My day as a child in the 1950s was quite routine. In the morning, like most children, I went to a government school. At around 12.30pm the morning session of school would end and everybody would go home. I was fortunate never to have attended schooling in the afternoon session.
The Government English School, Bagan Serai was only a few hundred metres away from my house along Andersen Road and so I walked to school and back. When I reached home at around 1pm I was already very hungry. Remember, there was no real breakfast in the morning and the 10 or 15 cents pocket money, though a lot at those times, could not fill an empty stomach. But, food was always ready at home, thanks to my super efficient mother.
But after lunch a second schooling session would start. Although already attired in my khaki shorts and shirt, I would pick up my kain pelikat or sarong and my kopiah or songkok as we call it today and set for my mengaji lessons or Quran reading lessons. This was not held at a formal school but at the house of a religious teacher a few miles away. Again, I walked to the class and back.
During those times, Muslim parents wanted their children to know how to read the Quran properly at an early age. Apparently, the ability to read the Quran properly was a basic requirement of a literate Muslim. Understanding the meaning of the Arabic verses was a secondary matter; the primary requirement was the ability to read. If a Muslim could not read the Quran properly then he or she was considered to be not properly brought up. For a male, how was he to lead a prayer at least for the family if he could not recite verses of the Quran properly? For a female, the responsibility was even bigger for she might in later years as a mother be called upon to start Quran reading lessons to her children! In fact some parents even insisted that prospective suitors to their daughters had this quality before they could be accepted as sons-in-law.
As for me and my siblings we had our first Quran reading lessons at home, taught by our super efficient mother. We normally started by reading the Juz Amma which is the last chapter of the Quran. In this chapter the surahs are shorter and easier to read. We would then graduate to reading the full Quran.
When I completed my Juz Amma I was sent by my mother to a Quran teacher. I was to begin reading the full Quran. In my case it was an elderly grandmother who taught a number of children how to read the Quran. We referred her as Tok as she was a grandmother. The students paid no fee. It was sheer dedication on her part, a quality we hardly see in present time. I am grateful to her for her dedication.
My Quran teacher lived with her daughter and family and conducted Quran reading lessons in the afternoon. A group of students would sit on the floor in the hall of the house . The house had a zinc roofing and no ceiling and as such it was very warm in the afternoon. We wore our kain pelikat and we put on our kopiah. We sat bersila or cross-legged on the wooden floor and read our own Quran which was placed on a wooden rehal (Quran stand). The standard routine in class was for each student to read his own Quran. We were all at different levels of progress and so the verses that we read were different.
Tok would sit at one end of the hall doing whatever she had to do but always keeping a sharp ear as to what we were reading. If she detected a wrong note in recitation then she quickly corrected it. Sometimes, in the heat of the afternoon we tended to get sleepy and our loud reading would be reduced to mere murmurs. Our Tok would then take her long cane and hit the floor with a cracking sound. She would at the same time in a loud voice said ‘baca’ or read. That was enough to awaken us to continue reading.At the end of the day we would be called , one by one, to read our assigned surahs in front of Tok. If we showed proficiency then Tok would allow us to progress and she would teach us how to read subsequent surahs. As class ended in late afternoon we would fold our wooden rehal and kiss the Quran and stowed them away. Class was then over. It was now time to go home. It was now play time.
When my mother approached the Quran teacher to enrol me as a student, she literally handed me over to the teacher to be taught in any manner the teacher deemed fit. As a rule, if I misbehaved in class then I was to be punished by the teacher. When that happened I was expected to take punishment quietly. It would be a grievous mistake if I were to report the incident to my mother at home. As a general rule if a child was punished by a teacher at the formal English school, parents were likely to be sympathetic to the child’s case. But, if a child was punished by his or her Quran teacher then it was folly to report to his or her parents. Not only would there be no sympathy for the child, in some cases parents would doubled up the punishment at home. This was the unwritten law of the time! In fact this was one main reason as to why the success rate of Quran reading classes was high during those times! The saying “spare the rod, spoil the child” was never more aptly applied. The long cane of a Quran reading teacher, especially its cracking sound when it hit the floor, was always enough to let students learn through sheer fear.
I never completed learning Quran reading from Tok. This was because in December 1960 my father was transferred to serve in a village near Bidor, also in Perak. I was to continue learning from my mother for a number of years. It took some time, but I eventually completed my lessons and attained my Quran reading proficiency.