What Life's Like (After A Levels)

by Jerrold Soh | Dec 7, 2013 | 3813 views

It’s over and you are invincible. Just conquered the hardest test of your life. It all gets better from here, they said.

And it does. You’re 18. What’s there to fear. You can drive now. Even get into Zouk after being checked. Now you reclaim those weekends spent with ten year series’. You’ve already planned everything in the painful weeks leading to the exams. This time, it’s having fun with a vengeance. Before you have to go to that other place.

Finally, the food you wanted to eat, the movies you wanted to watch, the games you wanted to play, the friends you wanted to meet. Throw in a class chalet, or two, if your secondary school class still exists. But before that, maybe just one, two weeks of rest and letting it sink in. You’ve earned it, definitely, and no one can take it away from you. The sky’s bluer now.

A month. Christmas and New Year and parties in between. It’s all been great. Maybe you should learn a new language, or how to play the guitar. It’s fun, but after awhile it’s not. Whatever, now’s the time for fun. Because if not now then it’s never.

If you’re fast, you start learning to drive. At 20kph, it’s already thrilling. The power of adulthood taps you on the shoulder and you welcome it like a long-awaited friend. 25kph.

Another month. You remember you have to go to that other place. You’ll find out more about it soon. Meanwhile, an internship or a job. Working for the first time! Long sleeved shirts, neatly pressed by Dad. The daily commute mixed with the fresh smell of Raffles Place coffee 30 minutes early to work. You look dashing in that new pair of leather shoes. After 18 years, you’re ready to contribute to this society.

And it’s good. You don’t actually need to do much besides what you already do in school. How easy can it get? And you’ve learnt how to operate the photocopy machine. Useful stuff.

30kph and third gear. It’s February. Chinese New Year. Relatives you meet once every year. How do you feel about that other place? They ask but you have no idea. It’s impossible to know.

Until you’re there. It looks…fine. You’re on a ferry now. How hard can it get? A pledge. With your life. You’ll be out in two weeks, you think. The food’s ok too. The only hard part that day was waving back at them.

You remember something you learnt in school. About commas and exclamation marks and Mrs Tilscher and the sky splitting open and eating you up and you wish it really did now as you race up the stairs in a stiff pair of expensive boots you didn’t pay for but actually did. They cut into your feet but you have to run and run or else you have to run even more.

The first time you run yourself along the coast you look across the channel between there and here and wonder why it has to be like this although you know the answer and how you just don’t want to accept that it really has to be like this. The view from your bed is the best you ever had because the quiet lights of the jetty and island opposite this island are right there and you tell yourself you will never understand the difference between what you supposedly are now and what you were then and will be in two years’ time.

It gets better. The first time you run back home (in your mind, because you force yourself to walk) it seems things are all okay now. Maybe tomorrow when you wake up you will discover it was all just a dream or maybe it’s actually all over and this itself is the bad dream. Or someone comes and tells you it was all a very cruel yet well-executed practical joke and you don’t have to go back there. He doesn’t come. The second time you’re on the ferry was supposed to be easier but it’s the same.

The same new feeling for the next two months as you learn how much you have to learn and for the first time learn how to kill someone, with good reason, when necessary, after having taken proportionate steps. One weekend Dad waits for you in the car and you cannot wait to tell him you’ve done exactly the same as he did twenty years ago except it’s probably very different now even though the bomb you used is the same. You don’t say anything but moments of eye contact transmit everything you wanted to say and reassure you you’re really doing this for something even if that something is just earning a right to look Dad in the eye having been through this as well. Sitting behind him on the TPE you can’t recall whether he had this many white hairs before A levels or if you just didn’t notice.

Letters on a rainy day in a forest on an island. The first time in a long time you cried (in your mind, a lot more). Then it was finally time and you’ve never seen the park look this beautiful before as each step takes you nearer and deeper into the heart of a country you’ve pledged to defend. You wonder if you will be able to see the city in the same light again as day breaks and you march in with five thousand more yous and the smell of freedom and new uniforms soaked in old sweat fill a stadium already bursting with pride.

A week. Then, again. When you go to that new place there’s no ferry ride but everything is new and unfamiliar and you wished you could have just gotten that other posting along with your friend. Should have indicated interest for that long ago. Anyhow it’s a new regime under new management and again you struggle to understand why it can’t just be for two months because two months alone were enough to twist the universe into this.

You survive, somehow, although everyone does, somehow. December and life settles. 40kph. You’ve vocated. Then it’s a blur of exercise and exercises and duties and making it for the last bus and dinners with buddies, not friends, and knowing in years to come you’d be happy to see them again. 50 kph. The phone rings and you remember someone is waiting for an email about something you have to properly arrange else someone really could die.

As things start to fall into place piece by piece the parts of you that had to be locked away somewhere you did not know by someone you still don’t know arrange themselves inside you again. They’re the same you you knew you were but put into this different you the parts don’t seem to fit. Fitting or not you’re just relieved they’re back again and you even speak with the same voice you had long ago. Once a sergeant had told you the first two months break you into bits so you can be reconstituted into what your country needed you to be. Maybe now you really are more of what you’re needed to be and that Friday as you leave your bunk you realise soon it will be all over and soon you will close this door for the last time and open another.

A shiny crested plaque later all the memorabilia you’ve acquired from the past two years (did it really happen?) are going into a big black bag in the storeroom. Just so you’d remember it did happen the plaque goes into your room instead. Thankfully things are okay now and you can still count how many white hairs he has. In a few months who you were taps who you are on the shoulder and together you look for who you will be. You wake up and everything feels the same. Everything is the same.

Except "What Then?" has become "What Now?"

Note: This is not at all a factual recount of my own experiences, but an attempt at portraying the possibilities after A's. It was no doubt influenced by and skewed towards my own perspectives. Do take it with a pinch of salt (especially for girls, unless you're signing on).

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