Stories from my schooldays — Dharm Navaratnam

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AUGUST 12 — Thirty-six years ago I was a wide-eyed boy with a lot of hair who started his secondary education. I joined more than 200 other boys, split into seven classes, who would journey together for the next five years. There are plenty of stories from those years. Stories that are now memories. Stories that are worth telling of experiences that led to our characters being moulded and developed into what we are today.

As a new student, the first thing that strikes you as you enter the school is the sheer size of it. For a young boy, this is quite imposing. As you walk up towards the main building from the school gates, the huge school field lies in splendour in front of the school buildings. Never before had I seen a field so big, not even in a stadium. Rugby goals, Football goals and in those days, Hockey goals, were placed at different parts of the field. The field was so big that it was said that 3 different matches could be played at the same time.

Aside from the size of the school, you stand in awe at the sheer magnificence of the school buildings. It then gets almost overwhelming when you are regaled with stories of those ‘who passed through this our school’. The list is impressive and it is all the more daunting for a young man when you are challenged to match if not exceed the successes of these seniors.

The school hall was another magnificent place. The school crest hung proudly on the wall on top of the stage. Paraded on the walls of the school hall were the honour boards, long wooden blocks with gold lettering, listing down all those students over the years who were school captains, sports captains, scholars. It was every boy’s dream to see his name on those boards one day. The hinges on the doors of the school hall were brass and they sparkled, almost like gold.

Intimidating stuff indeed for a young boy but I suppose that is one of the reasons why my memories of those days are still very vivid.

As new students we quickly had to learn what we thought were strange names that referred to places in the school and where these places were. E-block; Quadrangle; Pavilion; Refractory and of course 206! Then there were the more straightforward places like the Junior Library, Senior Library, Scouts Den, Lecture Hall, Cadet Room, Band Room and of course the dreaded Prefects Room. These would be the places that we visited many times in our school life. Our favourite place was, of course, the school Swimming pool!

Monday mornings were when the whole school would assemble in that huge hall for a pep talk by the headmaster and dissemination of information. To kick off the assembly, we would stand and vociferously sing the School Song. One verse in English and one in Malay. Each and every week. Sometimes, the seniors would have more school spirit and decide to sing all three verses of the School Song in English. The silence from the front of the hall where the first formers stood was palpable as we hadn’t yet learned the words to all three verses. The gallery upstairs where the sixth form girls sat would be quiet as well. Later on, as seniors ourselves, we would do the same thing and for the first few weeks of every year, the front of the hall would be quiet!

32 years after leaving school, I have not forgotten the words to that song.

During assembly, the teachers would sit on the stage while the rest of the school sat on the floor facing the stage. The School Captain and Vice Captain would stand in front of the hall, facing the boys while the rest of the prefects would stand at the side doors of the hall, all keeping a watchful eye on the students.

The Headmaster that had the most influence on me, and I dare say my batch, would be Abdul Shukor. He was an imposing figure and had the most fiery speeches during assembly. He would tell us how special the school was and how we boys were special simply because we were part of the school. However, he also told us we had a huge responsibility because as students of the school, we had a duty to uphold the school in all that we did. We had to live up to the name of the school — not just as students but in our future careers — and thus contribute back to the country and to future generations. Undeniably inspiring words.

It was every boy’s aspiration to be called up on stage or ‘naik pentas’ because that meant that you were receiving some kind of prize or honour for excellence in sports, academia or extra curricular activities. In those days, the whole school would break out in rhythmic slow clapping as each student walked up the steps to the raised stage to receive his prize. Your heart would pound in sync with the rhythmic clapping, regardless of whether you were the one who was going up on stage. You would be filled with pride at the success of a fellow student that had brought honour to the school. An amazing experience indeed.

The seniors led by example and we would look in awe at the Form Fives and Sixes who seemed to do and know everything. These seniors were the leaders of the scout troops, the school band, the sports teams, presidents of clubs and societies, the school magazine editorial board and even the prefects. Unlike other schools, we only had prefects from Forms Five and Six. The seniors drummed into us the unwritten rules and values of the school and inspired us with their accomplishments. It was through participation in these school activities where we as young boys, ably led by our seniors, learnt about running meetings, about writing minutes, about pitching an idea, about leadership, about teamwork, about working together for a common goal, about caring for your fellow man.

These were life lessons that could not be taught in a classroom. These were lessons that would stand us in good stead in future years.

It was not unusual to see the sports teams training late into the evening, even past sundown. Many of us remember the sounds of the school band ringing out from the quadrangle every afternoon after classes. It was not uncommon for the band to carry on training until 1am in the morning for weeks on end before an event or competition. Sometimes the bandsmen would stay over in the school hostel and practice till the wee hours of the morning just to get their notes correct or their movements perfected. And they were back attending classes the very next morning! This wasn’t just confined to the band as you would also see the scouts practising at night and the infantry training in the dark. This was the dedication and passion to their craft that the boys showed. This was their devotion to bring glory to the school.

Today, that very same dedication and passion is still seen amongst the students. That very same single-mindedness to achieve honour for the school.

Then there were the teachers. They too played an important part in making us feel that the school was special. Discipline was something very important in the school and most teachers had their own favourite method of disciplining us. It wasn’t all about discipline though and there are many stories and fond memories of our teachers.

There was Mr Jeyaretna, who used to tell us that “25 years I have been teaching and in 25 years, there is only one school that has its own exercise.” The ‘exercise’ of course was holding your ears with your hands crossed and doing squats. It was also Mr Jeya who would dispense ‘ubat’ or medicine by giving us a crack of his cane. He would make a big drama of saying “ubat, ubat” and angling his cane at our behinds before caning us. It was the very same Mr Jeya who took away two marks from the 100% I scored in English because “Young man, no one can have perfect English. The English Language is much more than just correct grammar.” This was a lesson that I never forgot. Never mind that another boy in a different class with a different teacher got the English prize that year.

Mr Lee Kok Leong who taught us a novel way of how to remember Trigonometric functions — Soh Cah Toa. It was made easy for us to remember as Soh Cah Toa was supposedly Soh Chin Aun’s younger brother! We all knew Soh Chin Aun as the Malaysian Football captain at the time. My son is learning Trigonometry now and I have taught him the exact same thing!

The inimitable En. Jaafar Alang, the Geography teacher who used to carry a feather duster around and use it as a cane. He would refer to his feather duster as Flying Chicken, or FC for short and there was a song that we had to learn that we spent one whole period learning. This song was to be sung before the FC was administered swiftly to our behinds whenever we misbehaved. Funnily enough, we boys still remember that song today.

Our sports master, Mr Sin Ah Tah, who took us for Phys Ed classes and taught us all manner of sports. It was standard procedure for us boys to have to run 2 or 3 rounds of the huge school field with the Sports Master standing with his hands on his hips in front of the Pavilion and urging us to run faster. Some of us thought we were quite smart and would hide behind the green wall at the far right corner of the field to cut down on the number of rounds we had to run. Mr Sin was too clever for us though and he knew exactly who hadn’t completed his number of runs. Those that were caught were forced to run an additional round or do pushups.

Mrs Vaz, who was a stickler not only for English but for etiquette as well. She would correct not only our grammar but our manners and conduct as well our appearance. She was also extremely particular about spelling. She would often yell at us in exasperation but she would also tell us that she only scolded us because she thought of us as her own children and her only wish was to see us make a success of ourselves.

And who can forget Mr Ngui Thiam Khoon, who was my House Master! A few years after leaving school, I was seated at McDonalds with a girl. Mr Ngui happened to pass by and recognised me through the window. He tapped on it to get my attention and jokingly wagged his finger at me, as if he had caught me doing something wrong. I was delighted to see him and ran outside to greet him. After a firm handshake and asking how I was and what I was doing, he told me to go back inside as it wasn’t proper to leave a young lady alone. He also reminded me to “treat all women well and always be a gentleman”. The educating and advice never stopped with these teachers, even after leaving school. Strangely enough, Mr Ngui’s face at the window and his advice is a vivid memory although I can’t quite recall the girl I was with!

There are many more stories of our teachers. Mrs Leow, Mrs Foo, En Haron, Mrs David, En Azhar, Mrs Nathan, Mrs Marina Tan, Mrs Dass, Mr Foong, En Ariffin, Pn Jamilah, En Ganespathy, Mr Thiru, Mr Dharam Prakash, Mr Lau Boon Choy, Mr Jimmy Chu, En. Ananda, Mr Menon, Mr Teh, Mrs Chong, Mrs Goh and the list just goes on and on.

Unlike the ink used at our elections, These teachers left such an indelible mark on us all that we still remember them fondly today — 30 odd years after leaving school. Some of them never even taught us academically but they still influenced us and moulded us as the teachers in charge of extra curricular and sporting activities.

This is some of what I remember and what my batch fondly reminiscence about. So many stories, so many memories. And there are many more stories and memories but space does not permit me to regurgitate everything.

Indeed the school was special. The school song has a verse in it that tells us “that instruction be not all, nor this school just roof and wall”. That is so true, the school is so much more than the buildings. It encompasses the teachers, the learnings, the history, the culture, the traditions and of course the students themselves. Even the hardcore discipline right down to the required participation in clubs and societies, uniformed groups and sports teams made the school special. There was so much pride to be part of the school. This is the school spirit that every boy who attended the school knows and feels. A school spirit that not only stays with you but grows over time.

Over the years, the education system has changed and so have many other things. The school too has evolved and although many traditions are still in place, some no longer are, while some new traditions have started as well. Depending on which batch you came from, there would be different memories and different stories to tell.

The funny thing about it though, is that regardless of which batch you belong to, the stories really don’t differ that much. For a school that has taught and moulded Malaysians from all walks of life for 123 years, it is quite astounding that so many of us have similar stories to tell. Not the same stories but similar stories and this is the hallmark of a great school. For throughout the years, with different teachers, different headmasters, and different students, some things have not changed that much. Some things will never change.

This 14th August, in commemoration of Founders Day, we will raise our voices in salute to our glorious Lady that still stands proudly on Petaling Hill. She may be a little weathered but she is still majestically elegant. Happy Birthday to the beauty that we call Victoria Institution.

* Founded on Aug 14, 1893, Victoria Institution is 123 years old this year.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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