A few weeks ago, I received a call from a stranger. She, a manager for Chemistry Department in NUS, had called to invite me to attend a memorial service for my NUS Chemistry Professor, who passed away a year ago.
I have not been in touch with most of my Chem mates since I graduated. I thought it was a great opportunity to have a reunion. In my honours class of 20+ people, I am only in contact with two on Facebook. I emailed the two and another two from my email contacts, not harbouring any hope of them coming. To my unexpected delight, E, from my honours class, agreed to come along. She had received the invitation via email and hearing from me sealed her decision to go.
Last Friday evening, I picked E up and drove to Science Faculty. It was crowded. The open spaces were gone, and the circle at YH house had moved further down to incorporate the flyduct to NUS town. We remarked how much has changed, so many constructions going on and the place felt almost claustrophobic.
I parked my car opposite LT27 and we took a stroll to the Chem Department. NUS is built on a hill and navigating it is akin to climbing a hill – lots of stairways. We walked past LT 27 – where many Jams and Hops were held inside and outside, up the stairs to the familiar Science Canteen. We followed the sign board overhead, climb more stairs and arrived at the foyer outside LT25. ‘That was our lecture theatre,’ E commented. I didn’t remember. Opposite LT 25, there was still a lecture going on at LT 26 at 6.30pm.
We climbed more stairs and arrived at the Chem building, a group of 7-8 storey blocks linked by common corridor on different levels. I often dream of being back in Chem building and getting lost, and at that moment on Friday, I was filled with a sense of deja vu, blurred between dreams and reality. Opposite, I spotted the Science Library, where my sister and I spent many nights mugging away, not to mention many Chinese New Years too, for CNY was in the midst of exams back then.
At the venue where the Memorial Service was held, there was a group chatting at the registration table. My project lecturer Prof Lawrence Chia, the organizer, was greeting the visitors. He took a moment to recognise me. Soon, there were many familiar faces. The lecturers we once known as Dr so-and-so are all now Professors. Many are now retired, but they looked the same as when they were teaching us twenty-four years ago.
E and I introduced ourselves as ‘Honours Class’ 88.’ They were curious with what we are doing. E is a Chem teacher. And me? ‘I’m not working,’ I replied regretfully and almost embarrassed. They were diplomatic. ‘Children are very important and you made the right move,’ I was told, or more likely, consoled.
The memorial service was touching. The Professor had taught us organic chem, but was otherwise unfamiliar to me. We were more chummy with the young unmarried male lecturers at that time. E and I remembered her as a cheongsum clad motherly woman, soft-spoken and gentle. I learned that night about her passion about Chemistry, and her beautiful family life.
At the dinner table, E and I discovered that we were the youngest ‘students’ there. The rest had graduated around 1964. Most had worked as teachers. Being surrounded by academia (lecturers and the teachers) was stressful. They updated their lives with each other, giving anecdote on their children, almost all who are doctors and high achievers. (Prof Chia’s own daughter was a President Scholar.)
After dinner, we bid a long farewell to each of our lecturers, asking after those who were absent. I was surprised to see Dr Tan Eng Liang, whom we were told left NUS for greener pastures very early on. We learned also that Chem Honours class started with six in the 60s. We had over twenty in the 80s’, and the honours class has now grown to 160. Impressive.
As we walked the same route back to my car, E sighed as she looked around the familiar surrounding, ‘Can you imagine, just a blink of the eye and twenty-four years has passed.’