We tried a few different schools in the area; all pretty nice and new looking, with nice uniforms – but they were full. The nearest available one to where we lived was Fairvale High, which was a bus ride away. A pretty old and tired looking school with ugly dark brown uniforms. Brown was my worst colour and I dreaded having to wear it.
I’d left during Form Five, just before the biggest exam of our lives to date, the SPM, was about to hit. The coursework covered in the SPM was basically equivalent to the Australian HSC (Higher School Certificate), which students here sit for in Year 12.
Technically, I had spent the last 2 years of my education at Convent Secondary preparing for the equivalent of the Year 12 HSC. However, to get into Years 11 and 12, I had to have an Australian School Certificate, which they sit for in Year 10 (ie. Form 4). No such thing existed in the Malaysian education system, so I had to go back and complete Year 10.
I’m sure if I’d taken up the fight they would have relented, but I figured it probably wouldn’t hurt to re-learn all that Trig and Calculus stuff and Periodic tables and Physics formulas which I’d neglected since finding out I wouldn’t have to sit for the SPM because of our eventual emigration. Big mistake.
I was 17 when I was put into Year 10; most of my classmates were 15 or 16. Ironically, because we arrived late in the year, the actual School Certificate exams were already over.
No lessons were taught in that entire time I was in Year 10. With the exams behind them, it was time to kick back and relax. The teachers basically sat at their desk and did their own thing. The students were told to bring board games to play in class. Supposedly, despite there being no testing or evaluation of my skills, my very physical presence in a Year 10 class counted towards my eligibility to enter Year 11 the following year.
My first day at school, the principal assigned a student to take me around and introduce me to the head teachers of each subject so they could allocate what class I was to go into. Nicole was aloof and didn’t engage me in conversation. As soon as the principal was out of sight, she grabbed another girl and passed me onto her. So Danielle ended up taking me around. Chatty girl, tall and gawky. She said, ‘Do you know why she did that?’ ‘No, why?’ ‘Because she’s PERjudiced (sic). She doesn’t like Asians’. I thought, ‘Nice, great start. Btw, the word you want is prejudiced’. I didn’t correct her, of course. It’d be rude.
Unlike neighbouring Cabramatta, that particular suburb of Sydney was still pretty white, with a sprinkling of Slavs and Italians and Indochinese refugees, and the school was made up of the same ethnic mix.
We saw the English head teacher, Mr. Drury. He asked me, ‘What’s your English like?’ Before I could speak up, Danielle piped in, ‘Oh, she speaks BEAUTIFUL English, sir, we’ve been talking since I started taking her around’. He said, ‘OK, let’s put you into this class’, and wrote something down.
After we’d done the rounds of the head teachers, I went to my first class – English. I noticed right away that the entire class was filled with Indochinese refugees. I sat down and was given a piece of paper. Everyone sat in a circular formation and took turns reading from the paper. And they were sentences like, ‘This is a cat. The cat is big. The cat is white. The cat is big and white.’ Something along those lines anyway. And the students were obviously struggling to read them.
Then it was my turn. I rapid-fired a few lines as the teacher’s face turned somewhat red with embarrassment. He gave me another sheet, this time with fill-in-the-blank sentences. Prepositional stuff. Eg. I put the eggs (blank) the basket. I completed it in no time. He smiled and apologised, and said he was sending me back to the head teacher. So, off to see Mr. Drury again.
Mr. Drury: I’m sorry, there must have been a mistake.
Mr. Drury: Look, why don’t I put you in the same English class as Danielle?
Danielle was a nice, sweet girl, but no academic. (I mean, ‘perjudiced’? Really?) She was in the bottom class in English, ie. English 3. I had been the top English student in the top school in my state back home.
Conversely, I had hated maths back home. Yet, again with no testing or enquiry about my maths background whatsoever, the Maths head teacher saw it fit to stick me in the top maths class. With the maths taught back home being at least a couple of years ahead of what it was over here, I would’ve still aced it had I sat for a test. But the fact remained that discrimination worked both ways.
Anyway, back to the whole School Certificate thing. Since I didn’t actually sit for the exams, they couldn’t give me a School Certificate. They did, however, give me a ‘Certificate of Attainment’ – basically a workaround for people like me who, for whatever reason – illness, misadventure, etc. – had missed out on sitting for the School Certificate. They had to grade me only on two subjects – Maths and English – based on their prediction of what I would’ve gotten had I done the exams. Again, mindful of the fact that we did not have a single lesson or any academic interaction during the term I was there, the school nevertheless decided to give me a ‘1’ for Maths, ie. an A or Distinction, and a ‘3’ for English, ie. a ‘C’ or ‘Pass’. Was I mad? You bet.
The first time I sat for an English exam was in the Year 11 half-yearlies, ie. 9mths later. We used student ID numbers on our exam papers, not our names. For one of the papers, I had to write an essay on a book I had read, outline the plotline, and give reasons why I thought it would be an appropriate book for class study. That was easy. Prior to leaving school in Malaysia, we’d been studying ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’, a novel based in apartheid South Africa. It covered the entire spectrum of social issues pertinent to its time – political injustice, racism, prejudice, poverty, you name it. So that’s what I wrote about. I think everyone else just focused on the first part of the question, and basically regurgitated the stories they had read.
When we got our papers back, I’d gotten full marks for that essay and easily came first in English. There was a presentation ceremony, I think, at year’s end. There were a few heads turned among the parents in the audience when this perceived ‘fresh-off-the-boat gook’ got up to accept the top English award.
We had a proud tradition at the Convent. Our graduates went on to become government ministers and leaders and pillars of society. Now I was stuck in a lousy class in a lousy school in a lousy part of Sydney. My formerly bright future prospects looked to be over.