The 12 finalists for the Student of the Year – Best Devotion to School Award gathered for a group photo with their judges. They were smiling politely and shifting meekly around according to the photographer’s directions.
The photographer raised his hand for attention.
“Three, two -”
“ONE,” a finalist squealed at the top of her voice, barely able to contain her excitement.
Everybody giggled, and the ice was broken.
Wong Ching-yu, a Form Six student from Po Leung Kuk Laws Foundation College, is not the typical top-performing student that you’d expect to see at the grand finals of a student competition. She was born with severe intellectual disorder and, although she is 21 years old, she has the intelligence and practical skills of a two-year-old. She cannot speak a full sentence, and suffers from cerebral palsy so she has trouble controlling the muscles of her left hand.
But Lun Yee-wah and Cheung Pui-yin, Wong’s teachers who accompanied her to the February 9 final judging at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, say Wong has worked wonders in brightening up the atmosphere of their school for the intellectually disabled.
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“She takes so much initiative, she’s like the big sister or TA,” says Lun, who has been teaching Wong for 10 years. “She really is one of the most outstanding students we’ve had, and one of the few who can win individual prizes in performing arts. So when we got the email about SOTY, we had to nominate her for all the contributions she’s made.”
Because Wong is unable to speak fluently, her teachers helped her perform two magic tricks as her self-introduction, to show her bright spirit and the difficulties she face when handling objects with her hands.
Wong also demonstrated her singing during the interview. She loves to sing, and during music lessons at school the teacher would give her a microphone to lead her classmates to sing along. When her classmates throw a tantrum, Wong would sing for them to help them calm down. She is also quick to notice when someone gets emotional and start hitting people, and would call out their name and tell them to stop.
“You can say she’s meddlesome, but actually she’s very caring,” says Cheung. Her foot recently got hurt, and even though she didn’t tell her students, Wong noticed and would point to Cheung’s feet and say “painful” to show her sympathy. She would also link her arms with Cheung as she walked to help support her.
Judge Alex Ho, general manager at the South China Morning Post, said the Best Devotion to School Award was added to SOTY this year to acknowledge students who are actively making changes in their school, regardless of how well they do academically. He says candidates that stand out to him are those who are proactive in making significant changes to their schools.
Ignacio Hui, a Grade 11 student from The Harbour School, used his love of architecture to help his school. Ignacio met with professional architects and presented the needs of the students to improve the design of its new Ap Lei Chau campus.
“I have ADHD and moving to study in this school was just what I needed. It has small classes and personalised learning, and I just fell in love,” he told the judges, the grin never leaving his face. He also co-teaches science in the Middle School section as a way to practise his presentation skills and give back to his school.
Noxx Lam Tsz-long also made good use of his interests to contribute to his school. The Grade 11 Victoria Shanghai Academy student started a campus TV station two years ago and taught younger students how to film. The station now has about 40 students producing videos to document school events. Every week, he also teaches robotics to younger kids, initiating projects to help people in need. One of them was designing a smart light bulb for people suffering from mucopolysaccharidoses, which results in stiff joints and speech impairment.
“Instead of just keeping robotics as a hobby, I want to use it to help solve some real problems people are facing,” he said at the interview. He thanked his school for pressuring him even though his grades were bad when he was in primary school, and instead helped him develop his interest in other areas.
Judge Chan Hung, a former secondary school principal who quit his job to establish Free Tutorial World, an organisation that provides free education services for underprivileged students, says he looks out for candidates who work to solve a specific problem that they have noticed.
“Some candidates set up a system to improve the administration and culture of the school, and that’s very impressive,” he says.
One of these students is Lotus Yu, a Form Six student at Good Hope School. She thought the school’s elite system was not fair because academically outstanding students received more resources. As the Vice President of the student council two years ago, she helped gather students’ opinions about this and fed them back to the school. In response, the school tried a new policy this year where the elite students in Form Three to Form Five were split to have lessons with other students. “Splitting class helps students not only learn from different good teachers, but also allow them to learn from better students, like their way of thinking or doing things,” says Yu.
Sui Wing-yan, a Form Six student from PAOC Ka Chi Secondary School where a third of the students are non-Chinese speaking, contributes by helping younger students adapt to life in a local secondary school. “Many like to prank teachers and curse, but I give my obvious disapproval and teach them about respect, and they’ve improved quite a bit,” she said.
Whether the finalists are making changes big or small in school, their devotion, passion and perseverance impressed judge Shelley Lee Lai-kuen, former Secretary for Home Affairs. During the interviews, Lee asked the students how they plan on contributing to the school in the long term.
“I graduated 50 years ago and I still help my alma mater raise money,” she explains. “We must never forget our roots. That’s the most important thing, no matter how successful a person becomes.”
The Student of the Year Awards are organised by Young Post in conjunction with the South China Morning Post and sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey club with support from the Education Bureau.