How our teachers influenced us for the rest of our lives


Teachers of 1967 at St Thomas’ Secondary School.

THE sudden demise last week of my geography teacher for two years in the mid-1960s at St Thomas’ School was a wake-up call for many of his former students of how Mr Fred Black, from Australia, had influenced many of our lives – from the classroom till today – as Fred had decided to return to Sarawak after his first tenure at St Thomas’ was completed in the 1970s.

He had returned again to Sarawak to teach at the then fledgling Swinburne University Campus in the year 2000; and thereafter had returned to stay for good after that contract ended.

Fred’s teaching method went beyond the classroom and expanded the school curriculum: he had taken it upon himself to broaden his students’ outlook on life and took them all over their then known world – to remote areas of their own country which they had not heard of and never would have visited on their own steam.

Besides the given subjects, he had taught them how to interact with each other and how to make the world a better place – all this in his soft spoken low-key and very approachable style. He had lived long enough to see the fruits of his lifelong labour –  all his former students, no matter the sex, age, race, religion, or political inclination – had all come together united to share their sorrow and grief over his demise – in WhatsApp chat groups, on Facebook, and eventually in church and at the burial ground. It was a celebration of his life!

This is a life that all teachers should endeavour to live up to and aim to emulate: I know that Fred is smiling down on us all now. May his soul rest in eternal peace. To Tim, Tania, and Jen, who were here to say their last farewell, you can be justly proud of your beloved father and brother – his memory will live on.

By the time I was taught by Fred I was in Form 5, having attended 10 years of schooling by then. I would like in this column to pay a special tribute and mention those teachers who had made an impression on my life and how they had each influenced me to this very day.

As a six-year-old, my very first school teacher was Mrs (later Datin) Brandah; a most dedicated and loving schoolmarm of the first order. Despite being handicapped (one of her arms was amputated) she spoke the Queen’s English and tolerated no nonsense but every time with a smile on her face; being my very first class teacher I will never forget her gentle ways and manners as she stood at the blackboard in her sarong and well-embroidered kebaya, sporting a perfectly coiffured bun!

In Primary 4, I was taught by Miss Beatrice Fu (now Mrs Chen), who made a huge impression on me. She had told us that her favourite singer was Frank Sinatra because every time Ol Blue Eyes sang a song, it felt like he was singing just to her alone! That one single memory stayed with me till today. During this year, 1960, I had first heard Elvis on the radio and became a fan for life. Miss Fu was a very capable and diligent teacher and taught us well. During the year-end class party, she requested I sing a song in class, and I rendered Elvis’ ‘The Girl of My Best Friend’ – and sang it to her as if I was Sinatra! I remember from that time onwards, I always performed well in my studies – always finishing in the top 3 in class right up till I reached puberty at age 13 in Form 1 when studies took second stage.

In Primary 6, I had my first school boy crush at the ripe young age of 12! Her name was Miss Teo Soon Tze (now Mrs James Yapp). She was around 23, pretty, bespectacled, and had a ponytail. Her English was perfect and for all of that entire year I was totally enthralled by her – she had just returned from overseas and appeared sophisticated and well-travelled, and we had listened to everything she taught us. She really beguiled us all. We wanted to do well because of her! We all did – but at the end of the school year had to say a tearful farewell to our days of being ‘young and free’ as we were set to enter secondary school the following year.

Then 1963 – in Form 1 – was tumultuous – so much was happening then. The Beatles burst on the scene, the President of the USA John Kennedy was assassinated that November; and the Indonesian Confrontation with Malaysia had just started.

For the next three years, we were exposed to strange new pop music over the radio airwaves as there were hundreds of British and Australian soldiers stationed in Kuching for the Indonesian confrontation; and we could see them on the streets and in the coffee shops everywhere. Swiftly, the quiet, slow, and laidback Kuching of our childhood had suddenly transformed into ‘bright lights, big city’ where you could buy real English imported foods at Ting & Ting’s and other supermarkets and eateries. On the radio, English pop bands and singers were enjoying constant airplay. The English invasion had arrived in Sarawak.

The biggest change in our new secondary school lives were our teachers. We now had teachers from all over the world – England, Australia, Canada, Poland, India, Ceylon, and West Malaysia. It was a whole new world.

The teachers in secondary school who influenced me most were – Ian Gamble, a Cuso from Canada, who brought Bob Dylan and EE Cummings into my life and taught us all philosophy and transcendental meditation.

Arthur Cotterell from England, who later married a local Chinese lady, Yong Yap, was the best English language and literature teacher you could ever hope to find.  We were later proven right as he went on to write and publish very successfully more than 40 books on history, mythology, and ancient civilisations! If you look for him on Amazon, you’ll find all his books there.

There are so many others, but to name a few – Zamoyski, Thomas, Kumaran, Mohideen, Johnson, Y John, Chapman, and local teachers Song Thian Eng, Yeo Cheng Chin, Kho Tuck Chai, Lim Eng Khiong, Greta Lim, Mina Foo, and a few more. Even those whom at the time I didn’t think were any good, in hindsight realise I had learned important lessons from. There were really no ‘bad teachers’ maybe a few lazy ones. But even the lazy ones influenced us with their laziness!

To all the teachers who taught me – I remember you all, each and every one of you; the lessons you taught me in class are lessons that have influenced my life today. My heartfelt gratitude goes out to each and every one of you!

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