First day in school

The pupils and Che’gu Achi circa 1934.

MY wife showed me a photo circulated on Facebook of my grandchildren – a brother and sister in the full uniform of their school but without their shoes on. Of course, they put shoes on before they went back to school last week, but the photo amused me for a reason.

During their grandfather’s days, 70 years ago, it was normal for most boys and girls from his village to go to school without shoes. Hardly anyone had shoes anyway, certainly not for everyday use!

As a result, these boys and girls had tough soles on their feet. They competed in sports barefooted, they won prizes in the form of exercise books and pencils. The decision of the referee was final and all respected that decision. None of us ever disputed results. No one took drugs to help boost physical strength.

I was really talking quietly to myself after noticing those feet – lovely and soft. I think, we were made of better stuff.

However, my wife, correctly reading my thoughts, pointed out that the situation that I was thinking of existed almost a century ago. Times have changed, Aki.

Have they really?

The first day in school is always news. Local newspapers are fond of publishing pictures of children on their first day at school. Today, everybody is a photo journalist and such events go viral instantly – Tommy crying and clinging to Mum’s skirt, and refusing to let her go. Mum reluctant to part with her little darling. Then there’s Kong Qi Ming Sam, the only pupil enrolled this year at a rural school in Sibu, to mention a good story of human interest.

Each family has a story about a child’s first day in school. And here I must disappoint you all: I don’t remember it. I don’t remember if my mother or father sent me on the first day. I think I followed the bigger boys, as small fellows do, and if they went to school, well, so did I.

It was a Japanese one! School was on a patch of land behind a building somewhere in town. It was there that we started ‘classes’, mainly planting tapioca after clearing the grass. We did this first thing in the morning and then we were told to stand in front of a post with a flag on it and looking at it, saluting and singing a song.

That was my first school and the first song that I ever sang – the Japanese national anthem, I was later told.

And I bet you sang it out of tune, Auntie Di comments. Well, she didn’t hear it …

I ‘graduated’ from Japanese school after a few months and went back home to help mum and dad plant rice at Limoi. I planted tapioca too, my strong point.

Then sometime in late 1947, I was enrolled at another school. I don’t think my mother or father ever accompanied me on the first day; they couldn’t have done so, because they were busy at the farm every day.

All I remember is that I found myself inside a room in the old Mission House. That was to be our classroom. There were a couple of boys – Hipni Bin Adi and Abdul Hakim Bin Haji Bujang (later to graduate as Batu Lintang-trained teachers) from the Malay village and other boys from the my village, Joshua Angie, Bita Saba, Morris Manca, Edmund Spencer and a couple more.

Our teacher was Miss Margaret Hugh, daughter of the resident priest, Fr Hope Hugh. We only knew her as Che’gu Achi, educated at St Mary’s School, Kuching.

My second school was the Christ Church School at Stunggang; it was started by the Rev William Henry Gomes of the Anglican Mission in 1853. I don’t know what the school uniform was in the 19th century; by the time I went to school, barefoot, only the priest’s son, Samuel Ah Nen, was wearing shoes.

What did we learn?

We learnt how to repeat the alphabet (ABC) over and over again, then to write big A, B, C, up to Z on a slate with a hard piece of chalk. That was my first ‘pen’.

To wipe out what you had written, use your saliva or end of your shirt. The correct way was to use a damp cloth, but my method was faster. Bad habit, not taught by our Che’gu!

Later, we were taught to count on our fingers from one to 10 and saying it in English from one to 10, then from 11 to 19, from 20 to 50 up to 100. I hated figures. I still do.

The Mission House where school was held in the 1930s.

Third school

One day, James Glimmer, a former student of St Thomas’s School in Kuching was appointed teacher in a school in Lundu Town. He was from our village, a few miles away from town; the only means of transport was by boat.

Apparently, he wanted boys to help him row the boat to school. I was recruited as a paddler and was enrolled as a student as well.

The first thing new students ‘learnt’ was how to sweep the room. It was a room in an old prison – so dusty and smelly that we had to wash the floor thoroughly with carbolic acid before we could put desks and chairs there. I was just placed among other boys and girls from the surrounding villages – all Natives (the Chinese had their own school) a mile away from our prison.

The Stunggang boys and girls had to paddle to school and home after school every day – one hour and a half against the tide and 40 to 70 minutes following it. Hard work, it was; hunger and thirst were constant problems. After a while, one got used to being without enough food during the day. I ate a lot at home. Mum saw to it. Breakfast consisted of freshly cooked rice mixed with black coffee and lots of sugar.

In 1949, I continued at Bumiputra school. I moved to town when my brother Bunseng, a police sergeant, was posted to Lundu as OIC of the district. Staying with his family was a great relief for me – no more hunger problems, no hard paddling. New rubber shoes for the first time.

I loved to accompany my brother to light the lamps in the bazaar – shoes always on. No electricity was available yet, but the bazaar must have lights. It was my brother who lit the ‘Tilley’ lamps at each row of the shop houses. I loved to watch him happily light the lamps one by one.

Incidentally, one of his daughters is called Tilley.

I loved going to the Bumiputra school and making new friends among whom were the DO’s adopted sons, Morshidi and Dolhan Yunus (Dolhan was DO of Lubok Antu in the 1980s).

Abang Haji Adenan, the District Officer, took a particular interest in this school which he called Sekolah Bumiputra. He organised regular concerts and singing competitions for us and the students took part happily. Believe it or not, during a competition, I sang a Mandarin song – ‘Ni Chien Mei Li’!

There were six contestants. Result: I was placed sixth. Not the last, you understand; don’t you ever say I was a loser. Just winner number six!

And this, my dear barefoot students of 2018, is how your Aki started his education. I’ll tell you more about it another day!

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

What do you think of this story?
  • Great (100%)
  • Angry (0%)
  • Sad (0%)
  • Nothing (0%)
  • Interesting (0%)




Supplement Downloads

Member of