Sunday, November 27, 2016

An Old Teacher’s Tale

With Form Four girls

I've just finished reading a book that reminded me so much of some of my former students—the difficult ones—the ones whose reason for coming to school seemed to be anything but to get an education.  They refused to learn and they made it difficult for their classmates to learn or to pay attention. They drained your energy and tested your patience. I always felt they should be handled by specially trained teachers but we didn't have that luxury here where hyperactive and aggressive kids sat in the same class as the slow and timid ones as well as those who could hardly read even after six years of primary school.

With a class of 45 to 48 twelve-year-old students packed in a hot classroom, it was often near impossible to conduct a lesson without some form of disruption during the teaching period. To many of the difficult students disruption was fun; a form of entertainment that got them laughs from their friends.


Form 1 and 2 students listening to some talk in the dewan

The fun began even before the lesson started, especially if the lesson was after break. The couldn't-care-less students would saunter into the classroom as late as 10 minutes after everyone was in. Do you wait for the stragglers to join the class before you begin the lesson or do you start the lesson without them? It's your choice. You and the students who were already seated in the classroom could wait for the rest. You just wouldn't be sure you'd lose ten minutes or twenty of the 40-minute period (or 80 minutes if it was a double period). You couldn't leave your class unattended to go search for the missing ones who'd most probably be loitering in the tandas, the much-loved meeting place.

I always chose to begin the lesson as soon as I was in the classroom. It would be unfair to the good students if I wasted their time by not beginning immediately. School protocol, however, demanded that the teacher had to find out from each late-comers why they were late and to administer appropriate action. So if five students were late, each one had to be attended to separately. Can you imagine the amount of time wasted?


Getting ready to run... Cross country

Best friends
I preferred the late-comers to enter the classroom quietly so interruptions could be avoided. Sometimes there were valid reasons for being late. A student could have been held up by a teacher. The girls had to line up again so the teacher-in-charge could check to see they were wearing slips under their long skirts/kain. Woe to the girl who was discovered without an underskirt... or who wore the wrong colour bra!

When you have spent time to prepare a good lesson plan and have been looking forward to present an interesting topic to your class, and the tardy kids purposely come late because it is fun; because they know you'd be annoyed; because they don't care, etc., -- take your pick because it doesn't really matter—your lesson is spoilt and your enthusiasm is replaced with frustration and helplessness.

I tried everything to make them come on time: scold, nag, remind, punish, reward. Nothing worked.  The same group of boys, and occasionally girls, would be late. They always had ready excuses: they had to see some teachers; they went for prayers; the toilets were crowded; they had their periods etc. They would especially take great delight to be late when the lesson was in the multimedia room (Bilik Tayang). They just pretended they didn’t know where the rest of their classmates were and, when asked, they would say that they had been searching for classmates and teacher everywhere.

One day I bought individually wrapped chocolates and put them in a glass jar. I placed the jar on the teacher's table in the multimedia room... visible to all who came in. The students who had come as soon as the bell rang sat down and eyed the jar, probably wondering if the chocolates were going to be alat bantu belajar—learning aids.  Each student who came punctually received a chocolate... a token from me to say thank you for being on time.

We started the lesson without waiting for the habitual late-comer, a boy who couldn't read a single English word. All eyes were on him as he strolled into the room and leisurely walked to an empty seat and sat down. Then he looked around and probably noticed several of his classmates still had their uneaten chocolates on their desks. What did this boy do? He saw the source of the goodies and promptly went up to the teacher’s table and pointed at the almost-empty jar. He wasn't even shy or embarrassed and giving him a chocolate was less time-consuming than explaining the importance of being on time.

Some students listen to you. Some don't really care but would follow the crowd. A few could not understand why you are forcing them to learn something they don’t like. If only the ugly ducklings know that they could turn into beautiful swans! If only the difficult students realize that the teachers are on their side—on their team—school would be much more fun.


The biggest consolation was to see kids develop through the years and to note how, at sixteen or seventeen, they have turned into confident, cheerful and friendly young people. Some made such amazing transformations that it was difficult to imagine that they used to be unmotivated, stubborn, rowdy twelve-year-olds.


Note: Pictures are from my collection and for illustration only. They are not photos of difficult students! 

Monday, November 07, 2016

Goodbye to an old Friend

“It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”John Leonard


I said goodbye to one of my oldest friends on Saturday, a friend I haven’t seen for more than five years. Had I decided to pay her a visit on Sunday, I would not have met her at all.

After driving round and round along the lanes of this unfamiliar housing area we reached her Lorong and found her house. But then my heart skipped a beat because there, parked in front of her house, was a huge container! And just outside her gate was a hillock of boxes and a low cabinet with a broken leg. It looked like someone was packing up to go away and never come back. Or maybe she had left, I thought with a sinking heart. However, there she was, minus her glasses, walking slowly towards the gate and probably wondering who had stopped there.

Google Image

She had been expecting another white car and was surprised when we tumbled out of our car. She smiled and made me feel it was okay not to have told her in advance that we were visiting.

“I'm glad you came today”, she said, “I'm leaving tomorrow.” I guess I'll never see her again and I'm glad I was in time to bid her farewell, this friend with whom I used to share books and plants, recipes and sewing tips, and the ups and downs of my life—as she shared hers with me.

We met, oh so long ago, and discovered we had so much in common: reading, crafting, similar dislikes and both of us having a dreadful fear of the dentist.

I'll never forget that first visit we went to the dentist together. I took 3-year-old Dottie along too so Dr Yong could check her still perfect baby teeth and there'd be no need for any painful treatment and she'd have a pleasant memory of her first visit. We, my friend and I, were more than a little scared and nervous. As we climbed up the stairs to the dental clinic, we frightened ourselves with thoughts of  all the horrifying things the dentist could do to our teeth. If only we could turn back and retrace our steps home! Then we were at the clinic. Light was coming in through some windows. The dentist appeared and announced:“No electricity!”

A blackout? Oh how happy we had been! What joy! I know we were foolish but we were really overjoyed to have the torture postponed to another day.


Then there was our fondness of... of all things... copper tooling! We went to town to look for the materials for our project and found time to do our copper tooling pictures during our free periods. When our copper pictures were completed we took the copper sheets to the frame shop for framing and were secretly pleased and flattered when the frame shop people thought we were university students! (I was an ancient 29-year-old but she was several years younger.)


Another thing we both disliked was driving. It used to make her so nervous that even when she had bought her first car she left it at home and took the bus. I did the same thing—took the bus to town to avoid the hassle of looking for parking spaces.

She was my passenger when my car was hit by a jeep coming out of a side road. The impact made my car spin and we landed on the other side of the road facing the way we came from. She was able to recall the details of this incident—light rain; I was driving slowly, having shifted to a low gear; the jeep had stopped as we were approaching the side road and suddenly shot out of it when we were passing.


We were also crazy about gardening—crazy enough to go round the still uninhabited, undeveloped areas in Kapayan/Penampang to collect buffalo dung to use as fertilizer. I can’t recall now what we had planted but I clearly remember the dung collecting.

It seems a long time ago we went our separate ways—she was transferred to another school while I stayed behind. But we continued to be friends despite separated by distance and long periods of silence. We remained friends despite the cracks that appeared due to lack of communication. Our friendship is like an untended garden with more weeds than flowers but it is still a garden. We may have grown apart but in my heart I have only good wishes for her. So, goodbye my old friend and take care…

It well may be,
That we will never meet again,
In this lifetime.
So let me say before we part,
So much of me,
Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me,
Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end,
I know you have re-written mine,
By being my friend... 

-- Stephen Schwartz