Uncle Song

The fliers call him an inspiration. In bold print above a glossy photo, his name is Lee Ghim Song. Simon smiles a little. Tomorrow, all two thousand boys at the Singapore Methodist School will listen to this man speak but only he will know him as Uncle Song.

He knows he’s not in trouble but his knees begin to shake as he approaches the Principal’s office. Everything here is larger to match the scale of Principal Chock’s title. The oak wood desk stretches and continues along the wall like a long road. A wide fish tank breaks the sunlight into thick shards.

“I won’t take up much of your time, Simon,” Principal Chock says, barely looking up from an open folder. “I just want you to know Lee Ghim Song has informed us that you are related to him. We will keep this information confidential. The other boys will not find out from the school’s administration and if anybody teases you, please tell your Form Teacher.”

Simon nods and remembers to say, “Thank you, Sir, God Bless You Sir,” before leaving the office. He wonders if Uncle Song revealed that he was Simon’s mother’s brother, and what Principal Chock thought of that.

He takes the longest route back to his classroom, passing the tuck shop where the air smells like coconut rice and fried fish, and the pond where tiny fish glide over hundreds of coins that boys throw in with their prayers just before exams. He can’t help but stop in front of the auditorium. At the entrance, large poster board versions of the fliers advertise Uncle Song and his brave recovery.

Lee Ghim Song
A Son of God, A Reformed Man, An Inspiration
October 11 1993
Main Auditorium

Below the words, Uncle Song’s face glows in color. He has laughing eyes and an upside-down triangle for a mouth. One of his front teeth is discolored and there’s a mole just beneath his chin but in the photograph, these details are hard to spot. This is the kind of thing about Uncle Song that Simon knows better than all the other boys and as he enters his classroom, the secret makes him feel superior.

*  *  *

At home during dinner, Simon considers telling Ma about his meeting with Principal Chock. Any contact with the Principal is usually worth mentioning because most students have never seen him up close unless they’ve been in trouble. Before Patrick Loh’s public punishment earlier this year, Principal Chock visited Simon’s classroom. “I want this class to be seated in the front row of the auditorium tomorrow because your friend Patrick has been suspended for the day. Tomorrow he will return to school and face the consequences.” For the rest of the day, the classroom buzzed with speculation. Simon announced it at the dining table because it was too important to keep inside him. He expected to have more to report the next day but after watching Patrick’s punishment, he felt ill and did not want to speak.

Grandfather eats slowly, twisting the noodles around his chopsticks. He reads the Chinese newspaper at dinner and does not speak. Ma smiles across the table at Simon. “How was school today?”

“Fine,” Simon says. Maybe it is better that Ma doesn’t know about his meeting with Principal Chock. Mentioning Uncle Song at the dinner table in front of Grandfather would be a mistake. Even though Uncle Song found the Lord while he was in prison and is devoting his life to spreading His word, Grandfather cannot forgive him. Uncle Song moved in with them after he was released but the shame he brought upon their family could not be erased. Within weeks he was packing up to leave again. Simon remembers the certainty in Grandfather’s voice as he told Uncle Song, “You are no longer my son.”