A Personal Brief History of Time (Toastmasters PM L3P2)

Today I want to spend some time talking about… time. Before I start, our dear timer, please forgive me for trespassing into your territory.

When I was in high school, we had this kind of mandatory morning reading session at 7:30am every day. Now you might think, wow that’s very nice, such a perfect thing to cultivate young people’s interest in books and knowledge and encourage us to form the habit of learning something new every day. You can read the next chapter of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, while I finish the foreword of A Beginner’s Guide to C++ Programming. Well, I’m sorry to say but, there was no Three Kingdoms, no C++. Instead, all we had was “is-was-been” and “do-did-done” all over. Pedantic. Monotonous. Boring. Even kind of hypnotising. But we didn’t have any choice, because as I mentioned earlier, those morning reading sessions were mandatory. You got to show up in the classroom at 7:30am, unless you didn’t want to go school on that day at all. But of course, with oppression comes resistance, and I, as somebody who absolutely detested this kind of cramming practice, was the first to rebel. While everybody else was enjoying their “is-was-been” and “do-did-done” in the classroom, you would find my seat empty. I was instead in the bookshop across the street just outside the school entrance, my head buried in piles of volumes, my lungs infused with the aroma of book leaves, my mind absorbed in deep thoughts, and my eyes busy reading the facial expressions of the four five armband-wearing students who were standing at the school entrance. Someone is speaking something! That boy is checking his watch! That girl is nodding to the others! What a good sign. My long-term bookshop-going experience told me that they were about to leave very soon! And see, I was right. Not five seconds after they were already retreating back into the school, while I, having decided that it was enough bookshop for the day, followed from a distance behind, stealthy but triumphant. It’s now finally time for the first class in the morning!

My university transported me two thousand kilometres to another region of the country, and my grad school, which is NUS, catapulted me across a sea to a different country, but as a kid, I was one of the lucky ones whose primary school, middle school, and high school were all within 10 min walk from home. Because of this I got the luxury of some extra sleep in the morning. 7:30 am morning reading? Sure easy-peasy. Let me check the clock. Oh it’s 7. Not a problem. Let me sleep for another 10 min. I only need to be a bit faster when having my breakfast right? I also enjoyed the privilege of being able to stay in the toilet a wee longer. Oh what’s the time? 7:20. Let me just go over the shampoo label once more, flush the poo, and leave the loo. Surely it won’t take me 10min on the way if I walk faster, right? Oh what’s the time again? 7:25? Gosh I got to run, literally. So I dashed all the way to the school, almost every day. Now looking back, I am happy to say this was absolutely the right thing to do, because it saved me quite a lot of training time for my PE class 1 km running test! A win! And it was no ordinary training, because I got my exclusive training equipment, a boulder I was carrying on my back, also known as a school backpack. I was sometimes lucky enough to pass through the school main gate seconds before the students in charge of catching latecomers closed it, but more often I arrived breathless, watching them close the gate with my own eyes. Oh no. I would be caught late, unless, of course, I sought refuge in the bookshop and remained in hiding until the student guards needed to leave their post to attend the first morning class. Such a clever trick, wasn’t it. I still feel sad, to this very day, that I had no opportunity of coming up with it by myself, because my class head teacher taught this to me as soon as he noticed that our class wasn’t getting those weekly honour awards and decided to put an end to my late-coming streak.

Since my high school years, my personal history of time has only ever got more and more… interesting. Back then I was a high school kid. Now I’m a PhD student. Back then I had one time-critical task: to go to class with homework done. Now I have… at least N time-critical tasks. Multiple research projects that we want to finish and submit to conferences, teaching undergrads C++, fixing problems with the servers I am managing before my labmates who want to use them for experiments stop complaining about the machines and start complaining about me, reaching the canteen at noon before it becomes flooded and in the evening before the stalls close. A life of a jogger back then, a life of a juggler at present. If anything, if back then time management was only a matter of reading “do-did-done” in the classroom vs hiding in a bookshop, now it’s a matter of a productive day vs a wasted day, a matter of success vs failure. And it is a skill I still need to learn and improve. Let me use an example everybody here knows. Toastmasters. I book a speaking slot two weeks in advance, write the speech one day in advance, rehearse the delivery 10 minutes in advance, and finish the speech 3 minutes over the time limit.

Let me end my speech with this wish to myself. I wish that this speech would not be disqualified because of time!