About a week ago I visited the school on Pulau Gaya – an island just off KK. For no particular reason. Just curiosity, and to see if I can be useful in any way in the future.
I met one of the teachers over coffee and she invited me; I was very happy to accept.
On the day, I met her at 6.30 am under the arch at Jesselton Point and we walked together to the school bus (boat). Other teachers were already there, and we all put on life jackets as we set off. The fifteen minute journey was pretty calm (thank goodness) and gave a very good view of a misty purple Kinabalu mountain as I looked back towards KK.
It’s not a small school. We drew near the stretched cluster of buildings with pink roves, and walked carefully up the steps from the boat towards the staff room and a large assembly hall, with open sides.
‘I hope you don’t mind talking to the students there,’ my hostess asked me.
‘Oh about 100, 200.’
I met the principal in her cool office, and presented her with a paltry collection of exercise books and crayons which she accepted very graciously. It seemed to me the least I could do.
The teachers work hard there – they have their work cut out. There are 800 students, mostly Bajau, and all Muslim. Some speak English well, many don’t. Some come not knowing how to read or write.
There was a sprinkling of the usual laddishness, of perky interaction from some of the boys, but most were in tidy uniform, greeting us politely as we passed, in English. Classrooms were built off a boardwalk, and there was always the sound and sense of water beneath us. The wooden floors are spotlessly clean. The sports ground is built on reclaimed land. There is a café, and there are examples of the students’ work hung up on the walls. A cooled library needs more books.
The school is government funded and does well with what it has and is given, although I expect there is a bit of belt tightening. The students are encouraged to learn, and many try to do so. Some, of course, have family issues which mean that there are issues with non-attendance, for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes teachers go to the students’ homes to investigate, sensitively, and the results are not always positive. Although some old pupils have done very well, and are happy to come and talk at the school.
Talking of which, I soon found myself standing with a microphone in front of what must have been somewhere near 200 boys and girls. I chatted to them, trying to make myself comprehensible, about myself. They listened politely, although it was clear some of them didn’t understand me. I asked for questions. ‘How old are you?’ was the first. I told him, knowing that it must seem as if I am tottering towards the grave. We chatted a bit, and then I told them that we were going to sing a round; I explained what was involved, and everyone gave ‘Row row row your boat’ a go. It wasn’t a huge success but nobody minded.
‘Right,’ I told them. ‘I have sung to you, we have sung together, now is there anyone who will sing to me?’
The usual embarrassed sliding away of eyes, the looking down, the whispering behind hands, and then an arm went up. I beckoned the owner, a tall and handsome young man, to the front, and soon he was singing a popular song (which of course I didn’t recognise) beautifully, with gusto, and some of the listeners joined in. Next came another boy, who announced he would be doing beatbox. He took the microphone out of my hand and the noise he made was terrific. Everyone was very impressed and we all cheered them both. It was very interesting that once they were in front of their peers they were not shy, but enjoyed sharing and entertaining. One of the teachers told me it is because they have music all around them. Good on them, say I.
Next came a group of girls who showed what they could do with choral speaking. It took a while to get organised but what they produced was charming and clear. Again, an example of confidence and the results of encouragement.
I am sure it is not easy to teach at Pulau Gaya – some challenges are large – but there is a warm and positive atmosphere there, and my hostess told me that, despite the difficulties, she gets a great deal from the students.
I hope there will be something I can contribute at some point, but quite frankly, they are all doing pretty well without me.