An old boy salutes his alma mater and the dedicated ‘brothers’ who taught and managed the school.
RECENTLY, there has been a flurry of news and comments on the former mission schools with the romantics fantasising about their traditions and ethos as though they are extant today.
And shockingly, there are those who persist in labelling them as mission schools when in reality there is not even a lingering wisp of their former flavour to speak about.
When mission schools were absorbed into the national education system after independence, the vital innards that gave them their unique character had already been eviscerated to comply with the practices of a normal national school.
In the heyday of mission school education, particularly at my alma mater— St Michael’s Institution in Ipoh, Perak — the day began with prayers led by the class teacher, irrespective of his beliefs.
The pupils, most of whom were non-Christian, recited the prayers with gusto and in unison as if they were devout followers of the faith themselves.
Scripture was a popular subject among the lower secondary students because it was easy to score high marks.
And what’s mind-boggling was that it was the non-Christian teachers who often taught both these subjects!
On special days of religious significance, teaching was temporarily suspended, for students who wished to attend mass to do so at the school chapel.
A half-day holiday was usually given thereafter. The movie-going experience was also part of St. Michael’s culture.
On most Fridays after recess, it was movie time at the school hall for the primary pupils.
Many came forking out 20 sen to escape from class, and some to enjoy a nap.
The projectionist was the strict disciplinarian Brother Michael, a Burmese, and to irritate him, the mischievous boys made the occasional leaping runs across the trajectory beam of his projector to momentarily blacken the screen to gales of laughter.
At times when a segment of the film snapped, these boys created a racket to distract his concentration at patching up the break. Silence instantly prevailed when he switched on the lights.
The same movie was shown in the evening for other students and the public with the indefatigable Brother Michael still at his post, tediously winding and rewinding the spools. What devotion!
And when there was an epic Hollywood film with noble themes showing in town, the school would make arrangements with the cinema for a special screening.
Brother Vincent pictured here on the premises of St Michael’s Institution. He retired as the last La Salle Brother Director of the school in 1988 and was conferred the Datukship in 2010 for his unstinting service to education. – File photo
On such occasions, since the screening was on a school day, the students trekked across town in an orderly fashion supervised by the teachers.
Another activity which raked in funds for St Michael’s was the annual food and fun fair.
Every class had to put up a game stall or a food stall and also to find sponsors for their chosen undertakings.
During the carnival, usually over a weekend, every student had a role to play.
It was a time when egalitarianism came to the fore as the duty roster demanded that the rich and poor children do the same menial tasks, to retrieve the stray balls and pick up the knocked down cans at a game stall or to wait at tables, and wash dirty dishes at the food stall.
It was a humbling experience for some but it contributed to the bonding of young men in a noble cause.
Apart from the annual concert which was nothing to shout about as other neighbouring schools had also to stage theirs under a state education directive, the talentime night was always a sold-out affair at the school.
It was a talent contest when the participating students discarded their inhibitions to take on the persona of their singing idols, mimicking them in every aspect.
In those days, Rock n’ Roll was the craze and this saw the many Elvis Presley wannabes in their body hugging costumes with shiny sequins rigorously rocking and gyrating on stage to loud applause that had even the serious-minded Brother Director and Brother Michael laughing uproariously.
It was a great activity that helped in building up the confidence of young men.
Like others of its ilk, St Michael’s had to be involved in such endeavours as those mentioned above to raise funds for the upkeep and maintenance of the school and it encouraged students to be innovative and develop the important concept of working as a team member to achieve success.
Although these activities had greatly sapped the energies of the students, St Michael’s academic standing as a top school was never in doubt.
On the contrary, these activities exposed its students to the realities of life and that nothing was free.
Religious paraphernalia and publications were sold openly at schools and with the class teacher encouraging his charges to read so as to improve their English language, the publications were quickly snapped up.
The mission schools took great pride in their illustrious and cosmopolitan lists of teaching staff.
The government-run schools had a good mix of locals and expatriates, mainly British with many of them having great rugby credentials. Hence, it was no surprise that many such schools were much envied for their rugby prowess.
In spite of this, the mission schools did not fare any worse in rugby under the lesser known rugby mentors, mainly the Irish brothers who came from rugby playing Ireland.
For their lack of a strong school team, they found consolation in having groomed some of the finest rugby players.
These schools had a band of dedicated and committed missionary staff comprising the La Sallian brothers in their white cassocks and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus nuns in their loose flowing habits.
Besides their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, they also took the vow of teaching and educating the masses as required by their respective orders.
And they came from all corners of the world, each with a different outlook, experience and culture to further broaden the world view of the students.
It was the religious personnel who were heads of these schools with their designations as Brother Director for boys’ schools and the Mother Superior for the Convent.
Indeed, their students of yesteryear can truly say that they had experienced the traditions and ethos of a mission education.
Today, the students in some of these schools may be fortunate to come across a handful of these former educators, all of advanced age, who on retirement, decided to stay on in the country where they had given their youth in service of education.
The venerable Brother Vincent Corkery, probably the last in his religious congregation in this country, personifies this band of men and women for their dedication and sacrifices.
The octogenarian now spends his remaining days at the institution where he had served as an educator. It has to be his love for the school and the fellowship of his ex-students that made him give up the last opportunity to return to his native Ireland for good.
He retired as the last La Salle Brother Director of St Michael’s in 1988, and in 2010 he was conferred a Datukship in recognition for his unstinting service to education.
And what of the hundreds of thousands who passed through the portals of these schools from the colonial era to the 1960s?
If my former schoolmates who had spent their entire schooling at St Michael’s were to be any yardstick, then the vast majority of them though imbued with Christian values, have remained steadfast in their own beliefs to this day.
A friend, Wong Chin Sik, already a septuagenarian, fondly recalls his days at the school and jokes about the good times whenever we meet over a cup of coffee.
We laugh together, but somehow, the laughter always has a tinge of sadness about it, reminding us of the great days spent with the brothers, our mentors in education and in sports.
God bless them wherever they are now. Yes, they taught us good moral values and instilled in us the spirit of the school motto: “Sons of St Michael’s Valiant and True”.
NG PENG KONG Kuala Lumpur The STAR Online Education Sunday 03/03/2013