SCHOOLS AND FACTORIES have much in common: they are places where "raw" materials are methodically processed into useful products - hopefully of some quality.
This was very much the case even in the early 1920's. In my school, the students were expected to be prim and proper, scrupulously clean at all times. We had to keep a straight back and a straight face - unless the teacher happened to be telling a joke, which wasn't often. It was, in fact, just like being in the army; it's hardly surprising that soldiers tend to go berserk in times of war!
In later years, there were moments when I considered myself fortunate to have been educated in such a mechanical, military fashion. Perhaps the discipline inflicted on me did equip me with an inner strength, which has served me well in the face of many hardships and setbacks I have experienced on the road of life. Yet I sometimes wonder: isn't it possible to cultivate the necessary grit and determination, to learn how to accept challenges without flinching, by less painful means?
My teachers were all efficient robots, save one - and she was looked upon as the weak link in an otherwise steely chain of command. It is conceivable that these "robots" might have had a soft spot in their hearts - even for us "Asiatics" - but they had to maintain the hallowed tradition of the army and keep us all in our places.
A rigid sense of decorum and dignity established and widened the gulf between the British teachers and their Asian students. We knew nothing of one another's background, culture and religion, and had absolutely no inkling of one another's personal opinions and expectations.
It was during the last stage of my school life that Madge showed up and radically changed the meaning of education for me. Madge was our literature teacher, and the whole class fell headlong in love with her almost on sight.
She could have passed off as a Brit except for her dark hair and eyes; but not being indisputably British, she didn't have that air of sternness, that stiff upper lip, that subtle sneer of condescension. Madge was Anglo-Indian, and exquisitely lovely blend of cultures and genes.
Miss McNeil, our crotchety missionary Principal, and Miss Bird, the seedy-looking Superintendent of St. Mary's Boarding School, did not approve of Madge one bit. They took particular objection to Madge's style of dressing and her lively mannerisms. Madge, you see, dressed comfortably for the tropics, in collarless, sleeveless, unfrilly dresses - just long enough to cover her knees. Moreover, Madge didn't wear a straw hat, nor did she ever don a white cocked hat when leaving the school building.
Madge had been accepted as a teacher on account of her excellent qualifications. As a part-Asian, her salary was probably about half that of a "full-blooded" B.A. imported from England.
She couldn't have been more than twenty-three: fresh as a lily she was, and she walked with such a bouncy step, she appeared to be bobbing, especially when she was in a hurry. She was just a little under five feet, and slightly rounded. Her tailor-cut outfits matched her petite form to a "T" - in enviable contrast to our own sack-like attire (designed by our thrifty mothers to last us several years, and therefore deliberately sewn three sizes too large). While we girls had to wear three-quarter length sleeves, Madge wore daring sleeveless dresses that revealed her fair and shapely arms. Her hair, so smooth and sleek, was tied in a neat knot at the nape of her neck; ours had to be plaited or cut very short. In comparison with our completely outdated appearance, Madge was a veritable fashion plate. And apart from being so approachably small, she had the most enormous heart ever.
Because of her, we all made excellent progress in English and Literature. We learned to appreciate poetry without being forced to commit every line to memory. My enthusiasm soared to such giddy heights that I even attempted to read Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
When I think back on my final year at school, I can picture Madge sitting so prettily behind her desk, which seemed too large for her. The chair had been specially modified for her and held an extra-thick cushion, without which we would all have towered over her. Our gaze often rested on her lips and not on our books as she read to us our favourite poems: The Miller of the Dee, Young Lochinvar, Casablanca, Longfellow's Psalm of Life.
We acted out Shakespeare's plays with great delight - A Midsummer Night's Dream, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night. We shed tears over Dicken's David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and laughed uproariously or wept over his Pickwick Papers. We were so very human during our Literature lessons. It was indeed wonderfully therapeutic for our souls to feel such a range of emotions. However, we had to restrain ourselves whenever we heard the "squeaky approach" of our Principal. Thank goodness she had those shoes - otherwise hers would have been a "sneaky approach"!
Madge typified the Ideal Woman for us. When we heard she was going on leave, we immediately suspected that she was planning to get married and we rejoiced on her behalf, for in our hearts we all harboured hopes of someday being allowed to choose our own spouses. Some of my classmates were already betrothed to young men they had never met. Alas, they were compelled to be obedient and filial daughters, as tradition dictated.
Those few months with Madge were the happiest period of my school life. But the Chinese have a saying: "Let us not be too happy lest the gods begin to envy us!" And sure enough, we were soon deprived of our ecstasy. Madge came in one morning, her cheeks pale, eyes hollow and dull. The sun seemed to have disappeared behind the clouds. We stood up in silent discomfort as she entered the classroom, all of us instinctively aware of her distress, and so we spared her the customary chorus of cheery greetings. With a grateful nod, she bade us be seated.
The lesson began in an unexpected way. One of the girls was asked to read a particular scene from Twelfth Night. Our minds were definitely not on Shakespeare. How could we savour the Bard when it was so evident that some terrible tragedy had befallen our favourite teacher? But what the nature of the disaster was, we could only speculate. Madge didn't utter a sound until the girl had reached that excruciatingly poignant line:
She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pin'd in thought;
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.
Then, struggling to control her emotions, Madge thanked the girl and asked her to sit down. saying she had had a bad night and was suffering from a splitting headache, Madge told us all to carry on reading quietly. But we knew it was her heart that ached and not her head.
As soon as class was over, we urged one of the Eurasian girls, whom everyone called The Official Reporter (as she was well-connected to "reliable sources"), to investigate the exact cause of Madge's grief.
Early the next day, our Official Reporter turned in a story that generated a tidal wave of shock and anger throughout the entire class. Our hearts were moved to profound outrage at the injustice done to our beloved Madge.
This was what we learned: Madge had a beau of French and Dutch descent whose family had strongly objected to his wanting to marry an Anglo-Indian girl. Such a case of unmitigated bigotry! The young man's family was known to be wealthy, but that didn't make them a better class of half-breed than Madge! Or was it simply because half of Madge was asian? The young man had suggested elopement - but Madge felt that such an unseemly recourse went against the grain of her character. Was it wrong to be in love? Why must they run away and hide their faces from society? In any event, Madge must surely have felt deeply stricken by such overt rejection.
We debated this topic amongst ourselves for over a week. What would constitute a morally impeccable solution? The more impulsive or romantic ones argued that true love should triumph over all else, and that Madge would be perfectly justified if she threw convention and social mores to the winds. The more sober or timid ones maintained that love was far too noble a thing to be sullied with scandal, and that the truly high-minded lover must sacrifice love for the sake of love.
In the end, we jointly penned a letter a message of sympathy to Madge, in which we promised to pray hard for her future happiness. We added that it might be a blessing in disguise for her not to have anything to do with such a snobbish family, and reminded her that time would heal all wounds.
We never knew how she felt about our letter, which she graciously accepted, thanking us for our heartfelt concern. But Madge was never the same again. She had lost her effervescence, her buoyancy and bright confidence. We could only hope that she would meet someone worthy of her and live happily ever after. She certainly deserved it.
Our Official Reporter had overheard that Madge intended to resign at the end of the term and emigrate. We couldn't help but regret that she wasn't going to be around to congratulate us for the wonderful results we were going to obtain in English and Literature. Still, we were glad to think that we would soon be graduating from school. The experience of losing such a good teacher and friend was too traumatic to bear for long.
Without Madge, I might never have acquired a taste for literature, for drama and poetry. She evoked sympathy and understanding for our fellow-beings by her sheer generosity and vitality of spirit. These are what I consider the best things in life - the rightful heritage of all humankind.