In the 1950s children went to school at an early age of five years. Some even entered school earlier, usually the children of school-teachers. I suppose it was a good way to get children out of the house and do something productive during the day!
Some time in 1952 when I was approaching five years old I remember my parents having some discussions about me going to school. Age was one criterion, but there was another!. They asked me to put one of my arm over my head and to try to reach my other ear. If my fingers could easily touch my ear then I was physically ready to go to school. I was physically small for my age and the physical test was a tough one for me. One day I passed the physical test. Hooray! I was ready to go to school.
I was admitted to Sekolah Melayu Bagan Serai in January 1953. The school was housed in a large wooden single-storey building, and it had several classrooms. Many of the classrooms were separated from each other only by wooden screens, and if you sit at the back you could always communicate with your friends in the next class. But beware! The male teachers at those times were fearsome or what we students termed as garang. Most students did not want to get into their bad books.
Just outside the school building were patches of vegetable gardens. Students in the upper classes were taught to do a little bit of gardening, including the planting of vegetables. It was good exercise and definitely useful education then!
The school offered only standard one through six. But, when I joined the school I found out that I and a few other children who were physically small were put in a special class called ‘Darjah Out’ (standard zero) and not Darjah Satu (standard one).
Going to school was exciting. I had to dress properly in the morning, in khaki shorts and short sleeved shirt. I had to put on shoes; yes, white canvas shoes which I had to clean every week and whiten them with liquid chalk. School was about a mile away and I was too small to walk that far alone. So my parents put me on a trishaw with two other children going to the same school. At school I sat on a bench shared with a few other children. Being in Darjah Out I had no books. All that I had was a ‘Papan Batu’ which was basically a carbon slate or board. We wrote on it with a pencil-like instrument made from a hard carbon material which we called ‘kalam’. I really don’t know where that terminology came from but I guessed it had an Arabic origin. School was half day in the morning and I spent my time writing the alphabets or numbers on the Papan Batu. At the end of the day my Papan Batu would be completely full with my work. The teacher would look at it and would give a long tick of approval across the Papan Batu as a sign of work well done. This was an achievement and I would take it home to show to my mother.
The Papan Batu had to be cleaned in order to be reused. I did not know what was the proper way to do it then, but what I and my friends did was to use the roots of a certain plants which we cut and used as eraser. The roots were watery and they erased the writings on the Papan Batu easily.
I stayed in Darjah Out for a year. The next year I was in standard one. The Papan Batu was discarded and I moved on to writing with lead pencil. I had an exercise book to write in. Lessons were then more substantive.
I stayed in the Sekolah Melayu until standard three. During that time I learnt to read and write Malay in both Rumi and Jawi. On reflection today, I must say that it was quite an achievement. I also learnt the ‘Kira-kira’ or arithmetic. We learnt how to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers. While addition and subtraction were quite easy, I found multiplication and long division being quite tough. Sometime we learnt the chongak or mental-arithmetics, where you calculate in your mind without writing on paper or even using your fingers. The learning process was good , partly due to the quality of the teachers then. At the end of standard three I could read and write Malay in both the Rumi and Jawi, and I could manage numbers including making mental calculations. I guessed I was quite literate by then.
Being able to read enabled me to read the Malay newspapers. Back then, my late father who served as a Penghulu was provided with the Government newspaper called ‘Warta Negara’ . It was in Jawi. Sometimes we read the Utusan Melayu also in Jawi. It was my role to read the newspapers occasionally to my maternal grandmother. She could not read very well but wanted to know the news. My mother needed no help then. Although she only had two years of schooling in the 1930s, that was enough to enable her to read and write and manage numbers. I guess education during those times were more effective in certain ways, but I would not want to get into a debate on this with the educationists of today!