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‘How long is your article? How many sections and themes are there?’ On meeting the educational psychologist Dr. Sarah Luk in the quaint Ho Tim Building, I was asked point-blank the particulars of writing as she tried to condense the 11 questions she got prior to the interview. An hour later, the photographers arrived. Spotting the Nikon D750 digital SLR camera, her eyes glowed. ‘Mind if I take a look at that? Shall we take a picture together? Can we publish it?’
Talking to Sarah is a bemusing experience: soon it became hard to tell who the interviewee is. Her curiosity and ingenuousness tore down the invisible walls between people with seemingly no effort and endeared her to all. For more than a decade, this Professional Consultant of the Department of Educational Psychology has come to the aid of children and adolescents struggling with learning, emotional and social problems, and she is also the confidante of soul-searching adults. Under her wand, headstrong gifted children and special educational needs (SEN) students are tamed and pour their hearts out. This knack of hers elicited heartfelt confessions from veteran politicians like Emily Lau and former Financial Secretary John Tsang. A moment came in our interview when I confided a thing or two in her. She gave two light pats on my shoulder and at that instant, I knew she had turned from an interviewee to a counsellor.
The trajectories taken by the human heart and the psychologist herself are convoluted: so I started with the basics and let her talk about educational psychology. ‘Educational psychology is an important branch of psychology, which avails itself of the science and research methods developed in psychology to make sense of our learning processes and outcomes,’ Sarah explained. ‘The phrase “learning processes and outcomes” is deceptively simple, as it encompasses different constellations of topics ranging from student behaviour, emotions, cognitive ability and personality; the moderation of learning environments, such as schools and the classroom; teacher-student relations, peer relations, to things in the greater scheme such as society, family and education policy—how they influence students’ learning and personal growth.’ When expounding that educational psychologists are children’s guardians with a mission to protect their rights to live, learn and grow, in such a way they may lead a full life, Sarah frowned slightly and looked sober, her eyes waxing into dark unfathomable waters. ‘Everyone has a different caliber. Some are SEN students, some are gifted, but so what? The key is to help them identify their goals and meanings in life.’
The Quest for Meaning
Meaning is what Sarah holds dear to her heart for her whole life. She is a Christian, and since childhood, her mind has been filled with questions on religion, philosophy and suffering, what the source of pain is and why humans have to die. Hoping to get answers to these questions, she read religion and philosophy in her undergraduate study. She loved to teach, but it was difficult for a religion and philosophy graduate to land a teaching job. She therefore worked as a textbook editor for a year before finally becoming a teacher. Her teaching experience at Band 5 and Band 1 schools rekindled her interest in psychology which she studied during matriculation. The seeds sowed then sprouted into passions for educational psychology. A lover of language, Sarah focused on dyslexia early in her career, where she was given ample opportunities to look up-close at the linguistic features of words. Her doctoral thesis proposes two instructional approaches to aid dyslexic students in their learning of Chinese, which now see wide adoption in local primary schools. Later, the psychologist also conducted on-the-field training with teachers. Up till now, around 4,000 primary teachers of Chinese have been trained.
But Sarah didn’t settle in the field of dyslexia. Around four or five years ago, she started her work with gifted children, especially twice exceptional children. ‘Twice exceptional children refer to those highly intelligent children who suffer one or more disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, autism, dyslexia, etc.,’ she took a deep breath and smiled bitterly. ‘All are hardcore cases. These children have a lot of potential, yet they achieve so little. It’s like a Ferrari running at a bicycle’s speed. Take hyperactive gifted children as an example. They are curious, keen to learn and grasp things quickly, but as they cannot persevere, they go round and round in circles in their lives and achieve very little,’ she sighed.
The Reluctant Heroine
The choice of gifted children as her own ‘hell’ may have to do with an inconvenient fact: Sarah is gifted herself, and she sees herself in these children. What others regard as a halo appears to be gall to her, and this is an identity she reluctantly owed up to only one to two years ago due to work. She noted hesitantly, ‘To me, being gifted is more curse than blessing. People are transfixed with this label and cannot help heaping unrealistic hopes on you. Be it hyperactive, autistic or dyslexic, these labels only serve to describe a small part of who a person is. Psychology addresses the full person, and there is more to a person than what is seen with these labels. We hope people can take a holistic view.’
But giftedness does have its merits. More often than not, it wins her trust from gifted kids and their families, and a touch of viscerality. Three years ago, a mother brought along her son of IQ 140 to see her, complaining that her little one had pondered on becoming a beggar. She asked him for the plan, to which the Form 3 boy answered with the time, venue, various costumes and images he had considered. ‘Why not? Life planning asks us to make informed choices. He is passionate, he’s got plans, nobody can stop him.’ Sarah, a lukewarm learner when small, and the pauper aspirant seemed to have hit it off, to the dismay of the incredulous mother. Asking the mother to wait next door, the two gifted buddies had a tête-à-tête in the room. ‘Do you really want to be a beggar?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why?’
‘Miss Sarah, have you ever stood at the roundabout of the subway near the Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, watching the passers-by? Human faces are such an intriguing sight, and begging such a meaningful and profitable trade. Let’s go and try—there you will see a microcosm of Hong Kong.’
‘That is meaning,’ said Sarah. She went on to ask begging aside, how can one come to appreciate the innumerable facets of life? This time, the high school boy divulged his innermost desire: reading Sociology at the university. What mended the rift and made his wish come true were love and understanding: the parents who fancied a rosy path for their son as a professional chose to let go and support him to study the subject in the UK, through which the gifted child may survey the beautiful lives he marvelled at and loved.
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis
Sarah told me a psychologist should possess a sober mind and a feeling heart. She should put herself in others’ shoes but also be able to bail herself out. But humans are sentimental beings; how can one be completely detached and master this balancing act between sense and sensibility? She conceded, ‘Psychologists are a high-risk demographic who may prove impotent in curing themselves. I always warn myself not to be too absorbed in my subjects’ quandaries, and to learn to detach.’ Oil painting and music are balms to the psychologist and also muses to her healing work. She noted the striking parallels between counselling and oil painting: both of them welcome correction to improve on their expressions. Each painting, like a child, is unique, because one cannot mix the same colours twice. Painting requires patience. ‘If you put in a wrong stroke, the paints will not dry in a week, nor is it feasible to use a dryer. Just like we cannot force a child to grow up.’
Speaking of music, another passion of hers, Sarah pointed to the corner where the cellos stood majestically. ‘Life is so busy that by the time I get home I’d be too tired to do anything. This music corner allows me to switch straight off from the working mode to self-expression.’ She explained a psychologist has to understand her own emotions before intervening in a case. ‘If you are not aware of your own mental state, you may not be as empathetic as you like to be.’ She added, ‘Music is my strength and stay, which allows me to savour my own emotional undulations and empowers me to weather the storms.’ She stood up the cello and set the bow across the strings. Its solid, deep and elegant tone reverberated throughout the room and transported us to another realm. ‘Cello’s deep voice resembles human wail,’ she remarked calmly. I reckoned that was unmistakably her voice: warm, thick and tender, with elegiac undercurrents running beneath her composure.
During the interview, the psychologist shared with me her favourite German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) and his artworks. Probably because of the loss of mother at a young age, and the tragic death of his younger brother who drowned in a frozen lake as he came to the painter’s rescue, melancholy, desolation and hints of death permeate Friedrich’s canvases. The lonesome figures under his strokes, such as the wanderer standing above the wreaths of fog, the man and woman holding each other’s hands on the prow, and the woman at the window all have their backs to the spectator, and we are unable to see their faces. Still, their presence wears a forlorn and sorrowful complexion, and crystallizes intense emotional tensions. The wanderer, standing on a rocky precipice and gazing afar, seems at once to conquer nature and to acquiesce in his own insignificance in it. In Two Men Contemplating the Moon, the tree is uprooted, with the claw-like branches colonizing the dusky sky. The waxing crescent moon gazed at by the men, however, signals hope for redemption. Probably such is the landscape of life: at times full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, yet at times teeming with profound revelations and meanings. At times so dark as to have all hopes extinguished, yet at times exuding such luminescence that seems to last forever and makes one unwilling to let go. Just like a psychologist who is indescribably moved by her subjects and their plights and couldn’t help identifying with them, and yet who still has faith in the power of healing. Sarah asked me at some point: Is this your dream job? Where will you be after 10 years, at CUHK or elsewhere?
I think there’s no forever in this world. As described in a poem by one classical Chinese poet, handwritten by Sarah and pinned both on her door and above her desk, many things are just footprints in the snow. But some footprints are more indelible than others: how words and art move us, what one soul communicates with another, and what life’s changes counselling can bring. The painter’s jagged career and posthumous life is such a case in point: suffering obscurity in his later years and after his death, the artist had another blow dealt to his fame due to the Nazi’s appropriation of his works. But like a butterfly, what he has painted eventually managed to break out of its cocoon and, in its imperishable and simple way, holds humans in awe with its divine grace and beauty.
This article was originally published in No. 545, Newsletter in Oct 2019.