Exemplary teachers have great influence over our adult lives


WHEN I had first entered school in Primary 1 at St Thomas’ Primary School in 1956, my very first form teacher was the late great Mrs Brandah (later Datin, as her husband Edward Brandah was bestowed the title Datuk later in life). Despite having only one usable arm, she was my very early six-year-old’s first understanding of the Queen’s English as well as being a very strict disciplinarian. She was a doting schoolmarm towards us as well.

Later on for the next six years of primary education, I had the crème de la crème of English school teachers, year after year. There was Mrs Philip Chia, Mrs Ee, Mrs Song Thian Cheok, Mrs Hilda Wong, and many others. My mum Mrs Ong Lee Kheng and my uncle Mr Ong Kee Pheng also taught me briefly. The two that I remember most with fondness and respect were Miss Teo Soon Tze (now Mrs James Yap) and Miss Beatrice Fu (now Mrs Chen). Both of them imparted early life lessons to a boyhood fraught with raging hormones and a curious mind hungry for knowledge and sensitive to real or imaginary heroes, villains, and demons. I was then on the very edge of puberty, which came at 13 when I next entered secondary school in Form 1.

I also remember the bad teachers – the ones who didn’t actually teach us anything at all but left us to do our own thing. The one I still blame for my not taking up Mandarin lessons nor having further interest in drawing and art was my art teacher. After Primary 3, he also became our Mandarin (as a second subject) teacher – he was so awful a teacher that I only learned how to write my name in Chinese and nothing else. As for the art lessons, most of the time we were just shown some still life artefacts (usually a vase and some flowers on a table) or had an excursion to the Sarawak Museum (when the naughty ones would wander off to St Michael’s canteen near St Teresa’s School), which we all enjoyed but learned nothing from. As he is still among us, I shall not name him here.

Secondary school life was such a great revelation and suddenly everything became exciting and wondrous again. Puberty had struck most of us and we were really running wild and were eager beavers seeking new knowledge and absorbing every little titbit and information from our lessons.

We were the lucky ones. We had teachers from all over the world – England, Scotland, Australia, Poland, Canada, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as well as the locals who were really experienced and very qualified.

I remember quite a few very well. They taught me lifelong lessons which I have treasured and they formed so much of my later learning years and growing up to become an adult.

There was Ian Gamble, a Cuso teacher from Canada, in Form 3 he taught us philosophy – Sartre, Socrates, Nietzsche, Camus, and others. He was also responsible for introducing us to the music and poetry of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Woody Guthrie. He opened my eyes at age 15 to reading and the exhilarating world of books, movies, and music. Remember this was 1965, when the Vietnam war was in full bloom, the Swinging 60’s raged in the UK, and JFK was President of the USA.

From Australia, we had two excellent teachers, one of whom has remained a dear friend and he has chosen to settle down here in Kuching (he spent many years lecturing at the Swinburne Kuching campus) – his name is Fred Black. He taught geography and what I remembered most of his days were our occasional trips to remote and obscure places in Sarawak – we took trips to Belaga and traversed the mighty Rajang; as well as to the Borneo highlands of Kampung Kakus-Kiding and many more. These were often journeys lasting several days and we had really roughed it out. Memorable times indeed.

The other was Ms Julia Marsden, who taught us English and joined the school as a normal Aussie lassie, who blushed every time she was confronted by our cheeky remarks, and had left as a full blown mature woman dressed in sarees (having by then met the love of her life, an Indian national). She’s now back in Australia.

Then we had the Polish ‘duke’ – Zygmoi Zamoyski – his period was history and he brought along a fierce and vibrant approach, as well as a most colourful personality. He interacted well with many of his students and is more fondly remembered as being the guy who took a shower in the open air in full view of all the students (by now we were a co-ed school after Form 5), which earned him a reprimand from the principal. I heard he has made a few visits back since.

The English teacher who influenced me most was Arthur Cotterell, who took us for English literature. Because he was such a great teacher I was able to score triple A’s in all my three papers at Cambridge A levels – a distinction in St Thomas’ which I believe has not been broken yet. He was very eccentric and had good days and bad, but mostly great. He had a lazy way of teaching but yet managed to get the message across. He encouraged and disciplined us. He was rather tireless although usually shabbily attired (as you’d expect from a good English professor). Today he is an extremely successful author of many books on Greek mythology, current world affairs, and history. Google him and you’ll find all his 40 plus books there on Amazon. He is back in England with his Chinese wife who’s from Kuching. I have met him twice since school.

There were the great local teachers – too many to name here but suffice to say, Song Thian Eng (now Datuk), Yeo Cheng Chin, Kho Tuck Chai, Lim Eng Khiong, Greta Lim, and others.

After school days, I have been greatly influenced these past couple of years by a couple of most exemplary ‘teachers’ whose initials are GT and ET (they are too shy for me to name them), who taught me lessons in living a good Christian life. They have been earnest, compelling, and enlightening not just towards my family and myself but to an even bigger group of believers and non-believers within our community in Kuching as well as Sarawak. This article serves as my heartfelt gratitude and tribute to them both and may they continue to lead very blessed lives and spread the good word of the Gospel. Amen.