I received an email today from an old friend and it made me want to write about my school days.
I don’t know about now but in those days in order to get accepted into the boarding school that I (eventually) went into, you need to sit for a 5-paper examination. 3 of the papers were the combination of various subjects that you learn in primary school, one was on problem-solving (modelled a lot after the Mensa IQ test) and another was a writing test to see your mastery of both BM and English.
My 2-day exam took place in Sek Men Gunung Rapat in Ipoh. There were hundreds of other kids taking the exams on those 2 days. After the second day, we stopped at the mamak restaurant in Batu Gajah for roti canai and teh tarik. My father asked me, how did you do in the exams? I said it was ok. Then he asked me to give a percentage. I thought about it and said 80%. Oh, he said, that means we would have to do up a budget for your boarding school expenses.
So we went home and I wrote on a piece of paper the things that I would need to buy, and worked out how much monthly allowance that I should get. It came up to about RM70 for books and stationeries; RM200 for bed sheets, pail, toiletteries, detergent etc; and RM30 monthly allowance. For the next 5 years, from 1987-1991, I existed solely on that RM30 a month. It was tight, but it was enough to buy the bare necessities, to quote The Jungle Book. Throughout the entire time I did not ask for additional money to buy any extra review books except for those in the mandatory list given to us at the start of each semester.
As a result, I relied heavily on the library, or Pusat Sumber Pembelajaran (PSP), and read almost everything I could get my hands on. I think I was also the first, if not the only person, who utilized the computer assisted learning programme (I have never seen anyone else using it). If I need to, I would borrow review books from friends and worked out a personal schedule which I pasted on my desk, so that I could borrow those books on the days when they were not using them. So, when everyone was studying for Geography, I would be studying for Commerce; when they were cramming Physics, I would be doing Chemistry. One of the boys in school actually noticed this peculiar habit of mine after repeatedly catching me having different notes than everyone else. Long after we have left school, he asked me about it. Was there a method? he asked. I told him, no, it was just out of necessity. I think til today he could not figure out what I meant.
On the first day of boarding school, my father drove me to Penang, but opted to wait by the car while I queued to complete the registration. While I was in line, I chatted with the parent who was standing behind me. Her daughter glared at me resentfully. She told me later, when we became friends, that she thought I was a stuck-up little miss know-it-all. Tunjuk pandai (show off), she said. What she didn’t know is that when I was 6 years old, my father did the same thing. He gave me my birth certificate and school fees, and then promptly left me in the sea of wailing children and stressed out parents to register myself on the first day of school. I was not even a full 6-year old yet, I am a November baby so I has just turned 5 two months earlier when he did that (I was enrolled in school a year earlier than everyone else, so I repeated standard one twice. Instead of sending me to kindegarten, my father somehow managed to get the school to accept me at 6.) So, at 13 (or 12, if you want to be precise about it), doing things on my own was not a foreign concept and I didn’t see anything odd about it. But I know how strange that must have been to the other 13-year olds.
I wore a two-piece color co-ordinated green blouse and skirt. My wardrobe consisted of 4 uniforms: blue baju kurung, brown baju kurung, blue shirt + skirt + tie and brown shirt + skirt + tie; a few baju kurung for daily wear, an assortment of shirt and shorts to wear at the dormitory, sports attire, undies, 3 tudungs that were color co-ordinated to match my uniforms and a couple of dresses for any casual outings and the quitenssential kain batik. It struck me as odd when the girls at the dormitory looked at me like I was mad when I walked around in my t-shirt and shorts. I found out a few days later, via an earful of lecture from concerned seniors who were bent on setting me on the right path, that such attire was lewd and inappropriate. I was from a place called Changkat Tin, a dot in the middle of nowhere in Perak and here I was in metropolitan Penang and they had hang ups when they see me in a t-shirt and shorts?
I can’t recall what kind of person I was in school. I relay the stories above because it reminds me of how similar the 13-year old Ijah is to the 35-year old one. What I mean is, I have always lived this way, like in the present, that I don’t remember any differences between the Ijah then and the Ijah now. All these emails from old friends seem to corroborate that suspicion. I must have been a pain in the behind then.
I have not been back to the school since 1992 when I popped by to collect my SPM results. Til today I still don’t have the urge to do so. I have not attended a single reunion. I have not dropped by for a casual visit. I have been to Penang many times. Not even once I feel compelled to visit the alma mater. The truth is, while there are many stories that I remember and can write about, school was not a fun experience for me. The structured learning system, the mindless copying of notes, the mandatory prep classes, the people – I miss none of those. But that’s a story for another sleepless night.
Below are some pictures, courtesy of frossonice.