Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Teacher and the Rotan

The rotan is an essential teaching tool. ABB, we teachers used to call it-- Alat Bantu Belajar. I seldom went into the classroom without my rotan: a puny, little piece of cane some teachers treated as a joke because it was not long enough.

Google Image

My students knew that I used my cane to point at words on the blackboard or to hit the board or teacher's table. When you teach a class which can put a noisy garage to shame, it pays not to out-shout your students. My rotan saved my voice. When I wanted the kids' attention I just hit a desk or the board. Bang! Bang! Now look at this word... Look for the book... Look after my kitten... A short lesson in phrasal verbs (verb plus preposition), in case you missed that.

But the teachers' rotans had a way of disappearing mysteriously. No doubt they could have been misplaced or forgotten in the library, in the lab, in the cookery room, at the canteen or such places. We often wondered if some smart guy could have wished them away. We ended up borrowing from each other. Sometimes the borrower forgot to return this most important piece of teaching tool and many a desperate teacher found herself without it just when she needed it urgently. She could not leave the classroom to hunt for hers because that would be giving some kids the opportunity to show their classmates the new flying kick skills they just picked up, or to see how much weight  each blade of the moving ceiling fan could carry without bending… and other interesting stuff. So she'd send a student to the staffroom to borrow one.

Some of my students at SMKP

I remember the typical exchange when a student entered the staffroom and asked to borrow my rotan…

Student: Cikgu Sianu wants to borrow a rotan.
I: What have you done this time?
Student: Many students didn’t do their homework and Cikgu wants to rotan them.

There went my rotan and, more often than not, I would not see it again.

Sometimes I had been so desperate that I'd chop off a stem of the Japanese Bamboo I had planted in my front yard. (The stems were very straight, very long and very bare.) I took this fresh, green stem to school and at first the students' eyes showed something like anxiety. Instead of my short, little rotan, I now had one as long as a fishing rod. For a few days I enjoyed the attention my new rotan was getting for me. I had to walk only a few steps from the blackboard and I could—if  I wanted to—touch the sleepy head at the back of the room. Crack! I struck a desk and I got everyone's attention including the sleepy head’s. Actually, I felt quite sorry for the latter especially when he lifted his head—having been shocked into wakefulness—bleary-eyed and drooling from a corner of his mouth.

Another Google Image

I have never used the cane to strike a student. Not even when they had misbehaved or failed to do their assignments; or had repeatedly left their homework on the school bus. Not even after I'd caught them reading a comic hidden in the drawer of their desk while I was explaining how to use sequence connectors; or showing them how to write the letter 'i' without a dot the size of a football hovering over it. I might give them a good talking to, you know, like a mother teaching her kids some morals. 

I remember after a test, one day, I called Bree Lianne and Ticka Plank to the teacher's table. Their answers for the literature paper were exactly the same; even the spelling mistakes!

I: Which one of you copied?
Bree: (shakes her head)
Ticka: Not me. Bree copied my answers, Teacher.
I: OK since nobody copied and you have exactly the same answers, you're going to share your marks. Twenty divided by two. Now, go sit down.

Bree was near to tears. Ticka looked smug. I felt as smart as King Solomon. And I didn't even have to touch the rotan.

I guess most of us can recall encounters we've had with rotans and caning during our own school days. My one experience was being hit on my palm when I was eight. My offence? I went to the toilet—it was a pit latrine, actually—without asking for Teacher's permission. (There was no  teacher in the classroom from whom to seek permission when I went.)

Sonny had some rotan stories to share with me too. He was traumatized when he saw how students were caned when he went to Form One in this boys' secondary school. Almost daily he would come home with reports of how he saw teachers use the cane. Apparently in his school, the teachers swung the rotan like a golfer swings his golf club.

Google Image

 Sonny’s classmates learnt to predict when caning would be administered and a few smart ones slipped thin books into their pants, between the buttocks and the trousers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always helpful because the sound (on impact) gave away their scheme. Twack! Ooops! Not the soft sound one would expect when rotan met fleshy boys' bottoms!


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  2. During my student days the son of my school's chairman always bullied me and one day I threw a piece of brick at him. As a result I was given three strokes of rotan. Before this I had complained many times to the teachers but none of them dared to punish him. It was kind of unfair as far as I can remember. Things like that were common in Chinese schools in the old days, when the children of chairmen were feared and respected. A teacher even called one of them 'Boss."

  3. In the first three years of my teaching I used rotan. I stopped using it when I was down with depression and saw things. I injured a student so seriously that it had become a police case. From then onwards I have never touched a cane, fearing that I can't control my emotion.

  4. Charles, thank you for visiting and leaving comments. I've seen what could happen when teachers get carried away. I guess some people call it 'disciplining'.