The email is a little cryptic. The person made no attempt to introduce herself or explain why she had written to me. She didn't even say "Dear Gilbert" or "Hi there". She merely wrote:
Discuss the effects of juxtaposition for the poem between the "old folks" and the "bright-eyed teenagers" or other examples of juxtaposition. Discuss the speaker's attitude towards such school trips, as evidenced in the poem, with regard to his tone and use of irony. Reply asap thanks.
Old Folks Home
All day long they lie on the
straight rows of white beds or sit
in the heavy-duty wheelchairs
pushed out into the breezy sunshine
of the gardens.
Resigned to the prisons
of their own failing bodies,
they drift in and out of the haze
of senility, half-forgetting
themselves in the patient wait
Still the bright-eyed teenagers come,
on Saturday mornings, by the busloads,
sent by their schools
on compulsory excursions
to learn the meaning
as outlined in the ECA syllabus.
They bring gifts of Khong Guan biscuits,
they help to mow the lawns,
they clap their hands performing happy songs
and valiantly they attempt the old dialects
trying to communicate.
Later they will clamber noisily
back up the departing school buses,
and next week in class
they will write startlingly
on what a meaningful,
memorable experience they had
at the old folks' home
The original seed of this poem - I still remember. At that time, I was about 13. I was visiting an old folks home, to play chess with the old folks. It was a volunteer trip, organised by a local chess club (I was a member then).
So there I was, having a nice quiet game of chess with a frail old man in a wheelchair. Then suddenly a big group of school students showed up. It was their school field trip. There were so many of them. Some of the big boys were playful and rowdy. A teacher started yelling at them to stand in line, keep quiet and behave themselves. Many of the students, I could tell, didn't even know what they were supposed to be doing there.
Most of the old folks looked either indifferent or annoyed, about the visiting school boys. As for my chess opponent, he was in a winning position. But suddenly he made two bad moves in a row, and lost. I felt bad, defeating him in that way. He complained bitterly that the school boys were making too much noise and he couldn't concentrate.
I told him that we could play again. He sighed and said, never mind. Then he brightened up and said in Mandarin, "One thing about those school boys, they often bring Khong Guan biscuits for us. I don't like the boys, but I like their Khong Guan biscuits. I hope they brought some Khong Guan biscuits today."
He went on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits. He wouldn't stop. Something in that moment really moved me. I put the chess pieces back into their box. I felt sorry for this wrinkled old man. He had so little left in his life to look forward. Even Khong Guan biscuits were a big deal for him. I wished I'd thought of bringing a big tin of Khong Guan biscuits, just for him.
Years passed. Somewhere along the way, I took up poetry. I also became a better and better chessplayer (in fact, I became the NUS chess champion and captain). One day, as I was analysing a chess position, I suddenly remembered the two bad moves. In my mind, I saw that frail old man, sitting in his wheelchair, shocked by his own blunder. So I stopped analysing, and started to write a poem instead. Old Folks Home came out.
You can't see the old man in the poem. But I can. Although he must be dead by now, I can still see him, and I can still hear him going on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits.