Sunday, May 13, 2012

Walking In My Mother's Shoes

She told us that she couldn't even afford to buy a pencil, and she had only one exercise book for all the subjects that she needed to learn in school. She went to school with no shoes on, her family was too poor.

She was poor, her family was poor, but she wasn't a poor student as far as academic was concerned. She was the best student in her school. After sitting for one of the big exams of her time, her parents asked her not to go to school because they needed her to help work on the paddy field. Awareness about the importance of education was apparently still very low during those years, especially when it concerned girls and women.

Despite all the hardships, this very strong lady from Dagang Tanah Village, Duvanson in Putatan managed to finish school and got a job as a primary school teacher. Her first posting was in Andrassy Primary School in Tawau, where she met her future husband who was an estate supervisor at the same place. The estate supervisor was my father, the young lady teacher - my mother.

Now as a teacher myself, I always try my very best to look out for students who might be facing the same fate and endure the same hardship as my mother. Sometimes, it's easy to overlook students who might not be able to impress you academically because they can't write properly due to a pencil that's too short because it has been sharpened a hundred times, or students who are not able to hand in the homework you've given them because the only exercise book that they own has been handed to the teacher of other subjects. I've had students like her, I've taught them, and I knew their backgrounds. My heart is deeply touched by my mother's story.

One of my mother's childhood stories that I find most memorable is the story about her pair of new shoes. She had been attending school bare-footed for years. Then, some very important minister came to visit her hometown and all school children were to rally around the town to welcome this important minister. My mother's teacher told her: "Get yourself a pair of shoes. You can't welcome the minister with no shoes on." So my mother went back and told her parents, and her parents bought her a pair of new shoes, a pair of  simple plastic shoes. I imagined it must have burned a huge hole in my mother's parent's wallet.

The school's contingent that consisted of school children and teachers had to walk to get to the town. My mother was very proud of her new shoes, it was the first pair of shoes she had on in years. She walked very carefully in those shoes, very afraid to stumble on big rocks or step on a puddle in fear that it might get damaged.

Then they arrived at the bridge. The bridge was an old one, with holes and broken planks. My mother remembered her parents' advice: "Take good care of your shoes." She took them off, and held them tightly with both hands.

The school party crossed the bridge. The bridge was shaky and unstable, so my mother had to use one of her hands to hold on to the beam, her other hand held the new shoes. Then, the most unfortunate thing happened. One of the shoes slipped from my mother's hand and fell into the river. My mother tried to save it, but it was gone. The shoe was gone, swept away by the strong and fast current underneath the bridge.

"Move on, move on. Or we won't be able to reach town on time," one of the teachers said.
"But, my shoe..."
"Move on, move on. Walk, children, walk."

The shoe was gone. My mother embraced the other shoe that she had left and held it tightly. She had to welcome the very important minister who had come to visit the town - with no shoes on.

That night, her pillow was wet with tears and she couldn't stop blaming herself for the loss of that poor shoe. That precious, once-in-a-life-time pair of shoes.

As a child, I had always had a pair of nice shoes on when I went to school, and my exercise books had always been plenty. I had never had any problems with pencils. My school supplies were bountiful. When it came to school matters, my parents would always go all out to provide their children with the best. They worked hard, real hard to send all four of their children to school. From an early age, my parents had always taught us the importance of education. They made sure that we attended school every day. Mild fever was not an excuse to skip school. I received perfect attendance award almost every year, except for when I was in Year 2 when I was down with some quite serious case of ear infection and had to be absent from school for almost a week. I had never, ever been forced to skip school in order to help my parents put food on the table.

I learned how to write my ABC before I went to school. My mother taught me. I knew how to read when I was barely 3 years old. My mother was my teacher. After my SPM, I tried my luck in the teaching field by applying for the  TESL programme. My mother accompanied me to the interview. She endured the 8-hour travel on a bus from Kunak to KK with me. She stayed outside the room while I was sitting for the written test. She stayed outside the room while I was facing the interviewers. She waited for me. She supported me. I knew she was tired, but I couldn't see any indication of tiredness - every time there was just a smile on her face. I remember thinking to myself, how I wanted this more than anything not because of me, not because of what I wanted. After all that she had done for me, I just wanted my mother to be happy. Nothing more, and nothing less.

On my graduation day, my mother was there. She was all smiles, she was proud. She didn't say it to me, but I knew she was. She didn't have to say the words, I understood.

The Head of English Studies Department came to congratulate me. He saw my mother, and he said to me: "Cynthia, take good care of your mother."

I grew up watching my parents worked real hard to give us good lives. To support my father's business endeavours, my mother had to quit her teaching job. Although my parents' business had been going well throughout the years and through it my parents were able to raise their four children successfully, my mother had always looked back to her decision of quitting the teaching career with regret. She didn't say it in words, but I could sense that she must have loved it. She must have been a very good teacher, I'm sure of it. She must have been a very good, hardworking teacher.

My mother is a real fighter. She is an 'iron lady.' She has fought everything - poverty, hardship, life challenges and illnesses. She endures being a mother to four children while at the same time having to work very hard to raise the family. She endures immense pain when any of her beloved children suffer from sickness. She puts up with her young children's tantrums. She deals with her teenage children's rebellious raging hormones. She has defeated obstacles after another. She is my rock, my solid rock. Because of her, mainly because of her, I am who I am today.

Now, she is fighting cancer.

My Head of Department's words during my graduation day kept ringing in my ears:

"Cynthia, take good care of your mother."

My mother and I, a few days after her first chemotherapy session. She was losing hair, but I assured her that she looked very beautiful.

Mum, because of you, I am now a teacher. Because of you, I want to be a good teacher. I want to be better each and every day because of you. Whenever I am tempted by laziness, the image of you working hard with dad until the wee hours so that my siblings and I could have all the shoes and pencils and books that we ever wanted would never fail to give me the wake-up call that I need. You and dad have instilled in me the love for work until it is embedded deeply in my heart and my soul.

Mum, because of you and the stories that you told me, I have deep empathy for unfortunate children. Because of your childhood stories, every child that I have to teach is special in my eyes. You have taught me that although a child is absent most of the time, it does not necessarily mean that the child is not good or has no potential. I learn that some children have to skip school because they have to help their parents put food on the table. Because of your stories, I would go around the classroom and look at every child's pencil and every child's book. Does the child have more than one pencil? Does the child have more than one book? Whenever I am able to give a child a pencil or a book, I would. If I have to give a child a pair of shoes, I would. And it's all because of the stories you told me, mum. It's all because of you.

Mum, because of you, I learn that life must always go on no matter what. Hardships and trials have not been able to defeat you, mum. And I know and believe in my heart that you can defeat this stupid, ugly, bad cancer. You'll be healed, you'll be victorious, just like always. I'll be with you, I'll support you and I'll pray for you.

Mum, I promise to take good care of these 'shoes' that you've given me.When the unfortunate happens, like when one of the 'shoes' slip off my hand and fell into the river, I won't look back. I'll keep moving. Just like you did, I'll keep going forward even if I have only one shoe left. 

Happy Mother's Day, mum. I love you so much. I really, really do. Thank you for everything that you've done for me. Thank you for always being there for me. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for supporting me.

I promise I will take care of you. I know that I could never, ever repay you for everything that you've done for me. But I'll try. As long as I can, I'll try. 

Thank you for being my light and my rock.

Thank you for being my mother.

I love you, mum. And I always will.

- Cindy -


  1. What a lovely, inspiring story!

  2. may God always bless ur mother cindy.

  3. Sis... Beautiful!

  4. Cyn...a very touching story. I am really sure that ur parents are really proud of u. Thank u for sharing your lovely experience in life. Hope she'll recover soon. Gbu cyn n mum


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