A New Beginning By Kelvin Koh

Forgiveness. A new beginning. A clean slate. As we enter the second month of 2024, and also prepare for the upcoming Lunar New Year, perhaps we too can challenge ourselves to forgive …

Ralph looked up in disbelief at what he had heard. Could this be his chance for change?

After five years in the school, Ralph had built up quite a reputation for himself – but not the kind that would endear him to any of the teachers who would be assigned to his class. He had seen the inside of the Principal’s office often enough to memorize the positions of all the things in the room. Pent up frustrations were unleashed within the walls of the staff room as teachers shared anecdotes of their day’s experience with him.

I listened in sympathy, silently yet fervently praying that I would not be the next ‘victim’ to teach Ralph in his graduating year. God answered my prayer – He said “No”.

I was told that Ralph “needed a father figure” because he lacked such a person at home. With the divorce of his parents early on in his life, Ralph came under the care of his elderly grandparents while his mother struggled to make ends meet. It was believed that this could have been the cause of Ralph’s unruly behaviour.

Thus, with no small amount of trepidation, I walked into his class at the start of the new academic year to introduce myself as their new form teacher. I glanced at the main reason for my deployment. He was looking out of the window with disinterest – his hair unkempt, his uniform un-ironed. The speech I had rehearsed to let the students know that I was no pushover and that I would accept no nonsense from them somehow did not materialise.

Instead, I heard myself say something along the lines of, “This is a new year. A time for new beginnings. A fresh start. Many of us would have probably started this year with some baggage from the past. Some of you have done things in the past, whether at home or in school, that you might not necessarily be proud of and maybe have been punished for.”

At this point, I glanced surreptitiously again towards where Ralph sat. He was fiddling with his stationery. I sighed and continued, “Well, I think that it would be in our best interest if we begin a new year with a fresh start. I’m going to start all of you on a fresh slate. I will put aside the wrong things that you have done before, forgive you and give you the opportunity to start right. Let’s seize this chance for a new beginning so that we can also end the year right.”

The class buzzed with some excitement though I knew that what I had said was mainly meant for Ralph. My introduction certainly caught his attention as he had looked up at me as if quietly asking, “Are you really forgiving me for what I’d done? Are you really letting me start with a clean slate?” Our eyes met and I knew then that what I had said to the class was what he needed to hear.

In the course of the first few weeks, I put words into action. Ralph enjoyed Science and had a good grasp of technology. I appointed him as the class AV/IT monitor and part of the Class Committee. It was the first time he was given such an opportunity. Leveraging on his love for Science, I got the class to do a project to create some form of catapult to show the effects of an elastic spring force. Ralph did not disappoint with his prototype.

Whenever he did something wrong, I never brought up his past as a reference and merely asked him to reflect on his actions and how he would feel if someone had done the same to him. I spoke to him about the importance of having dignity – a sense of self-worth – and that he had potential buried within him and that it was up to him to tap on it. I affirmed him for his contributions and chastised him for his transgressions but they were always followed by the reasons for my response. I believe he was appreciative of that.

On Teacher’s Day that year, he wrote, “Thank you for understanding me. And thank you for giving me a fresh start.”

The power of forgiveness. The power of a fresh start.

I can only begin to imagine what the paralyzed man, whose friends had to stretcher him down the roof of a house to get to Jesus, must have felt when Jesus first recognised his greater need for forgiveness before his physical disabilities were healed (Luke 5: 18-25). The friends were probably hoping to see a physical healing miracle (which they did) but did they even realise, as Jesus did, what their paralyzed friend truly needed?

And because of both the physical and spiritual healing that Jesus had given, the man had immediately “stood up, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God”. And what about the woman who was ready to be stoned by the community for her act of adultery (John 8:1-11)? How would she have felt at her salvation not only by Jesus’ mere challenge to the community – “Let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone” – but also his parting words – “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”?

My colleagues asked how I was able to manage Ralph that year. My answer – I gave him a fresh start.

Forgiveness. A new beginning. A clean slate. As we enter the second month of 2024, and also prepare for the upcoming Lunar New Year, perhaps we too can challenge ourselves to forgive – not only those who have done us wrong, but also forgive ourselves and let go of the baggage of the past which weighs us down. Perhaps we can humble ourselves and seek forgiveness from those whom we have hurt or wronged.

All of us make mistakes. This “imperfection” is exactly why we need Jesus in our own lives. We are challenged to look at those around us not with human judgement but with Jesus’ eyes of understanding and love. It is through such a lens that we can recognise the true value of the people God has placed in our lives. I wish all of you blessed new beginnings in the coming Lunar New Year.