Memoirs of a Kampung Girl – The Age of Innocence

I went to an all-girls Convent School at the age of seven and spent twelve years being nurtured within the Catholic order of duty, discipline and allegiance to our alma mater, God, nation and countrymen.

Within these long echoing white-washed corridors, I spent some of the happiest years of my life.

I still remember my first day of school with vivid clarity and bubbling excitement as I reverently put on my uniform – a brand new navy blue pinafore with a crisp white cotton shirt beneath.

My schoolbag was a little red and black checkered cardboard suitcase common among school children of my era. It had two shiny clasps on each end and I often snapped them open and shut just to hear the deep, rich clunk – exactly like my Dad’s briefcase.

White Bata canvas shoes stiff under a thick layer of blanco and white socks twice folded completed my careful ensemble and I was all set to enter into the world of formal scholastic training as a Convent girl!

I quickly learnt that going to the Convent meant the strictest adherence to school rules.

Hair longer than the shoulders must be neatly tied up with white, black or navy blue ribbons. It was compulsory for all students to have the metal school badge pinned on the upper left side of the pinafore at all times. No jewellery and definitely no make up should ever touch our little scrubbed faces. Nails had to be cut to the quick and inspection checks were often carried out to ensure no miscreants were lurking within these sacred walls.

No eating or drinking or talking or moving about in class.

We were trained in the highest order of discipline and decorum.

Every lesson would start with a smart attention to stand up. Hands at the side, shoulders back, heads high and in unison the whole class would chime a hearty “Good morning, Teacher!” as the teacher came into class for each new lesson.

Every lesson would end with the customary scraping of chairs as we chanted in gratitude “Thank you, Teacher!” as the teacher stood before us at the ringing of the bell.

We faithfully sang this welcome and goodbye mantra for about 20 times a day, five days a week, two hundred and sixty days a year for twelve years of my schooling life. We were a well-trained and obedient lot.

When I was 10, I transferred to the St Anne’s Convent primary school in the tiny hamlet of Kulim in jungle territory because my father had  been recently appointed as the new headmaster of a Chinese school there.

I was put into Standard 4 Raya (Hibiscus) and my form teacher was Mrs Venkatachelum,  who like most middle-aged Indian ladies in Malaysia wore the traditional saree to school everyday. Her hair slick in coconut oil was tied into a thick plait twisting down her back and she had a small black pottu on the centre of her forehead right between her eyebrows.

Her mid-drift spilled comfortably over her waistband and I remembered her dry cracked heels and dusty toes in her strappy sandals which slapped against her feet as she walked.

Like most of the teachers at the Convent school, she was strict, hardworking, matronly and yet quietly kind and assuring.

In all appearances, this new school resembled my old Convent school with its white main bulding in the centre of the school grounds and a large white cross standing tall above the building. The east and west wings stood enclosed on opposite sides around a playing field in the middle of the school.

But I was soon to learn one rather odd rule practised within the sacred walls of this fine establishment. A bewildering practice rooted in some medieval tradition and remained unquestioned and undisputed over the decades.

Everyday at mid-day classes would stop for recess. For me it was the highlight of my school day!

This was when everyone would perk up and race to the school canteen. With eager hands and hungry tummies we would reach for hot snacks like freshly fried banana fritters, spicy potato curry puffs or buy bowls of steaming hot noodles or grab domes of nasi lemak neatly packed in banana leaves.

Best of all, we could spend our pocket money on treats like packets of tapioca chips fried in a hot chilli oil or fried anchovies and other mouth-watering junk food which gave going to school a whole new meaning and purpose!

Some favourite treats of a Malaysian child in the 1970s.

  •  Ice lollies wrapped in a long plastic tube. Usually made of some highly coloured cordial syrup mixed with water and frozen. As kids we spent hours sucking on these icicles.
  •  Twisties, Chickadees & Mee Mamee – neon orange coloured snacks. Heavily salted snack puffs laden with E621, E 245, E668, E467. But they did come in all natural Chicken, Tomato and Barbeque flavours.
  •  Preserved and pickled fruits – usually so sour that the hairs of your neck stand up and you wince in an almost unbearable agony as the sourness shoots up to your brains. Come in shades of bright red and yellow.
  •  Dried cuttlefish and skewered sticky squid. One’s breath is guaranteed to reek like a garbage bin after consuming this catch of the day.
  •  Prawn pillow crackers were my absolute favourite (I confess until today).
  •  Milk candies and Rabbit candies. But the best thing about savouring this morsel of gooey goodness lies in the wrapping. A thin, lightweight, transparent paper is carefully extracted from the body of the sweet and reverently placed on the tongue to slowly and blissfully melt away.
  • Coconut candies – a thick, rich and hard sweet. This treat is wrapped in red, green and yellow sheets of celophane paper. After popping the mound of goodness into the mouth, the child can then entertain herself for hours looking at the world through different coloured sheets.

I lived for recess.

But all too soon the bell would ring signifying the end of recess. Now this here is where things get a little dodgy. I never did understand this strange little ritual and up to this day it confounds me still.

I was to learn that when the bell tolls signaling the end of recess, everyone, no matter what they are doing, no matter in what position they happen to be in when the bell goes, everyone must FREEZE.

Like statues. Like someone caught in a snapshot. Like a scene right out of a sci-fi movie where everyone is zapped with a freeze gun.

That’s how our schoolyard resembled everyday at the end of recess. As the toll of the bell echoed throughout the school, hundreds of little girls in navy blue pinafores screeched to a sudden rigid halt.

As if a cloud of magic dust had descended on the entire student body, every living thing became immobile. Spellbound for a good five minutes. Some are sitting stiff and still on the dry short grass, others have their arms lifted to the sky in a netball game, limbs are stuck in a mid-run position, some unfortunate ones are wobbling on one foot in the middle of a hop-scotch game.

Satisfied that order had been regained, absolute silence restored, the prefect on duty would give a violent jerk on the frayed rope connected to an old heavy chrome bell at the Assembly Hall. And with the second toll, the entire student body would awaken from their stunned immoblity and like ants pour into straight lines to head back to class.

It might seem incomprehensible that happiness, creativity and imagination could possibly flourish in such a rigid environment. And yet I think that boundaries, the principle of reward and punishment, respect and knowing one’s place in the hierarchy of life actually allowed us to be children and to enjoy it immensely too.

I can’t help but think how simple and uncomplicated life was then for a village school kid.

On my last trip back to Kulim, I dug out some old autograph books from my primary schooldays. Back then it was customary for students to pass these books to their classmates and teachers to have them pen a few lines of rhymes and well-wishes. In carefully formed childish handwriting, I found this little rhyme a little friend had written to me.

“Drink hot coffee, Drink hot tea, Burn your lips and remember me.”

To my dear childhood friends from St Anne’s Convent, I remember you and think of you with fond affection and memories. Thank you for taking in this new kid on the block with such open kindness and friendship.

(Copyright 2012 Memoirs of a Kampung Girl)