Our columnist is both surprised and humbled at the attitude and changes she sees in a former student, during a chance meeting.
THEY say it’s some kind of ‘school teacher instinct’ that has evolved through the many years of responding to sentences beginning with “Teacher”.
Whatever the reason, if you are a Malaysian school teacher, the minute you hear someone call out ‘teacher’ when you are in a public place, you instinctively turn around thinking they meant you, even if you are in a group of another 100 teachers.
So, when I was browsing through the food shelf in a local store, and I heard someone call “Teacher” from another aisle, I immediately turned around expecting to see a student in uniform.
When I saw the cheerful, round face with the familiar lopsided grin revealing the gap between his front teeth, I hastily tried to recall who among my former students he was. And then I remembered that it was Dev from 5G who had left school a few years ago.
He had lost some weight and was dressed smartly in a long sleeved shirt and trousers.
I had been Dev’s class teacher that year and remembered that he had failed in almost every subject.
But then, so had most of his classmates, and quite frankly this was a class of students the school wasn’t exactly counting on to help increase the overall percentage passes for the public exams.
These were students who somehow through flaws or strengths in the system, depending on which way you viewed it, had managed to make it to Form Five although for the most part, their academic aptitudes seemed to reflect the level of students who were in much lower grades.
At best, teachers who taught that class could only describe it as being “very, very challenging”.
‘So how are you Dev?’ I asked trying to remember the exact year he had left school.
A wide grin spread over his face. “Teacher you remember my name,” he said.
“How could I forget?” I wanted to tell him since he and his friends took the phrase “challenging class” to a whole new level.
This was the class of students who had been placed right at the end of the form, based on their performance in previous school exams.
The class which teachers even if they didn’t express it, viewed as “least likely to succeed”.
“So what are you doing now, Dev?” I asked, though not very enthusiastically. I wanted to get my shopping done and go back. Besides I wasn’t really interested in what he had to say.
After all, what could he possibly be doing after obtaining such dismal results in his SPM. Dev did not detect my insincerity.
“Ok teacher,” he said, with a pleased expression. “I am now doing (a) chef course. I (have) already finished two years.
“Next year I will graduate (and) get a diploma. After that I apply for (a) job ... in the same hotel my cousin is (working at).”
I was impressed. “Good for you Dev. Keep up the good work. I am sure you will succeed,” I said.
“Yes, Teacher,” he said, adding that he had remembered what I had told him and his classmates about finding a job and working hard, even if they failed the exam, and irrespective of the jobs they have, they must all become “good people”.
He reminded me that I had advised his class that success could be attained by working hard even if it were a job as a mechanic, at a hair salon or even selling burgers.
I turned away as he prattled on happily and pretended to check the price labels. Had I really said all that?
I recalled making some kind of speech during the year-end party which the class had haphazardly organised that year. But I never thought any of them were actually listening.
But looking at Dev’s earnest face standing there in the supermarket aisle, I had to swallow a lump in my throat as the names and faces of the rest in the class came back to me fuzzily.
I remembered how difficult it was to get them to grasp even the basics of the maths topic I was teaching them then.
Most of them had difficulty with their multiplication tables.
When it came to graphs they managed to get horizontal and vertical axes the other way round. Algebra was a nightmare.
I remembered the many occasions I would seriously try to figure out the glitches in the system that had allowed these students to come this far without grasping the basics.
Every school exam they sat for indicated a zero percentage pass rate for many subjects including mine.
But now here he was Dev, proudly telling me about how he and the others were doing since they left school.
Of old friends
“Teacher, do you remember Vinny?” he asked. “Teacher, you always scold(ed) her because she (was) always doing make-up and hairstyle(s) in class ... never do (did) her Maths homework, but she is big boss now, got her own hair salon, she will give you (a) discount,” he said reminding me of another former student.
My fingers went to my hair uneasily as it had been some time since my last haircut.
Dev told me about another classmate Navin who now had a handphone shop at a shopping complex in town, and Lucy who was now married and had a baby.
As he spoke on, other things came to my mind.
I remembered how enthusiastic the class had been during special class projects.
They had spent an entire day painting the classroom walls and decorating it because they wanted to get the best-decorated class award.
By the time, they finished the walls were a garish pink, and there were pictures of their favourite movie stars pasted all over the notice-boards.
They decided that all the classroom needed was a potted plant and promptly bought a money plant.
They forgot about watering the plant during their term break and were sad to find it wilted down to a stump when they returned.
When I needed help changing a flat tyre and asked two of them to come down and help me, the entire class descended and amidst much squabbling about who could do the job best for “teacher”, they not only changed my tyre, but offered me advice on maintaining the car.
When they saw me struggling with huge piles of exercise books or heavy bags, they were the first to come over and help carry them to class for me.
Of course, part of their eagerness to help had to do with excuses to get out of class.
They plunged into most school activities with great gusto — as long as it didn’t require actual studying.
Quite often they got into some problem with the disciplinary board.
Their names were regulars on the list of those apprehended for long hair, coming to school late, bringing handphones, being involved in brawls, cutting classes and many other offences.
I hadn’t realised that I had drifted away until Dev said suddenly. “Teacher, you don’t buy this cereal. Not good.” He pointed to the pack in my hand. “High fructose,” he said handing me another pack.
“High fructose,” I marvelled later after I had said goodbye to Dev and wished him all the best.
This was the boy who had failed every Science test throughout the year.
“You want us to be good people,” Dev had said. I thought of the sincere expression on his face when he had said that, and I felt a little humbled.