“The Teacher” Summary: Catherine Lim Short Story

The Teacher Catherine Lim Summary
“The Teacher” by Catherine Lim: Summary

“The Teacher” is a short story by Catherine Lim, a Singaporean author known for writing about Chinese culture. On the surface, this story is about a teacher who despairs over the poor quality English his older students are still writing as the General Certificate of Education test nears. Below the surface, there’s much more going on, which gives the story its power. This story is very short, so I suggest reading it to get the full effect, but if you’d like a refresher, here’s a summary of “The Teacher”.

Note: This story has sections where the teacher is reading from the student’s compositions. I’ve put those sections of the summary in green. I summarized the content of the compositions without trying to capture the ungrammatical English.

“The Teacher” Summary

A teacher in the staffroom reads a composition to a colleague. It’s written by a Secondary Four student (High school) who’s had ten years of English study. It’s called “My Happiest Day”.

It was July 12, 1976, and the writer’s mother has just returned from the hospital after giving birth. Her father told her she had to quit school and help him sell cakes at his stall. Her other sibling are too young and her mother is recovering. She couldn’t object because her father would beat her. Her mother begged him to let her stay in school, because she’d eventually earn more money as a nurse. He  must have been in a good mood because he agreed; in a bad mood he would have beaten his wife. The student’s happiest day was learning she didn’t have to quit school.

The teacher wonders why many of the students write so poorly and complains about the atrocious grammar and tense mistakes. The General Certificate of Education test is in three months, and he doesn’t see how she’s going to pass.

The next week, he’s in the staffroom again, despairing over the student’s new paper. He tells another colleague, who agrees and says she gets the same grammar mistakes from her pre-University students. The student’s name is Tan Geok Peng and she’s a timid, mousy-looking girl. This composition is called “My Ambition”, and he starts reading parts of it.

Tan Geok Peng, wants to become a successful nurse and buy a house for her family. Her father spends all their money on drinking and beats her mother. 

The teacher decides to add Saturday coaching for Tan Geok Peng and others like her to prepare for the exam. They all need help with grammar, vocabulary and punctuation. The extra coaching doesn’t help. He explains things over and over to no avail. This composition is called “The Stranger”, but she wrote about her father.

He canes her even when she doesn’t do anything wrong, and he beats her mother even when she’s sick. 

This one is ungrammatical and misses the point. He gives her the lowest possible grade, but wishes he could help.

News of Tan Geok Peng reaches the teachers. She jumped from the eleventh floor. The teacher is upset and wishes she had confided her problems, but she was too shy to speak up.

I hope this summary of “The Teacher” by Catherine Lim was helpful.