Farm Boy in School
My elder brothers, elder sister and two younger sisters all attended
During this time, though, I used to listen while my eldest brother played his harmonica. He had bought it for $2.00 from our uncle’s sundry shop. “Butterfly” brand - made in
Some years later, my father bought a Chinese flute which he tried to learn. He was not successful but he left it hanging on the wall. I took over and kept at it until I managed to get a recognizable tune and able to repeat it. But I managed to obtain only 6 notes. I kept asking him if that was all we got? Is there no way we can obtain more notes to give us a wider range? I can’t remember how long I kept at it. I wanted to ask an old man staying across the river, who occasionally passed by our place to go to the foothills to trap birds and some small animals. I heard that he could play the flute. But I never got to ask him. He seemed unapproachable as he kept to himself and seldom talked to anyone. Eventually I stumbled upon the secret. I had just to blow harder to get a higher pitch to get the next 6 notes. Voila! I have now 12 notes to play with!
So, some evenings on this quiet countryside you could hear a Chinese flute playing a classical tune, that would be me. Some neighborhood guys told me I risk injuring my lungs and I could cough out blood and die if I kept playing it. I believed they were jealous that I could do what they couldn't. But I kept quiet and didn't rub it in.
When I was born, my father bought a “Robin Hood” bicycle. He had bet some money on my birth certificate number and won some money. It came with 3 speeds and a “hub” brake, some kind of new feature in bicycles at that time. It was a strong machine. I used it when I later attended St. Xavier’s Institution from Form 1 - 5.
When the time came for me to attend school, my mother decided to send me to an English school. She thought I could do with less homework. I assumed she was just following what our 2nd Uncle’s wife did. She sent her son along with her sister’s children to that same school in Pulau Tikus, a half hour journey by bus. I became the only kid in the neighborhood with an English education and also the neighborhood kids’ target of ridicule as an “ang mo sai” (red haired man’s shit!). I hated it for a long time. But I ignored the ridicules and other snide remarks. I somehow decided I'd be going places where none of them ever would.
The first few days at school was pretty confusing for me. I wondered why some of the other kids had to make such a huge fuss attending school for just a few hours. They wouldn't let their mothers out of their sights. They yelled out their lungs and disturbed everyone else.
We wore white shirts and shorts for uniform. We were allowed to wear any kind of shoes then. I had a pair of leather shoes handed down from my uncle. One day it rained heavily on the way home. I waded through the puddles in the roads without removing them as I didn't want to hurt my feet. By the time I reached home, the shoes had fallen apart. I got new shoes after that.
One evening, after the first few months at school, as I was rushing to board a bus, being afraid that I could not get on the bus and be left behind as it was getting quite late, I slipped while grappling with another boy trying to get on the bus before it could stop. I fell and I cannot remember what happened next, but I ended lying on the ground with both my legs hurting badly. Some gentlemen whom I didn’t recognise got me into a car and sent me to hospital where I stayed for a while. They wrapped a plaster cast on my left leg after putting me through x-rays, and I was unable to get up to go to the toilet. I didn’t know how to use a bed-pan. I couldn't go lying on my back so I wet the bed instead. But I did enjoy some of the food they handed out, especially the bread with jam. I never had that on the farm. The jam tasted wonderful. Sometimes I still try to recall the taste of it.
After that I stayed home for another length of time. I still couldn’t walk so I crawled around the house. My father had to take me back to the hospital for regular check-ups. We had to take a bus to Pulau Tikus. From there, we boarded a trishaw which took us via a shorter route to the hospital. Once, it rained heavily while we were in the trishaw. We both got very wet by the time we arrived.
By the time my legs had healed enough for me to walk and return to school, I had missed a lot of lessons. I didn’t know how I did it but I managed to get through primary school all in A classes and even became a prefect in Standard 6. I was poor in mathematics and had migraine attacks almost every day around the time we had our maths lessons. I was quite interested in drawing and was getting to be quite good at it. When I was in Standard 3, a teacher drew some posters in pencil and told me to color them, then entered them in a contest. One of the posters was judged 3rd prize. I won some books as prizes and everyone congratulated me. But I wasn’t very happy about it. It wasn’t my work and I didn’t think I would have won anything if I did it all myself.
I was pretty shy in school but I tried to get along with other students. I managed to join them sometimes in a few games of marbles. One time, I won quite a lot in a game and put the whole lot into my school bag. The so-called school bag happened to be made of thick cardboard to shape like our present day executive’s briefcase, but thicker. So, imagine a few dozen glass marbles loose inside the case! My father, one evening lifted it up for no apparent reason to find it so heavy and noisy with the sound of marbles rolling around inside. He gave me a lecture about spending my time playing instead of studying in school.
Sometimes we would play “Cops and Robbers”. We would split into 2 groups. One became the cops and the other, the robbers. The cops would have to catch all the members of the other party and bring them into a ring drawn on the ground. They were to stay in the ring until they were ‘rescued’ by members of their group. The cops had to catch all of the robbers. After that, they would switch sides and became robbers instead. It was more fun being robbers and try to outrun the other side.
On another occasion in our school canteen I won quite a lot of sweets at a “Tikam” board, a game of chance whereby you pay five cents to pull a piece of folded paper off a board, open it to find a number which you match with bags of items attached to the board. If your number matched with any of the numbers on those items, you’ve won it. (These board games were later abolished from school canteens as they were supposed to be a bad influence on school kids.) I kept the whole bag of sweets in my school bag and ate them everyday, all by myself! By age 10, most of my teeth had cavities! Luckily, we had a school nurse who ran a dental clinic. I had all my cavities filled with silver fillings. Those were times I spent in agony anticipating a call from the nurse who sent the summonses on a white form with a green sticker, brought to our classroom by a student who had just come from the “torture-chamber”. If your name was on that form, you had to take it and present yourself at the clinic. Then resign yourself to the chair and let the nurse “torture” you with her drill on any tooth she so chose.
Like most kids I had to face school bullies sometimes. Once, a cousin of mine who was a year older than me insulted one of my classmates. His elder brother angrily came over and thumped me on the shoulder with his fist. I was curious as to why he did that. Maybe I was smaller in size than my cousin. I didn't know whether to feel insulted, laugh or get angry. These shoulders that had carried heavy things and been hit by harder objects than that, didn't feel a thing. Pa had always warned us about fighting with other kids. Win or lose we'd get it when we get home. I let those kids have the benefit of the doubt. I was in Std 5 when I really had no choice but to floor one kid who went too far. He was shoving me and trying to get a fist into my face. I placed a foot behind him and shoved back at him. He landed on the dusty ground. He didn't try to intimidate me after that.