Back to school blues

Peggy [Right] ready to go to Standard 1
with sisters, Ruby [Left] and Pearly [Centre]
Each year when I read reports about the stress experienced by Year One students, I can’t help but recall that I felt the opposite, full of excitement at the prospect of finally being old enough to go to a real school with my two sisters.  While going to kindergarten was fun, there was something special about putting on a starched and ironed uniform – just like my sisters – and going to school with them.  I’m just glad that dad captured those precious moments in photos when I was showered and smartly dressed, ready for my first day at school. 

In those days, one of the essential items for Standard One students to bring to school was a blackboard with duster and chalk.  Mine was not quite black in colour but green, framed with alphabets in capital and small letters and I remember how it would slap against my short, skinny legs when I walked, holding it next to my schoolbag.  I must have written a great deal in class because at the end of each day, my uniform and forearms up to my elbows would be coated by a layer of chalk dust! 

Our school uniform comprised a slip-on tunic designed with three box pleats in the front and three on the back, teamed with a white button-front cotton blouse and the set was belted at the waist.  Maybe it was just my body structure or simply my lack of grace but from the first day I wore this uniform till the day it was replaced by the current pinafore pattern, I could never keep my pleats in place.  I used to admire and envy how some girls could end the day with their pleats still neat, amazingly also in the rear, while mine would be an absolute mess even before I arrived in school! 

It was the same for my canvas shoes.  If my sisters could keep their shoes snowy white even to the end of the school-going week while my once-white pair would be scuffed with dark smudges not long after I put them on.  And on weekends, I had a tough job washing and scrubbing out those stains and applying a generous layer of shoe whitener on its damp surface to conceal any stubborn stains.

Peggy [Centre] with sisters,
Ruby [Left] and Pearly [Right]
Going to Std 1 was not as terrifying for me probably because I have sisters in the same school.  In a recent visit to my alma mater, I looked in my Std 1 classroom and can still picture the way some mothers peeped in from windows and doors to reassure their daughters on the first day in school.  I recall that some girls bawled shamelessly, quite upset by the stress but I’m glad that I don’t have any memory of first-day tears or trauma.

But if there’s one thing which I still recall with a shiver, it must be visiting the school toilet.  Each time, when children needed to be excused from class for the toilet, we were taught to politely ask, “Please teacher, may I go out?” and wait until the teacher gave her assent.  It was quite a distance to walk to the bank of toilets, so it was always wise not to wait until my bladder was bursting before starting on that trek to the toilet. 

The toilets were labeled and allocated by classes so I would reach the one marked, “Standard 1” and gingerly peek into its deep, dark recesses before deciding to step in.  I’m not sure about school toilets today but in my time, they were always poorly lighted and tainted by lots of spooky stories.  I often wonder how I managed through the years but Nature’s urgent calls probably helped me brave any spooky encounters instead of taking the risk of wetting myself!

The word, “Triple Antigen” is firmly engraved in my memory because medical teams would visit the school to give children immunization shots to protect against contagious diseases.  At that time, I knew nothing about the benefits of the shots but only the terror it struck in needle-fearing kids like me, standing in a long queue waiting to receive a painful jab from a nasty nurse.  I also realize that my deep aversion for dentists today was probably due to the horror of being picked out from class by the dental nurse to go with her for a routine check at our school’s dental clinic.

Ruby [Centre] holding our brother, Kenneth
[Note: I'm reluctant to smile because of
my missing teeth!]
My parents knew I was not ready to buy food from the school canteen so I always had a packed snack and drink for recess or break time.  Mum would prepare a Tupperware tumbler of orange cordial and pack some biscuits or a slice of sponge cake.  I however, had the bad habit of chewing on the edge of the tumbler lid to drink sips and on one sad day, the damaged lid popped open in my bag and my drink drowned my books!

When I could manage money and join the crowd in the canteen, I was given several coins to spend on snacks.  Mum would tie these coins into a knot on one corner of my cotton handkerchief because if they were not secured, she knew that I may drag them out with the handkerchief and drop them carelessly.  It all seems so long ago now but these and other memories of my early schooldays are fondly treasured because it’s a very special part of my childhood.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in January 2010

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