Sunday September 16, 2012
Teacher in ‘exile’
Teacher Talk by NITHYA SIDHHU
The recent visit by the British royal couple brings back memories of a book on King Edward VIII that the writer shared with a ‘banished’ teacher years ago.
SOME years ago, after attending a conference, I took a taxi from Penang Island to Butterworth on the mainland. Every time I looked up from reading my book in the back seat, I met the curious eyes of the taxi driver in the rear view mirror.
“What are you reading?” he finally asked me. He was a neatly-dressed Chinese man in his sixties who had a shock of white hair.
Noting the tone in his crisply enunciated English, I read out the title of the book I had in my hands - Wallis and Edward Letters of 1931-1937: The Intimate Correspondence of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
“Oh,” he replied, “you’re reading about the British monarch who lived in exile. The one who loved an American divorcee, right?”
He was right of course. The book was fascinating and I had borrowed it to know more about the man who had given up the throne of England just to be with the woman he loved.
(The intimate letters of the pair had been released to be published in 1975 by the Duchess herself.
Edward, Prince of Wales, made the acquaintance of Mrs Wallis Simpson in 1931.
Unknown to both of them at that time, events would conspire in such a way that when he succeeded to the throne as King Edward VIII in 1936, he chose to abdicate in order to marry her.
On Dec 12, 1936, his younger brother, the Duke of York, was proclaimed King George VI.
Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge who was in Malaysia recently for an official visit with his wife Catherine, enjoys his current status because of this historic event.
King George VI, the late father of Queen Elizabeth II, was the great-grandfather of Prince William.)
To get back to the story, I found it remarkable that the taxi driver knew about all this.
He surprised me even more when he said to me, “I too was sent to live in exile once.”
Intrigued, I questioned him and discovered that he was a former teacher. He became a taxi driver a year after retiring.
In response to my inquiring glance, he explained, “It was very boring just staying at home. Now, I meet all sorts of people.”
As for what he meant about being in “exile”, he related to me what happened to him in his 15th year of teaching.
“At that time I was teaching Mathematics in a school in town. The problem began with an ambitious senior assistant whom no one really liked.
“He used a lot of underhanded ways to sow distrust and animosity among the teachers towards the school principal.
“I supported the principal but my luck ran when the principal was promoted and transferred to manage a bigger school. I think you can guess what happened next.”
He looked at me in the rear-view mirror to check whether I was following his story.
Forced to leave
“The senior assistant then became the HM and I was transferred out! It still angers me when I think of how he managed to get me out. I guess he knew all the right people and I was soon transferred to teach in a kampung school in Kedah.”
“I kicked up a fuss of course. I went to the Education Department but the paperwork had been done and I had to go.
“The authorities said they were ‘reposting’ experienced Maths teachers. I was so upset, I wanted to quit. But, how could I?
“My wife was only a clerk. Her pay wasn’t much and I had three kids. We were all in shock.”
He became quiet, remembering it all.
“In the end, I decided to take the posting. I checked out the place and reported to the school,” he said
“It was a quiet village. Simple folk. And, the students very passive and quiet. I remember being frustrated because when I left Penang, I was not able to conduct tuition classes.
“I had less money and more worries. I rented a small room above a watch shop and I travelled back by bus every other weekend.”
I asked him if the change and transfer affected his teaching.
He replied that initially “I was so filled with anger that I used to scold the students. If they were lazy, I would reprimand them! They were terrified of me. But some of them really improved by leaps and bounds and the principal was happy.
A new start
“From then on, I was a little less harsh on myself and the students. For how long could I stay angry? So, I began to get more involved in my teaching.”
“So, it wasn’t so bad in the end, was it?” I asked.
“Yes, I got used to my life there. I was homesick but I was happy at work.
“My colleagues were easy-going in particular, a Malay teacher who joked and kept my spirits up.
“We used to meet up in the evenings and chat in the kedai kopi (coffee shop).
“Some days, we went fishing. With all that time on my hands, I didn’t mind giving extra lessons to help out the local kids.
“I decided then to pursue a master’s degree on a part-time basis and that kept me occupied.
“I also became an insurance agent and managed to sell some education policies. I suppose it also taught the villagers that they must save for their children’s future.”
Listening to his prattle, I couldn’t resist asking, “No local girlfriend?” For a second, he was stunned and added that he truly loved his wife.
Putting on a straight face, I asked, “So, you loved your wife like Edward loved Wallis?’
Catching the twinkle in my eye this time, he burst out laughing. And, that’s how the rest of the journey went, with us talking and sharing teacher stories.
Finally, when we reached our destination, he apologised for not allowing me to read the book.
“He added that he spent five years in Kedah before he was transferred back to the island.
“Although I had later taken a liking to teaching and staying in Kedah, I always felt that I was living in exile and when I got my transfer, I was the happiest man alive.”
I understood what he meant.
Helping me with my bag, he finally said, “OK, you take care. I know you are the reading, writing-type. So, you write my story one day, ok.”
Shaking his hand, I said, “Ok”. And, finally after so many years, I have!