"I Stopped School to Write a Book"
First published on publichouse.sg in September 2011
Teenage author Nicholas Chan left school for months to write this book. Newly published, My Life My Terms talks frankly about teen social problems—gangs, alcohol, even suicide—and shows how he and his family are overcoming their own.
A few months ago, Nicholas Chan came into my life. A very special 15-year old boy, Nick is highly intelligent, very driven, confident and an out-of-the-box thinker. And, Nick had decided to make it on his own outside the Singapore school system. Mainstream education here, he told me over a pizza and coke at our first meeting, was doing little for him. He wasn’t learning, he wasn’t supported, he was going nowhere. So he was going to find success on his own. Be his own man. He had already informed his teachers that he was leaving school, and his mother was fully behind him.
The first thing he was embarking on was writing a book. A book about himself, his motivations and beliefs, and the trials and tribulations his family had faced and how they were working to overcome them. Most importantly, said Nick, he wanted to reach out to other teens who were struggling, with school, with family, with life, and tell them that there was always hope, and to never ever stop believing in themselves, no matter how hard things got.
Nick wanted this book to be a bestseller.
And he asked me if I would be his editor.
I thought about it. There were a million reasons to turn this project down. For a start, it might fail. Millions of books are published each year and only a handful make it. I should be telling Nick to go back to school and focus on his exams, forget this pipedream. A 15-year old leave school to write a book and hope to make money from it? Come on. Get real.
But there was one reason to support this. Nick was pursuing his dream. And he had a purpose. He was doing something he wanted to do because he was passionate about it. He was realizing his true inner potential. Plus he had the support of his mother and mentor.
It was a risk, for sure. It was unconventional. It was impractical.
Nick also talks about his family in the book. His torn apart, rough and tumble, small, struggling family who at the end of the day—in spite of their financial problems, their relationship problems, their fights, their tears—still hold it together with love and manage to have good times. His mum, Susan, whom he is close to and who is his pillar of strength. And his dad, with whom he has a tumultuous and painful relationship that Nick bares in great detail and with moving honesty; and to whom Nick extends an olive branch to, saying please dad, let’s try and make it work, I still love you.
And there is Nick’s mentor Gabriel Suppiah, or Coach Gabe as he is affectionately called. Gabe is a life coach who works specially with teens. And who believes that underneath every teen in trouble is a child just asking to be loved and accepted. Parents who bring their kids to him for help are regularly told—if you want your teen to change, you must be willing to change as well. Gabe’s motivational ideas are woven in through the book and he is obviously a big inspiration in Nick’s life.
As Nick write, near the end of the book, “Parents I urge you, as a teen, take this as a warning. Please don’t ever take your kid for granted. I have known enough friends who have come close to going over that ledge, time and time again. And a few, like Jane, who actually went. Then everything is too late. … I’m not saying you should spoil them or always only be nice to them regardless of what they do. But at the very least, forget the grades and all that for a minute. Son gets straight As then dad buys him laptop? That’s how you run a business. Not a family.”
This book took me a few months and many hours to edit. In the process, Nick, Susan, Gabe and I have also become good friends. At the end of it, Nick decided to give school another go.
I am not plugging it because of my involvement in it.
I am writing about it for the same reason that I chose to get involved in it. It is one person’s passion come to fruit. It is an account of teenagers in Singapore that we don’t often—and need to—hear about.
*Names of some teens have been changed to protect the identity of them and their families
But it was done in an admirable spirit. The spirit of daring to do something you believe in even if the rest of the world says you’re dreaming. The spirit of finding your true path, your element. The spirit of self-determination. A spirit that we need to see more of in our society.
That for me was reason enough to back this book. Succeed or not, we’ll see. What matters is, we try. So I told Nick to send me the manuscript.
When I read it, the words exploded in my face. Not because they were Booker Prize material, but because they were so honest, so raw and so personal that you knew they were coming from the heart. And because they drew me into a world of teenagers that opened my eyes to a lot of the issues our young people face today. Issues that
everyone, whether they are other teens, parents or teachers of teens or just concerned members of society, should know about.
Let’s start with Jane*. She was the person in Nick’s life who triggered his desire to write this book. Jane was his schoolmate. Jane was a seemingly happy, well-adjusted girl. Then one day Jane took her own life, at age 16. She jumped off her block of flats in Bishan. No one saw it coming. No one knew why, many still don’t. Her death rocked the community. We need to reach out to teens, Nick said, make them feel that they are not alone in their struggles, that there is a way to cope—and even triumph—so that things like Jane don’t happen again.
Then there is Andy*, Nick’s best friend. Andy has a mum who can’t cope with her problems and takes it out on the kids. Andy started drinking at the age of 11. He moved on to cough syrup shortly after. Andy’s been beaten up, locked up and told that he is trash. There’s also Colin, Nick’s older brother. Colin wrote parts of the book, about himself. Here’s a little of what he said, “I feel like I have lived alone since I was 14. Not physically alone, but emotionally and mentally alone. For years, I felt like I had no one to turn to, no one I could trust.” Colin then talks about the gangs he joined, the violence he inflicted on others and himself, the self-destruction.
Fortunately, Andy and Colin are doing fine now, with the love and support of friends and family. And Nick is hoping other teenagers will find comfort, strength and hope in reading about them. And, before we think Andy and Colin are ‘bad’ kids, let me say that they are just regular teens, with regular hobbies, crushes, dreams, who found themselves in tough situations.