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.