HE was mad about cycling. I often caught him zipping down Farrer Road near my home in the late afternoon. Once, two or three years after we had already left school, my classmate, Siew Chye, spotted him cycling past the Holland Village bus-stop with a cast in one foot. He may not have been a hot hunk, our outdoorsy, sweaty and oily-faced Mr. Dore, but he sure turned heads and inspired bemused looks.
He was also a water-skiing enthusiast, revealed to us one morning when he showed up in class with a bent-out-of-shape pair of glasses pressed up against his bridge, so that one eye seemed to be pinched upwards, and the other somewhat suffocated, sucked into its own uncomfortable socket. This, we’d soon learn, was his beaten-up backup, but what ever happened to his other?
“It just flew away,” he explained, both arms stretched forward, torso leaning way back and haunches a little heavy, in the stance of a speeding, demonic water skier he had been the weekend before. Then he made a windy, swishing whistle, and looked back abruptly with a winsome grin. And we all knew: there it went, those spectacles, right into the wind and into the water.
Well, stuff happens. That’s right, stuff does happen, and that seemed to be the other thing that struck me about Mr. Dore. For sure, he was intense, but he was not kiasu or kiaxi—in local patois, scared to lose and scared to die—that ugly, irrational paranoia that dictates how we must and should live our lives: with little or no margin for failure, or any room for surprises (and accidents), and by implication, no possibilities for roads less travelled. But he was no dreamer either.
He looked brazen, but was never brash; bossy, but never a braggart. In fact, he was the exact opposite: a take-it-as-it-comes and take-it-easy realist, comfortable in his own skin, comfortable in his abilities. Why do I say this? Because of the way he read and taught us one of my favorite poems, a Larkin, from his Less Deceived collection. Hear him read that “toad-like” stanza in Toad (metaphor for work), you get the sense that he had no qualms about work or life:
For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too:
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck
And cold as snow.
Work, that toad, did squat in him too. Just watching his hunkers, his water-skier’s haunches go heavy and low as he uttered “squats in me, too” and “hard luck” (did he slap a butt cheek here?), you too sensed that tinge of Larkinesque bitterness: that’s life, folks, you’ve got to earn your keeps, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But what I loved best about this poem is the stanza that comes before:
Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:
Right here in these four lines, we got a peek into some really witty wordplay: “stuff,” rendered as a verb (“Stuff your pension!”) and a noun (“the stuff / That dreams are made on”). In our Cambridge-fearing ways (can’t do contractions, oops, cannot do informal words either), one would never dream of using the word stuff in our writing, its informal register presaging doom to whoever did. But something bigger was going on in that class; we were beyond that rule-abiding discussion—stuff wasn’t just either of these:
- used to express indifference toward or rejection of something (in this case, “your pension”)
- the basic constituents or characteristics of someone or something (in this case, “dreams”)
The word glimmered with some kind of poetry because Mr. Dore had painted for us a picture of Tinseltown, the glam and bling of Hollywood, the movies—the very stuff that dreams are made on.
Written in September 2015, this five-part essay is a toast to Timothy Dore, the Literature teacher who taught Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and the million mysteries and joys of Literature to the class of 1986/87 in Raffles Junior College.
In our fifth and final part next Wednesday, 20 April 2016, find out how the lessons of Mr. Dore (and Larkin) helped me rebut Dr. Lee Wei Ling’s virulent put-down of the Olympics.
Until then, you might enjoy:
Chill a Little, Dr. Lee! Let the Nation Honor Your Father.