July 2017

As memories fade with age, they get more precious. As we slowly begin to lose the ability to remember where we put the car keys or the TV remote, we seem to remember ever more clearly certain events in our lives, even ones that go back 60 years. Many of these memories concerned, not surprisingly, first experiences – from first day at school to first grandchild and the many other firsts in between. Here’s one of them and it’s about my first day at school.

I started Primary One in 1967, a few weeks short of my 6th birthday. I had to do a little calculation to get that right. In my time we don’t do birthdays. Celebrating birthdays was an alien concept, so they tend to come and go without being noticed. Actually, I was too young to start school, but my uncle was a teacher at the school and got me enrolled through some string pulling. We didn’t have pre-school or kindergarten so the experience was totally new to me, and one of the few long-ago events I’d remember to this day. I dressed up in my school uniform of white shirt and dark blue shorts and white canvas shoes. Slung over my shoulder was a grey coloured bag with maybe a couple of exercise books and a pencil inside. It was a simple bag made of heavy cloth material with only one compartment and a flap-over as cover, and I would carry it for many years after. I walked alongside my older brother for about one kilometre to Holy Innocents English School, which was a Government-aided school ran by the Brothers of St Gabriel, a Catholic order. It was an English school, that is, the medium of instruction was English, as opposed to a Chinese school where Mandarin was the main language taught.

When the school bell rang, my brother told me to wait for him where we were standing while he went to assemble with his class at the square together with other students. The square was simply a space surrounded by three sides of the school, which was three or four stories high. It was used for assembly and other occasions when the principal had something to say or show to the entire school. While the students and teachers stood neatly in formations, announcements came over the loud speakers, flags were raised and songs were sung. When it was all over, the students and teachers walked smartly off to their respective classrooms. Parents who came with their sons for their first day at school went off as well. Soon, they were all gone, and the place was empty. Suddenly, I realised I was the only person standing in the vast empty space. Apart from the faint sounds of people talking, the school was eerily quiet. There I was, all alone, not knowing what was happening or why my brother hadn’t come back for me. Panic started to creep in.

What was a 5-year old (well, almost 6) supposed to do but start crying? I can’t remember if it was loud bawling or soft sniffling/whimpering, but thank heavens someone noticed me. He must have seen me before or known who I was as I sure wasn’t able to tell him anything in the state I was in. Soon enough, my uncle the school teacher came and took me to a separate building next to the school canteen where the Primary One classes were. There he told the teacher who I was and they found me a seat at the back of the room. The teacher was very patient with me seeing how I was. A while later my brother came and the eventful first day at school ended well as I don’t remember anything after that.

There was one other incident in my first year at school that I remember. It involved my grandmother and it was one that I’ve not forgotten to this day. Sometime in the school year, I got up one morning and decided I didn’t want to go to school. I had no idea why but I just stood in the room with my school uniform on and refused to budge. My older brother and my cousin couldn’t wait for me and they left. Grandma came into the room and gently put her hand on my head. “What’s the matter?” I stood there with my mouth tightly shut. “Are you having trouble with school work?” I shook my head. “Did your teacher scold you?” Again, I shook my head. “Is someone bothering you?” I shook my head a little more vigorously. She was so patient. “Are you having trouble getting food during recess?” It was none of these. There actually wasn’t anything at all. But I didn’t quite know how to say it. How could I say I just didn’t want to go to school? To stop Grandma from probing further on nothing, I nodded to her last question. “Oh, I know,” she said gently, “there are too many kids rushing to buy food during recess and you are too small to rush with them.” I was smaller than the average kid in my class. “Don’t you worry about that, I’ll take care of it.”

I can’t remember how I got to school that day, but when recess came, I went to the canteen as usual. There was Grandma, standing by a bench next to a table, a hot bowl of steaming hot noodles waiting for me. I was so happy to see her, but I also felt very guilty. Grandma had to walk a kilometre in the hot sun, buy me a bowl of noodles, and then walked back home after I was done eating it. And she did this everyday, rain or shine. All because I faked the reason for not wanting to go to school. Somehow, after some time, I let Grandma know that I no longer needed her to buy the noodles for me. I just couldn’t bear having Grandma walked in the blazing sun or pouring rain everyday just because I felt like staying home instead of going to school one day.

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