It didn’t take long for me to feel like an outcast at my new school. The first time I contributed to a class discussion, on my first or second day, I made the mistake of standing up when answering a question posed by the teacher.
As you did, if you were in a Malaysian classroom. But such traditions were foreign at Fairvale, and presumably at every other school in this new country.
Darren was next to be asked a question. Mimicking me, he slowly stood up and made a big show of pushing his chair back with his legs as he did so. The sound of the chair legs dragging across the floor had the whole class in laughter.
Then the rest of the boys did the same for the rest of the lesson. Even the teacher tried to stifle a laugh. I wished the ground would open up and swallow me up. I sat at the back of the class after that, laying low and keeping my trap shut in case I embarrassed myself again.
I noticed the students showed no respect for the teachers. I remember the corporal punishment meted out by our primary school headmistress back at the Convent each time we got our report cards back.
It wasn’t a question of whether we would get whipped, it was a question of how many lashes we would get – and we were in the A class, so we were no slouches at our studies either.
I remember an incident when Miss Lee in 5th Grade was marking my English homework. She summoned me to her desk, yelled at me and then instead of giving my exercise book back, she threw it halfway across the room.
All because at eleven years of age, I got “it’s and its” mixed up. I had to take a walk of shame across the front of the classroom to pick my book up from the floor.
I sometimes wish some Australian journalists had had Miss Lee as their English teacher back in school.
I never witnessed this combination of fear and respect among the students at Fairvale. Nothing seemed to work to get them to behave, whether the grumpiness of the History teacher – about whom the boys joked relentlessly about being a closet homosexual, or the kindliness of the Chemistry teacher, whom they treated like a doormat by loudly engaging in personal conversations while he tried to teach.
Then there was the Extension Maths teacher, who walked into class each day and wrote down on the board what exercises we were to do from the textbook for the day, then sat down at her desk to do her own thing – no teaching or class instruction provided – and we would have to approach her individually if we got stuck on a problem.
Not a bad gig she had going there when all she had to do each lesson was scribble a few letters on the board, I thought.
Most students didn’t even bother asking her any questions – usually they’d just hit up the contingent of Indochinese guys for help – they were damned good at Maths.
The one that took the cake was my Extension English teacher, a newbie on her first assignment who saw herself as ‘one of the guys’ by partying with the male students.
She auditioned to appear on a TV game show once, and got the gig – Perfect Match – where she had to ask 3 questions each of 3 guys behind a screen, then pick her ‘perfect’ guy, sight unseen, from their answers.
The winner got to spend a weekend holidaying with her in Queensland, where the cameras followed their romantic exploits. They then had to report on how hot and heavy things got (or not) on a later show.
That a teacher would engage in that kind of behaviour seemed unbelievable to me. I’d nearly lost my prefect’s badge at the Convent when I was spotted once holding hands with my boyfriend in town after school, while still in school uniform.
They shut down lessons for the entire school for a couple of hours the next day while the teachers convened an emergency meeting to decide whether to strip me of my prefect’s badge – that’s how serious it was. Clearly I was no model student back in my day, but I can’t even imagine what they would have done at the Convent had one of the teachers gone on a TV dating show.
If I had started out miserable, I was getting more so every day. I even started to envy the Indochinese guys – they might not speak much English, but they commanded a grudging respect for their Maths skills even from the most obnoxiously racially intolerant students. And they were in a group, and always hung out together. I was alone and isolated.
I started staying home from school and wrote my own sick notes for ‘chronic sinusitis’ – a fancy name for my hayfever (hoping my teachers didn’t know that was all it was) . My parents couldn’t read or write English anyhow – and they were busy with their own long days at $5/hour factory jobs.
I even signed them myself, though in Chinese, to give the impression that they were signed by a parent. Technically I didn’t lie because the notes never mentioned either parent as the author or signee. And I never got called on it – I don’t think the teachers or the school cared enough to get involved.
By the end of my time at Fairvale, I had missed at least 35% of my school days, compared to an average of one day a year at the Convent. And the idea that I would sail through Years 11 and 12 because of the advantage of re-learning all the stuff from the Convent went out the window with that.