While speaking to my sister Sheela a couple of days ago, I told her one deep hidden desire of mine - I want to stitch a pair of bloomers for myself. But, I am embarrassed to get myself measured by the tailor and for her to know that I want to use them. My sister laughed her head off and told me to tell the tailor that they were for someone else.
In 1957, I started my formal school life in Standard 1F at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Johore Bahru. My uncle took me to school on my first day and from then I was on my own. He took me to the school book shop which was on the ground floor of the block that faces Jalan Yahya Awal. He spoke most respectfully to the European nun who appeared to respect him too. He bought my school books for me and gave them to me. I held them tight, close to my chest and the smell of those new books linger on till today. I kept on smelling them and from that moment onwards, I have had an endless love affair with books.
He walked me to my classroom which was at the back. It was the second classroom from the right. There were two Standard One classes in the afternoon - 1E and 1F. The class teacher of 1E was Ms Theresa Yagappan. The class teacher of 1F was Mrs Rogers. She was my class teacher and I was terrified of her.
Mrs Rogers was a very brown skinned lady, slim, with short wavy hair that came to her shoulders and she always wore floral, sleeveless frocks with billowing skirts and a pair of high heeled shoes. From the first day, she laid down the rules and we listened very carefully, too afraid to utter a sound. We were each given a small green board and two boxes of chalk. One box contained about 12 pieces of white chalk and the other contained 12 pieces of coloured chalk. We were to handle the chalk very carefully and make sure that they did not break into small pieces. She wrote our names on the boxes. During the start of lessons she handed out our chalk boxes and collected them before we went home. On some days we could take our boards home.
The only language allowed was English. If we could not speak English, then we could not speak at all. I remained silent for most of my Standard One year. I remember vividly the few ocassions when she spoke to me.
The first ocassion was when she was giving me my box of chalk. She said something about broken chalk and I approached her trembling with fear. She opened the box, looked inside and then at me. She held my stare and said slowly, "Good,". I was so relieved.
On another ocassion all the girls were removing their pinafores. They had on blue shorts with garters at the top and at the end of each 'leg'. It almost reached the knee. I did not have such an attire and I had no idea that I had to have one. No one had told me or my mother. I stood there without changing. Mrs Rogers said something which I did not understand. A girl nudged me towards her. I approached her most fearfully.
When I reached her desk I decided to speak before she asked me something I did not understand. I said, "Mrs Rogers, I have no knickers," and she looked at me with a horrified expression. I felt thoroughly mortified. She got up and came towards me most purposefully, reached out for the edge of my pinafore and lifted it above my waist. She looked at me and said, "You are wearing knickers,". I shook my head and said, "I don't have that kind of knickers,".
She laughed and so did some of the other girls. "They are not knickers. They are bloomers. Who lives near this girl's house?" Maureen Yong came forward. Maureen could speak English. She told Maureen to lend me her bloomers so that I could show them to my mother. She wrote the word, 'BLOOMERS' in capital letters for me. That evening when I went home, Maureen's bloomers followed me. Luckily, we stayed near the tailor. Mum walked to her shop and ordered one pair of bloomers for me.
Then one day she told us to bring one dollar to buy something. She repeated the word several times. I kept on repeating the word until I reached home. Excitedly I told my mother, " Teacher wants us to bring one dollar."
"To buy mangosteen."
"No. Father will buy mangosteens. They are cheaper when he buys."
"The school mangosteens are different. You don't eat them."
Uncle Anandan who was staying with us, got involved in the argument. "This is how the Christian schools make money. They use the children to get the money from the parents. They do this a lot in Kolam." I was upset with him for supporting my mother and for speaking against my school.
As a consolation, when I was leaving for school, my mother tutored me on what to tell my teacher. So again I walked to her table as she was collecting the money. I said,"My mother said, I cannot pay."
"Father will buy, from town."
"What? Your father cannot buy from town. You have to buy from us."
"Mother said cannot. When father buys, it will be sweeter."
"Sweeter! What is your father buying that is sweeter?"
She laughed and again the class laughed. I was lost. She looked at me and said, "Not mangosteens. Magazine. School Magazine." Again, she wrote, "SCHOOL MAGAZINE" in block letters for my mother to read.
At home. "Ma, I told you we had to take one dollar. Everyone paid, except me. I told you that what they were selling you could not eat." I then showed her what my teacher had written. Mum, Dad and Uncle Anandan had a big laugh and that story was told to all visitors who laughed as well. Whilst repeating magazine in order not to forget the word, mangosteen had crept into my mind. Though I smile at the memory of that day, on that day I felt quite ashamed of my Malayalam speaking status.
The school sports. The trishaw rider came late and he took such a long time to reach school. He took me right up to the front of the parlour and I was afraid because I did not see anyone. He was a kind man. He took me by the hand and led me to the small hall with the huge stone steps. He told me to sit there quietly and wait for my teacher. He said that he would come and pick me up from the steps when it was time to go home.
I waited and I waited. There was not a soul to be seen. I did not dare leave my seat. After eternity, I heard the voice of my teacher. "Siva, what are you doing here? Why didn't you come to the field? You have missed the sports."
I was almost in tears. I was not sure how to tell her in English that I did not know where the sports was being held. We had all assembled in the small hall the previous day for sports practice. When I arrived on sports day, there was no one there. That was my first school sports.
When I went home, Mum wanted to know about the sports. I did not speak much and they thought it was because I had not won a prize. I had missed everything. After a few days, I told her about my first school sports. She told everyone and I felt somewhat comforted when I felt their sadness. So I was not alone in my sadness.
Although I hardly spoke in school and was rarely called upon to answer any questions, when the Mid-Year Examination results were announced, I was 12th in the class. Everyone was surprised. I had full marks for spelling, dictation, arithmetic and English. I had high marks for reading, writing and not very high marks for art. I learned one lesson - if you are good at something, then you will have friends. I studied hard for the next eleven years.
The visit to the dentist. One day, my name was called out and I was one of the group of girls sent to the dentist at the General Hospital in Johore Bahru. We were so afraid especially when the girls started to share frightening stories. I do not remember the dentist but I do remember the nurses. They were very kind and they gave us some small plastic boxes as souvenirs. I got about five of them. I looked after them carefully and brought them back to my class. I placed them near my school bag on the floor and somehow forgot them when it was time to go home. The next day, I searched in vain but they were gone. Mrs Rogers asked the girls if they had seen my boxes. I was very sad and disappointed.
The devil in the toilet. Ng Yeow Joo, a very talkative and bossy girl, came back to the class and told us that she had seen a devil in the toilet. It had just drunk a lot of blood and had drowned in the toilet bowl. It was white, covered with blood and floating. One by one we went to have a look. It was white all right, there was blood and it was floating. It did not look like a person. In fact it did not look like anything I had ever seen. When Mrs Rogers realised that we were taking turns to go to the toilet, she made a toilet visit and stopped us from going to that cubicle. My mother told me not talk about it again when I described the devil to her. Years later, I realised that we had actually seen a soiled sanitary towel.
Poppy Day. Then one day, a European man came with Sister Helen and spoke to us about people who had died for us and who were actually heroes. To appreciate them we were told to buy a poppy flower. It was blood read with a black button in the middle. It cost ten cents. I had ten cents and I bought one. I kept the flower with me the whole afternoon. The whole afternoon Yeow Joo never left my side and kept on asking me for the flower. She was a bossy girl and finally she wore me out and I gave the poppy to her. I was hoping she would be my friend. Once she had got the poppy, she left my side and never spoke to me again spontaneously. You cannot buy a friend. I spoke to my mother about the poppy I had bought and given away. Dad told me the story behind the poppy. I still miss my poppy.
The Joyful Vanguard. It was yellow in colour and had a few pages. It had comic strips and stories. The stories were not exciting but I liked reading. I also liked the look on Sister Helen's face when I placed 15 cents in her hand and she gave me a copy. After a few issues, my mother told me that she would stop my pocket money if I bought any more Joyful Vanguards. I continued to buy them on and off until I left school.
Mrs Cora Danker. She filled me and still fills me with joy when I think of her Physical Education and Art lessons. She was a stunning beauty and she dressed like a dream. Her clothes, her shoes, her handbags - they all matched and were so fashionable. She had such lovely milky white skin, reddish hair styled so elegantly and the sweetest smile. She never said a cross word to any one of us.
"What's the time, Mr Wolf?"
"What's the time, Mr Wolf?" It went on until you said, "Dinner time!" It was fun.
She taught us art. We had fun with colours and brushes and water. Our paintings would be left to dry on the floor and when done, would be displayed on the board. Time passed so fast when she entered the class.
Then there was the lady who taught us craft and writing, Ms Maria Harun, the gentlest teacher any young child could ask for. She was always dressed in simple, colourful, traditional baju kurungs. She would walk to our tables and teach us how to cut paper patterns, make baskets, model plastercine and enjoy ourselves. Not one of us ever heard a harsh word from Ms Maria Harun.
The days passed. I no longer travelled by trishaw but a Chinese driver would send me to school and take me home. In the evening, he had a passenger, Ms Theresa Yagappan. She would sit in the front seat and not talk to me at all. She was dressed in a sari. The driver would send her home first. She lived in a huge house on top of a hill facing the sea, near the mosque. The driver always drove to the back of the big house and dropped her near some smaller houses. She would open the car door, walk out and not look back. One day I told the driver that the house was a very big house. He told me that very big people lived in that house. I believed that Ms Theresa was a very big person. Years later, when I was a flower girl at her wedding, and met some of the VIP guests who attended, I found out that her father had been the driver of Tun Dr Ismail. That big house was his family home.
The days passed and by the time the End of Year Results were released, I was 10th in the class and found myself reading, writing and speaking English. My days of solitude were coming to an end together with the beginning of the long Christmas holidays.
Bloomers. I used them twice a week for PE and I wore that same pair until I finished my primary education. Today, I want to make a pair of bloomers for myself, wear it and re-feel those carefree days of bloomers, mangosteens, magazines and floating devils. If only I could have met Mrs Rogers, Mrs Danker and Ms Maria Haurn one more time. I really must be kinder towards my young students.