The inspiring Science teacher of SMK Limbang
by Chang Yi. Posted on June 18, 2012, Monday
IN 1974, I was posted to SMK Limbang – my first posting after graduating with my teaching diploma.
The school staff was small in comparison to today’s school staffing population, but what was most remarkable then was the multi-racial and international makeup of the staff.
My first day at SMK Limbang would bring me face to face with Jim Lehmann: a six-foot, blond, American teacher. He was wearing a grand batik shirt and carrying a notepad in his hand. If I can remember correctly, he also had a whistle dangling from a cord around his neck!
It was really surreal. For a while I thought I was looking at a typical American scene from a Hollywood movie. Sitting down on the sofa was another American - Susan Peterson – who looked very serious. She had that ‘teacher look’ as people would say.
James Lehmann, or just Jim, came to Limbang as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) teacher and brought up a generation of students who loved science and nature.
He, along with the other outstanding teachers of SMK Limbang, were instrumental in raising the standards of teaching science subjects and improving school results.
Jim was a fresh young graduate when he came to Sarawak.
He arrived in Kuching on Sept 1st, 1972 where he had a 12-week in-country training, including background on the Sarawak educational system, the local adats, Sarawak’s history and cultures, the local bazaar Malay and practice teaching at Bintulu Secondary School.
He was in Group 41 of PCVs, a group of 14 secondary math and science teachers who volunteered to teach in Sarawak.
His good friend, Christopher Sawan, will always remember how difficult Jim found it to buy size 12 shoes in Limbang. The possibility of not finding size 12 shoes in Sarawak hadn’t occurred to the young American before he left his homeland.
Jim, upon wearing out his only pair of shoes had to buy a pair of shoes in Brunei and had the front part cut off to let his toes creep out!
He could not wait for the December holidays as he knew only then would he be able to buy new size 12 shoes in Kuala Lumpur.
Another amusing incident was related to his first ‘Foochow’ haircut in Limbang town.
The friendly barber said he knew exactly what Jim wanted: short at the sides, short at the top, etc.
When the cut was finished, Jim could not believe his eyes. His Caucasian-shaped head could not take the Foochow style of haircut and to the amusement of the whole staff, Jim asked for one week’s leave to allow his hair to grow out!
Later, Jim would find out that Christopher was actually a good hairstylist and he also found another barber in town to cut his very fine hair.
In the classroom, Jim made all the difference in the learning of science. He had no problem maintaining control and had his students mesmerised when he taught.
Coming from Minnesota, Jim was familiar with farming life and he was happy to spend time in Sarawak. He visited his colleagues’ longhouses and loved taking the longboat rides down the small meandering rivers during the weekends or whenever he had short holidays.
He was very amused when the local people teased him into eating roasted grasshoppers and cicadas. And he did taste a few glasses of local rice wine on special occasions.
He slowly built up a collection of 33 1/3 black vinyl records – one of the few aspects of fine living he had in Limbang. At the end of his tour of duty he gave these treasures to his best friends.
He joined the Peace Corps (PC) to teach overseas and believed that he could in one way or another help with development in other countries. As both of his elder brothers were drafted into the US Army and had served in Vietnam, their experiences made them insist that their younger brother not volunteer to join the military.
In fact, Jim had almost become a naval officer, but when he was told that he would never command a ship because he wore glasses, he did not enlist.
The naval recruiters were very interested in him because he scored a perfect score on their mathematics tests!
In a recent email, he wrote: “I have many memories of my life in Limbang: joining the local karate club and attending the National Tang Soo Do tournament where I won a bronze medal for my level of belt, bicycling every night into town and eating at the outdoor cafes and kedais, birthday parties with Susan Peterson, Christopher Sawan and the rest of the teaching gang, Gawai Dayak and the longhouse festival, a mouse deer (now an endangered species) running into our classroom during an afternoon class, Christopher Sawan and I lighting up cigars in protest of the smokers in the faculty room, the exceptional Form 4 & 5 Science students we had, the camaraderie of the teaching staff, etc.”
All the Form five students he taught would remember remarkably their Bukit Mas trip: “A most memorable experience (there were many) in Sarawak which was the ecology field trip day to Bukit Mas, where a forest fire had burned a clearing between the school and town. The Form 5 students enjoyed a field trip which I suppose was novel to them.”
Jim remembered how they collected specimens, some of which were new to science, took pictures of unique animals, “but most of all, I captured the day and the classes enthusiasm and youthful playfulness with my tripod and single lens reflex camera. The field trip picture reappeared after 26 years when I returned for a reunion trip in 2001.”
A lot of people asked Jim what the PC was all about or what his experience was.
He said: “Obviously, we were all secondary teachers at the time and played that role. But most importantly, it was that unique opportunity to live with, share, and get to know many wonderful people!”
‘Mr Jim’ is well remembered by his SMK Limbang students of 1974-5 and they would love to see him back in Sarawak again.
So many of them have written to him recently and invited him to join Facebook. Perhaps in a few years’ time we will all be able to see him on FB.
In other words we’ll have to wait until he retired.
Jim’s love for teaching did not end when he completed his tour as a PCV. He went home to go back to college and eventually obtain his PhD.
Today, he is a professor of some renown college but he says that he “continues to teach, for with five children, teachers get to keep teaching until their children are done with college!”
This seems to be quite a global family scenario nowadays. Jim is not alone in supporting all his children through university!
His eldest boy, Charles Luke, is finishing his orthopedic medicine residency and has a Korean-American wife who has also just graduated from medical school. In a way, Jim continues to be connected with Asia via his daughter-in-law!
He remains in close contact with his former colleagues through emails and letters. He misses Sarawak and still keeps a lot of souvenirs at his home in Cedar Rapids.
He has returned to Sarawak once and I am sure he will be come back again, perhaps this time with his wife, Linda.
He will find Limbang has changed for the better and the school is no longer the same one he taught at more than 35 years ago.
Some older folks have gone from this world, especially the owners of the café who made the special peanut butter buns.
Instead of bicycles, the people of Limbang now will be proudly driving Hilux and big Camrys. Motorbikes still roar along the roads but some familiar faces would still be there for him to recognise.
One thing is certain: his former colleagues and students would organise a welcome party when he comes back for a visit.
It is difficult to forget a good teacher and a good friend.
He can be contacted at JLeh530655@aol.com