Sunday, October 16, 2016

O Cikgu!

One would think that a teacher does nothing but teaches her students in a classroom, checks her students' assignments and sets test papers. Only a teacher knows that there are countless of other things to take care of—countless because the tasks are really endless.

Borrowed from Fb

During my time as a teacher, every teacher in my school took turns to be ‘duty teacher’ for one week. Each teacher could be duty teacher several times during the school year. A duty teacher had a list of extra responsibilities piled up on top of her normal duties: she acted as jaga at the canteen during break; supervised a class to clean the school compound after recess; arranged for classes to have relief teachers if the normal teachers were absent; wrote daily reports in the school diary; checked/graded cleanliness of each classroom and gave detailed comments; took care of sick or unwell students; the list went on and on.

One of my favourite groups of students

When I was duty teacher what I dreaded most was driving sick students home or to the hospital. What if an accident occurred? That question had always accompanied me every time I had to drive students somewhere. (There was no way to avoid acting as a students' driver if you had a car.)

Apart from driving ‘at your own risk’ we, ordinary teachers, also had to pay for the extra expenditure incurred. Besides that, we were forced to miss our classes and had to play catch-up when we returned to the classroom. Needless to say, I found being the 'duty teacher' extremely stressful.

I'll never forget the first time I had to drive an ill student home. I was a novice driver then, having just passed my driving test and obtained my driver's license. This student lived at the end of a narrow kampung road. The side road leading to her house was perpendicular to the main road which ran along the river bank. There was a steep slope where the side road met the main road. You had to accelerate to climb the slope and turn sharply right or left to avoid landing into the river. A slight mistake and I could have become food for fish or the resident crocodiles.

Fortunately, that was the only time I had to drive to that kampung. After that incident, however, I always asked what the road condition was like whenever I was told to drive a student home... Not that it made any difference.

There is another unforgettable occasion. I happened to be the first teacher to arrive at school on that Friday afternoon. A group of girls rushed to my car as I was getting out.

"Teacher! Teacher! I cannot see," said Siti (not her real name). She was also having stomachache and diarrhea. I immediately suspected food poisoning but couldn't be sure because she had trouble with her eyes too.

"Did you eat anything?" I asked the almost hysterical girl.
"Ya, cucur udang di kantin," she replied. She was scared she'd turn blind and insisted she wanted to go to the hospital. I let three girls—Siti and two friends, pile into the car. Siti would need help if she really 'couldn't see'.
I remember the drive all the way from Putatan to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Siti was groaning and crying out in pain while the two girls and I tried to calm her down. Then when we got stuck in traffic just before reaching the hospital, she started kicking the back of my seat. She wanted to go to the toilet. Oh no!

We're almost there,” I said, “Sabar kau!” But she continued to kick my seat.
When we reached the hospital I told the two girls to accompany Siti to the toilet while I parked the car. She seemed better after the visit to the toilet. We spent a long time at the hospital. First, we went to the eye clinic where the doctor didn't find anything wrong with her eyes. Then we had to wait to see another doctor at the Out-patient Department. Luckily, Siti was much better on the drive back to school but we had missed half the day. (Siti’s was probably allergic to the cucur udang she had eaten.)

There had been other trips: visits to resource centres, attending student activities or inter-school competitions hosted by other schools etc. It was unfortunate and unfair that school teachers were expected to act as drivers during those days. Some years before my retirement, my school bought a van and used to ferry students (instead of depending entirely on the teachers.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Clothes Make The Man

Probably the best thing I did that helped my family to survive on my meager pay was make our own clothes. I sewed dresses, shirts, skirts, shorts and pajamas and bought only what I could not make myself: T-shirts, socks and underwear. I also sewed curtains, bedsheets, pillowcases. For a short while I sewed for my friends too and charged a small sum for my service.

All that scrimping and saving and sacrificing of personal time kept me debt-free as well as paid for the groceries, the doctor's bills and the kids' music lessons. We went to the cinema occasionally. We visited the library every weekend and also continued to buy books. We survived but quite often my purse was empty for several days before the next payday.

I don't remember Dottie wearing clothes which had been patched or mended—except maybe her school uniform pinafores which she wore for five long years—but Sonny wore most of his until they were threadbare and I had to mend them by stitching patches onto the holes and tears. Then when holes appeared on the patches, I attached a new patch on the old patch. There were patches galore on even a small pair of under pants. But he wore them without complaining or commenting. Bless him!

Being poor was not always sad and dreary. You could be dressed in an old and torn shirt and still have fun—like Sonny did. It started as a joke (he and I shared) whenever he (dressed in his full-of-holes T-shirt) accompanied me to the bank. While I was busy at one ATM, he'd queue up to 'use' another machine. Needless to say, the other ATM users would look at him from head to toe and would note his shirt and immediately acted as if they were potential robbery victims and they'd often change their minds about withdrawing their money! Or if they had brought a small kid, they'd pull the child towards them protectively! Then after attracting all that attention, Sonny would go stand at my side at the machine to tell about his little 'adventure' and for a moment the onlookers must have thought I was going to be robbed!

Those were the days of hole-y T-shirts, my friend, but they haven't ended. Sonny sometimes still wears his work shirts (with holes) to the mall if it is too much bother to come home to change his work clothes. And he'd tell me what happens, sometimes months after the incidents. Strangers really do judge you according to the clothes you wear. Some are sympathetic and others assume you are trouble if you wear torn clothes.

There was that time he went to the bookstore to get a box of water-colour pencils. A suspicious salesperson followed him around while he was looking at the more expensive boxes. The guy must have assumed that Sonny was going lift something off the shelf and not pay for it.
"These are expensive brands," he said to Sonny. "There are cheap ones over there."
"I'm buying them for my mother," Sonny told him. "And I don't want to give her the cheap ones."

On another occasion he was at a kids' store and had chosen a pretty pajama set for Baby. The salesgirls noted the torn T-shirt he was wearing and must have felt quite sorry for him. One whispered to the other: "What a shame! He really wants to buy this for his daughter even if he can't afford it." And they gave him a big discount even before Sonny asked for one.

Then there was the time he went to buy kimchi at this store, again dressed in his torn work shirt. The cashiers whispered behind his back...
Cashier A: How can he afford to buy kimchi? This tiny jar costs 20 ringgit!
Cashier B: Maybe he eats only plain rice with a little kimchi every day.
Cashier A: Yes, and since kimchi is very salty he can make this jar last a long time. Poor guy!

I used to tell Sonny that the clothes we wear are the first things people see and it’s only natural that they'd judge us based on our clothes and appearance. Then they’ll note our actions and the words we use if we happen to speak. Their perception of us varies accordingly. Unfortunately, our 'communications' with strangers don't often go beyond the 'appearance' stage and we can’t really show we aren’t losers, trouble makers, thieves etc unless they stick around longer. Of course there are people who’d label you as lazy, good-for-nothing, ‘sampah masyarakat’ even if your dress is decent. Little people need to put others down so they’d feel great—but that’s a story for another day.