Teachers’ Day

Today marks the celebration of Teachers’ Day in Malaysia, where the teaching staff of primary and secondary schools are fêted and bestowed honors from their respective schools.

For the students, this day should bear no significant meaning in their school calendar – it’s still an ordinary school day but they would probably get the first half of the day off to converge into the school hall for long, boring speeches and performances by teachers and students.

I’ve had largely forgettable teachers during my school days. You know, those who are more than content to just clock in their punch cards and then go through their daily routine guided by a sense of dread and boredom. They complain loudly that their wages are peanuts and that is true. But what is also undisputed is that they have chosen this career path. There are some, though, who stood out in my books and thoroughly deserved my respect.

My Standard 1 teacher was perhaps the one who lay down the benchmark of what a good teacher should be. I was from Sekolah Sri Petaling (fondly known as ‘SSP’) and in my time during the late 80s, it was a fine school. She was also my elder brother’s class teacher before and so I knew what to roughly expect from her. If you could take some time off and read this article here, she seems to tick all the boxes there. It may be a lazy way to describe her but she did what a teacher should do – impart knowledge and ensure that her students benefitted from it. I mean, the Std 1 syllabus is boring as hell, so she would think of ways to tell stories about what we were learning about. Incidentally, she was also my Std 4 ‘Alam dan Manusia’ and Maths teacher. I forgot to do my Maths homework once in Std 4 and she probed me about it, demanding to see the workbook and asking me to empty out my schoolbag. I hid the book by placing it underneath my desk and pressing my knees against it. She saw right through the ruse and asked me to stand up. Shucks!

The look she wore back then was priceless. It was a mixture of disappointment and anger and as a kid, apprehension would cloud your judgment. You see, when I was in Std 1, I consistently placed 1st in her class and I was a quiet and fairly obedient, diligent kid. In short, I was probably among the last students to give her any sort of headache.

Times have changed.

In Std 4, I was more occupied with Nintendo video games and drawing my own comics. But it was a double insult to her – not doing homework was bad enough but hiding the workbook from a teacher spells doom for the student. Surprisingly, she wasn’t one who allowed physical actions to take precedence in her definition of discipline – remember, the ubiquitous cane was still in use by many teachers back then to great effect, so I could say that I was pretty lucky. What she did was to rubber stamp the page where the homework was to be completed and demanded my parents’ signature. I guess she would rather, as the Chinese say, borrow the knife to kill someone – she had hoped for my parents to discipline me instead. Guess what, I revealed this to my equally evil brother who was in Standard 6 at that time. He forged my dad’s signature – did a pretty awful job at it and unsurprisingly, that was also quickly discovered. My parents were called for and together, my teacher explained what had happened. Still surprisingly, I wasn’t given the cane. Instead I was only banned from playing video games for one week which was definitely tolerable. Ha!

However, after that, I pulled myself together and did pretty well after that in school, placing fourth in Standards 4 and 5 and then scoring straight A’s in the UPSR (which was the crowning glory in primary school-leaving exams). Plus, her ‘Alam dan Manusia’ classes are very interesting – we had to memorize the capitals of the world and some other geographic-based subjects and there would be a quiz held after that. We also first learnt about the birds and the bees from her – that boys (and obviously, men) had ‘sausages’ and that women delivered babies from the ‘buntut’ (which was Malay for the backside). Ugh…Not until I reached secondary school was the record appropriately straightened and no, at that time she gave no discourse as to how the relevant cells would meet and subsequently multiply. For the rest of the year, most of the girls in the class would laugh at other classmates who brought tiny frankfurters for lunch to class. That was probably the first reliable sign of perverse mental imagery for a pre-pubertal kid. Not to be outdone, one mischievous boy (probably feeling the onset of puberty) in class went one up by showing his own instrument to the girls. He was promptly shipped out of the school – nobody knew where he went…until he turned up in Bukit Bintang Boys’ Secondary School, still every bit the same character.

My Std 4 English teacher also scared the wits out of me. If you thought that English is an easy subject, remember that in his class, overconfidence is a very fatal trait to have. He’d ask everyone to buy a pocket English dictionary and then ask everyone in the class to stand up. Every student is required to find a word and then construct a sentence out of it using no less than ten words. Those who stammered or unable to do so (he demanded the usage of Queen’s English not your typical Malaysian lingo) would be given a severe bollocking that we suspected that he ate gunpowder with his bread every morning. Those who remain standing at the end of the class would be severely punished. His favorite teaching method was to divide all of us into groups – during his class, we were required to align our desks into 9 rows, calling ourselves by the names of the planets of the solar system (which included Pluto that was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006). This becomes automatic at the start of each class, and every team had a leader. The team leader was required to keep track of the points within the team and to bear the brunt of his team’s failure to do so. I was in charge of team Mercury and always carried my task to the letter, afraid of incurring his wrath to the point of etching the current points garnered on my own desk immediately after every class for records. Believe me, you have no time to take pen and paper out as he was already erasing the blackboard as soon as he finished his classes. This particular teacher also taught Moral classes and he retired in mid-1991. Towards his retirement, he became somewhat kinder (not softer, mind you) and spoke to us of why he needed to be strict with us and that he wanted us to be useful people in the future. I’m still grateful to this teacher for showing us who’s the boss. I mean, who was the boss.

I also adored my Std 2 class and Bahasa Malaysia teacher. My first few months in the class was marked by my absence due to chicken pox. Amazingly, I caught up with the syllabus well for the first semester and…even placed 1st in class. The way she announced the positions in class was like this – she sat down in the middle of the class and read out the top ten names (for suspense purposes). I was unaware that I had placed first and was finishing up my schoolwork to be submitted to her desk. As I passed by her, she tugged my shirt. Then in that instant, the class knew who got first. Sweet!      

By contrast, there was also the ex vice school head who told us solemnly that ‘the Chinese people used toilet paper by making a hole in the middle and then using the finger to clean around that soiled area’. I’ve no bloody respect for this piece of turd who tainted our unbiased minds at that time. People like you spawn on the murky toilet floors. Scum. 

I’ve also had volatile teachers who didn’t think twice about resorting to the cane for the ultimate punishment. There was the ex-army general who served as headmaster of SSP and who instilled fear within the students. Him and his trademark ‘very thin cane’. The very thought of him choosing the appropriate methods to mete out his brand of punishment should give the students no illusions about what they should expect if they stepped out of line. But he was inspirational. Once on Monday afternoon school assembly, he opined that the whole school did not sing the school anthem well enough. He demanded that we sing the same anthem over and over again until he got the spirit that he sought. For a school marathon charity drive, he made it mandatory for each and every student to contribute at least RM50.00 (whether coming from your parents’ own pocket or from the goodwill of others). “No money, no talk” was his credo. The facts speak for itself, anyway – in my time, the new school hall was constructed and a spanking new canteen took its rightful place underneath it. The school perimeter was fenced up and new security guard posts were erected. If development was necessary, then this guy was a visionary. 

Another short-fused teacher who showed his young wards who’s the king of the class would be my Standard 6 Bahasa Malaysia and class teacher. He was always putting us in place by his unpredictable behaviour and his anger displays also made us think twice of doing the wrong things during his class. For a 12 year old, an occasional aggressive personality is still a very nervy subject to mess around with. A novelist by profession as well, he encouraged us not to read the ‘Kuntum’ magazine but instead raised the bar by asking us to read the ‘Dewan Siswa’ periodical. One fine day, he pulled an Indian boy to the front of the class and asked him to summarize a particular article in the then latest issue of the ‘Dewan Siswa’. That poor classmate evidently didn’t do his homework and was already close to tears. This teacher immediately saw red and rolled up the magazine into a neat bundle and whipped him on his head over and over again. Witnesses swore that the boy apparently pissed on the floor in fear although it could have been tears or sweat or both. As for the rest of us, we watched the incident stunned. But let me set the record straight –  he’s a great teacher – a nice man and he appreciated hard work and grit. The classmate who wet himself probably deserved it in hindsight as the BM teacher permitted no signs of laziness and commanded proper manners when he’s in charge. Back in those days, you won’t have overprotective parents running to the school to demand an apology if their kids got walloped in school. I recalled that the fear of his classes was so great that if you didn’t do your homework, you’d better stay at home and take MC for there’s no escape from his bullshit detector. A talented teacher, he even wrote a special revision book for composition (‘Karangan’) to help us tackle the tough UPSR exams. When I took my UPSR straight As official slip from him, he congratulated me and told me that my own mother would be proud. I had wanted to thank him for his exceptional guidance on a very difficult subject but I was pleasantly drinking in his praises and was swayed. Ah, flattery works wonderfully well for one born on the Cusp of Magic, I suppose.

My Standard 6 BM tuition teacher also deserves special mention here. He penned Bahasa Malaysia workbooks for a few distinguished publishers and operated his tuition classes from his comfortable home in Kelana Jaya (now he had set up shop near the KJ pasar malam). What sets him apart from other teachers is his dedication and obvious love for the profession. If you don’t do your homework, you would stay back after class (no matter how late it was) and finish the composition there and then. The lazybones could cry all they want but he would not yield. Still, he almost never showed his temper or irritation. To him, you are already nearly a teenager and should well know what you should do to excel in life. No need for harsh words or the cane. If you have done your work well, he would lavish appropriate praise. If you have written and submitted nonsense, he’d have no hesitation in letting the entire class know for a few cheap laughs. His revision materials are also top-notch – systematic and enjoyable at the same time. During Hari Raya or thereabouts, he would also set aside time off from his classes and treat us to delicious cakes and cookies. Students who daydream during his classes are singled out for jokes about thinking of their romantic interest or for coming to class specifically to look at girls and so on. He also had the uncanny ability to pinpoint those who covertly released digestive gas in his class whereupon he would switch the air-conditioning off to allow the nasty smell to disperse. Those who are ready to welcome the throes of dreamland in his class are ordered to wash their faces. Eating sweets or other snacks when he was holding court is also forbidden – they disrupt the teaching process and leave him with a mess to clean up. 

What I probably remember him best is this – I was struggling with Bahasa Malaysia for the UPSR exams and though I had the Std 6 class teacher to thank, the tuition classes helped augment my comprehension of the subject matter. One could only excel under professional guidance and this tuition teacher is an ace. Best of all, he executed it all with hardly any tension or threats required. Respect.

I’m not sure whether our country is still blessed with teachers of this calibre and standard. I sure hope so – the country badly needs the same standard of teachers to ensure that our younger generation is given the right kind of training and mental conditioning. When I left school in Form 6, I still had exceptional teachers (I’m especially grateful to Maths teacher Mrs. Ng who gave me expensive antibiotic pills to suppress my chronic acne problem at that time and who gave me blessings the day before I went to England for my LLB degree; and also my own Physics class teacher who really had the patience to guide me in a subject which I don’t really like ; p ). In a tribute to exceptional teachers everywhere, Happy Teachers’ Day. Equally, a ‘screw you’ to those teachers who are guided by unjustifiable anger, wanton callousness, cluelessness and inappropriate arrogance.                                   

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