stories in this series, needs to be taken in the long and complicated context that is the Class of 2013 to be fully appreciated, a context which can never be described in words.
 
***
 
The first school day after the end of the IPEKA Computer Competition (ICC) which deprived me of both all nourishment and all noteworthy social interaction, I found myself to be so disconnected from everyone due to the past four months of work and the fact that that I was sitting at a table in the canteen alone was proof of that
From the school lobby a considerable distance away from the canteen table that I was sitting at, Edwin Prasatya approached me, followed by his good friend Garry Kusuma. I was too engrossed in my thoughts to see them walking towards me initially and when I finally did see them, it didn’t cross my mind that they were really walking towards me to approach me. They got closer and closer. These two tall, well-postured men walking ever so dashingly towards me made me think that I was dead. Of course I was. Edwin looks like someone who would be a school bully, at least in terms of his body. All I could think to myself was that I should begin to appreciate being alone because I think I’d rather be alone than bullied.
Edwin and Garry were two people whom I never really had the chance to get to know. At that time, the closest I probably was to any of them was when they worked with me as the “Super Team” on the ICC race. Before ICC, I don’t remember ever speaking to any of them, or ever having reason to speak to any of them, and if I didn’t remember it I don’t think it ever happened. Even during ICC, we only spoke almost professionally. I barely knew anything about them and it didn’t seem to be a problem.
What business could they possibly have to do with me? That is, if they were actually walking towards me.
 
But they really were coming towards me.
 
They then do the unthinkable: they look me in the eye, call me by name and one of them says to me “ngapain lw duduk disini sendirian? Duduk sama kita lah.”, “What are you doing sitting here alone? Come sit with us.”
 
What? Why?
 
Even to this day, I still don’t fully understand how and why that happened. Two people who at that stage had nothing to do with me basically came into my life. So that was basically how I sat with and got to know what we can now call the Blurred Lines Boys over lunch breaks.
 
***
 
Before anyone knew it, Trial Exams were over, the trials had been marked, and we were already entering the phase where we were just being drilled on past papers. It was very quickly September. The end was so near. The end was graduation, equal to basically the end of our being together.
 
So close to the end, one would want it all to end well. One would want the story of the cohort to have the happy ending we quite frankly deserved. But one day, when everything seemed to be smooth sailing, it started to crumble for me.
 
Tuesday, 10 September 2013
 
I came down to the canteen quite late that day because, as usual, I had to deal with my university applications. It had been a rough day for me. That day, Calvin came to school half-way into IBS class which was just two periods before the lunch break looking very pale and sick. His absence caused Irvan to feel an emptiness in the class and both Calvin’s absence and Irvan’s loneliness was enough to leave me lonely and emotionally drained.
 
When I finally did come down to the canteen with my usual packed lunch, I saw the table which I would sit at from a distance. The usual group of people I would sit with had already congregated together: Calvin, Irvan, Regie, Garry, Edwin, Christian. As I got closer and closer to them, they seemed to be in the middle of quite an important discussion. It was not often that I saw them speaking with hands on the table, making gestures as if they were planning something. It’s not every day that they seemed to be having quite a serious discussion.
 
When I finally got to the table, however, everyone and everything just stopped. There was an abrupt silence and everyone went on eating as I unpacked my lunchbox. Of course I noticed the anomaly, and so I asked Regie of what was going on and instead of answering me himself he asked Calvin if he could tell me only to have Calvin say no. Therefore, the silence continued, and in that moment, I realised one thing: that I was taking away their freedom. I took away their freedom of speech, their freedom to develop meaningful connections at the expense of my connections.
 
Wednesday, 11 September 2013
Not knowing that they were actually doing something good for me and still thinking that I took away their freedom, I decided that that day was the day that I would sit alone once again. I thought that that was the least I could do to give them the quality time with their friends that they deserved so close to the end. I felt so evil and yet guilty at the same time.
 
So that day I decided to sit alone again. But immediately after I took my place in isolation, Christian took noticed immediately, asked me why I sat alone and offered me to join them. I just said that I was fine.
 
Friday, 13 September 2013
 
The day before, I sat alone again and a similar incident happened only this time it was Irvan instead of Christian. It was the third time I was going to sit alone. With every day which I did, I became slightly more and more accustomed to it. Although that was the case, there was still discomfort both from the sheer loneliness which I was putting myself into and from the constant resistance of their attention. Even though it seemed like it had become a routine, it never crossed my mind that that day, yet another person would take notice of my personal solitary confinement. However, I would have never guessed that what would happen on this day was so bewildering, so mind-blowing and unbelievable that it would have such a lasting and touching impact on my life.
 
That day, the boys put an end to this. I saw the boys talking amongst themselves. Then, Edwin stood up, approached my table and asked me with the most serious tone I had ever heard him speak in say “lw kenapa sih? Ngapain lw duduk sendirian terus? Makan bareng kita lah.” “Are you alright? Why are you sitting alone? Please come join us.”
 
I declined.
 
“I’m going to sit here with you then”, he said, and he grabbed his lunch, moved out of his table and sat with me.
 
In a matter of seconds, I found myself sitting with Edwin, just the two of us, in a place that could not be more public. I could only look down at the table because it hurt me so much to see one of the nicest and for that reason most popular guys in the school sitting diametrically across what was fairly called public-enemy-number-one without anyone else, all for the sake of public-enemy-number-one’s momentary sense of belonging.
 
It did not take long for Garry to join us at the table, concerned for the lengths Edwin was going to not for me but rather for my sense of belonging. At the end of that, I saw my very own Super Team doing the unthinkable. The same Super Team that began all this for me six months ago came to the rescue once again. I realised that day that when I called them the Super Team, it was to mean far more than the ICC race.
 
I really cannot think of a better example to demonstrate how belonging is important to the Class of 2013. It doesn’t take Game Theory for us to know that in life, all of our actions are determined by our objectives.
 
Is belonging really important to you? Because if it really were important to you, it would be reflected in things you do.
 
I believe that a sense of belonging is a human need, one which at that time I was missing. However, Edwin and Garry fulfilled that need of mine, and they did so because belonging was important to them.

3 February 2014

03. Part of the Program

Day Three in IICS: the same day that the first face blessed me with a sense of belonging.
“What’s the next lesson, Ms Farida?”
“You’ve already figured out the next thing: ELSE IF. Would you like to join our programming club training every week starting next Wednesday?”
Even though I just stared at her blankly, in my mind I could hear the loudest “what?” ever.
Three days in a new school and I’m offered a place in the school’s competitive programming team with someone named Jonathan Handoko and someone else named Tania Halim. Prior to coming to this school, I had no idea what coding was. I never really knew that programmers actually write programs.
***
I left Ms Farida hanging until Wednesday morning when I finally decided to show up that afternoon despite how left behind I probably was or how dumb I would probably look. This school is known for computer programming. I was undeniably intimidated even before meeting these people but I trusted that if this teacher had faith in me and was willing to offer me a place so early on, I would probably belong there.
I showed up that afternoon in Computer Lab 5.2 to find Ms Farida there. Knowing that teachers had fellowship after school that day, I was wondering if we were going to be left on our own and sure enough we were. But before Ms Farida found out that Tania wouldn’t show up this time and left me to the computers, a tall and very skinny young man came in and Ms Farida introduced me to Jonathan Handoko.
We shook hands and Ms Farida left us. Then we sat down with a computer in between us and then got busy turning on the computers and logging in, and then typing in the standard code all over again instead of copy-pasting it from previous codes. We did all this in a very not awkward, but rather professional silence, just the way I liked my silences. Besides, that was the way it was supposed to be. We were supposed to be focused on our coding anyway.
“Jonathan, can you help me figure out what’s my mistake please?” I asked once I had given up in the most polite way possible.
He turned his head towards me considerably slowly, as if he were revealing something, giving me a blank stare with his eyes wide opened and his mouth closed with only a little concave up on the very slight ends of this mouth. After about ten seconds of silent stares, he slowly leaps out of his chair and lands his eyes centimetres away from my computer screen, in a true Jonathan style. Then he lets out what I later learnt to be one of his usual “hmm”s and then nods his head occasionally. When he finally figured out the silly careless mistake that I had made which practically anyone could have made, he points at the misspelt key word which caused my program not to run with his right pointer finger that when stretched out to point is not straight but rather bends very rigidly as if the joints in his finger bone are misplaced to begin with.
I burst in both laughter and frustration, thank him for taking a few seconds off looking at his screen to look at mine and then we both go back to work, back to that professional silence of ours.
But that silence didn’t last long; it ended when Jonathan turns to look at me faster than he did the first time and asks me “by the way, which school did you come from?”
So a conversation began and while he was asking basic questions about me which most people in the school probably had no reason to know the answers to, I was asking questions about things which I probably had no business in knowing because I was basically asking him the same questions he asked me. For example, right after that first question of his, I decided to return the question and ask him which school he came from when he wasn’t even a new student. I did, however, learn that he was newer than I thought as he only had a six month lead.
Upon learning of how new he actually was, I was itching to ask him how his first six months in the school has been like but before I could, he asked me how my first week was going. That was the first time anyone had asked me how I felt about the school (and in context that was a good thing).
In an instant, I replay tapes in my mind on fast forward, recalling not only everything that has happened but also everything that I have felt. I remember the First Face, the first people I met, the first instances of culture shock and the feelings that came with it all. So then I came to the quick but valid conclusion that as amicable everyone was, it was inevitable that, with the short time I have had and the diversely different background I came from, I had not gain a true sense of belonging in the school; both my weird roots and plan to lay low was what held me back the most.
And so I answered “well, it’s all good. Just foresee myself struggling to get along with people here because I come from a really different background. I mean, I come from many very different school cultures so I won’t be surprised if I end up being a weirdo here.”
Then he asks me to tell me about this “different background” of mine, which I did, or at least what I wanted to tell him. But put simply, he goes on to tell me about his “different background” as well. Having experienced the new-student treatment just months before, he went through at least a version of what I would be going through.
For a moment, we both stopped typing and had this conversation where I had the opportunity to listen to some very, very valuable advice.
It amazed me how someone whom I had only met for about an hour suddenly began becoming my mentor. He had so much to offer and so he did share it with me.
After much was said (but not done), I thanked him for the advice and mentioned how I was glad to know that someone had just gone through what I was about to go through. But right away, he too mentioned that he was glad that there was someone else like him and in that moment, I could already see that we would get along.
What that programming club meeting made me realise was how common ground could be so powerful. To belong, you need common ground, whatever it is. Common ground could be interest, train of thought, geography, status, anything really. But there is no sense of belonging without common ground and therefore to belong with someone, you have to find that common ground no matter how insignificant or how unnoticeable it may be.
For Jonathan and I, that common ground was that we both went through the struggle of someone from a unique background being put in a totally different world. This common ground is what we found that afternoon. Since then, implicitly, I had a mentor and it all seemed like it was just part of the program.