When I leave my house in the morning the sun is barely up. I pass green rice paddies and mini mountains on my drive to school.
Students socialize at the school entrance and all wave as I roll up. I walk into the office and someone hands me a banana leaf treat. It’s a small moist banana leaf enclosing gooey banana, rice flour, and sweetened coconut.
At morning assembly all 500 students stand at attention in the heat before breakfast. At assembly two weeks ago a student fainted and got what I think was a concussion. It is my job every Tuesday morning to do an English Day activity. Today it is the tongue twister “She sells seashells on the sea shore and the shells that she sells are seashells I’m sure.”
I arrive at my 7:40 class and there are no students. They eventually arrive. And then leave to go in search of a marker for the white board. I write a poem in English and they shout out the translation in the Malaysian language, Bahasa Melayu (BM).
“Oh! It’s 8:20! What class are you supposed to have now?”
“Where is your science teacher?”
“She not here.”
“Do you want more poem?”
Students escort me out after class. A student calls after me down the hall. “Miss! Miss!” “I have two pudding!” “Here, you take one!”
In the next class we are doing comparatives and superlatives. “Okay! If you see “THE,” the word after can be SUPERLATIVE! If you do not see “THE,” the word after is COMPARATIVE!”
The best students: At first have no questions. They are busy making perfect copies of the textbook prompt about comparatives and superlatives using a ruler and many colored pens. A few minutes later I hear a chorus of “Miss! Miss! Tak faham! Tak faham!” (“I don’t understand.”)
The average students: Copy from their friend’s paper and add in a few spelling mistakes.
The very not-best students: Don’t take out their notebook. Don’t know where their handout is. Stare blankly. Maybe hit their friend. Laugh when anyone asks a question. When I come near them and offer help they stare at the floor in the opposite direction, they cover their face with their hands and look away, they laugh.
Class ends. “Thank you class.” “Thank YOUUU, teachERRRRR.”
Back in the teachers’ room, “Miss Christy! I brought you nasi kerabu! Maybe you eat for breakfast? You take nasi kerabu?”
“Oh, thank you so much! Nasi kerabu is so good!”
I go to the cafeteria, Kantin, to get lemon iced tea, teh limau sejuk (Literal translation to “tea, lemon, cold.” Reminiscent of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard’s “tea, earl grey, hot.”). The kantin lady slips me a bonus plastic bag of French toast Malaysia-style. Another teacher takes a bite of the French toast.
I ask her “What’s that filling in the French toast?”
“Oh, I dunno. Anchovies I think?”
I eat the nasi kerabu with my hands the way it’s supposed to be done. You unwrap the brown paper bundle to reveal bright blue rice with sweetened, dried coconut shavings, dried fish bits, cilantro (or something like it), and one tiny hunk of deliciously marinated chicken on gristly bone. Genuinely delicious! One must mix everything together thoroughly and break up all rice chunks so that every grain is separated. Seems like it would make eating with your hands easier if you could grab onto some clumps of rice, but it’s unwise to question these things.
A teacher comes in and puts samosas on my desk. “Here! Please! Eat curry puff!”
The next class is the lowest scoring on their tests and one of the youngest groups. They are only 11 or 12. Today we go over what verbs are.
I write “VERB” and translation, perbuantan, on the board. I also write “action” and aksi. I do charades of all different motions until students yell verbs at me. “Running!” “Reading!” “Cooking!” “Eating!” “Drinking!”
“Football!” “Ooohhh football is not verb. You say ‘playing football.'”
“Miss! Miss! Volleyball!”
“Miss! Miss! Netball!”
“Yes, smoking is verb. But bad for health. No smoking.”
I return to the office to prepare for my after-school workshop. My friend, the religion teacher, comes in. “Christy! Hello! What are you doing? Come! We have something for you.” We go to the printing room. “Watermelon! Eat!” Timun Cina! (“Chinese cucumber”). We eat and discuss Islam.
At our workshop the students and I sing K-Pop. After school a student I am close with walks me to my car and insists on carrying a big box for me.
I zip home on a scenic shortcut the other teachers showed me. American music and crisp air-con blasting. I live in an apartment at a different secondary school. As I enter, I wave to the guards at the gate. Wave at the kids. Wave at the other guards. As I emerge from the car, I hear two students “Hello Miss! Are you hungry? Ice cream!”