“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
– John Wooden, American basketball player
He was in the living room when I stepped out of my room to get a glass of water. It was around 11pm and, much as I didn’t want to comment on how rude it was to be calling on people near midnight, I brusquely asked my flatmate why his student was at the house. The student – this gangly, boorish boy of 17 – was in a state of panic. He needed to submit an application form to an Australian university but there was just a glitch and he was hoping his teacher would fill it up for him. He couldn’t understand what was written on the application form that was in English.
This young man dreamt audaciously of studying abroad. His route to Australia was a long one. He went first to Singapore, studying in a school that had him attending remedial classes to make up for his failing marks every quarter. He finally ended up in Australia by some fluke but is tottering on the cliff of homesickness among many things. Attendance in classes is virtually zero, but his casino attendance is muy perfecto. He despises his flatmate, a compatriot, who has a penchant for borrowing his stuff, but he can’t kick him out because mother dear likes him. Here’s the clincher – he can’t return home unless he’s got a university degree because it was an agreement he made with his father.
He really hopes to make the grade and find his true métier in Australia. My flat mate, his former teacher, has advised him without fail to hone his English skills except that advice has always gone out the other ear. Like a soap opera, the next chapter of his life has yet to be known.
Now, consider this other student. This young man hoped fervently and coupled that hope with hard work and determination. He is the complete opposite of the student above whose hauteur blinds him. No one speaks English in his family except for him but that has never deterred him from polishing his skills in English. He kept talking in English despite turning the language and its rules on its head. He kept reading books in English and conscientiously looked up the meanings of the words he didn’t understand. He endured strictures, turning them into sharp reminders of where he wanted to be once he mastered English.
This tale of two students is commonplace particularly the first one – the one who dared to hope but didn’t do anything on his part, expecting the universe to do everything for him. He should have met Ben Lerer, the co-founder and chief executive of the Thrillist Media Group, which oversees websites on men’s lifestyles and shopping. Lerer, I read in an interview by Adam Bryant in the global edition of The New York Times, strongly believes in not hoping. In fact, “don’t hope” is the backbone of his company’s work culture.
My jaw dropped to the floor when I read that, but enlightenment dawned on me a few seconds later. He said, “…What that means is don’t wait for somebody to do something for you. Don’t do something 90 percent well and hope that it’ll slide through. Don’t rely on luck. You have to make your own luck. The only thing you can do is try your absolute best to do the right thing.”
Gawky 17-year-old should have chatted with Lerer before flying overseas and squandering his parents’ money. Studying abroad is a very good experience, but one doesn’t do that without proper preparation. Imagine a soldier going to battle sans arsenal or a runner in a marathon not having ran in his/her life. The primary prerequisite for studying in English-speaking countries is being fluent in the language in order to survive the academe’s exactitude as well as the cultural landscape. Unfortunately, that English language is a language of purpose, as one TESOL trainer put it, elides many. They get caught up in the false assumption that hope and prayers will fix everything.
Hope is not and should not be divorced from the concept of work in the English language. The universe doesn’t work alone. You do your part – mastering the English language in this case – and the universe will do its part. Learning the English language entails commitment to learning it, immersion in the process, and not hiding behind lame excuses such as “We’re in Indonesia” and “This is how we say it in Indonesia.”
The likes of gangling 17-year-olds are proliferating, which is a pity. A lot of energy, time and money are wasted in following a dream that will never materialise because the person is simply walking on the wrong pathway. Gangly 17-year-old had 12 years of English lessons in school and odd years of tutorial but nothing came out of them. He also refused to heed the advice of his teachers and tutors.
Hope has been reworked countless of times that it has lost its true essence. While hope carries with it a hint of luck, it also comes with commitment, diligence, and carefulness. But, because most forget that part of the coin, hope is blamed for one’s failures. Lerer summed up hope and hard work succinctly: “The only time when you can have real regret is when you didn’t do everything you could do. I want to never hope, even though I hope just like everybody else. It’s just important to know that you’re giving as close as you can to 100 percent, dedicated effort, and you’re being thoughtful about it.”
Guess which student is now reaping the rewards? He’s currently enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program in one of the prestigious international schools (you can count them on your hand) in Indonesia.