The no-name boy in school

  • Lifestyle
  • Monday, 28 May 2012

With three grownup daughters and a comfortable post-retirement life, I’ve come to accept that I’m what society now calls a “senior citizen.” Retirement, however, has given me ample time for teas with fellow silvery-haired (or bald) friends. During these get-togethers, it is always a must to reminisce about our youthful indiscretions and how none of us actually got to marry yesteryear’s pin-up girls!

Yet, there was also a part of history which I would never revisit, invisible lines that I could not bring myself to cross even in the company of old chums. Even at 60-plus with an expanding waistline, I am not able to escape my six-year-old self.

I was then, a young “kampung” (village) boy about to embark on the greatest journey – the imaginative wonders that are hidden behind the wooden gates of my village’s only primary school. I was supposed to learn how to read and count. Instead, I was taught a fact of life – that bullies exist and they pick on people like me.

I was the happiest boy when I took my first few steps to school with my elder brothers. While they wore their seasoned uniforms, I revelled in my new starchy brown shorts (that would last me the whole year), a white shirt and white shoes (which unfortunately, changed to dirt-black by the end of each school day).

I made my way to the classroom which was now full of similarly-dressed boys and girls with pigtails. Among them, some would be my lifelong friends and some I wished I had never known. A teacher stepped into the class and my learning began as we tried to identify the letters of the alphabet.

It was not long before some of my classmates got bored of lessons. They devised ways to entertain themselves and one way was to hurl insults at others. They found an easy target in me as my skin was fairer than the rest and my eyes easily identified as “sepet” (slit eyes). Those boys would shout “Muallaf!” (new convert) whenever I had to pass by them. Some would even chant “slant-eyed boy” or squeal “pug nose!” in my presence.

The fact that I had a real name made no difference to them. The more I resisted, the stronger they became. Where they were concerned, I was the no-name boy who seemed to want nothing more than to be addressed by those hurtful words.

I did not seem to have better luck with teachers. Until today, I remember the villain who disguised himself as my Mathematics teacher. I was once called to the front of the class to solve an arithmetic problem. Somehow, I just couldn’t get the right answer and he shouted, in the presence of my classmates, that I was a stupid fool. I was already shaken by the embarrassment but my plight was far from over. He asked me to turn around and I felt a gust of wind before his huge palm landed square and hard on my right cheek. It was a monumental challenge as I struggled to keep the tears from cascading down my burning cheeks.

As my six-year-old self would ask repeatedly, “Why would the teacher pick on me when three-quarters of the class was dumber than me?” Even worst, my classmates witnessed the episode and nobody came to my defence. Perhaps there was really nothing a bunch of six-year-olds could do when facing a bigger, older and stronger bully.

The tears have dried up but the painful memories remain fresh with every passing year. On hindsight, I’ve now the wisdom to understand that my childhood bullies were idiots. They probably did not understand the real meaning of the word “Muallaf.” Obviously, it is a term coined for converts whereas both my parents were born Muslims. And if I had the opportunity to meet my Mathematics teacher during my adulthood, I would tell him that I did not learn about equation on that fateful day. Instead, he had taught me that bullies come in various sizes and ages. For that lesson, the price was a lifetime of remembering those who bullied me, even if I have already forgiven them since.

Raja Shuib

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