Student Voice

During my last two years of high school in Singapore, I was part of the Humanities Scheme, a program under which a small group of students was taught humanities subjects by a group of British tutors. For most of us, it became our first exposure to adults from other countries and the way they live. The head tutor, Lionel Barnard, was a brilliant raconteur. The stories he told us about his past and the more than two decades he spent in Singapore forced us to reconsider our own assumptions about self and country.

The inspiration for “Night Poem” came from a friend’s chance use of the verb telescope to describe my relationship with one of my best friends. It made me think about the word as a metaphor for any attempt at closeness with another person, with all its attendant complications.

—Qian Xi Teng ’06CC

Poem for Mr. Barnard

(head tutor of Hwa Chong Junior College Humanities Scheme since 1979)

You brought another island to settle over mine
like a vast bat, dazed wings dipped in the sea—

a vicar’s atheist son who forgot missionary schools
sprang in this city's heart a century before him.

Each year students come to your island
and its gods, taste a doctrine of freedom

and leave the way waves slip from a shore
with a handful of white sand.

(as a child in South Africa you saw
a black servant tell your father
his indignant benevolence
of a hundred-weight of sugar
was all gone; you tell me everyone
called the hungry servants ‘boys’ and ‘girls’)

From your desk you watch the few
who follow your stories inland

into a forest thickening with yellow leaves,
knowing they will find the clearing with

a swamp, a stilt-legged village,
a Union Jack slack on a merchant ship.

Night Poem

(for R)

The period right after we began
To talk was diagnosed as
Telescoped by someone else.
Years later I understand
The word as the act of
Gazing at another
Planet deepening
Through glass circles held at
A necessary distance from objects
Surfacing in the nights of your own world.

Qian Xi Teng is a College sophomore. Before coming to Columbia, Teng won international prizes for her poetry (“probably the reason I got in,” she says). She also does photography and translation. One of her poems, titled “Special Passengers,”won the 2003 George Edward Woodberry Prize—a cash prize awarded every other year to an undergraduate student at Columbia for the best original poem.