Some of the most valuable lessons I learnt in school were picked up outside the classroom, during co-curricular activity (CCA) time.
I chose to join the Chinese orchestra during my secondary school days because I was curious about the guzheng (Chinese zither), an instrument that I had seen only in drama serials on television.
But learning to play the instrument turned out to be just a small part of what I would gain from the CCA. As a section leader, I picked up many life skills, even though I did not realise it then.
I had the privilege of helping to plan concerts at Victoria Concert Hall, organising overseas trips, coaching my juniors during extra practice and working with other committee members as a team.
Today, years after I left school, I have lost my music scores and no longer play the guzheng, but the lessons I picked up from my CCA have been internalised.
My son has had to learn to accept defeat, of large margins (think 10:1), while playing against a more established team from another primary school... He learnt the hard way that if one does not put in effort during practice, the coach simply selects another player more worthy of a spot in the first team while he warms the benches.
I learnt that hard work and perseverance pay off, be it during concerts or competitions.
I learnt the value of paying it forward from seniors who returned to coach us even after they had moved on to junior college and university.
More importantly, I found out that precious friendships made from years of bonding over long practice sessions remain strong even though my orchestra mates and I don't meet as often as before.
And, at the very least, the Saturday practice sessions were a respite from the homework load.
With this positive experience, I was looking forward to my son starting on his CCA journey at the beginning of this year, never mind that he was only in Primary 3.
To my surprise, CCA selection is a whole new ball game these days.
A friend said her son couldn't get into the CCA of his choice because he had no prior training in the sport. Priority went to those who were already good at their game.
Another parent told me to pick a CCA that would stand my son in good stead during Direct School Admission (DSA) for secondary school. The admission exercise allows participating secondary schools to select Primary 6 pupils based on their achievements, before the Primary School Leaving Examination results are released.
And this is only at the primary school level. What happened to good, old-fashioned interest and passion for a CCA?
In the end, I eschewed the advice and let him pick one he was interested in - football.
The CCA is a fairly new one in his neighbourhood school, so he had no problems getting in, thankfully. I doubt he can use it to apply for DSA since the team has not won any competition. But that is not of concern to either of us. He has spent a year in the CCA and it was one of the best decisions we made this year. He has picked up lessons that neither his classroom teacher nor I can teach him; I, on the other hand, have been educated as a parent in a way no parenting book can prepare me.
He has had to learn to accept defeat, by a large margin (think 10:1), while playing against a more established team from another primary school. It was a bitter pill to swallow for a competitive nine-year-old used to winning.
As a defender, he found out the importance of team work when his reserve goalkeeper struggled to keep the balls out of the net against a much stronger team.
He learnt the hard way that if he does not put in effort during practice, the coach simply selects another player more worthy of a spot in the first team while he warms the benches.
Without me nagging, he has learnt time management - with training three times a week for up to three hours each time, he simply has no time for TV or reading on days when he has homework or tests to prepare for.
As for me, I have had to quell my over-protective instincts as a mother. I bit back my suggestion that he quit his CCA, after I found out that he sat on the benches for one match. To his credit, not only has he not entertained the thought of quitting, but he has also been working harder during training.
When the haze was at its peak, all I wanted to do was to keep him at home with all windows closed, because he has a history of asthmatic wheezing. He, however, was raring to go for training.
I found out later that they trained in an enclosed space and on days when the haze worsened, training was called off and they watched an exercise video instead. I am still learning to trust that he will be fine, even without me hovering over him.
When I see him return from CCA dripping with perspiration, sometimes limping after a bad fall in the field, but always with a wide smile, I know that we've chosen the right activity for him.
Post-training, he happily recounts to his Papa, sister and me the good and bad moments as he wolfs down his dinner.
"The coach called out my name in frustration after I let the ball through…" or "Coach praised me today for a good pass…"
Apart from ball sense, there are lots of lessons to be learnt on the field - which I hope he will remember even after he leaves school.
When I hear the clanging of orchestral music these days, it brings me right back to Saturday practice sessions in our CCA room.
Likewise, when he passes by a school field in future, I hope he will remember the evenings spent training hard with his teammates, the friendships on and off the field, the perspiration and tears from winning or losing a match,
and not whether his CCA got him into a particular secondary school - or not.
• Jane Ng is a former education journalist and now a freelance writer.
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