She was, by her own reckoning, shy and nervous and lucky to be accepted when, barely out of secondary school, she applied to be a teacher.
Eighteen-year-old G. Rajalaximi found it tough when she started as a teacher at Boon Lay Primary School in 1966, with some students barely four years younger than her.
"At the start, I had a tough time managing them, disciplining them. They would talk when I talked. It was because of my age too," she recounted with a laugh.
But Madam Rajalaximi, who is now 71, overcame those challenges to go on to a career of more than 40 years as a Tamil language teacher.
"I was a timid person before I became a teacher. But eventually, all I had to do was stare at them and they would understand and keep quiet," she said.
A three-year stint at the former Monk's Hill Primary School, located where Lasalle College of the Arts is today, helped toughen her as a teacher.
"After I taught at the boys' school, managing children's discipline was not a problem. The boys were more rough," she said. "Like it or not, I had to be firm with the boys."
The oldest of four children of a factory supervisor father and housewife mother, Madam Rajalaximi is the first in her family to become a teacher.
In 1971, she returned to Boon Lay Primary School, where she continued to teach Tamil until 2001.
The school holds fond memories for her. It was located along the former Jalan Boon Lay Lama and surrounded by pig farms and orchards, she recalled.
"It was a school in the kampung," she said. "A lot of Chinese families depended on the farms."
She added: "Close by, there were quarters where a lot of Indians were living. And farther down, there was another kampung close by where a lot of Malays lived."
Her students used to have a better grasp of the Tamil language in the 1980s, she noted.
"A lot of children had a good command of the Tamil language back then. That was because they spoke the language all the time," she said.
"I remember moving into the 1980s, the children wrote such good essays. But eventually after that, they spoke less and less Tamil outside the home, and it reflected in their school work."
In 2002, Madam Rajalaximi moved to another school as Boon Lay Primary School was going to be merged with Jurong Primary School. She moved to Boon Lay Garden Primary School, where she taught until 2007.
Madam Rajalaximi said that being a teacher is not just about cramming content into students but also about teaching them values.
"A good teacher inspires. They help your child through his education, give direction, build character," she said.
In 2008, Madam Rajalaximi, then 61, joined Grace Orchard School, which caters to students with mild intellectual disability or mild autism spectrum disorders.
There, she taught eight-to 12-year-olds basic numeracy and literacy in English.
Madam Rajalaximi said of her time at Grace Orchard School: "It opened up my heart and eyes.
"I was in mainstream schools for so long; when I came here, I realised that there were other children who needed a different kind of help."
She stayed with the school even when she was called upon to teach in other schools.
"I was committed there. They really touched my heart," she said. "The work was not easy and it took me some time to really learn about them and their needs."
After 31/2 years, in 2011, she retired to care for her newborn granddaughter.
But Madam Rajalaximi was not done with teaching and helping others.
In the same year, she joined Project Smile, a charity that helps underprivileged women by providing vocational training in skills such as making jewellery and handicraft.
She started out by helping to write reports of potential beneficiaries but has become more involved.
These days, her Saturdays are spent at Project Smile's premises in Serangoon Road with other volunteers as they get the place ready for the women to decorate serving trays and home decor items such as tea light holders.
Madam Rajalaximi as well as the other volunteers and beneficiaries of Project Smile then sell these crafts at bazaars and stalls.
Looking back on her life, she said she has no regrets about spending her whole life teaching.
"Teaching was something I really enjoyed doing," she said.
"After retirement, volunteering and helping out at Project Smile gave me meaning. And the ladies who come here to learn also find it meaningful and empowering to pick up a skill."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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