The 915 Years

It’s been 20 years since I left my secondary school, and as I write this, the girls I spent five years of my teenage life with are spending the weekend in our old school, reuniting over old memories and catching up on new stories. I had to give this reunion a miss, unfortunately, but the frequent Whatsapp group chats over the recent months leading up to this weekend have somewhat jogged my memory, and led me to reminisce.


I

I remember clearly my first week in secondary school; I went to an all-girls’ boarding school in Johor Bahru. I was 12 years old, homesick, and miserable. Every single thing I saw or did reminded me of home and reduced me to a slobbering mess. Waking up for breakfast reminded me of breakfast back home, and the waterworks would start. Putting on my school uniform made me think of my mother ironing my clothes, and my nose would go red and my eyes well up. Watching a line of ants crawling up the wall somehow reminded me of ants back home, and I’d start bawling. I was pathetic. Bedtime was the worst. Lying down on the bunk bed in the dark dorm room, thoughts about my family and home would flood my mind, and the sniffles would quickly turn into full-blown, chest-heaving sobs. The thought of having to spend five years (1,825 DAYS!!!) like this was the kind of torture I imagined belonged only in Dickens’ novels. Not only was I pathetic, I was dramatic, too. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand how all the other girls were so happy in their new environment, making new friends and sharing common interests. How did they not miss their families back home?!? My dorm mates, bless them, were kind and comforting, but it must have taken every inch of their willpower to not smack my head with a wooden ruler and tell me to pull myself together.

The only time I was genuinely happy was during lessons. In the classroom, listening to the teacher standing in front as I scribbled down notes, home was nothing but a distant memory; a faraway concept. It was a bit of a pitiful Jekyll and Hyde situation; during school hours, I seemed like a normal, 12 year old school girl. In the evenings, I would morph into a soppy wet rag. Despite my debilitating homesickness, I wasn’t the type to call home and turn the waterworks on. To do that would’ve been a sign of weakness, and would’ve just elicited laughter and taunts from my parents. Buck up and get on with it; don’t be such a wimp, was what they’d probably have told me, had I complained about my situation.

After the first week, however, the homesickness just stopped. I don’t know how or why it happened. I didn’t do anything. It just… stopped. Maybe my reservoir of tears had dried up. Maybe my mind was just tired of feeling so miserable. Or maybe my poor dorm mates, fed up with my perpetual sobbing, sneaked up to my bed in the middle of the night and whacked my head good and proper. I’ll never know. Whatever the reason, I have never since then suffered from even the teeniest bout of homesickness, wherever I went.

I was cured.


II

All the first formers were housed in one dormitory block, separate from the seniors. I think ours was the first year with this particular arrangement, and I suppose it helped us better settle into our new surroundings. Our dorms were spartan: cold cement floors, bunk beds, small numbered lockers that were half our height and about a foot and a half wide. We could hardly fit anything in it, but we managed. One of my dorm mates then was a big fan of Doogie Howser (weren’t we all?), and had a poster of him plastered on the inside of her locker door, greeting her every time she opened it to get her things. She’s a doctor herself now, so I guess Doogie was more than a mere teen crush.

Dorm inspections were conducted on Saturday mornings. Minutes before the warden or one of the prefects was due to arrive, we would be in a flurry of activity, sweeping and tidying up. Making our beds was a particular challenge; we weren’t allowed to use sheets with elasticated corners. We had to use flat white sheets, fold hospital corners, and ensure the bedsheets were so taut one could bounce a coin off of it. To my memory the coin test was never employed – and a good thing that was, as I could never get my sheets to be so taut. Some of my more talented dorm mates, however, had bedsheets so perfectly stretched, a coin could bounce off of it, do a forward flip with a 2 1/2 twist, and win the coin gymnastic olympics. Oh, the bedsheet envy.

Once we became second formers, we had to move dormitory blocks, according to our assigned sports houses (blue, red, yellow, green), and there we were supposed to remain until Fifth Form. We had to bunk with the seniors then, and were expected to observe the unwritten rules relating to seniority and hierarchy. The seniors naturally had dibs on lower bunks and single beds, and staying up beyond bedtime was a privilege typically reserved for them and a selected few juniors.


III

Spending five years in a boarding school expanded my palate considerably. For starters, I was introduced to the staple diet of any boarding school student: nasi kawah. Cooked in a huge crater-like wok (hence the term kawah), the rice was drier than your typical rice-cooker variety, and had a distinct nuttiness that could only otherwise be explained as burnt. Ikan jaket (the correct name being ikan cencaru, but so nicknamed as its skin was so tough a durian would seem pillowy in comparison) cooked whichever way was hated by most, and chicken was what everyone looked forward to. A particular favourite was ayam masak lemak, and on those days the hungrier among us would sprint to the dining hall as soon as the bell rang. The truly ravenous would excuse themselves to the toilet five minutes before the bell went off, and make a running detour to the dining hall. Ours was an all-girls’ school, not a finishing school.

While I admit the ayam masak lemak was tasty, some of the other chicken dishes traumatised me deeply. The birds on our side of town were European in their grooming habits, and very often our chicken dishes would come with a side of unplucked feathers. The veggie dish was usually spinach, served in a bitter broth of dark green chlorophyll. Every table had a bottle of jet-black soy sauce as an additional condiment, but missing bottle caps posed a problem. There were quite a few houseflies buzzing around the dining hall, a great many of which were huge, with abdomens that glowed an iridescent blue. They were attracted to the smell of the sweet soy sauce, landing ever so delicately on the mouth of the bottle to take a sip. More often than not, they would get stuck, struggle, lose their footing, and eventually tumble into the black sea of soy goodness. When that happened, it was no longer an ordinary bottle of soy sauce. It was kicap Jeffrey Ong.

It was almost a rite of passage for each of us: to unthinkingly pour soy sauce onto our trays and hear a plop!  as the resident Jeffrey Ong fell onto our meal. What followed was naturally a shriek and mild retching. After such an incident some of us would choose to swear off soy sauce entirely; the more practical among us would perfect the art of soy-sauce inspection, carefully tipping the bottle at various angles to determine the presence of a swimmer.

While the ungroomed chicken and the soy sauce floaters scarred me for life, I did have some good culinary experiences. Friday morning breakfasts were something I looked forward to, as the dining hall served something called “egg benjo”. It was essentially a greasy fried egg housed between hamburger buns, dressed with lettuce and lashings of chilli sauce. It was delicious. It’s a simple enough dish to recreate at home, but I’d refrain from doing so, as it will never taste the same as the Friday morning egg benjo we had in school. It was also in school that I learnt to drink coffee, as that was the only beverage available during breakfast (on days when they didn’t serve tea). I use the term coffee here very liberally; it was a sooty black liquid which would’ve also been sooty in taste had it not been for the copious amount of sugar in it. It may not have even been real coffee; it could’ve easily been the scrapings off the bottom of a wok and we would’ve been none the wiser. What made it palatable – and delicious, even – was the sugar.


IV

In 1992, when we were in the second form, our school hosted the annual Piala Perdana Menteri, or PPM (Prime Minister’s Cup). It was a national level, inter-boarding school tournament with four events: the English debates, the Malay debates, and boys’ and girls’ basketball. Hosting it was a big deal, and almost every student was involved. This was the year I was drafted into the English debate team, and my involvement in the school team defined the rest of my secondary school years. I was nervous at first, being only a junior with close to zero elocution experience, but once I learnt the ropes, I enjoyed every second of it. My fellow team members were intelligent and witty, and were fun to work with. I loved the brainstorming sessions, and the research that went into every topic meant engaging in a much loved activity: perusing books, magazines and newspapers. I relished the hours spent in the library, drafting and redrafting my script and rebuttals, transferring them to index cards, and then rehearsing until I was confident enough with my points. And of course, I loved the act of debating itself; trying to convince the judges that our argument was superior, and poking holes in the opposition’s case.

We weren’t above using underhanded tactics; espionage was a common method employed especially during PPM debates. Because the tournament was always hosted by a fellow boarding school and lasted roughly a week, the teams from the participating schools were allocated classrooms in which to prepare and do their research. Whether we were hosting or visiting, one of the first items on the agenda would be to figure out in which classrooms all the other teams were practising. The night before a debate, we would casually stroll outside the classroom of our opponent, on the pretext of taking a break and getting some fresh air, and try to eavesdrop. Sometimes we would spot other debaters spying on their opponents. Occasionally, on our way to our opponents’ classroom, we would spot them at the other end of the corridor, making their way to spy on us. Mission aborted. It was all very MI5/KGB/CIA-ish. In my mind, at least.

We were defeated in as many debates as we were victorious, but I enjoyed my experience nonetheless.


V

I was never the athletic type, and running was anathema to me. It still is. Sports, however, was compulsory for each and every one of us. Rightly so, of course – healthy body healthy mind and all that – but oh, how I loathed it. I didn’t mind team sports – even though I was terrible at everything – it was running that I found absolutely abhorrent. Sunday mornings were the very definition of torture for me. We had to wake up at the crack of dawn, change into our running gear, and head down for a run around the school compound. I don’t know how far that was exactly, but I would put it at roughly 10 million kilometres. On a Sunday morning. Ugh. When the warden was feeling especially generous, she would instruct us to run around the school quarters, which included the teaching staff’s residential area, and that was roughly 100 gazillion kilometres.

We would first assemble on the road, in front of the warden’s office. We stood there in the cold morning air, doing warm-up stretches while waiting for everyone to come down. The prefects on duty would go on their rounds, checking all the dorms to see that everyone had left and nobody was still sleeping. Or hiding. Sometimes, while we waited, it would start to drizzle. Those moments were crucial. Please, please, please, I would pray silently. Please let it rain. Now. On those occasions, I hoped the prefects would take longer than usual on their rounds, allowing enough time for the skies to open up and wash us with the perfect excuse to cancel the run. There were some who thought differently; they wanted to start running immediately, before it started to pour. Cepatlah, cepatlah, sebelum hujan, I heard them mumble to themselves. It was a battle of prayers, then, between mine and theirs. Sometimes I won; at other times, they. On the occasions that I lost, the nasi lemak breakfast that greeted us after the run was bitter consolation.


VI

We were allowed to go on weekend outings, either with the school or with parents and relatives. Like prisoners on bail, we looked forward to these outings. The planning would start midweek, among classmates and in between lessons. Sometimes one of us had run out of soap and needed to stock up. Sometimes we needed to get supplies for a class project. Sometimes we just needed to get out. We didn’t go anywhere fancy; just Holiday Plaza , a shopping mall which looked as if it had never been refurbished in decades. The air that circulated within the building was probably still from the 80s. It had what we needed, though: a departmental store and a well-stocked supermarket.

There was a limit to how many students were allowed to go out on a given weekend, and because we were driven into town in the school mini-coaster van, there were several time slots. A bit like train schedules. We therefore had to be quick to sign up, to ensure all of us could get the same time slot. One of us would be assigned to go to the warden’s office to put down all our names. It was a responsibility none of us took lightly.

Our outings were rationed, of course. Each student was only allowed to go out six times per term; three with the school and three with parents or relatives. The rules changed in the later years, but this was the arrangement that stuck in my mind. Those of us who’d used up their outings, or had things to do over the weekend, would ask the ones who were going out to buy their stuff for them. It would typically be food, in the form of KFC. It was very common on a Saturday or Sunday evening, then, to see students alighting from the mini-coaster with five to ten boxes each of KFC snack plates and dinner plates. If the franchise owner of the Holiday Plaza KFC is now a comfortable man, let it be known he earned his keep from feeding generations of famished teenage boarding school girls.


VII

We grew up with wildlife. Our school was built in a relatively secluded area, and presumably shrubbery and thicket were cleared to make way for the construction of the buildings. The original inhabitants, however, did not move out, and that was how, from time to time, we would be visited by groups of monkeys on a field trip. Sometimes they visited our dorms while we were in class; we would come back to find our lockers ransacked and food strewn all over the floor. It wasn’t just food – soap, shampoo and tubes of toothpaste fell victims, too. Clearly hygiene was important for these creatures. Sometimes they would visit us during weekends, when we were chilling in our dorms. Shrieks and screams would echo throughout the school compound, and later, during dinner, we would be regaled with the latest episode in the Monkey Attacks! saga.

Bats were another nuisance we had to deal with, but not as often as our friendly neighbourhood primates. Our encounters with bats were only during examinations, when we had to stay up till 2am or 3am to cram for the finals or complete our PMR Geography Project paper. The bats would come flying in through the open window, crash into a pillar, and fall onto our desks. It was scary, it was surreal, and it was a real bother when we desperately needed to finish up our paper to hand in the next morning. Pesky things. This was before the age of Twilight and romanticised vampires, so there were definitely no squeals of excitement or visions of pale, glittery-skinned Edwards. Thankfully none of us caught rabies.


VIII

Every school has that one teacher who strikes terror in everyone’s hearts. Ours was the disciplinary teacher, whose countenance earned her a nickname that in itself was terrifying. News of her impending appearance would calm down any ruckus in a classroom, and even the naughtiest among us knew well to behave under her cold, hard stare. If I had to draw a reference, I would use Professor Snape. She taught Physics in the upper forms, and therefore every student spent the first three years learning only of her reputation, never of her true nature, until fate had it that you enter the Fourth Form with Physics as an elective and with her as your teacher. Her reputation, in other words, preceded her.

I, like every one else, was terrified of her. I kept my nose clean, so I never had to cross paths with her, but when I entered the upper forms, I found myself in her Physics class. I was petrified. I wasn’t sure whether her terror expanded beyond the realm of disciplinary issues into academic performance, and I was worried that a slip in my grades would subject me to her wrath. In time, however, I learned that she was as nice as anyone else, and was, in fact, quite nurturing. She was very unlike Professor Snape, in fact. She was strict, of course, but not unreasonably so, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning Physics under her tutelage.


IX

Boarding school or not, examinations are the be-all and end-all of every Malaysian student. And in the context of legally compulsory education, the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations are the final hurdle. From the moment we were born, it was drilled into us that our SPM results would shape our future, and everything rested upon it. Unsurprisingly, the months leading up to the SPM in our fifth and final year of school was immensely stressful. Months of extra lessons and drills were part and parcel of our lives back then. Through our network of friends in other schools, we sought and found sample and trial examination papers from other states and districts, made photocopies, and distributed them to all our classmates. In all our five years together, this would be one of our final acts of teamwork and sharing.

In the days leading up to the real exam, the braver among us hatched a plan. It was to be the final and most important act of espionage: sneaking up to the science labs to see what was in store for our physics, chemistry and biology practical exams. A few of the girls would sneak out during our evening prep class and stealthily make their way to the labs, peek through the darkened windows and report their sightings to another group of girls, who would analyse the findings and predict the questions. The execution of the plan itself was a success, in that the spies weren’t caught; but whether the predictions were correct is something I can’t remember clearly.


X

If there was one thing we were all proud of, it was our school band. We were huge supporters of any team that represented our school of course, and would go down to the field or court in a heartbeat to cheer on our hockey and basketball teams. The school band however, was an institution. We always looked forward to watching them perform, and even their weekend practice sessions drew an audience from the nearby dormitory windows. I reckon the opening ceremony of the 1992 SUKMA Games is a sweet spot in a lot of our memories, as that was when the band performed in collaboration with the gamelan troupe and a newly-formed team of pom-pom girls to a very appreciative audience.

To most of us, the band was synonymous with the school – even for those who weren’t band girls. It would be the first thing that came to mind any time the school was mentioned, and it was always spoken of with an immeasurable degree of pride.


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