Sunday March 10, 2013
Chapters of the past
Teacher Talk by NITHYA SIDHHU
A teacher first, then a writer, our columnist shares her inspiring and enlightening journey with The Star over the last 17 years.
MILESTONES are important. They tell you how far you have come and for some journeys, they let you know how far more you have to go.
I recently passed a significant milestone in my life. On Feb 25, 2013, it struck me that I have entered my 18th year of writing this column.
Yes, 17 long years have passed since my first article appeared on Feb 25, 1996 in the education pullout of The Sunday Star.
At the time, the column was named They Call Me Cikgu and had the logo of an owl with glasses. My inaugural piece was entitled “More brickbats than bouquets” and in it, I told readers what it really felt like to be a teacher — paperwork burden and all.
Non-teaching duties have long robbed teachers of time better spent in the classroom. Too much on their plates and burdened with endless rounds of paperwork: this was true of a teacher’s life in 1996 and now, with school-based assessments in the picture, it looks like the heavy workload is here to stay.
My second article was on child safety at schools. This piece was triggered by the nation-wide concern about the whereabouts of Tin Song Sheng, the seven-year old boy who was believed to have been abducted from SJKC Taman Rashna in Klang.
Last seen on Jan 12, 1996, Song Sheng was never found. I also wrote about him because one day, my six-year-old daughter was left behind in school by accident.
She was crying and walked all the way to the school where I taught, to look for me but I had already left. A kind colleague immediately drove her home. I shudder to think of what could have happened to her!
I realised then, as I do now, how important it is that issues be aired, concerns be shared, awareness be raised and solutions be sought.
From 1996, I began putting my thoughts on paper in earnest. Like my teaching job, I took writing seriously — reading voraciously for background research, selecting my words with care and relating only true stories.
I sent in a fresh article every two weeks and kept on doing so with a mind never exhausted by the sheer number of issues and anecdotes I could relate.
My journey as a columnist began in December 1995 when Leanne Goh, the then Education editor who is now The Star’s deputy group chief editor II asked me if I would like to write a column on issues related to teaching.
I lived in an oil palm plantation then in Paloh, Johor. Yet, the two articles I had sent in timorously to The Star had reached her!
What made a Biology teacher like me post the articles to The Star after years of shelving my writing dreams?
I think there are certain times in your life when you just know you are ready for a change. It was such a pivotal year for me.
I know I wanted to do something more meaningful in my life and step out of my comfort zone.
I must say that if you want change in your life, then you have to start leading your life differently. Don’t wait for things to change. Instead, make things happen!
When The Star called me, I was teaching in a rural secondary school — my fifth school, under my seventh principal and in my 10th year of teaching.
Even then, there were so many stories about teachers and students in my head that I didn’t know where to put them.
Meanwhile, not many people knew about life on a plantation. Unless you work in one or are, like me, married to a planter or like some of my students, born to parents who work in one, you’d never guess that estates house people, mills, offices, clinics, football fields, surau and Hindu temples.
For 23 years, I lived in colonial bungalows located in oil palm plantations and mingled with planters, mandores, supervisors, workers and clerks.
I have seen what education can do to alter the fates of those whom we call “estate” children. In fact, I know many teacher friends who come from what they call “estate backgrounds”.
For me, life as an estate manager’s wife was not just about being addressed respectfully or being the guest of honour at dinners and dances. I was also a career woman who had a teaching job that I was passionate about.
Teaching gave me my own sense of identity and a purpose beyond that of being a mother and a wife.
I have travelled miles and on the roughest of roads just to reach some of the rural schools I was posted to. But, I never minded the journey. At the end of each day, I was still glad that I had a job to call my own!
In the schools I served, I learnt and worked with responsible and dilgent colleagues. Today, some of these colleagues have become principals and senior assistants but what binds us still is our shared history.
I thank God I became a teacher because if there was one job that allowed me to work wherever my husband was posted, it was teaching.
I’ve known wives of planters who’ve had to leave their jobs, or continue working only if they were willing to lead separate lives from their husbands.
I was also blessed to be a Cikgu. My students called me so, but in listening to their problems, suggestions and ideas, I’d say it was I who should have called them Cikgu.
In reflecting daily as to what appropriate response I should formulate for their every frown, smile and query, I know my learning soared.
People tell me that I make teaching seem wonderful. Do I?
Frankly, it’s a challenging job. But, it can be truly gratifying, particularly if you focus on doing what’s really important with all your heart.
There are times now that I meet teachers who say they would like to write. To them, my advice is: Don’t let anything stop you.
Be warned however that it isn’t as easy as it looks. Writing demands time, effort, patience and perseverance.
As the late American journalist and playwright Nora Ephron said: “The most difficult thing about writing is writing!”
You need commitment too: I wrote for 17 years and didn’t miss a single deadline!
But do take heart. Frank McCourt wrote his award-winning novel Angela’s Ashes when he was 66 years old and his memoir Teacher Man when he was 75!
When asked what took him so long, he said, “I was teaching!”
I don’t have a book to my name for the same reason. As for Nithya Sidhhu, it’s just a pen-name. Most of my friends and ex-colleagues don’t recognise me by this name. But, it doesn’t matter. They all know who I am and what I stand for.
What ought to matter is the writing I still do. It has the power to guide, inspire, enlighten, empathise and hopefully initiate constructive change.
Each of us pursues our own dreams in our own way. Me? I think I’ve always been a teacher first, a writer second.