1823 Trees: "The Gardener" Synopsis

On the occasion of the launch of the 1823 Trees: Rooting for a Greener Singapore campaign in support of the OneMillionTrees movement, alum Theophilus Kwek (Class of 2012) penned the following poem titled "The Gardener". 

From ‘The New School Site Visited’

And from its light-filled classrooms there will go
The boys and girls who’ll help our country grow;
These my true children are, yes, mine indeed,
For did I not prepare the ground for seed?  

– Philip Liau (Principal, 1966-1977)
First published in The Rafflesian, 1970-71


The Gardener

Transplanted here, I had just days to learn
their ways, which ones grew gangly against
a wall, which took to sunshine, which sprang
from roots so strong they turned the paving-stones;

and names, all grafted from tongue to tongue,
cengkih, angsana, tembusu, gelam.
I watched and watered. Was slow to prune
what seemed peculiar or out of place, limbs

ungainly among the others, stooped
to tease each fractious shadow from the soil.
After dark I’d search in vain (or hope)
for a day’s headway, find them just as tall

as when I began. No-one told me then
what years have taught me about the night –
how gently it comes, to stay the hand.
They do their best growing when out of sight.



Whenever I teach writing classes, or mentor younger writers, I am reminded of the hope and heartbreak that accompanies the work of teaching. We might have a brief window in which to watch our students grow, but the true fruit of our labour will only emerge much later, when life provides the opportunities for them to use what they have been taught, and to learn what kind of writer – or what kind of person – they are. In a city that places so much emphasis on the immediate product of our efforts, the work of teaching more closely resembles an act of faith.

This poem pays tribute to the many educators who, over nearly two centuries of the school’s history, have patiently and faithfully tended to their charges. Some had to prepare their students for adulthood in the face of oncoming war. Some taught their students, still colonial subjects, how to be citizens in a country that was yet to be. Still, they “watched and watered”, in the hope that seeds would become saplings, saplings would become trees, and these trees might one day extend their branches to also provide shelter to others. Today, many Rafflesians are gladly paying it forward.

In the school’s early days, almost all these educators were “transplanted here”, as the poem’s opening lines suggest: it was not till 1958 that RI had its first Asian principal, Mr. V Ambiavagar. Many made a deliberate effort to understand the local context, and taught their students important lessons that transcended boundaries of nation, language, and ethnicity. During my own time as a student, I had both Singaporean and expatriate teachers, and this poem celebrates them both. It also reminds us of the many who, even today, have come from afar to break new ground here, and nurture this city’s growth. 

– Theophilus Kwek (Class of 2012)

Tagged Topics

#RI200 #RIBicentennial

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