Monday, July 6, 2009

Ahmad Goes To School: A Malaysian Story - Pt 2

After a chaotic first week, things began to settle down in school. Most of Ahmad's classmates had resigned to the fact that they were in school for good and cried less for their mums. But the occasional whimperings irritated Ahmad no end. He was eager to learn but every so often, his teacher had to break off the lesson to calm a student down. And his teacher had still not started to teach about the things he wanted to learn about!

He was also still struggling with the teacher's Bahasa Malaysia but he was getting more used to it. He could understand a little more of what she was saying now, although it still sounded awkward to his Negeri ears. He was learning the alphabet now and the daily recitations helped him get a little more used to the teacher's language. The teacher's scratchings on the blackboard were beginning to make a bit of sense now too!

But learning how to count was a whole new ball game! Now that was an alien language if he ever heard one! It was bad enough that he had to concentrate super hard to try and understand the teacher's Bahasa Malaysia, she was now scratching symbols on the board and calling them “wan”, “tu”, “ter-ghee”, “foh”, “fai”, “sik”, etc. What could it all mean? He knew that Pak Wan was his father's friends. He often came to the house for teh and his mum's famous kuih bangkit, but he looked nothing like that thin stick the teacher drew in the board! And some of his Chinese friends would call to each other to “fai ti, fai ti” if anyone slowed down – was that curvy doodle on the board something to do with his Chinese friends, then? Ahmad was confused!

At first, Ahmad had complained to his parents that he could hardly understand what the teacher was saying. He wondered why the teacher didn't speak Negeri like everyone else! But his father had advised him to be patient and to pay full attention at school. Being an obedient son, he did as he was told. He decided that since his parents wanted him in school so much, it must be something very important to do. And he certainly didn't want to disappoint his parents!

So Ahmad determined that he would pay attention, despite the language difficulties. He found that he could catch some of what the teacher said if he focused enough. He was beginning to recognise some similarities between her Bahasa Malaysia and his Cakap Nogoghi. It was tiring work through, constantly trying to piece the lingual similarities together to try to guess at some meaning to what the teacher uttered! But being an obedient boy and an eager learner, he persisted. Soon he began to feel more confident as he improved his grasp of Bahasa Malaysia.

But many of his classmates seemed to be lost or bored, or both. In class, they fidgeted restlessly, chatted with their friends, played table soccer with their erasers, or drew on their tables. Ahmad was already getting used to the crack of the teacher's ruler on the table. Most kids were stilll startled to submission, but some of the more aggressive ones began to think it was a great game to see how fast they could resume whatever they were doing after the teacher returned to the lesson again.

Ahmad couldn't understand why the other kids didn't want to listen to the teacher. Cikgu Norliza was nice enough, (even though he couldn't understand everything she taught). To Ahmad, you went to school to listen to teacher, and the teacher would tell you all the wonderful things you wanted to know.

Perhaps the other kids were having difficulty with Bahasa Malaysia like him too, most of them having also grown up speaking exclusively in the Negeri tongue. But that was no excuse! Sure, the language was tough to get around. But at least he was trying do pay attention, and his efforts were paying off as he was getting better at the language! But many of his classmates just didn't seem to be interested in making the effort. Ahmad just couldn't understand why...

Perhaps too they were used to the lifestyle of a carefree kampung childhood and the school's regimented schedule went against every fibre of their experience. Some kids did seem to fit into the structure naturally, like him. Others just seemed to be itching to run. Ahmad could recognise those children right away – they were the ones always looking out the window, their legs always jittering under their desks. They were the last one to hand in their work and the first ones out of the class. Ahmad couldn't understand these kids. Didn't they want to learn anything?

It never occurred to Ahmad that he was an exceptionally bright child. His parents and elders never treated him any special compared to his siblings. Neither did his friends and relatives. To Ahmad, he was just like any other child in the kampung. He played catch, he explored the dusuns, he swam in the river and he caught frogs, grasshoppers and mice just like all his friends did. What his young mind did not realise was that he was the only one among his friends who, after all the playing, went one step further to ask the all-important magic question that opened the doors to knowledge - “WHY?”

WHY does the frog hop and not walk?”

WHY is the mouse so small?”

WHY does the river water flow but the pond water stays still?”

WHY can't nangkas grow on banana trees?”

These questions sometimes exasperated his parents and elders because they eventually ran out of answers, whereas Ahmad seemed to be able to think up new questions every time he got an answer to the old one. But to Ahmad, it was natural - if you didn't understand, you asked! If you still didn't understand, you asked again! If you wanted to know more – you asked some more!

So day after day, he sat patiently waiting for the teacher to talk about his favourite topics – animals! In the meantime, he contented himself with learning the alphabet.

The day came a few weeks later when Cikgu Norliza asked the children to take out their science books.


Ahmad had been eagerly looking through the pictures in his science text books ever since he got them. The pictures of trees and animals and weather had fascinated him. He wondered day after day what the writings meant. He couldn't read yet, but he was sure that his teacher could explain all the wonderful things in the book properly. And he was ready! He had all his questions on standby. He was absolutely sure that Cikgu Norliza would be able to satisfy his thirst for knowledge.

As he took out his Science text book, he couldn't help smiling to himself. He wanted to let out a whoop – he was so happy! Cikgu Norliza was starting the lesson now:

“Studan, or-pen pej wan. We stadi bot gras-hoper today!”

Apo bendo depo bilang tu?!

Ahmad was bewildered! Trying to decipher his teacher's Bahasa Malaysia was hard enough. What was this alien tongue that she was speaking in? He couldn't understand a single word of what she had said. This was not Bahasa Malaysia at all. He could find in it any similarities with the languages that he knew, so he could not even piece together fragments of knowledge. He was completely lost in an ocean of meaningless sounds!

And the look on Cikgu Norliza's face didn't help either. For some reason, she looked like she was confused and struggling. Very different from the helpful expression she normally had. Why?

Suddenly, Ahmad felt a twinge of mixed emotions. First, there was doubt. Didn't Cikgu know what she was teaching? Was that why she was speaking unintelligibly-to cover for her own ignorance? Then came confusion – no that couldn't be it. Cikgu always tried her best to teach all the other subjects! Then there was guilt – how could he think such unkind thoughts about his teacher who knew so much more than him? Finally, he felt an unfamiliar feeling that he had no words yet to describe.

It felt like he had eagerly reached out his young hand to grasp the promised prize of knowledge, but as he had gotten so close to attaining it, he had been cruelly slapped away by someone who had decided that if he wasn't well-versed in an alien language, he should be denied the opportunity.

But Ahmad was not at fault at all! HE had eagerly gone to school to learn. HE had expected to learn and HE was ready to learn. HE had tried his best even through the Bahasa Malaysia difficulties. HE had been obedient and attentive. HE had been patient. And most of all, HE had always WANTED to learn. But yet, when his moment finally arrived, it all came crashing down for him because he could not understand a word of his teacher's lesson, no matter how hard he tried. HE had done all he could. And it wasn't HIS fault that he couldn't learn anything now!!

Yes, as Ahmad sat stunned in his seat, he felt this new feeling that he had no words to describe. But adults know that feeling well. And adults have a name for that feeling. Adults call it:


To be continued...

(You can read part 1 here)

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