Down Kirkby's memory lane

For old times: Kirkby-trained teachers posing for the camera during a recent get-together. The writer is seated in the front row, second from left. - Photo courtesy of Chong Hong Chong

THE Kirkby Alumni thought it would be a good idea to organise a casual get-together for Kirkbyites (also referred to as “Kirkbians” by earlier batches) in the Klang Valley before the year ended in 2013.

After a date had been agreed on, the committee member for social activities, Leela Unnithan, was tasked with the responsibility of arranging the venue while I was asked to place an announcement in The Star’s “Metro Watch” to reach other Kirkbyites

The result was gratifying. Over 70 Kirkbyites (a few accompanied by their spouses) were present at the hi-tea which was held at Hotel Armada, Petaling Jaya.

Surprisingly, it was discovered that every batch was represented!

For those unfamiliar with the name “Kirkby”, the unique Kirkby project was undertaken to fill the vacancy of teachers in our country’s English-medium schools after the Second World War.

It was the first time that the government of a country had established a teacher-training college (now known as teacher education institute) overseas (on British soil) for its own students.

In December 1951, the first batch of candidates left for the United Kingdom on an ocean liner to begin their course in January 1952. Subsequent batches flew there.

The project ended in 1962 after producing 1,500 teachers and over 400 teacher-trainers.

It was a two-year course for most of the batches in the Malayan Teachers’ College in Kirkby, located in the suburbs of Liverpool.

After overcoming the “cultural shock”, homesickness and the cold, it turned out to be an exciting adventure.

It was a time when all the students bonded together, comforted in a foreign land by our local habits and food.

We freely thumped each other on the shoulders and laughed at each other’s foibles.

We sportingly took part in different ethnic festivals and readily wore each other’s costumes, learning songs and dances from each other’s culture.

It was a time when we “showed off” our country’s culture — giving talks at local clubs, dressing up in various costumes, cooking a variety of food in English homes and having British visitors at our concerts and plays.

It was also a time when we broadened our minds through travel during our holidays by hitchhiking and travelling on coaches or trains at student rates in the British Isles and Europe. Some British families even hosted our weekend stays.

It was a time when the locals told us that we spoke better English than they did!

Well, the credit for that compliment goes to our country’s mission schools that laid down the foundation for our grammatically correct English.

It was in the Kirkby College assembly hall on February 7, 1956, that our then chief minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (who later became the country’s first prime minister), made the first announcement of Malaya’s impending independence on August 31, 1957.

Immediately, the hall resounded with the cry of “Merdeka”, repeated three times.

So every time Kirkbyites meet, they have so much to share from those experiences in what was fondly known as “Kampong Kirkby”.

Different batches may have different tales of new and old lecturers, of changes in the administration and food, of the type of schools we went for Teaching Practice and places we visited. But the Kirkby bond is unique.

Some, on their return, furthered their studies in institutes of higher education and ended up as college and university lecturers and professors, lawyers, bankers, politicians, etc. A Kirkbyite from the first batch returned to Kirkby as a lecturer, one became the speaker of the upper house in Parliament and one even became the First Lady of Singapore!

Many teachers served till retirement and contributed greatly towards the management of new schools in urban and rural areas.

I know of several Kirkbyites who are over 80 years of age and who are still actively involved in the fields they have excelled in.

No doubt the Kirkbyites are a “dying breed” but while we are still around, we hope to keep meeting in various venues.

So that we can keep recalling and exchanging stories of that wondrous world in a special little place called “Kirkby”.

The writer trained in Kirkby College from 1959 to 1960, taught in various schools and took optional retirement in 1989 to go into freelance writing.

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