Header image courtesy to @rocky_the_wulio (via Instagram)
Secondary school carries such a bittersweet tinge to its name. On one hand, it is six years of painful struggle all in the name of preparing for university entrance exams; on the other, it is six years of precious memories with our dearest friends. Tiresome as it may be, our student days are some of the most formative years in our lives. We have gathered a number of memories shared by people who have gone to secondary schools in Hong Kong. Take a look at this list and see if you relate to any!
The tuck shop is a fixture in every student’s memory, as it is often the one source of good food in school. When the heartening bell for recess or lunch rings, you have approximately one minute to sprint down to the tuck shop before the rest of the crowd catches up—unless you are a senior, in which case you can sneak your way up to the front. Yes, jumping the queue is generally frowned upon and it may weigh on your conscience at first, but you might not be as honest when you are starving. And hey, you have waited three years for the school hierarchy to work in your favour, so it is almost a coming-of-age ritual.
When you finally get to the front, you are greeted with all the treats you have been daydreaming about in class—the beautiful steam of curry fishballs, the chewy siu mai basking in soy sauce and chilli oil, the savoury lo mien or cold udon noodles, the soft, warm scrambled egg sandwiches with luncheon meat or corned beef... The food would come in a simple plastic bag or brown paper bag that is tasked to make the eating process as messy as possible, but always worth it. Whether you are eating on your own or sharing with your friends, the warm aromas and comforting taste are enough to melt the stress away, even if it is just for a few minutes.
The school lunchboxes, albeit healthier, are pretty much a horror show compared to the food paradise at the tuck shop. The slimy sauces you never knew could come in such texture and flavour, the poached vegetables that are always either undercooked or overcooked (and bland either way), the rice or pasta that has been packed into the box for hours, the weird smell from the Thermo box containing the lunchboxes—everyone must be getting war flashbacks now. In fact, the quality of school lunches was so bad that when an organisation gave out the lunchboxes to the public on a typhoon day where school was suspended, everyone complained about the meals online.
Although the health benefits of the lunchboxes are debatable and the quality lamentable, they are still many students’ first choice for lunch, due to the low cost and convenience—after all, it is much easier to have your lunch delivered right to the classroom than to spend 10 minutes (or more) of your precious lunch hour in line at the tuck shop or at a restaurant nearby.
While it is certainly a horrific culinary experience, ordering these lunchboxes with your friends can be a good bonding activity. You get to sit together and fill in the order form every month, deciding which day to ditch the lunchbox and head out for a treat, and most importantly, groan about the quality of the food while eating it.
When you progress to higher forms, you become eligible for committee member positions in different school clubs, which requires you to hold club meetings every now and then. To accommodate for the schedules of different committee members and teachers, most of the meetings end up being held during lunchtime.
This means that you either have to stuff everything into your mouth in five minutes or sacrifice your lunch hour altogether. This is also why students sometimes prefer pre-ordered lunchboxes. However, if the teacher is understanding or if it is a student-only meeting, you can bring your lunch along and eat while discussing club matters. It is weird thinking back that the lunch period is not for lunch, but you know what they say: With great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes insufficient lunchtime.
If students are the princes and princesses of a school, then the discipline teacher is the evil queen. Understandably, it is their duty to keep students in check, but their strict, unsmiling demeanour is always unnerving.
In the morning, when you see the dark figure standing at the school entrance with their hands clasped behind their back, you would pity whoever is coming in late. Throughout the day, the discipline teachers would be pacing around, looking out for troublemakers or anything they deem inappropriate. During regular uniform checks, the teachers would look you up and down, measure the length of your dress or trousers, and try to catch any tiny detail in your uniform and accessories that do not fit the school dress code.
There is also the constant paranoia of schoolbag raids. They are rare, and never announced, but some students would get rumours that teachers are coming in to look through the items in students’ backpacks, in search of unauthorised mobile phones (they have to be handed in before class), comic books, or other things that are not allowed in school. Students would try and sneak their phones into other classrooms that are safe. The raids are usually false alarms, and it is definitely comical looking back at all the commotion caused for a couple of mobile phones.
Physical Education has to be the most dreaded lesson of the week. Running under a blazing sun or being outside in shorts in the freezing winter does not spark joy. The words “Physical Fitness” (體適能; tai2 sik1 nang4) and “PE exams” make our skin crawl—as they mean no more slacking and having to break out the smelly training mats and practice for assessment.
Some schools require students to wear the proper school uniform to school and only change into the PE uniform before class. So if you, unfortunately, forget to bring your clothes and shoes, you will have to go through the gross but necessary step of borrowing a PE uniform from someone in another class, lest you be punished.
But there is one thing we look forward to other than the end of class: the last 15 minutes where students are allowed to play whatever sport they want. Most stick to badminton or basketball, but if you can gather enough players, you can also start a game of dodgeball or volleyball. Running around, laughing, shouting, feeling the heated glare from the discipline teacher upstairs, quieting down, then yelling again when the discipline teacher is gone—these are some of our fondest memories in secondary school, hands down.
Most secondary schools in Hong Kong don’t follow a fixed, five-day timetable, but a six- or seven-day cycle instead—which means Monday is not necessarily Day 1. Even with the timetable printed on the back of the student handbook, it is chaotic and very easy to mix up the days and pack the wrong textbooks. But apparently, the cyclical timetable allows more class time for every subject, so it is commonly used in Hong Kong.
At the beginning of a school year and around exam weeks, schools would switch to the summer timetable—cue angelic choral sounds—which is a half-day of school with shorter class periods. School ends at around 1 pm, teachers are more relaxed, and everyone is a bit livelier knowing they are getting the afternoon off.
Other than regular classes, there are reading lessons every week as well. It is compulsory for everyone to be reading a book or newspaper—no comic books are allowed, and the teacher will inspect what you are reading. If you forget to bring your own reading material, you have to borrow a book from the library or the classroom bookshelf. But let’s be honest, how many of us were actually reading in the reading period?
Of course, as a student, you cannot get through a day of classes without your trusty stationery. For written schoolwork, students are typically required to use a blue or black pen, or an HB pencil for drawing diagrammes and filling in dots on a multiple-choice question sheet. Most students opt to use correction tape over correction ink now to avoid making a mess, which is a godsend compared to the cursed sand eraser that would tear holes in your homework at the most inopportune times, as if it can sense that you are in a hurry.
Other than the standard set, more specialised stationery items are also necessary for different classes, such as the protractor and compasses for Maths and a whole tool bag or box to carry oil pastels or poster colour paints, brushes, and other art supplies for Visual Arts. Students also have to purchase a series of folders, writing paper sets, and exercise books at the beginning of every school term.
Each subject will be assigned a specific colour folder for filing any loose papers. With all the folders, notebooks, and textbooks, we are certainly grateful for the school lockers—until it is the end of the school year and we have to bring everything home in one week.
The final day of secondary school is a big deal. Not only does it mark the end of your 3-3-4 compulsory education years, but it is also a send-off to battle—we mean, the university entrance exam. There are no more classes, so everyone is busy making the most of their last hours as a secondary school student.
It is the only day teachers turn a blind eye to all the mobile phones being whipped out in class. Some will even pose for pictures with the students. Students will sign on each other’s school uniforms, or write down a well-wishing message for each other in an autograph book or yearbook. Some more eccentric last day rituals include skipping school to yum cha (飲茶; having breakfast at a teahouse) with the whole class (sometimes including the class teacher) and even having hot pot in the classroom.
All the memories of the past years condensed into this one day, after which everything will be different—no more regular school hours, no more school uniforms, no more discipline teachers looming over you, and no more running around the playground with your friends.
Just for one more day, we are trying to create memories that will last a lifetime—something we can look back on and laugh with our friends, hopefully at a future reunion.