Thursday, August 2, 2012

"It's not personal, it's just 'teaching'..."

I had a conversation with Kunak's Language Officer a couple of weeks ago, and she talked about how people find it difficult to understand when she gets so emotionally involved with her work. This conversation came about after we had a really tough time trying to settle some quite tricky problems in the district. Over cups of steaming coffee, we talked about how that particular incident had caused both of us to be emotionally drained. "My fellow Language Officers in other districts wouldn't be half as bothered, I'm sure of it," she said. She joked that probably it is due to the fact that she's single and has no husband and children to worry about, hence her work has become her life. I laughed at her remark, yet deep inside I wondered: Is it okay to be emotionally involved in your work? Because I'm like that too, sometimes.

The Three Chinese Sisters

The pupils in my school are mostly Bajau, but we do have a few Bugis, Suluk and Cocos pupils. Occasionally we would have some Pakistani-mixed pupils. But we seldom have Chinese pupils. Alice, Annie and Agnes are the three sisters that I was so blessed to have taught - three Chinese girls - all bright, all good, all hardworking pupils.

My second major at college was Moral Education. Having the three sisters as pupils in our school had given me the 'once-in-a-blue-moon' opportunity to teach that subject because it's very rare for our school to have non-Muslim pupils. Non-Muslims need not sign up for Islamic Education classes. They would be with me for Moral Education, instead. Because of that, I became very close with the girls. Moral Education was a core subject in primary school, but it's not tested in the national examination. I tried my very best to 'cover the syllabus', but most of my Moral Education classes would be centred around getting to know the girls, their backgrounds, their families. The three girls didn't go to the Chinese school in town, their family couldn't afford the transportation cost, it's too far from home. Both parents were away in KK, working. So who's taking care of you? I asked. Aunts and uncles, replied Agnes, the youngest and the most cheerful of the three. Agnes had a ready, infectious smile. When she smiled, her slanted eyes would become smaller. The wider the smile, the smaller the eyes would become. When she talked, the room would be brightened by her natural vibrance.

The eldest girl, Alice, was quiet and studious. She didn't say much, but she loved to write. She had a journal that she handed to me once a week. She wrote poems. She wrote about her family. She wrote about her friends and about the cute boy in the class who told her that he likes her. Alice was very reflective, an intrapersonal genius. She was also a good writer, her English was very impressive.

Annie, the middle child, was the prettiest. All teachers in our school agreed that she had the look of a Hong Kong superstar. She smiled a lot, but she was not talkative like her younger sister, Agnes. She was quiet, but she was not serious like her elder sister, Alice. Annie was sweet and charming and friendly. Her hair was long and thick and shiny black, she had a twinkle in her eye and a dimple on her cheek when she smiled. 

One day, cheerful Agnes came to me and said, "Teacher, I really want to attend the evening class, but I can't."
"Why, Agnes?"
"My aunt can't walk with me to school because she can't see very well in the dark. I can come earlier when it's still bright, but when the class finishes it's going to be late and I'll be scared to walk home alone."
Oh my. I looked at the child's face for a few seconds, and then I asked:
"What do you say if I go to your place and pick you up?"
Agnes looked at me in disbelief. "You mean, in your car, teacher?"
"Yup. In my car."
"You mean I'll be riding in your car?"
I laughed. "Yes."
"Oh, God. Oh, God." Agnes was jumping up and down. "I'll ask my aunt." Agnes skipped away, beaming from ear to ear. "I'll ask my aunt. I''ll tell her I'll be riding in teacher's car. Wow! To evening class. In teacher's car."


I picked her up before 7, it was still a bit bright so I was able to take a good look at the house. It was wooden and unpainted. Through the open door, I could see a living room with no furniture. No sofa, no TV. A middle-aged man with no shirt on was sitting on the floor, struggling with a kerosene lamp. He immediately rose to his feet and smiled respectfully when he saw me at the door. Agnes' aunt, a lady in her mid-40 came to the door with Agnes by the hand, beaming, her slanted eyes were as small as Agnes'. I took Agnes' hand and nodded to her as a sign of respect. Agnes was jumping up and down, she was still jumping up and down when she entered the car and took the front seat. I was sure she was having the time of her life as I drove the car with her beside me - I'm riding in a car with teacher, to school for the evening class - with teacher.

My class ended at 9.30pm, so I drove Agnes and a few other pupils back to their respective homes. Agnes whispered in my ear: "Teacher, let's send the others first. I don't want my friends to see my house." Startled, I looked at her. She gave me a wink. "I'm ashamed, teacher. My friends' houses are very nice." She beamed. It was dark, but I could see her slanted eyes twinkled.

When we arrived at Agnes' house, it seemed like the whole family was there on the front porch, waiting for us. They were all beaming. There was intelligent Alice and pretty Annie, smiling and waving. The shirtless man on the floor that I saw before had now put on a white shirt, holding the green kerosene lamp high above his head to light the way. Agnes' aunt limped down the stairs and to the front yard where my car was parked.  She opened the car door for Agnes and they all welcomed her like they were welcoming a queen. 

"Thank you, teacher. Thank you," said the aunt with a smile. The rest didn't say anything but their faces expressed such gratitude and such joy that no words could ever express. It was a dark night, the moon was hiding behind some dark clouds. Yet the joy in that shabby little house was much thicker than the darkness of the night. The family was smiling and hugging each other and waving at me, they were joyful. The joy was so thick, I could slice it. 

"Thank you, teacher. Thank you."

Thank me, for what? I didn't do anything at all. I just picked up a girl, made her attend an evening class, and then drove her back home. 

I waved them good-bye, and got into my car. I turned towards the main road and headed home. And all throughout my journey, I sobbed. I sobbed like I never sobbed before till I reached home.

The Badminton Star

Hafiq did not look like any typical school athlete. He was pale, medium height, very thin. He turned up for the school's badminton club selection, I took a look at him and I knew that he was not going to be selected. 

I paired the boys and the girls and held some matches. A few rounds went by, and Hafiq was winning the matches consistently. I laughed in my heart, luck is really on the boy's side today, I muttered under my breath. It was nearly five and I wanted to get this over and done with as soon as possible, so I put Hafiq against the school's best player, Dato'. Dato' was tall and dark and muscular. His arms were strong and swift. He would drain the lucky boy's luck in no time. Or so I thought.

Hafiq won the first set quite easily. By the middle of the second set, Hafiq was way ahead of Dato' in points. Dato' was drenched in sweat, panting and gasping. The lucky boy was still grinning from ear to ear, jumping up and down enthusiastically, swerving and manoeuvring all over the badminton court, cleverly manipulating the shuttlecock with his old, rusty racquet. I was witnessing a match between David and Goliath, and David was winning. "Game point! I won!" shouted Hafiq, both hands in the air, triumphant. Dato' threw his expensive Yonex on the floor in frustration. 

Needless to say, Hafiq made it to the school's badminton club. As for me, I learned the biggest and most important lesson as a teacher that day. 

Hafiq went on to win some more matches at district level, and then at zone level, and then at state level. He was the new badminton star, and I was so proud of him. Hafiq was a very special player. I had never seen anyone like him. When he was in the court, he never cared about winning or losing. He just wanted to play. "Bring it on! Bring it on!" he would shout to his opponents. And he would skilfully return every shot with such grace and ease, you couldn't help but gasp in amazement. 

Hafiq is a single child, raised by a single mother. The mother was old and sickly. They had to depend on friends and family members for food and other basic necessities. Despite that, Hafiq remained a cheerful boy. He reminded me so much of bubbly and cheerful Agnes. He had a sweet smile and a pleasant, boyish face. Hafiq was always happy, and badminton made him the happiest boy in Kampung Kunak Tiga.

However, there was something that bothered me. Hafiq's school grades. They were terrible.

Every day, when I entered his class, Hafiq would say: "Teacher, 4.30pm, as usual?" I would nod. Hafiq would grin from ear to ear. Then we would meet at the hall and play a few sets of badminton.

One day, I didn't give him my usual nod. Hafiq repeated the question. "As usual, is it? Teacher?" 
"2.30pm," I replied.
"Wow! That's early!" Hafiq squealed with delight.
"Not at the hall. At my place."
Hafiq's grin was gone. "At your place? Can't play badminton there, too small."
"2.30 to 4.30 at my place. Bring your books. We'll study and do homework. And then, if you're a good boy, we'll go to the hall and play badminton."
Hafiq groaned. "Study? Homework? Must I?"
"If you want to play badminton, you'll do what I say."

Hafiq was an exceptionally punctual boy. He was never late, always on time. He would be at my place before 2.30 and I would serve him some food. He gobbled up everything that I prepared for him. Then, we would sit down at my dining table and studied. All the while, Hafiq's eyes would be on the clock at my kitchen. "4.30! Badminton time!" He would shout at the top of his voice. 

If he was good and if I was happy with him, I would let him go to the hall and play badminton earlier. He did quite well in his test that month. I gave him a new racquet. Hafiq held his new racquet high in the air, like a warrior holding a sword. "Bring it on!" he roared. 

The following month, his academic performance got better. I looked at Hafiq's shoes. They were torn and tattered. I bought him a pair of new sneakers. Hafiq put them on and danced gleefully around the badminton court, and his friends all laughed at him and he laughed with them.

The day the UPSR result came out, Hafiq came to see me. "Teacher," he said. "My mother sends her regards. She says thank you."

I wanted to hug him but I couldn't. I didn't want to embarrass him. Instead, I smiled at him and said:
"All the best in secondary school."

Five years later...

Hafiq should be in Form 5 now. One day, some of the badminton club's alumni organised a reunion with former players, and they invited me. I accepted the invitation.

I met Hafiq. "So, how's school, Hafiq?"
Hafiq was quiet. He didn't dare to look me in the eye.
"Is there something I should know?"
"I no longer attend school, teacher. I had quit."
I looked at him in disbelief. "What?"
"Actually, the school kicked me out."
"But, why Hafiq?"
Hafiq sighed. "I'm sorry, teacher. I let you down."

Later, I learned from his friends that Hafiq was suspended for disciplinary problems.

That night, I lied on my bed and closed my eyes. I tried to sleep but I couldn't.

My heart was broken.

"It's not personal..."

My friends say that I have a choice. I can make it personal, I can make it impersonal, it's all up to me.

I can go to school and do my thing, treat everything like business, and then go home and forget all about it. And relax.

Now if I can do that, I will.

But, I can't.

Like my Language Officer, I take everything personally and emotionally.

I try not to sob, but I sob. I try not to be heart-broken, but the fact remains that my heart had been broken.

So, what can I do?

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It's too high!
And they came
and he pushed
and they flew...
~ Christopher Logue


  1. Cindy.. i'm so impress with your writing. I was like reading a novel by Danielle Steel - Big Girl.

    1. Haha! Wow, I'm flattered. I'm no Danielle Steel of course, but thanks for reading, Ratna. ;-)

  2. love your it based on real situation?

  3. Yes, it's a true story but I changed the names. ;-)

  4. wow...truly inspiring. and to think that I used to take it personally too. I'm not strong like you. I have lost the ability to take the kids personally.
    It is great to know that there are still teachers out there like you - giving their all for the kids.


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