Touching the lives of thousands through English

  • Education
  • Sunday, 17 May 2020

Gift of knowledge: Nadarajah (centre) together with Daniel Dickie, a volunteer from the University of Otago, New Zealand, presenting books to SMJK Ijok headmistress Chen Woon Kin as part of the Reading Bus project.

AT 19, becoming a teacher was never part of the plan.

But thanks to his father, Cheli Tamilselvam Nadarajah found himself in the noble profession of teaching, and ended up dedicating his life to it.

“I was really not interested in becoming a teacher but my dad being firm, insisted that I apply. Lo and behold, I was accepted to the Kota Bharu Teachers Training College to become an English Language teacher, ” he said.

But gaining entry into the college still wasn’t enough to change the mind of the former insurance salesman and he failed his second year.

“It was only at the end of my college days when I began to realise that this was a reality I had to accept. That was a turning point in my life and I started to love teaching.”

Now after 36 years of inspiring thousands of students to read and guiding them in their quest for knowledge, he retired as the senior assistant of co-curricular in SMK Menjalara, Kuala Lumpur on May 12.

Nadarajah was first posted in SK Lepong Balleh in Kapit, Sarawak in January 1984, and the experience left quite an impression on him.

The school was only accessible by long boat, and the narrow boats scared this tall educator who could not swim.

“I mispronounced so many of my Year Three pupils’ names and thought they were absent because they did not respond, ” he recalled with a chuckle.

These students only knew the Iban language, something Nadarajah had to learn in order to teach them English.

Years later, when the government introduced the teaching of science and mathematics in English (PPSMI), Nadarajah noticed that rural students in Sabah and Sarawak were finding it difficult to cope with the subjects. The dropout rate was increasing yearly.

“So whenever my wife (Kong Lai Mei) and I were given easy-to-read books in English, we would take them to the villages in our four-wheel drive during the weekends, ” he said, sharing how the ‘Reading Bus’ project came about in 2009.

“Anything larger than a car is a bus to these children, ” he said, explaining the project’s name.

Their first excursion was by invitation to the small village of Kampung Pasir Ulu, Sarawak, almost three hours away from Kuching by road.

The mobile library, which had become a regular activity for the couple, had attracted volunteers.

Word spread and, soon, they were getting requests from other village heads to come to their communities and read to their children.

Volunteers would bring English storybooks into the depths of rural Sarawak and read to the village children there.

To keep the students motivated, the ‘Reading Bus’ only distributed new books.

“We made it a point to only bring new reading materials and we graded the suitability according to the children’s reading levels.

“Having access is one thing, but more important is having the right books.

“The progressive reading strategies we used were instrumental in building confidence and restoring dignity in the children. This is vital for reading and growth.”

The ‘Reading Bus’ project followed Nadarajah to every state he was posted to.

He remembers seeing a father peeking through the window once in Bera, Pahang, watching his 9-year-old boy read.

“This man had tears streaming down his cheeks as he watched his son.

“He told me he didn’t know his son could read “so well”.”

Nadarajah’s students from the urban areas used to tag along for these trips and he started to notice a change in their behaviour.

“It was so inspiring to see how they began to appreciate life and learning more.”

His students, both past and present, say they are going to miss the “firm yet selfless, kind and fun Mr Cheli.”

“He is very dedicated to the school and us students. He has influenced me to spread kindness and he is a huge motivation in my life, ” said 17-year-old Chan Cheok Hwa from SMK Menjalara, Kuala Lumpur.

With the movement control order still in effect, Nadarajah does not know if there will be any form of ceremony, a custom for retiring teachers, held in his honour.

“I have no idea what the school has planned but I am okay with just being able to retire quietly. It is not about me but I will miss the school a lot.”

His days walking down the corridors in schools won’t end so soon though. He will be taking on a new role as a principal in a private school beginning July.

To him, each day always starts with a thought and a plan to make a difference – even if it’s to just one child.

“I want to be remembered for trying to make lives better.”

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