Remembering Fr Charles Tchou

taken during Batch 82 25th anniversary reunion in 2007

Fr Tchou was already weakened by the ravages of illness and time here, but still cut an imposing figure.

Dear batchmates, schoolmates and friends :

It’s been roughly 21 months since he left us.  I can’t say my memories of him are crystal clear because he was out of mind, out of sight for a long time until we saw him in reunion pictures and the batch was thoughtful enough to invite him, along with several of our beloved teachers and advisors.
Use all the idioms you want, a shadow of his former self, an old warrior, and all that.  He still stared right through me from the screen, as if he could see me.  I still felt like half of the contents of my thoracic cavity descended into my lower body, if he so much as stared cross-eyed at me.  To be brutally honest, a weird mixture of compassion, buti-nga-sa-yo and closure curdled in me, beholding this amazingly simple man that evoked so many complicated emotions in others.
In truth, he stood much taller than any of the teachers that we were fortunate enough to pass through in life, no offense meant and in fairness, we had more than our fair share of good educators.  But because he represented authority, stability, and continuity for so long a time in our young lives, no one even comes close to what he was for many of us.
               **               **               **               **               **
Let me say at the outset (when else?) that I was not one of his biggest fans.  In a Solar System where the do-gooders, the grade-conscious and career-oriented competed to be near the Sun or at least tried to stay within sight of the Asteriod Belt, I usually wallowed in the underachieving fringes somewhere in vicinity of the moons of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (which recently I’ve heard may itself be a moon of the closer planets) ; not that it mattered much.  But as conscientious Judenites, most of you know what I mean.
This is neither an attempt to make up for a lack of appreciation incurred long ago, nor a celebration of one’s admiration for the man.  Right now, the reason I can come up with is that I do this because later I may forget, and I cannot go back to un-forget.  Nature dictates that (unless I’m very lucky) I cannot remember again.
But I digress. Even in Kinder and pre-school days, I already had an idea of who he was.  1st and 2nd Brothers talked about him as if he was a combination of a hawk and ogre, combining the hunting prowess and fearsomeness of two notorious figures of the animal and mythical worlds.  Nothing escaped his perpetually alert senses, and every Judenite schoolboy (or girl) ignored this truth at his (or her) peril.
Later I was to perceive this truth myself.  As I said, although I walked the line and kept my nose clean, some things I could not avoid, like stay out of mischief 100% or remember to have a regular haircut and wear regulation pants and white socks every day of the schoolyear.  It was as if those days I was in violation of those strict rules, were the same days I was to fall within his crosshairs.
Nothing surprising really, considering how often I got careless and how diligent he was in patrolling our corridors.  Like the fool who never learns his lesson, I was to fall afoul of his good books time and again, until fairly or unfairly, I became a regular on his watchlist, a veritable charter member of his list of Undesirables To Be Watched Over Whenever and Wherever.
To be sure, it wasn’t personal.  Untold batches we succeeded and those who would follow us would have their recalcitrants and rebels, lesser and greater than us in notoriety and creativity, and along with my batchmates (you know who you are), we were probably just grist for the mill.
He would conduct his sporadic inspections of haircuts, memorable among other things for their erratic schedules and randomness, and together with the ocular inspections was the climactic scissor solution, where he would just create a scalp exposure prominent enough to be noticed, necessitating an urgent trip to the barber after school.
Very little escaped his attention.  School pins, neckties for the girls, cuts and colors of uniforms, socks and shoes were all within the scope of his radar, and he could spot you and your deviant wear (or worse, behavior) probably within a 10-meter radius.
And talking about behavior, it was because of the strict regime that he imposed, all on his own, that anti-social violations like smoking, bullying, kissing / necking, and hanging idly around corridors ogling at the opposite sex were simply unthinkable for us then.  The irritable things that our children (or grandchildren) treat as 2nd nature, were for us forbidden as heresy, because he chose to be there to discipline, to discourage, and to deter.
Again, talking about deterrence, that was one of his most effective tools.  When you think about it, he could not watch over around 3,000 students (roughly the school population then, I’m not sure if it grew or shrank later) effectively and consistently over an extended period of time.  But this did not lessen his reach and hold any, he continued to exercise effective control over our collective behavior for the majority of our stay in school.
As you may guess, he did this through deterrence, or just letting us imagine, through reputation or our imagination, what would befall us if we displeased him often enough, or broke his rules enough times.
So many urban legends were manufactured, circulated and peddled in his name and probably very little of them were actually true.  But you know the saying, a falsehood (or half-truth) repeated often enough becomes accepted as the truth?  It served him well : dungeons in his quarters, the “third degree”, punishments too unspeakable to mention, and several other juicy tidbits that even the teachers learned to use to keep the restive natives under their thumb.  Couldn’t blame them, considering the barrel of monkeys that we threatened to be, almost every day of the week, unless it was Saturday of course, when we became even MORE restive.
It seemed like our parents did nothing to discourage these stories, probably because they held us in check, prevented us from being too naughty, and on the whole allowed teachers to concentrate on doing their job, which was educating us and preparing us for the world outside.
Perception or not, deterrent or not, Fr Tchou did his job in SJCS, and did it well.  His title was Student Counselor, or probably something closer to Prefect for Student Discipline, or Headmaster, whatever.  Actually he served as our third parent, strict but concerned uncle, or someone very close to that.  We’ll never forget him for being such, and our school could hardly have reached its level of achievement without him.
That much, we know.  It’s a truth that won’t need proving.
Thanks for reading !