Thursday, September 1, 2011

Unforgettable Teachers

Teacher's Day is today. I can't help but remember the teachers who have ever crossed my path. I remember best the good and bad ones. They are like covers of a textbook that sandwich my school life. Who would recall the pages/teachers in between?

The bad ones come to mind most easily because they  have terrified and punished us in some way. For example, teachers who liked to slap. We never forget teachers who slap, do we?

I had a couple of teachers in my primary school who were just like that. In those days, it was normal for teachers to inflict corporal punishment and not just with hand but with all kinds of instruments. The cane, the ruler, feather duster...even the chalk duster. Yes, we used chalkboards then and our teachers enjoyed throwing  dusters at us. It did not matter if the dusters were oval of felt or oblong of wood, it came flying out if we weren't paying attention. Too bad if it knocked into your head. "Cry some more! I'll send you out of class" was the joined reminder that came with the flying projectile. If it was just felt, the most you got was a big puff of chalk across your face or the black of your hair (if that metal eye hook didn't catch you first). Wood was something else.

Yup, in those days, you hoped for none and wished the least... painful of punishments. There was also public caning on stage during school assembly.

My first instance of slapping came early in P2.

The teacher in question was a certain Mrs Lee, an elderly lady with greying hair. She was probably on the verge of retirement. She often wore a loose-fitting cheongsam typical of women her age and time. They were often of expensive material so I think she must have been well-off. She also wore a pair of sharp cornered spectacles popular with the ladies at the time.

As a teacher, Mrs Lee was rather impatient and liked to scold a lot in that sharp voice of hers. I think she was mostly confused by the lot of us active kids. One peculiar thing though: she was very concerned with our appearance, admonishing us often if our hair or clothes were out of place. She kept a feather duster on her desk always and would whack the desk to get our attention. However, once we got out of control, she would pull offenders aside and give a quick slap. "Didn't I tell you..." she would begin. We poor kids were often too shocked to listen or respond.

One day, I got slapped for showing my toy to a friend while she was teaching. We were all seated on the floor then. At first, I was utterly embarassed at being punished like that, but when it become the norm in class, we all took it in our stride. We nicknamed her Happy Slappy, liked she was a dwarf in that classic Disney fairy tale.

An incident soon happened after that first slapping: I peed in my pants in class. It happened because I was terrified of interrupting her class, even if it was to go to the toilet.

As soon as that warm feeling came, I quickly crawled under the side wall (which usually had a gap of about 18 inches) and stood outside in the corridor. Pee gushed down the sides of my leg. Mrs Lee came out to investigate, hands on hips. She took one menacing look and shook her finger at me, lost for words. I half expected her to slap me for creating such a mess and braced myself for it. But for some reason, she didn't. Instead, she instructed a younger teacher next door to clean up after me and to bring me to the school office to borrow a new pair of shorts.

Quite a few of my classmates peed in class that year. The principal should have taken notice of the number of shorts taken out of her office. Her kids were being terrified downstairs, right under her nose!

The other teacher who liked to slap was an exact opposite of Mrs Lee - she was young and pretty. She was Ms Leng but we all nicknamed her Barbie Doll.

'Barbie Doll' was no doubt pretty with her cherry lips, black mascara eyes and slim face framed by luscious shoulder-length hair. She was also Barbie tall and slim, and liked to wear flared black pants matched with fancy print blouses. Together with her A-Go-Go clogs, she looked the happening 60s/70s chick. The thing I cannot forget is that her face was always covered with heavy foundation. We used to joke about it cracking, why she didn't seem to laugh that much. You could call her a cold beauty with eyes that drilled right into you.

Besides slapping she also liked to punish us kids in unusual ways. Her favourite thing to do was to make us knock our knuckles with a ruler in front of class. Another punishment was to hold a dead lizard in our  palm. This freaked most of my girl classmates out.

Altogether, Ms Leng's prettiness and unusual punishments were both hard to reconcile. Kind of sado-masochistic if you ask me.

Oh, our teachers pinched too. I noticed that female teachers liked to pinch a lot in those days. Guy teachers did it too but would only do it to the boys. This often happened during a walkabout quiz where a question was written on the blackboard and the teacher walked around to tap on an unfortunate student's shoulders for an answer. Get it wrong and a pinch was what you got. Sometimes it was playful, sometimes not. As you can see, the quiz tested both our knowledge and nerves.

We took it all in good sport then. Only one or two kids threatened (often during the privacy of recess) to complain to their parents. They were often the spoilt ones.

If I had complained to my parents, I would have gotten a double dose of what my teacher dished out. Teachers got unstinted support from our parents then. Many teachers today would love to get that kind of support.

I don't believe in corporal punishment. Kids, no matter how young, understand the 'social contract'. It is better for them to equate a punishment to a crime. In this way, they would know better that a wrongful act has its consequences. They would more likely accept a punishment with reason than not. But this also means that the kids today will find new ways to circumvent their crime and punishment. In our day, we didn't know what to expect and would simply avoid being naughty at all. Or go full hog the other way. Running away from home was a common reaction to severe punishment, even if it was wistfully and wilfully thought about then.

Often times, when a teacher was unsure who to punish, she or he would punish the whole class by making them stand on their chairs. The other classes who saw this would make fun later, sniping: "Ah, you got punished! Neh-neh-neh-neh-neh!"

Standing on the chair as punishment was also common for not knowing the answer to a question. The more difficult the question the more you would find students 'up in the air' much closer to the ceiling fan. Many a times, the  students would be asked to cross their arms and hold their ears as well.

Teachers in those days were a bit of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Even Ms Leng, harsh as she was in her punishments, did have some redeeming moments. Once, when my school bus came late because of inclement weather she sat by me until it arrived. I was thankful because that storm was particularly violent. The casaurina trees along our school driveway were all swaying violently in the driving rain. Loud thunder and lightning cracked all over the grey ominous sky. Ms Leng sat beside me and chatted. I was grateful too because she smelt nice of perfume.

Another tender moment with this teacher was when she sent me an encouraging letter (see pics under 'Paraphernalia from Mattar Primary School Days') after I had sent her a card. By then, I was already in secondary school.

I don't know why our teachers were like that back then. Maybe they were just like our parents - monkey see monkey do - in matters of discipline. It was a painful way of showing that they cared. I guess many weren't so enlightened about corporal punishment then. Ms Leng, at the time, was my P4 form teacher.

When I reached P6, I had Mr Pang. He was my first and only male teacher during my time at Mattar PS. He was also the most craggy and pockmark-faced gentleman I've ever met. More pockmarked than Mark Lee or even Charles Bronson. Even his jaw was squared like some cowboy. And he had a deep booming voice to boot. He was the only one the big boys (students who repeated P6 once or twice) were afraid of and obeyed. Naturally, he became the Prefect Master.

Mr Pang was a fun guy to have in P6. I think I learned to be sarcastic from him because he was that way with us. It was his way of making us laugh and think at the same time. He would often playfully threaten to slap us, raising his hand in mock intent, to eventually tousle our heads. Maybe he was no saint, but he was less a terror to me at least. It was nice for a change to have a teacher with a good sense of humour, or at least a teacher who bothered to talk to us, ask how we felt. Male teachers ARE different from female teachers. And it is a shame that we do not have more male teachers in our schools today. Mr Pang lived in Marine Parade (Blk 32) and would cycle to school every morning. He claimed it was for exercise. I was quite impressed as he did indeed look fit.

Mr Pang was the one who picked me to conduct the daily morning exercise for the whole school. At first, I  was to follow his whistle timing. But later, he thought I should do that as well. Oh my! my skinny, premature lungs could hardly keep pace! Eventually, Mr Pang decided to take back the whistle so I could concentrate on leading the exercise routine. I think my fellow students out in the field were relieved too.

In P6, I often wore black socks and hockey boots to school - you know, the black canvas ones with white trim and studs below. It doubled as a pair of football boots in the school field. The sole was leather and became very slippery on wet surfaces. We would often skate our way home to MaPherson Estate via the back cement floors of the 1-room block of flats whenever it got wet from rain.

One thing Mr Pang did I could not forget. There was going to be a big boxing fight on TV one morning. It  was the Ali vs Frazier fight in Manila. The year was 1975. Everybody in school was excited about it, having two boxing greats in Asia, even if it was in the Philippines. The folks in the Common Room (what the Teachers Room was called in those days) were excited too. So Mr Pang called a couple of us prefects to help him hook up a TV there. We took the TV from the ETV Room (where we often watched public education programs then) and carried it downstairs to the Common Room.

With the TV set up, the match was soon on its way. Me and my buddy were about to leave when Mr Pang  said in his cowboy voice, "Why don't you stay and watch the game." I could hardly contain my joy! It had been something I was secretly wishing the whole time!

So, on that fateful day, me and a buddy watched Ali pulverise Frazier together with Mr Pang. It did not matter that we stood behind him the whole time. I was beaming not so much about watching the match but of mingling with the teachers. The Common Room was usually out of bounds for us students and it was extra special to be in there watching a boxing match (of all things).

At P6, we boys were also getting rowdy and boxing (and kung-fu via Bruce Lee) appealed to us.

Amongst all these harsh and somewhat quixotic teachers, a new and young relief teacher must have been like a breath of fresh air. It was.

Her name was Ms Lim Siang Ngoh, and she blew into Mattar PS as our P3 form teacher. Because she was young, we immediately took a liking to her, especially since graduating from a class run by an old, slappy hag like Mrs Lee in P2. Ms Lim was like the Ideal Teacher: Soft-spoken, kindly. And although she got angry at times, she never took it out on us. All of us liked her without a doubt. She helped me do very well that year, even beating that girl who often came first during the exams.

The best experience with Ms Lim was going to MPH to pick out our book prizes. For me that year, it was the Wishing Chair series from Enid Blyton.

Come end of year, we were especially sad saying good-bye to Ms Lim. She had been a revelation as a new-school (new-era) teacher. That December holiday, she invited me and three other classmates to her home in Old Airport Road. She had promised to cook us a special meal for doing well in the exams. The usual four of us went.

At the party, she played us tunes from a standing piano, joined us in a game of Blindman's Bluff and taught us how to cook fried rice with pepper seeds. It was my first time in an Old Airport Road flat and a first time eating fried rice with pepper. I loved it and would afterwards forever put pepper (powder) in my fried rice. Such is the power of a kind and wonderful teacher.

Besides Ms Lim, I had also visited Mr Pang and Ms Leng. Some of these teachers might have been harsh, but if they were not mean and showed a good side as well, we kids normally forgave pretty quickly. After all, more than once, we needed their help and advice with growing up. To help resolve our playground fights, get help when we did not have money to pay for school fees or even eat during recess time. There's a lot a teacher can do and they did. There's also a lot we could have learnt from them, but in those days, we kids were meant to be seen and not heard. The ones who talked with the teachers most were usually the noisy and naughty ones. I wonder what our teachers will say of us now if we ask them today.

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