I graduated from high school a year after my country, Malaya, won her independence from Great Britain—1957. As a young independent nation, Malaya could rely on her abundant natural resources and strong political allies nearby to forge ahead. I had no natural resources or allies to realize my dreams or forge ahead. The best allies for me in the village were poor people or the pigs. Your teachers were as distant as the orangutans in the jungles of Indonesia.
I tried and tried to pull a few strings here and there when I was in Form IV (the equivalent of grade eleven in the West), but to no avail. A few letters were posted to potential benefactors as far away as Singapore. Then I was shooting for a rare chance to study in a school in Ipoh, the town where I was born, because the Methodist boarding school there had produced many successes. The school was expensive and miles away from where I lived.
Preoccupied with my own struggles for survival with Father and his family, and my own deteriorating relationship with the larger family in the kampong, I was oblivious to what was going on around me, especially unaware of the possibility to apply for training to become a teacher after my high school education. I was never in the right places, with the right crowd, talking about the right things about my future.
For many of the poor young people in my village or small town, formal education ended with high school graduation. For many, that was our cul-de-sac, with none imbued with the inspiration, the determination, or the vision to cut through “a street closed at one end.” We were not taught by our teachers that you could go around a wall, climb over a wall, or knock a hole through a wall when faced with a wall. In one simple word: we were never taught to think creatively.
Mother was against me joining the Boy Scouts because she somehow associated it with the military. That was a veneer for the real reason: my time was needed on the farm, not time out in the woods to camp, to engage in learning activities for badges, or to discover one’s potential and the hidden self. I was denied every opportunity to better myself
That was the tragedy of knowledge curriculum-oriented education. We were not taught how to think independently or how to solve problems in our lives. Problem- solving was unheard of when I was in high school. There was no evidence any of us was in a hurry to settle down and beget children for posterity. Good sex, bad sex, kinky sex, sex…had to wait. Unless you had brains (ambitions weren’t enough) and your parents had money stored in biscuit cans or hidden in drawers under some old underwear, you might not entertain a glimmer of hope of higher education, locally or abroad.
Yes, wealth makes a big difference in all our futures. Three students in my Form V class (the final year of high school) out of sixty-two were chosen to sit for Form VI entrance examinations. One Malay and two Chinese. One female and two males. These were the best and the brightest. Passing the two-year Form VI classes with distinction would be your guarantee to university education, according to the British system of education then in vogue in my country.
By hook or by crook, a few others—with brains and money—did enter and finish Form VI and pursued university education overseas, especially in Australia. They were the lucky ones because their parents had lots of pocket change to fund the academic enterprise. Two eventually landed in America through sheer determination. And some connections, I suspect. Less than a dozen were sent by the Malayan government for teachers’ training in England. A few received their training locally. To work for the government you had to have an English education.
Had I known of the opportunity to become a teacher, I might have sacrificed everything—even friendships—to go after the biggest prize, a viable alternative then available. Be a teacher. Less than a handful in my own village had done it. Granted, no one ever hinted remotely that I should embrace the teaching profession. It eluded me, totally, like a slippery eel. I wasn’t in the right crowd and I missed the opportunity to better my life.
And I paid dearly for not paying attention to my final year of schooling and my future, staying away from those fertile bookworms who could have been instrumental in channeling my energies to pursuing a brighter tomorrow.
And a long, zigzagging detour was about to begin.