Monday, June 18, 2012

Memories of Batu Pahat High School

The happiest day of my life was a day in late November 1967 when my younger sister came home to tell me that I had passed the Form Six Entrance Examination. That pass meant a lot of things to me. It meant that I would enter Lower Six in January. It meant I would be wearing the jungle green skirt, a white shirt, a jungle green bow string, black shoes and the whole world, well my world, would recognise me as moving nearer to my dream of going to university.

My father dropped me in front of Johore English College before 7.30 in the morning. I walked to the hall and I cannot find the words to describe the feeling that engulfed my entire being as I leant against the wall of the hall and breathed in my unfolding dream.

Nobody in that hall would have guessed what went through my head. Nobody would have guessed that in 1954 I had leant against that same wall and waited for my uncle who had told me not to move. He had taken me for a school concert and my neighbour Sau Siah's mother had dressed me in the little cheongsam the neighbourhood tailor had stitched for me. My uncle Prakash had told me that that school was only for bright students. He said that only those who were clever could gain admission into that school. That desire to study there had started then. Every exam that I sat for from Primary school through to secondary school had brought me that much closer to the wall in that hall.

I opened my eyes and saw Saroja Meyappan from the Convent who had also passed the examination. Soon a whole lot of my Convent friends joined me and I had to leave the wall. We walked in a happy group towards the front of the hall and the stage. We walked up to the boards and read the names of past Head Masters and Head Boys - their names in gold. Slowly the old hall filled up with boys and a few girls. We recognised some Upper Six students who had come from the Convent.

A teacher came and guided us to the area that we would occupy during assembly. The Head Boy Hasbollah Salleh called the school to order. I looked at Hasbollah and wondered what he would have to say if I had told him that his late father, Dr Salleh had been my mother's gynaecologist and he had delivered me! So did that kind of create a bond? He had no idea I existed and showed desire to know any one of us either. So the bond did not have a chance to grow.

Then I saw a vision. He was dressed in College white, had longish hair falling over his eyes, wore black rimmed glasses and walked with a kind of draggy swagger. All our eyes were turned on him. He walked most nonchalantly across the stage, pulled back the seat and placed himself in front of the ancient piano, placed a music sheet in front of him and waited for a few seconds before we heard the opening bars of our National Anthem. Never had that song sounded so sweet to my ears. The song ended. The sheet was removed. The pianist stood up. The seat was pushed back to its original place and the vision swaggered across the stage and disappeared into the crowd.

As soon as speaking was allowed we all turned and asked, "Who on earth is that boy?"
Some of the girls who attended church said that he played the organ in church.
He was from Batu Pahat High School.
He was a very good student.
He was an athlete.
He was an artist.
Of course I already knew he was a good pianist.

What is his name? BK Chiu they said. That is how I fell in love with Batu Pahat High School and with BK C. Love at first sight? Love at first sound? I don't know but it was a feeling that made that year the happiest year of my life - no major exams, a green skirt to indicate that i had some brains, more freedom from my mother and brother, great friends and a boy who made my heart skip beats and kept me smiling all the time.

1968 was a dream year. I made friends with BK and he introduced me to the world of music and poetry. He introduced me to his friend Wong Mun Kin also from BP High School and an artist as well.

The days passed like a slow moving stream but eventually we moved in different directions and our worlds never collided again.

Another reason why BP High School was magic for me was an old family friend of ours, Mr Lawrence Law, a graduate from the University of Malaya in Singapore and who was a Science teacher in that school in the sixties. Uncle Lawrence as we called him, emigrated to Canada and we lost touch with him over the years.

I graduated from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and registered with the education department for the post of temporary teacher whilst waiting to be enrolled in the university to study for my Diploma in Education. That was how I was posted to Batu Pahat High School in March 1973 as a temporary teacher. I was assigned to teach General Paper in Form Six. Dejavu?

Sunday was the first day of school. On Saturday i stayed with another old family friend Mrs Rajaratnam who was the former Head Mistress of a primary school in BP and well known in that town. She found the Pereira family for me and they took me in as their lodger. Their younger daughter Mabel was in Lower Six in BP High School.

I have to be very honest, I was not a great teacher then. It was after my training in Singapore that I realised that I needed to go back to BP and teach the students to show them that I had it in me to be a good teacher. Great teachers take years to evolve and they need to be trained.

My friends Cynthia Goh and Charanjeet from UM were also posted to that school. When I was introduced to the staff I found another old family friend, Mr Sugathan who taught mathematics. I walked all around the school and thought i was almost literally walking in the footsteps of BK and i came across the mural done by Wong Mun Kin whom i had met in EC.

Of all the students I taught most were very good, they were motivated and focused on their goals.  I remember Ng Yew Teck, Andrew, Philip, Kour Nam Ngam, Bee Hoon and many more who were among my students. I attended the wedding reception of Kour N N's son a couple of years ago in Kuala Lumpur. It was such a nice feeling when i met up with him in Tawau in 1990, at Far Eastern Pharmacy when I had gone there to raise some funds.

Cynthia and I helped to stage a concert to raise some money to buy textbooks for the students. It was great fun and I remember Philip and his friend, the duet singers, one group staged The Green Green Grass of Home and other skits. We had fun. Mr Amarjit Singh a seniour English teacher guided us.

Another incident that i remember is that i wore saris to work. I used to wear them low and i thought it was okay until one Chinese lady teacher took me aside and told me that i had to remember that the boys i taught were only about three years younger than me and it was not proper attire at all! Cynthia and i thought they were the prudes of the school. I continued to wear my saris.

The Principal was Mr Khairul Faizi who was very kind to the young untrained teachers. After school we rode bikes in the school compound and then there was the Peace Corps Mr Christopher Reed. I remember one holiday when he had gone to Bangkok and came back with a lovely gift for me. Those were uncomplicated happy days. One night Cynthia, Christopher and I drove up in Sugathan's car to a hill top overlooking the sea and watched the ships that sailed in the night. Those were also safe days.

Only one student told me that I was a hopeless teacher, after he failed to do well in one of my tests and his remarks bothered me for a while but then why had he not told me earlier that he could not follow the lessons, Cynthia asked me? One of my students in Upper Six Science B, was a Chinese boy who did not speak or write good English. GP was the only paper where he could not score an A. I told him to write an essay a day and he did. I marked the essays for him and pointed out his errors. I asked him if i was hopeless and he told me that I was the only one who had helped him. He did well and went on to become an engineer.  Years later I heard about it again when I was posted to Tawau and was acknowledged as an effective teacher. This same person happened to be stationed there. His wife whom I knew casually was a very nice lady.

I have gone back to BP but not to that school. I visit the Pereira family ocassionally. They still stay in the same house. Mabel is in PD.

How can I speak of my stint in BP without mentioning two other people who had such an influence on me. One is the late Rotarian Eddy Fernandez and the other the late Father Martin from the Catholic Church.

Going to church with the Pereiras reminded me of 1968 when i espied BK in the Form Six library. I went up to the librarian and asked him if there was a copy of the Bible in the library. He told that there was none. I then proceeded to sit and stand on my toes to look for the non-existent Bible! BK was there and I turned around and asked, "Can you please help me find the Bible?" We searched and we searched. Seeing my downhearted face, he lent me his mother's bible which i kept very safely next to my copy of the bible in my drawer. That was how i befriended BK from BP High School during my first week of school in EC. When Father Martin introduced me to Mrs C in church the bible she was clutching was not the one i had borrowed from her son five years earlier!

The late Mr Eddy Fernandez, an architect by training introduced me to the world of Rotary and genuine service before self. He was always on the go doing something or the other for the less fortunate. His lovely wife Shirley was an amazing cook and years later when I became a Rotarian i never failed to tell my fellow Rotarians about Eddy. Sometimes i accompanied him when he went on his rounds to distribute food and clothes to the needy.

Mabel introduced me to Father Martin. We enjoyed playing Scrabble and chatting and swapping books. One day Father Martin gave me a statue, the Legion of Mary and told me to go back and keep it with my heathen gods to be on the safe side. I am a born Hindu and have remained so. But going to church and listening to his sermons in English with a marked French accent and his sermons in Cantonese was sheer magic. I kept in touch with Father Martin for a while after i left BP. The nature of my husband's job meant that we moved frequently.

Years later when i was going to Paris for a holiday, i learnt much to my sorrow, that he had passed away recently in France. Never at any moment in church did i feel that i was not a part of his congregation.

BP High School, my first posting as a teacher. If any of the old boys or current students should read this, please check the Form Four English textbook that is currently being used. I am happy to say that i am one of the writers. It is not in the same class as Etherton's books which were for teaching English as a First Language. Look at the back cover and I am the person in the middle.

Being my first school, i feel like i have had a love affair with that school, a love that never died.

Be kind to the youth of today, their future may equal your present. - Confucius

It was almost noon and another hour before we could call it a day and go home. The sun was up and the classroom was bright. The girls were getting restless when the teacher called the class to order and began to write something on the board. We were all told to read silently as she wrote. Most of us had our eyes glued to the blackboard as the white chalk began its journey across the board.

I do not remember what was written but the day and its happenings are still very clear in my memory. When she reached the bottom of the board, she put the chalk down, dusted her fingers and turned to face the class. There were about forty two of us in the class. We were a mixed ability class and this meant that some could read very well but there were those who could barely decipher the letters of the alphabet. We were nine year old girls.

The teacher called upon the girls one by one. Then she reached a girl named Jessy. All of us turned around to face Jessy. She was tall and quite plump. She had dark curly hair which she had arranged in two plaits that came down to her waist. Her skin was very tanned and she had puffy cheeks. Jessy was very quiet and she did not seem to have any friend in the class. She kept to herself and rarely opened her mouth for any reason. When we arrived at school in the morning, our usual habit was to place our bags next to our chair, unpack the books and place them in the desk before going out to play with out friends. There were lots of games that we enjoyed playing, all girls-kind-of-games.

Children can be very cruel, me included and nobody really bothered about Jessy. She moved around like a slow shadow and often settled on the step and watched as the rest of the class very noisily engaged in all kinds of activities. I have never invited Jessy to play with us and I do not remember anyone else inviting her. No teacher told us to include her and my mother never did because I had never mentioned the girl without any friends and who could not read or write.

Jessy slowly stood up and remained silent. The teacher repeated her instructions, "Jesssy, read loudly from the board." Jessy remained silent. The teacher repeated, "Read whatever words you can." There was silence.

"Come to the front of the class, Jessy!" We watched as Jessy slowly walked to the front of the class and stood alone in front of the teacher. Standing in front of the class to be reprimanded was a very daunting experience for anyone.

"Open your mouth Jessy," the teacher said in a low voice. We were silent as Jessy slowly opened her mouth. "There is nothing in your mouth. Now read the first sentence," the teacher told her in a menacing tone. Jessy remained silent.

"Very well Jessy. Now open your mouth," and Jessy opened her mouth again. The teacher then picked up the small pieces of chalk from the board and placed them in Jessy's mouth until her mouth was full of chalk. "Go back to your place and when you are ready to read, you may take the chalk out of your mouth."

All of us felt that we had witnessed something that should never have happened, not to a  nine year old child at the hands of a teacher. That day passed. Many days, months and years passed. Jessy did not follow us to the next class. She was retained and we saw her moving like a shadow amongst the laughing girls and then we saw her no more. But many of us could never forget that afternoon in front of the blackboard.

As I said many days and months and years passed until one day last year in 2011 I was sitting outside my Dad's house when a car passed by, slowed down and then stopped in front of the gate. The couple alighted and she was an old school mate of mine and her husband. I shall call her Sue. They spent a couple of hours in our house. Her husband chatted with my brothers while I engaged Sue in a conversation trying to find out about my old school friends with whom I had lost touch.

Sue and I were never in the same class but the same form. I knew her vaguely by sight when in school and years later caught up with her after she had married the brother of a relative of mine. She then became a close friend of my mother's and often visited Mum. She has two sons and two daughters. I  met her whenever I visited my late mother, during the festive seasons and even then our conversations were very vague.

That desultory conversation with Sue in 2011, changed my life. I kept popping questions about girls who had left the school and whom I had never met after that. I asked her if she had enjoyed her school life. She asked me the same question instead of answering me. I told her that I had and gave the usual reasons about that wonderful school having given me my greatest gift - mastery of the English Language. How the school had enabled me to go on to Form Six in one of the prestigious schools in the country and finally to the top local university. Not a muscle twitched on her face. She listened to me as though I had told her that we have running water and electricity in our house. I became a bit uncomfortable and realised that what I hold dear to me would have sounded like bragging to her.

In order to change the topic, I asked her if she knew a girl called Jessy who had been my classmate in 1959. She asked me why I wanted to know about Jessy after all these years. I countered by asking her again if she had enjoyed her school life. I knew she did not go to Form Six. She then told me that she hated her school life. I was stunned. "Why, Sue?"

"The teachers were horrid. A few were quite nice but the majority were awful. They treated us badly and were very cruel to us. Many of us did not do well and it is because of the teachers. They did not teach. They shouted, they screamed, they called us names and told us we were stupid," she said in a very matter-of-fact manner. I realised that she spoke the truth. I had realised in Standard One when I could not speak English and therefore had remained silent for a year that if you were good at something, then you had lots of friends.

Sue went on to tell me a story to emphasise her hatred for school. She was in the class where the girls studied Home Science. I was in the class where we did Literature and Drama among other subjects. There were only three classes. Whenever there was a function, the Home Science girls were in charge of refreshments. There was no pork allowed in the school and to the best of my knowledge no beef either. She then said that a certain group of girls from one ethnic group was in charge of making the famous sandwiches and drinks. Another ethnic group was only in charge of washing up and cleaning the kitchen and she belonged to that group. The first group got to eat sandwiches and have some drinks. The second group was not allowed that privilege.

Sue could not wait to get out of that school and the complex that school had given to her and those of her ethnic group in the class. Everyday she counted the days when she could leave. I asked her when she had first felt the segregation. She told me it was from her primary days when she was called stupid by the teachers for not being able to read fluently or count accurately. Most times she could read at home, but the moment the teachers called up to read in class, she would stammer, stutter and be silent only to be labelled stupid and moron. After a few minutes of awkward silence, I asked her again if she knew Jessy.

"Why and what happened to Jessy?" she asked me. I narrated the events of that afternoon and expressed a desire to see Jessy after 52 years. She told me that Jessy would not meet me. I insisted that I meet Jessy. She said no. Then she continued with her story.

She left school vowing not to return. Her two daughters were enrolled at the same school and her two sons in a boys' school. Her pain, she told to her husband who encouraged her to study. She did not have the confidence to do so. Then she embarked on a mission, spurred on by her hatred of her teachers. She bought the necessary books and started to teach her children to read from a very young age. She taught them mathematics and when they started in Primary One, all her children could read fluently and count accurately. Each one topped the class and were straight A students in all public examinations. Three of them graduated from local public universities and one from the National University of Singapore. Then she said, "Everytime I have to meet someone or go somewhere I feel such a failure."

"Why, Sue? Your daughter's a US citizen and doing well. Your second daughter won a government scholarship and has a Masters degree from a prestigious British university. One son is an accountant and the other won the ASEAN scholarship and is a doctor in Singapore. You have achieved so much. You are a brilliant and successful mother," I said, as it slowly sank in that the teachers had truly damaged the spirit of the lady who as she spoke to me, was a child remembering the wounds inflicted on her spirit.

Then she said, "Jessy will not meet you."
"How do you know?"
"She is my sister!"

I looked at Sue in horror as her husband told her that it was getting late and they had to go.