Saturday, August 20

A lesson of tears and toiling breath


“With tears and toiling breath

I find thy cunning seeds

Oh million – murdering deaths”

The words were neatly and elegantly written on a notepad which was pushed in front of me. Not far to my left, Datuk Daniel Tajem, a learned senior member of our fraternity customarily kept his eyes on the bench which was raised above us. A twitch of his smile and a cursory nod indicated that the notepad is his.

I was seated at the back row of the long ‘bar table.’ Twenty or so lawyers were eagerly waiting for their respective cases to be called.

The honourable Justice was in his element that morning. A claim of RM1.6 million was found unsustainable, a defence was ruled to be a sham. New dates were given in some cases while a few others were fixed for further argument.

As the Judge adjourned to his chamber, we decided to join the wise owl for late breakfast at a coffeeshop near his office in Tabuan Jaya. Before our laksa were served, our brains had indulged and feasted.

Datuk Daniel had, by chance, recovered an exercise book from his village home, in which he had noted poems and good passages learned in school. The year was 1953, he was in Form One at  Batu Lintang Secondary School.

Recalling his days in school, the favourite subjects of our former Deputy Chief Minister were obviously History and English. He remembers his teachers in the two subjects and spoke fondly about them: the much loved and respected Catholic priest Father Galvin who was later Bishop Galvin, Anglican priest Reverend Father Morgan, Father Sheledon, Miss Harrison among a host of exemplary teachers.

“We did not use any textbook when we were taught by Father Galvin in Form One. The fact that we were taught Oxford syllabus and sitting for the UK examinations did not intimidate us because we learned what we were taught and Father Galvin was a great passionate teacher. He started teaching us by telling stories about all the people ‘who changed the world.’

Father Galvin talked about them as if he knew everyone of them, describing their lives, their achievements in what they did to change the world. Among them was Nobel Prize winner Dr Ronald Ross, who found the cause of malaria.

From the late Father Galvin, Datuk Daniel learned that the late Sir Ronald Ross was a doctor who loved arts and writings. Father Galvin wrote the doctor’s famous poem on the blackboard and the then young boy from a small village in Simanggang was moved by the words. He quickly copied it down into his now most prized exercise book:

“This day relenting God

Hath placed within my hand

A wondrous thing; and God

Be praised. At His command,

Seeking His secret deeds

With tears and toiling breath,

I find thy cunning seeds,

O million-murdering Death.

I know this little thing

A myriad men will save.

O Death, where is thy sting?

Thy victory, O Grave?”

Ross was a reluctant doctor. From young, he loved poetry, music and literature and with his talent in drawing, he wanted to be a writer and an artist.

However, his ambition was thwarted by his father, a serving general in the British Indian Army, who enrolled him into a medical college in London.

He passed the examinations for the Royal College of Surgeons of England and was drafted into the Indian Medical Service.

His affection in poetry did not dwindle any least. He collected writings of Lord Byron and Lord Tennyson and he was a close friend of English poet laureate John Masefield. Father Galvin took the opportunity to share some of their writings.

On the day he confirmed the growth of the parasite in the mosquito which caused malaria, Aug 21, 1897, he composed that famous poem before writing his official report on the discovery.

He used graphic notations in his notes and reports to describe the abnormal “seeds” of “large cells with pigment” in the stomach of the mosquito he dissected.

Driven by God, Ross found the seeds that killed millions. Driven by self-interests, the abnormal seeds in some men changed the world, for better and sometimes worse.

Using the words of John Masefield, Father Galvin taught our children half a century ago, how poetry was the delight of the community of humankind, the source of inspiration. Through poetry, stories were told, history was written, values are imparted, humankind progressed and the world changed.

And Miss Harrison would bring the young children to the library to read, most particularly, the newspapers. From her, the children learned that language is more than a mean to communicate.

More to it: the culture, traditions, the history of humankind and our knowledge in them requires our command of the language to convey them.

Datuk Daniel and his classmates took the advice of Miss Harrison. They have countless English classes in the library, especially over weekends as home village in Sungai Tanju took days and cost a fortune to return to.

It was valuable guidance of Miss Harrison that the eager young children read all four English papers which arrived months after their publication.

“It was not the news we were after, we had all learned that writers in the newspapers are the best teachers we can have,” revealed the wise man, and it became a routine for him to visit the library every weekend and during his free times, until he graduated and returned home.

How much have we lost, after independence?

Fast forwarding it to 2017, decades later. Our school children in Form One are not taught about Ronald Ross.

In literature, there is no sight of Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson nor John Masefield.

There are two poems, a ‘short story’ and a ‘graphic novel’ about King Arthur (just a little about his heroic, barely about the man. Reading the Wikipedia would have been better) for the classes now.

The first poem is telling of what is being taught:

“I am the ring

from an empty Cola can

the scrapings

from an unwashed porridge pan

the severed arm

of last year’s Action Man …”

The poem “Sad I Ams” has three other stanzas, starting with: I am the envelope, I am the battery with no charge left, and a garden overgrown with weeds …

The team of authors of one of the workbooks commented the poem is about things neglected or discarded and are of no use to anyone and that it has a gloomy tone.

No disrespect to the good author who is a teacher and he writes and publishes short stories for children and young adults.

It is about our administrators picking and choosing what and how to teach our children today.

We would want to believe that humankind have advanced, that we are more clever today than all the generations before us. Globally, maybe. But in our country?

We have hoped that Sarawak will start anew. Sarawak has demanded and there were promises of autonomy in education to enable our children to compete with others globally.

As a Sarawakian, I know we are willing to shed tears and blow toiling breath to achieve what we have wished for.

But will the promise be a ring of the cola can? How do we ensure they are serious with what they have promised, for once?