Courage - a defining moment

This is what the 14 year old me still teaches me today – When faced with fear, helplessness and frustration, evoke the courage to take the first action that feels right.

Here’s the poignant situation that became a defining moment.
Year: 1990
Location: Dunman High School, Singapore
Event: “Haunted” Toilet, Girl Guides Camping
Time: Late night

We’re told it’s a Girl Guides tradition to instill courage. The seniors (Secondary 4 leads) decorate a toilet in the horror and haunted theme, peppered with hidden white slips, each with a name of the junior girls (Secondary 2 and 3 girls). You get 3 matches and your goal is to go into the toilet alone and find your name, before you can exit.

Of course we were scared and I especially dreaded the thought of opening each of the many cubicles, searching around the often wet, smelly and dirty squat toilets in the dark. That night, I was called first, which meant that there was a full pool of names to go through to find mine. The 2 seniors led me to the entrance of the toilet and seemed to smirk as they gave me the 3 matches.

I remember feeling that I was picked on intentionally, given my character of outspokenness and at times defiance to what I thought was illogical or not right. While being respectful, I would often ask questions and speak up, behaviors that some platoon leaders weren’t fans of. I saw this activity as a rite of passage and didn’t argue, though I did voice my doubt about the intentions behind some seniors, who seemed to enjoy it for the power trip and being able to laugh at our discomfort.

That feeling of indignance actually drove me to stay tight-lipped and enter the toilet bravely. I was frightened as hell but wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of witnessing my fear. My bravado lessened considerably the minute the toilet door was closed behind me and I saw the decapitated head with hair and blood all over that they placed at the row of sinks, with other objects and a few flickering candles.

Contrasting with my racing heart was the toilet stench, still air, darkness and also a silence punctuated by a loud tick-tock-tick-tock of an old style alarm clock that sat just next to the head. A sense of helplessness set in as I wondered where to start and how impossible this is. My name could be anywhere! Why does it have to me first? How long will this take? Don’t even think of crying!

I decided that no matter how bad the experience will be, I could make it better for me and others by getting rid of the spooky tick-tock sound. This desire won over my aversion of going close to the gruesome head and in a split second, I was turning the clock over to remove the batteries. It was in that moment that I saw a single strip of paper with “Peng Woon” written on it. Fear, joy, anger and pride surfaced so quickly in succession, I was surprised I managed to focus on removing the batteries and placing them back the wrong way round.

Danced my way out of the toilet, handed over my name slip and the 3 unused matches to the very surprised seniors, just a few minutes after I entered. Obviously if felt much longer to me, but in reality, I completed the mission in record time! Oh the elation I felt then, to have succeeded, not giving anyone the satisfaction of tormenting me (how cruel for them to place my name behind the clock as we usually won’t touch the decorations), to have thwarted them by turning off the clock for the rest of the night (confirmed by my friends).

This is what the 14 year old me still teaches me today – When faced with fear, helplessness and frustration, evoke the courage to take the first action that feels right. Who knows, that action might just be the one needed to turn the situation around and be a defining moment.

For my daughters (and yours)