When I was 17 years old, I prepared for my A Levels in a two-year course in what is called a ‘junior college’ in my country. I also sang in the school choir and we had weekly afternoon sessions in one of the Lecture Theaters (LT).
The theater was designed in the ‘paper fan’ shape typical of educational institutions of the late 80s and 90s. Rows of chairs with foldable flaps were affixed to sloped tiers facing a large whiteboard.
The choral instructor split us into four parts – soprano, alto, baritone and bass – which each took a section of the seats in the theater. I sang alto and sat somewhere in the middle.
One afternoon, we were practicing for a youth festival I think, and then we had our usual break in between. We got up from our sections to stretch, drink water and mill around a little.
I vaguely remember chatting with a couple of friends at the front of the theater, near the whiteboard – when a boy standing at the far left with a few sopranos started beckoning to me to go over.
I didn’t react at once. ‘Why is Peter asking for me?’ I wondered. Peter was in another class and we rarely talked. But still he continued beckoning to me with one hand. Come, come, he seemed to be mouthing.
As I made my way to him, something crashed loudly behind me. I spun around and saw that the plastic covering for one of the LT lights had smashed and broken onto the floor – at the exact spot where I had been standing earlier.
Everyone was stunned. From the loudness of the breakage, it seemed as though the light covering had been quite thick. It was about a meter long and had been installed in the false ceiling.
How it became dislodged is still a mystery to me, but I realized that if I had not moved away, it might have shattered all over my head instead. Thankfully, the friends I had been chatting with were also unharmed.
Why didn’t anyone warn me about the light covering? There were so many students that day. Subsequently one of the girls told me that the plastic had not dropped out of the false ceiling suddenly.
Instead, she described it as having drifted gently downwards like a leaf before crashing to the floor. I imagined my schoolmates watching that rectangular piece of hard plastic floating down in slow motion – transfixed perhaps – before being snapped out of a stupor when it landed. In reality, it only took a few seconds.
In that jarring dichotomy of a time fracture – when a moment seemed both fast and slow – something unusual had happened. It clicked in my teenaged brain that it was a moment I could have lost my life in very ordinary settings on a very ordinary school day.
Eventually I also got round to asking Peter why he had tried to wave me over that day, and his reply was simply this: “I don’t know why I called you that day. I can’t remember.”
I am not religious and do not ascribe to any particular faith, but what happened that day was probably nothing short of divine intervention. I thank my lucky stars and guardian angels for not having let me sustain any injury as a young person barely starting out in life.
It would not be the only occasion to narrowly escape death. Now in my middle age and having endured illness, the demise of loved ones along with other major life events, I think about the significance of those near-death experiences. People die suddenly and inexplicably, so why have I been somehow ‘kept alive’ by invisible forces beyond my understanding?
A few years ago I visited my former junior college one last time before it merged with another, and moved out of its compound. The two years I had spent there in a brown uniform feels like a lifetime ago.
At times when I am discouraged by setbacks and disappointments, in a demoralizing landscape of a pandemic, wars and environmental disasters, there are days when I feel like I don’t have the energy to send out another resume, but then I recall the times I could have died, and realize we are all living on borrowed time, that as long as I am breathing – there is still hope.
I tell myself that there must be a reason why I have not died yet – a greater purpose to fulfil, some joy left to share with this world, and then I press on.
About the author:
Sophia Tan is a former educator who loves hamsters, dogs and cats and dreams of publishing a fiction book one day. She probably watches too many superhero movies and enjoys nature walks in her native Singapore. She is looking for another job where she can write more and talk less.
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